9 January 2018

Book review: Fire and Fury

I don’t usually read books about politics, but when I saw how freaked out Trump was about “Fire and Fury”, I knew I had to buy a copy. As others have pointed out, Wolff has done what other reporters wouldn’t dare do — destroyed his chances of getting further access to the White House in order to report.

Having bought the book, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to read it. I have enough time dealing with the day-to-day covfefe of the Trump administration. In the end, though, I plowed through it over the weekend.

For anyone who has been following the news, the book has few surprises. However, it does a good job of depicting the fact that the Trump administration in 2017 was really three different factions battling against each other.

The first faction was Steve Bannon and his white nationalists and trolls. They wanted to destroy the government and enact racist policies in order to benefit working class white people. They didn’t care what business wanted, and they mostly hated the Republican party, deriding them as “cucks”.

The second faction was big business, represented by Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and the half a dozen Goldman Sachs bankers high up in the Trump administration. They wanted relaxed business regulations, lowered corporate taxes, plenty of immigration, an end to social upheaval such as boycott campaigns, and some sort of progress on reducing the ever-increasing cost of healthcare on their staff budget.

The third faction was the Republican Party, represented by Reince Priebus. They wanted massive personal tax cuts, religion enacted as law, the removal of people’s healthcare, and to get rid of the white nationalists who keep bringing Trump into disrepute. The Republicans in turn were split into two factions — the ones who didn’t want to vote for tax and healthcare cuts because they were too vicious, versus the ones who didn’t want to vote for tax and healthcare cuts because they weren’t vicious enough.

The Bannonites think the Jarvanka team makes terrible decisions. The Jarvanka team things the Bannonites are ruining Trump’s chances to be popular with their poisonous policies. Both teams are correct, and in the middle of the clown circus sits Trump:

Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. […] But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise—no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention.

So Wolff’s book describes how each faction battled both of the others to attempt to influence Donald J. Trump. And what did Trump himself want? Unquestioning adulation and loyalty, basically, and he couldn’t understand why he wasn’t getting it. He expected the media and the US population to treat him like any other President. He apparently didn’t understand that if he made Bannon’s crowd happy, he would necessarily be excoriated in the press and hated by the majority of Americans. That one time he mysteriously delivered a speech that was almost Presidential? That was because the Jared/Ivanka faction got their ex-Goldman bankers to write it. Bannon didn’t let that happen again, Stephen Miller became the go-to speechwriter, even though he apparently has trouble constructing sentences.

Ironically given his freakout, Trump doesn’t come out too badly in the book. Yes, he’s vain, insecure, profoundly ignorant, a terrible negotiator, and lacking any relevant experience for the job, but we knew all of that before he was elected. On the crucial question of Russia, Wolff seems to think it’s all a lot of fuss over nothing — the Trump administration couldn’t even collude with itself, let alone a foreign government. When it comes to “Misha” Flynn, Wolff does a good job of presenting a view of the media as seen by the Trump administration, sympathetically. At times I found myself thinking that Trump and crew had a point about their treatment.

Wolff explains the feedback loop between Trump and the media, which goes back at least to the 1980s. That’s something that still needs more exploration — ultimately, it was outfits like the New York Times that helped propel Trump into office with blanket “but her e-mails!” coverage and a near total failure to cover policy issues. Even now, the Times seems desperate to be loved by Trump, just as he’s secretly desperate to be loved by the Times.

The people who come out looking really bad are the hangers-on. Steve Bannon, Guardian reader, understands the damage that neoliberalism and austerity have done to the working class since 1973, but somehow thinks that right wing ethnonationalism is the answer this time. Jared Kushner blunders into the Middle East, convinced that he can bring about peace in the region, in spite of his complete lack of experience. Sean Spicer, offered the communications job, asks colleagues “If I do this, will I ever be able to work again?” — and then takes the job anyway. As the revolving door of appointments and backstabbings continues, the candidates get more and more bizarre. By the time the book covers The Mooch, it’s basically comedy.

Where are we now, though? Bannon is not only gone from the White House, he has also lost control of Breitbart — but he was also the only part of the inner circle not touched by the Russian attempted collusion. Will the Jarvanka faction get the upper hand and manage to turn Trump into someone most Americans can respect, or will they be too busy trying to save themselves from legal and financial ruin? What will the Republican Party do — which is going to hurt them more in 2018, getting rid of Trump or not getting rid of Trump? I have no idea where we go from here.

Ultimately I’m tired of living in interesting times, but at least Wolff’s book gave me a few laughs and got rid of Bannon.

© mathew 2017