Tuesday 21 May 2019

Ian O'Doherty: There will be better books on Trump's regime than Fire and Fury but none will have its impact

Politics: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump Whitehouse, Michael Wolff, Little, Brown, Hardback, 336 pages, €16.99

Wild claims: Wolff spoke to people who said they genuinely doubted whether Trump could read
Wild claims: Wolff spoke to people who said they genuinely doubted whether Trump could read
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

There'll be better books on Donald Trump's regime, but none will have the impact of Michael Wolff's breathless and riotously scurrilous account.

For many bibliophiles who fear for the future of the printed word there must be something perversely reassuring in the fact that the biggest scandal of Donald Trump's presidency so far has not been an internet exposé, or dodgy dossiers, or a carefully edited piece of videotape.

Instead, continuing the inevitable comparisons between Trump and Nixon, the biggest stumbling block to the Donald's regime has come from an old-fashioned book written by an old-fashioned journalist.

According to the breathless press release which accompanies Fire and Fury, a frequently hilarious and riotously scurrilous account of the chaos behind the scenes in Trump's White House, "renowned author and award-winning journalist and columnist Michael Wolff tells the gripping behind-the-scenes story of a presidency in turmoil, basing his account on more than 200 interviews, including with the president himself".

Such boasts are par for the course with every political book, of course, and we often forget that the members of the American media are often granted far greater access than would be afforded to a journalist in either Ireland or the UK.

But it should also be remembered that Wolff is seen as a muckraker by many of his peers, and had previously been criticised by the Columbia Journalism Review for some of his reporting. But such quibbles, he claims, are irrelevant when you have the biggest scoop of your generation.

The book is undeniably epic in its sweep, breathless in its delivery and reads at times like a hideous combination of a farce and a Shakespearean tragedy waiting to happen.

Of course, you've probably seen the juiciest morsels by now - the rank amateurism, the paranoia, the distrust and the impression that Trump may well be completely, certifiably insane.

But it's really only when you find yourself putting this book down every few pages to stare at a wall blankly and ask yourself "could serious people really behave like that?" that you begin to realise the depth of damage this is meant to cause.

The charge sheet is damning and relentless and so scathingly dismissive that at one stage the author even speaks to people who genuinely doubt whether Trump can actually read.

Even George W Bush, a man who spent much of his presidency being mocked as a moron, never had to face accusations that he was illiterate.

Of the 200 people that Wolff claims to have spoken to, many of them have subsequently gone on the record to deny ever speaking to him or using the words attributed to them, and it's an issue the author addresses when he notes: "Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not necessarily with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book. Sometimes I have let the players offer their version, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In other instances I have, through a consistency in accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true."

That's a lot of qualification and obfuscation before the reader has even delved deep into the meat of the book, and there is no doubt that there are moments in Fire and Fury that quite simply don't ring true or have been subsequently refuted through dates and the diaries of some of the players.

Both the problem and the appeal of Wolff's account lies in the sense that every single person involved, from the author down to the lowliest anonymous source, is an arch dissembler - Trump may have tried to drain the swamp, but this is the sight of the swamp-dwellers biting back.

His most luridly fascinating passages deal with the inauguration and the general sense that Trump is a deeply, deeply unhappy and insecure man and, incredibly, an accidental and reluctant president.

On the biggest night of his life, the now infamous inauguration ceremony, he "walked around with his golf face on - all pissed off", while openly bickering with the unfortunate Melania, who we are told, to no great surprise, was left sobbing in a corner furious because Trump "broke his promise" that he wouldn't win.

But behind the gossip, tittle-tattle and gleefully bitchy anecdotes - Trump eats McDonald's because he is afraid of being poisoned, he used to enjoy a sort of modern droit de seigneur status and tried to sleep with his friends' wives, he would really prefer to be back hosting The Apprentice, he desperately wants to impress both Putin and Rupert Murdoch, despite them thinking he is, to quote Murdoch, a "f**king idiot" - lies the heavy, contemptuous hand of Steve Bannon, a man who has done more to revive the phrase Machiavellian than any political figure in recent years.

The most astonishing parts of this book all seem to revolve around the growing, open contempt Trump's former advisor holds for his boss.

While the provenance of some of the stories may be open to question, Bannon, for some inexplicable reason, chose to orchestrate this hit-job and the fact that he has now been exiled by both the mainstream Republican establishment and even his beloved Breitbart shows that he massively overstepped the bounds of loyalty.

It soon becomes clear that in many ways Bannon is what Trump would be if he had an ideology rather than a fleeting array of passing interests and fundamentally irrational bugbears. The president's furious and very unpresidential reaction to the publication of Fire and Fury is as demented as anything contained in these pages and while political nerds will find the rivalry between Bannon, Jared Kushner and Reince Priebus particularly fascinating, more emphasis is placed on gossip than policy insights.

In many ways, this book is like its subject - superficially entertaining and undeniably good at providing a giggle, but there is little here that wasn't already known or at least suspected. There will be better books on Trump, but none of them will have the impact of Fire and Fury.

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