By Penny Smith
Michael Wolff, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018.
Yes, indeed, my copy came last week and I sat down to a day of shock and awe with Mr. Wolff’s latest book. The basic criticisms that one sees in the press involve its artless writing, factual mistakes, reliance on gossip, and a lack of any narrative arc. They are all valid complaints.
However, there is a larger story here and it is one worth considering. No one, it seems, is having conversations about what is good for the county. Everyone is having conversations about everyone else. And those people who are serious about policies are being tactical, rather than strategic, at a time our future economic and technological challenger, China, is doing the opposite.
If there is an agenda being advanced, it is/was Mr. Bannon’s somewhat warped view of how the world operates. Only “Sloppy Steve” appeared to have a comprehensive list of things he wanted done. Unfortunately, it was shaped by his own peculiar alt-right vision of the world. The press is “an enemy of the people.” Liberals are “Koolaid drinkers.” Fox News is “a lonely fair and balanced bastion.” Black Lives Matter advocates are “crazies.” He is opposed to free trade and immigration, legal or not. Mr. Bannon has been credibly called an isolationist, a protectionist, a misogynist, a racist, a nationalist, and a nativist. Visit the Breitbart archives for particulars.
Of course, there was a laundry list of Trump promises from the campaign that might constitute some sort of platform, but none of those promises had more than hyperbole and generalization going for it. We’re going to build the wall; it’s going to be bigly; and Mexico will pay for it. We’re going to have jobs, jobs and more jobs than ever before. America will be great again, in spite of a lack of specificity about what great meant other than some romantic Father Knows Best version of Dad as provider-sage and mom, in heels and a dress, delivering dinner every night at 6 PM in a suburb bereft of minorities.
But in the world described by Mr. Wolff, policy is the least of anyone’s concern. White House life is all about winning the news cycle, appeasing the volatile temper of the new President, photo ops, and firing. Apparently, The Apprentice “You’re Fired!” meme worked its way into the dark recesses of the Trump brain and it’s his solution to almost everything. Throughout the book, Trump is threatening to fire, firing or talking about the dismissal of almost everyone but his family. When the Mueller firing rumor came out this past week, I didn’t think it all that newsworthy. Trump contemplates getting rid of people all the time.
I guess embedded in all the in-fighting (there was a triangular firing squad composed of a Kushner group, a Bannon group and a Priebus group) is one piece of good news. The President doesn’t really work; his attention is more likely to be focused on the multiple televisions throughout the White House (there are three in his bedroom), his telephone and his image on magazine covers than on nuclear buttons. The leader of the free world does not read, does not skim, does not listen long to policy and security briefings, and gets his information late at night via phone calls to business or media moguls or from pre-recorded shows like Fox and Friends. All other media is “fake news.” He is also fed a daily diet of bad news stories from Kellyanne Conway to stoke his high-energy button and positive notes from Hope Hicks to stoke his ego. I find it comforting that he plays a lot of golf.
Wolff gives us a Marx Brothers’ White House with a Keystone Cops’ supporting cast. He also gives us an outline of what could become an epic tragedy. Our national hubris, believing we could teach our “elites” a lesson by putting an intellectually compromised, public policy clueless, temper tantrum obsessive, anti-elite in charge, may end in the catastrophes that some religious radicals appear to invite on their way to the Second Coming.
What we are left with after reading Fire and Fury is a transition from the campaign staff to the generals, although this is not a transition that Wolff analyzes in any depth. We do learn about the Generals Mattis, McMaster and Kelly from Wolff, about their hiring, about Trump’s ambivalence about one of them, but we don’t know where they want to take us. And, as an Air Force brat I have a personal appreciation for Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings about the negative effects of the joining of “the immense military establishment” with “a large arms industry.” Like Eisenhower, I worry that “[t]he potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.” Remember the fired General Flynn’s major policy contribution seemed to an opening campaign act about “Lock Her Up.”
Trump is a reality show President; he is certainly not the unifier he promised us he would become. Remember one of his 2017 pre-inaugural tweets:
For many years our country has been divided, angry
and untrusting. Many say it will never change, the
hatred is too deep. IT WILL CHANGE!!!!
And, yes, the caps and exclamation marks are what Trump used in the original message. Nor has he ever made a pivot to being Presidential, again in spite of promising us he would be more Presidential in office than any of his predecessors, other than Lincoln. (The exclusion of George Washington shows how misguided the man is about our history.) And Trump is surrounded by Congressional and Cabinet enablers who see their task as “repeal,” but who have no idea how anything should be replaced with programs other than Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the free market. And even Adam Smith felt there was a place for government protection from such a market.
I don’t really recommend Wolff’s book. It’s a downer in many ways (yes, almost all of Trump’s staff really do worry about his ego needs and impulsiveness) and I’m not a major fan of gossip-laden political books. However, if you enjoy thinking bad things about people you didn’t vote for, this is a book for you. And, if you voted for Mr. Trump, you might seek a deeper understanding of precisely what you voted for.