Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was gently sliding off the headlines after a fortnight of spectacular sales, when it was brought back into the limelight by a skit at the Grammy awards. Cher, Snoop Dogg, Cardi B and (most unsuitably for a loser) Hillary Clinton mock-auditioned for the 2019 Grammys by reading from the book and reviling its subject. But the success of Fire and Fury was always guaranteed, because it confirms the world’s worst suspicions about Donald Trump.
It develops on the theme to suggest that Trump’s closest supporters accept these suspicions — such as his infantilism — as facts. Real facts, not alternative facts. Wolff also reports that clan Trump was devastated when the paterfamilias bagged the presidency. Not because the living quarters in the White House are dowdy in comparison with the splendiferous lodgings at Trump Tower, but because they were taken unawares by the responsibilities that victory suddenly thrust upon them. The White House is supposed to be plug and play. Move an administration in and it should just work out of the box. But the book portrays a White House in which no one knows what to do, and the country just doesn’t get run. It is a triumph of “wide-ranging ignorance”, the leading characteristic of the government’s helmsman.
But criticism of Wolff didn’t lag far behind the sales curve. Washington insiders and reporters have pointed out some inaccuracies which, in a book which claims to be founded on solid reportage, count as holes below the waterline. Not enough to sink the ship, but quite enough to make the author’s reputation list drunkenly. For instance, there is a huge discrepancy in a crucial scene right at the beginning of the book, in which Ivanka Trump is shown as a late entrant to the power circuit efficiently making up for time lost in the boonies. It is set in the power-breakfast room of the Four Seasons hotel, and it primes the reader for a theory which develops later on — that she is lining up for a shot at the presidency herself. To us, this is not as shocking as it may be to American readers. We have Yogi Adityanath being projected as a natural future PM. The narrative includes protection for Padmaavat (nee Padmavati) shows in Uttar Pradesh, an extraordinary feat of governance in the cow belt.
Wolff blundered in that breakfast room, where people go to be seen, and to exchange that anachronism in the age of the missed call — the ivory visiting card. In the list of power-listers present, he included, along with Nancy Pelosi and the DC representatives of Elon Musk and Uber, the Washington Post’s national reporter Mark Berman.
What the hell does that designation mean? That Berman is restrained both from reporting on US municipalities and London, Paris and Ankara? But that is a minor mystery, compared with the intrepid reporter’s protestation that he had never been in that room, or even in the hotel which contained it. But in a facetious tweet, he has genially offered to visit it on his expense account. Surely the inclusion of his name in Wolff’s tell-all would justify the outlay?
Joking apart, Wolff’s book is fascinating for its revelations from the realm of everyday presidential candidate life. Like, Trump is sensitive about his toothbrush because he has an irrational fear of poison. The anxiety also accounts for his preference for McDonald’s. Mass production dilutes the chances of being successfully poisoned.
These revelations flow from extensive interviews, though the unkind mutter that their extent is restricted to the physical corpus of Steve Bannon, a throwaway pump-primer who naturally has a poor opinion of Breitbart’s protege. Wolff also installed himself for some months in a couch in the West Wing of the White House, from which he was privy to some comings and goings, and lots of hurly-burly. However, this arrangement is also the weakness of the book, from a journalistic point of view. There is no demarcation between scenes which were witnessed and reported by a gossipy fly on the wall, and those which were reconstructed from formal interviews with the dramatis personae.
The last big book on a US presidential campaign was Primary Colours, concerning Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and published anonymously in 1996 by political columnist Joe Klein. The author strenuously denied parentage even after being outed by textual analysis and, in retrospect, one appreciates that he had a point. It is much easier for both the writer and the reader to negotiate an account which both know to be true, but which is not claimed to be true, and even the author lays no claim to authentic existence. In high office, information asymmetry between the subject and the journalist ensures that no account can be universally accepted to be either true or false. Trump has disparaged Wolff’s account, and the effect is to both strengthen and undermine its authenticity.
Of course, Trump instinctively disparages everything. He would even have laughed at Primary Colours (if he knew of it), which opened with a quote from Niccolo Machiavelli: “Men as a whole judge more with their eyes than with their hands.” That really would not have grabbed a man with Trump’s tactile reputation, especially with the ladies.
Pratik Kanjilal lectures a surprisingly tolerant public on far too many issues.