Wolff’s “Fire And Fury” Is A Gossip-Fest, But An Incredibly Fun One
Want to sell Americans a book? Tell us Donald Trump is trying to ban it.
Such was the nation’s response to the recent publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire And Fury: Inside The Trump White House when mainstream media outlets revealed that President Trump had actually sent an official cease and desist letter to both author and publisher in an attempt to prevent the book’s publication.
Originally slated to be released on January 9, 2018, publicity for the book reached such a fever pitch after the news broke of Trump’s disapproval that publisher Henry Holt and Co. actually decided to release it four days early. It was officially made available at 9:00 a.m. on January 5, 2018 and was, by that time, already an Amazon bestseller.
At the heart of the controversy, predictably, is the simple fact that it’s an unflattering portrayal of President Trump. Among the revelations that await readers within Wolff’s rapid-fire delivery of one-two punches on the nose, there is a strongly recurrent theme of Trump’s childishness and general unfitness to be president. Trump, of course, roundly rejects the premise, as do all of his administration. But then, they kind of have to: most of the book quotes most of them as calling their boss an idiot. It would be bad for their careers to call Wolff anything other than a liar.
Fire And Fury, however, doesn’t read like lies at all. In fact, a number of familiar stories arise – stories we’ve already heard in the news and know to be true. Stories like the one about Trump being childishly obsessed with the size of his inauguration crowd, even when he was supposed to be delivering a formal address to the nation’s intelligence agencies. Stories that should sound like fiction, because what president of a global powerhouse would say things like that? But a quick scroll through @RealDonaldTrump on Twitter will easily serve to remind skeptical readers that this is, in fact, based on a true story.
This is not to say that Wolff’s book feels entirely journalistic, either. In fact, it frequently reads a bit like gossip, more often than not choosing to deliver information in the most derisive packaging possible. Although Wolff sometimes demonstrates a remarkable ability to steer clear of the low-hanging fruit and aims instead for the stories that really matter, absolutely no one can honestly say that the book is purely objective. There is very little effort put into seeing both sides of any given story, and sometimes as a reader you will become keenly aware of it.
But Fire And Fury serves a unique and extremely important role in American history, too. Gossip though it may be, it also happens to be gossip from inside the White House. And not just any White House, but hands down the weirdest, most chaotic, and most unprofessional White House ever recorded. This is gossip that the American people need to hear.
We already know, for example, that Steve Bannon joined the Trump campaign late in the game, appeared to turn it around, served briefly as Trump’s chief strategist, and then left the White House promising to destroy the Republican establishment via the ultra-conservative Breitbart media machine. This story was reported in essentially every meaningful publication and from every political point of view. But what Wolff delivers in his book is the same story as seen from within, from the point of view of the people who participated. Readers may indeed be surprised – as I was – to discover that Steve Bannon is, in fact, no one of any consequence whatsoever, being little more than a relentless pain in the ass who has failed at nearly everything he’s ever tried to do. The great bugbear of the alt-right, painted by the media as a powerhouse at the helm of an army of angry white nationalists, is actually just a loudmouthed son of a bitch with no influence at all and a long damn history of having no influence.
This revelation, and many like it, are the shining jewels of Wolff’s book. The human faces that belong to the frenzy of media stories surrounding Trump’s White House come to life before our eyes, and we see the truth more clearly because we are naturally attuned to the format. The piece of the puzzle that we, the humble American spectators, have never been allowed to see is now neatly spread out before us, available to our scrutiny. We are able to judge our government in the same way that we judge our neighbors: by personal experience, by comparing them to people we know who are just like them. This is Wolff’s gift to the American people.
What Wolff presents here is important. It’s a bit dirty, a bit of a low blow, yes. Some of the information he shares can never be verified by anything beyond the standard “he said, she said” pissing matches that we’re used to in our everyday lives. Some of it is clearly colored by bias. Some of it might even be misremembered or paraphrased – it’s hard to imagine someone sitting down for some of these conversations with a pen and notepad, visibly recording every single word, and yet still hearing the stunningly candid things that Wolff purports to have heard. Some of it must have been dredged from his (or someone else’s) memory, later and to the best of his recollection, not entirely verbatim but “close enough that you get the point of it.”
But that doesn’t matter, because if you think about it, that’s the form that nearly everything you know about the world takes when it’s told to you. That’s the untarnished form of everyday knowledge: what the neighbor told you he heard someone at the school saying about it… to the best he can recall. And that’s the form of knowledge that people in power resist mightily: relatable reality.
Should you read Fire And Fury? Yes, you absolutely should. Is it true? Yes, I imagine it’s as true as anything can be when it’s learned third-hand. Enough of the facts that you remember from the headlines (including headlines that go all the way back to the 1980’s) are peppered in to keep you grounded in the reality of it all. Wolff never ventures into conjecture or even hyperbole. He gives us a stunningly human account of the man who would do almost anything to convince you that he’s something more than a man. This is information that every American needs, because it’s the kind of information we’re accustomed to having when we make important decisions. It’s the story as told by our neighbor, yes, but also by our neighbor who was there.
Above all, Wolff’s book serves as the most human portrait to date of the proverbial bull that is Donald J. Trump, as viewed from inside the china shop. Readers interested in what global power looks like through the eyes of the people who wield it won’t want to miss it, and anyone who’s on the fence about whether they want to see a Trump 2020 shouldn’t vote without it.