Extracts from Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff's fly-on-the-wall account of Donald Trump's pantomime presidency, so infuriated the US president that he instructed his lawyers to threaten the book's US publisher, Henry Holt, with legal action. The result? The book's release was hastily brought forward by four days – and by January 9, the day on which it was originally scheduled to come out, nearly all of the 150,000 copies of the initial print run had sold out. Henry Holt has received orders for more than a million copies. The irony of it all seems custom-made for our discombobulated age: Trump, derided in Fire and Fury as a functional illiterate, has singularly revived the printed word's fortunes. Others haven't been so lucky, however.
Katie Walsh, the former deputy White House chief of staff who is quoted in the book as saying that trying to understanding Trump is “like trying to figure out what a child wants,” is under pressure to quit her job at a pro-Trump political action group despite issuing a firm denial. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist and this book’s pugnacious deuteragonist, has publicly been disowned by his billionaire benefactors and finds himself unemployed - ousted from Breitbart News Network on Tuesday - and unemployable. His statement of contrition and affirmation of renewed loyalty to Trump on Sunday (“I remain ready to stand in the breach for this president’s efforts to make America great again”) were no match for the combustible quotes attributed to him in this book.
It is Bannon who supplies the most vivid and colourful commentary on the Trump White House’s dysfunction. His contempt, like his self-regard, knows no ceiling. He has convinced himself that he is the leader a revolution, the genius that propelled Trump to power. Rewarded with a position inside the White House, he can’t wait to dynamite the whole place. The most formidable obstacles in his path are Trump’s daughter, Ivanka (“dumb as a brick”), and son-in-law, Jared Kushner (a lightweight who “kind of flits in and does the Arab stuff”).
Bannon was the brains behind Trump's executive order enacting the so-called "Muslim ban" on immigration. This action was not rooted in Bannnon's prejudice for Muslims – how many Muslims did Bannon really know? – but in his contempt for the liberals who bombed Muslims abroad and made Muslims their "cause" at home. Tearing up the privileged and hypocritical liberal world, which he spent decades gawking at from the peripheries, was all that mattered to him. It was the revenge of the thwarted man. (Bannon's favourite newspaper is still the Guardian.)
Bannon is what Trump would be if he had a hardened ideology. Trump, as he is, is Bannon bleached of ideological certitudes: a man still craving the approval of the world that rejects and scorns him. “The president fundamentally wants to be liked,” says Walsh, the former deputy chief of staff. Wolff, now denounced by Trump as the author of a “Fake Book”, is, in fact, sympathetic to the president’s sense of having been wronged. He assails the liberal media, of which he is both a privileged member and a pitiless critic, for taunting and denying him the rudimentary courtesy that it accorded to his predecessors.
The Bannon-Trump dynamic accounts for what Wolff calls the “paradox” of the Trump presidency: “both the most ideologically driven and the least.” Bannon restlessly wanted the “make America great Again” promise, in effect an impossible return to an imagined past, implemented – only to find Trump, highly susceptible to flattery, being swayed in a different direction by his daughter and son-in-law, closet Democrats both. He nearly persuaded Trump to keep away from Syria after reports of a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017. Staying out of the Middle East would be the ideologically consistent thing to do, he argued. But then Ivanka – who’d “long ago figured out” that to “make successful pitches” to Trump one “had to push his enthusiasm buttons” - intervened. Together with Dina Powell, the US deputy national security adviser for strategy, she prepared an arresting photographic presentation for her easily distracted father. And Trump “was suddenly putty.”
Bannon scored his last big victory when he convinced Trump to pull out of the Paris climate accords; but, although he was, in the beginning, more powerful than Kushner and Ivanka, he couldn't survive the feud with the family and was pushed out ignominiously. Trump, resentful that Bannon was receiving too much credit in the press, had already taken to belittling his hopelessly bedraggled aide. "Guy looks homeless. Take a shower, Steve." When Time magazine put Bannon on its cover, Trump hit the roof. "He views Time covers as zero-sum," explains the late Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News. "If someone gets on it, he doesn't."
There are numerous passages in this book where Bannon comes across as an inveterate braggart, not a credible source, but Wolff chooses nonetheless to build his narrative around his sound bites. Fire and Fury has generated a maelstrom quite disproportionate to the details contained in its pages. Nothing it tells us about Trump – that he's capricious, needy, narcissistic and possibly deranged – qualifies as a revelation. Longtime observers of Trump have not only known these traits but have issued voluble warnings about them. As Michael Hiltzik has written in the Los Angeles Times, "there's absolutely nothing new of any importance in Fire and Fury." It is a collection of quotations by dubious individuals held together by the author's bitchy asides. It will gladden the hearts of those who already despise Trump. But about the system that enabled the rise of Trump and keeps him in power Fire and Fury has nothing to say.