Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” is a strange sort of mystery—a story of palace intrigue and cognitive blind spots. The gumshoe, C. Auguste Dupin, is presented with a case that has left the police befuddled. An unscrupulous Minister has stolen a compromising letter written by a certain noblewoman, which he intends to use as blackmail and as leverage against the ruling Queen. The Minister’s apartment is the only place the letter could be, but exhaustive searches have yielded nothing. Investigators have combed through books, probed furniture for hidden compartments, deployed literal microscopes, and still, nothing, though there is no doubt that the Minister is the thief. The comprehensiveness of the police’s efforts gives the canny Dupin the only clue he needs. Paying the blackmailer a visit, Dupin stages a distraction and plucks the letter from its hiding place, which isn’t really a hiding place at all, but rather a simple card-rack sitting blatantly on a mantelpiece. Concealed in plain sight, the purloined letter has gone unseen the whole time.
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is a kind of “Purloined Letter” for the dark 21st century. A chronicle of the first eight months of the Donald Trump Administration, the book promises revelations that the author has suggested will bring down the presidency. Fire and Fury does contain plenty of palace intrigue and compromising stories, but its promised revelations are not really revelations at all. The fundamental scandal, the book’s centerpiece truth—that the President is breathtakingly unfit, and his administration is a slow-motion train wreck—has been obvious all along. The Trump catastrophe has not been hidden in plain sight. It has filled our entire national field of vision such that, for those who follow the news even irregularly, there is little else to see. From scandal to scandal, from outrage to outrage, in a steady stream of cringe-inducing video clips and erratic tweets, this President and his administration have shown us who they are time and again. Yet as the past year has shown, this onslaught of the obvious can actually impose its own kind of normality, a learned posture of dumbstruck exhaustion and enervated disgust. We find ourselves adopting a citizen’s version of the “daily, if not hourly, mantra” Wolff attributes to Trump’s erstwhile, long-suffering press secretary, Sean Spicer: “You can’t make this shit up.” And yet while this state of affairs, experienced digitally, 24/7, entails a vertiginous dysphoria, a book like Fire and Fury, precisely because it is a book, circumvents our hypertrophied circuit of stimulus-response, and leaves the reader with a much more sustained, depressing, and horrified outlook. Yes, we realize, you can’t make this shit up. But America has made it all too real.
Fire and Fury is the product of some two hundred interviews, beginning in May 2016 (an interview with then-candidate Trump himself) and extending well beyond the administration’s first one hundred days. As Wolff notes in his introduction, a central paradox of the Trump Administration has been that, while it “has made hostility to the press a virtual policy, it has also been more open to the media than any White House in recent memory.” Given the topsy-turvy circumstances of the transition—where no one seemed to have clear authority to either formally grant Wolff access or deny it to him—Wolff, who had Trump’s encouragement, was able to “[take] up something like a semipermanent seat on a couch in the West Wing,” becoming “more a constant interloper than an invited guest.” A prolific author comfortable among media bigwigs and ultra-rich financiers and entrepreneurs, Wolff appears to have leveraged this access to the fullest—and also to have taken full advantage of many of his sources’ at-best fuzzy and inconsistent understandings of what it meant to speak on or off the record.
The result inevitably leads to plenty of salacious, unverifiable gossip. We are told, for example, that Trump and Melania fought bitterly on election day; that Ivanka would mock her father’s combover to her friends and toyed with the idea of running for President herself; that Trump eats McDonald’s because he fears being poisoned; and that, before their falling out, Trump offered to marry Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough (cutting the knees out from under Jared Kushner, who, with a license as “an Internet Unitarian minister” made the offer first). In these nuggets, despite Wolff’s shout-outs to The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s magisterial book on Washington elites’ ruinous embrace of intervention in Vietnam, Fire and Fury more resembles John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change, about the 2008 presidential election. Wolff, whose breezy prose can occasionally get a little too purple, nods to this latter volume more subtly: Chapter 13 of Fire and Fury is titled “Bannon Agonistes”; Chapter 13 of Game Change is “Obama Agonistes.” (Both recall Garry Wills’s 1970 masterpiece Nixon Agonistes.)
