Wolff – Fire and Fury

Like many people, I have a morbid fascination with Donald Trump and I watch his bizarre machinations like a gawker at a highway wreck. Wolff’s book promised an inside scoop and was widely reviewed in the media so I gave it a read.  My conclusion: “Meh.”

There’s nothing new in the book, as the author himself stated on television, but I did not realize he meant that quite literally.  It’s as if he went through episodes of TV political reporting for the last nine months and summarized the trends. Anyone who watches CNN or MSNBC regularly will learn nothing from this book.

As for the mud-slinging gossip that had news commentators titillated for several days, there’s also nothing new. The juicy dishes have been consumed in public and nothing remains. Trump is exactly as childish as he appears, Bannon as nasty, the Trump children just as clueless.

Wolff claims to have had unlimited access for interviewing White House staff and the president for some unspecified period, beginning during the campaign, and apparently he used that access to collect only gossip. There is no virtually no discussion of policy or strategy, money or demographics. It’s almost a hundred-percent, “he-said, she-said,” and with this troupe of actors, who really cares?

Also notable is the absence of evaluation or analysis. Wolf simply reports what he saw and heard (more-or-less: he admits that many of his stories are syntheses of multiple tales using his own judgment).  As a result, he, and the book, add nothing to a reader’s understanding of current politics, the state of political institutions, or domestic problems or international relations. It’s not supposed to be a thoughtful book, and it lives up to that billing.

There are obvious omissions in coverage, and one cannot help but wonder about those.  Vice President Mike Pence hardly appears in the book. His name is not even mentioned for the first hundred pages. The whole “Pussygate” episode from the Access Hollywood scandal is brushed past in a few paragraphs with no explanation of why Trump’s campaign was not derailed at that moment. There are many other virtual omissions, including the Steele Dossier, and above all, consideration of racism, which I think was and is the main driver of Trump’s political success as an anti-Obama reactionary.

The book is actually mostly about Steve Bannon.  He gets more ink and more psychological and biographical analysis than the president does. Nevertheless the takeaway is simply that Bannon is even more aberrant and unpleasant than portrayed in the media so far.  No insights or forecasts are offered.

A recent review in the New York Times (https://nyti.ms/2EoKG8W ) comes to similar conclusions, as have other reviews of this book, so I feel confident in not-recommending it.

Wolff, Michael (2018). Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. New York: Henry Holt and Co. (321pp.)

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