But Fire and Fury is more than a catalog of grudges and sordid tales. The book’s most important claim is that going into his election, Trump and his crew were neither prepared for nor interested in actually winning the presidency. This has been observed elsewhere before, but Wolff unpacks how each major player had their own motivations and plans for life after an electoral defeat, “the trouble-free outcome they awaited on November 8, 2016 . . . losing would work out for everybody.” Trump would start a TV network with Roger Ailes, banking heavily on being “a martyr to crooked Hillary Clinton”; Steve Bannon would become leader of a Tea Party movement 2.0; advisers like Kellyanne Conway would reap lucrative gigs as pundits; and Jared and Ivanka would be “transformed . . . from relatively obscure rich kids into international celebrities and brand ambassadors.” An electoral loss would also mean that the campaign’s lack of any rigorous policy platform would never be put to the real-world test, and, perhaps most importantly, that everyone’s abundant conflicts of interests and dubious dealings—which instead of being disentangled and sanitized, as they would have been in a serious campaign, had flourished—would never receive serious scrutiny. When the opposite happened, a shell-shocked, utterly unprepared, and totally compromised crew found itself poised to occupy the White House.
The consequences proved immense. Sure, the candidate himself, with characteristic cognitive pliancy, promptly retconned everything: overnight, “Trump became a man who believed that he deserved to be and was wholly capable of being the president of the United States.” (We should expect nothing less from a man who, as Wolff relates, has since come to insist the Access Hollywood tape was a fake, that Nixon was framed for Watergate, and more.) But everyone else was caught flat-footed, with the exception of Bannon, who, in the days leading to the election, had been (at least in Wolff’s telling) perhaps the only voice to suggest Trump might win. This goes a long way toward explaining Bannon’s singular influence during the first one hundred days of the administration. Writes Wolff: “In the weeks leading up to the election, Trump had labeled Bannon a flatterer for his certainty that Trump would win. But now he had come to credit Bannon with something like mystical powers. And in fact Bannon, with no prior political experience, was the only Trump insider able to offer a coherent vision of Trump’s populism—aka Trumpism.” While the rest of Team Trump foundered and fought, Bannon proclaimed himself “Trump’s brain” and styled himself as a man who not only had vision, but who would actually get things done.
Of course, this is Steve Bannon we’re talking about. Somewhere between a forgettable tenure at Goldman Sachs, consulting for Biosphere 2 (spoiler: it went poorly), and penning a rap musical about the LA riots and a sci-fi reboot of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (set in space, with “ectoplasmic sex”), Bannon had stumbled into a superficial, kitchen-sink ideology of “a radical isolationism, a protean protectionism, and a determined Keynesianism.” But like all true reactionaries, he appears to have fetishized will above all else. The rest was just details, and “expertise . . . the last refuge of liberals, ever defeated by the big picture.” In practice, this translated into a management whereby “the chaos of just doing things . . . actually got things done.” The success of this approach would have been unlikely even if the chief executive wasn’t a mercurial narcissist. But given the circumstances on the ground, chaos could only lead to factional infighting. Wolff chronicles all the shifting alliances and vicious personal antagonisms in depth: Bannon versus Jared and Ivanka (“Jarvanka”); Bannon versus Reince Priebus, and then with Priebus against Jarvanka; Jarvanka against Conway; Trump against H.R. McMaster, and then with him against Bannon. Wolff also documents the constant staff turnover, the bitter accusations of betrayal and failure, the comings and goings of Katie Walsh, Michael Flynn, Anthony Scaramucci, Mike Dubke, Spicer, and more. The constant turmoil and turnover, the unending theatrics of dominance and humiliation comes to resemble something like The West Wing meets Arrested Development meets Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.
Bannon is Wolff’s most consequential and consistent source, and at times Fire and Fury reads more like a book about him than a book about the President of the United States and his White House. Wolff ends more than a few sections and chapters with Bannon’s words and sprinkles his pithy, profane one-liners and confident predictions throughout (on what Bannon thinks the future holds for Russia hearings: “Hope Hicks is so fucked she doesn’t even know it. They are going to lay her out. They’re going to crack Don Junior like an egg on national TV.”) Wolff’s treatment of Bannon feels at once too much and insufficient, especially when it comes to the question of Bannon’s racism, which Wolff handles with too much deference. But it is also devastating. Wolff is at his best as a journalist when he is documenting the interpersonal dynamics of wealth—and how the gravitational pull of money shapes the expectations and actions of the rich and their hangers-on. Writes Wolff:
Bannon didn’t much question Donald Trump’s bona fides, or behavior, or electability, because, in part, Trump was just his latest rich man. The rich man is a fixed fact, which you have to accept and deal with in an entrepreneurial world—at least a lower-level entrepreneurial world. And, of course, if Trump had had firmer bona fides, better behavior, and clear electability, Bannon would not have had his chance.
Of all the many things written in so many venues about Bannon, this observation—that he and Trump were made for and deserved each other—is the most dead-on.
As for Trump himself, the truth is that Fire and Fury doesn’t really tell us much we haven’t already heard or already feared. He is described repeatedly as a child, his decisions determined either by pure impulse or by the person with whom he’s spoken most recently, whether it be a member of his family, the latest general who has caught his eye, or someone from the “billionaires cabinet” of high-powered executives whom he calls most nights. (These “friends,” in Trump’s formulation, seem to have very little compunction about sharing damning assessments with Wolff.)
The President is presented as someone who constantly watches TV—three in bed at once, we’re told—and whose antipathy for the written word is so intense his staff has concluded he is “semiliterate” or even “dyslexic.” Fundamentally incurious and easily bored, Trump time and again reveals neither knowledge of nor the barest interest in any of his supposedly most cherished policy issues, from the budget to Obamacare (“Why can’t Medicare simply cover everybody?” he asks at one point).
Full of pique and a boundless desire to be universally loved, he takes everything personally, ruminating about perceived indignities and slights, punishing those closest to him for failing to fill the gap between his desire for constant praise and the reality principle—perhaps the single most frequently used adjective to describe Trump’s feelings in Fire and Fury is “wounded.” Demanding unquestioning loyalty from underlings while constantly willing to throw them under the bus for failing to please him, he is “the Sun God . . . the absolute center of attention, dispensing favor and delegating power, which could, at any moment, be withdrawn.”
Misogynistic to the core, he is obsessed with cuckoldry, feels persecuted by women at the Department of Justice (per him, Sally Yates is a “cunt”), and drives even his most devoted “work wife,” Hope Hicks, to tears after calling her “a piece of tail.” There is, in the bleakest sense, little new here. But this may be the actual point. Critics of Wolff may point to various errors, in attribution and otherwise, but there is no contesting the basic fact that, less than painting a portrait of Trump, Wolff simply holds up a mirror and reflects him back to us. That the result is fundamentally unsurprising speaks less to confirmation bias than it does to the fact that we’ve been seeing the same image, refracted across the countless screens Trump inhabits and dominates, for as long as he has existed.
Yet laid out in book-length prose, rather than telegraphed in 140 or 280-character bursts, the impact is like the distancing effect in Brechtian theater: we see what’s always been in front of us, but in a queasy new perspective and dilated temporality. Caught in the whiplash of headline after headline, we simply react and brace for what’s next; reading month after month as narrated by Wolff, we take a longer view, and the full insanity of what has come to constitute our new normal sinks in. We realize that Trump has always been what he is—and also that we have nonetheless always been looking for more. One of the more disturbing parts of the book is reading Trump’s transcribed speeches—off-the-cuff, rambling, incoherent, repetitive, crude. Rendered in blocky, disorienting, endless paragraphs, they are nonetheless entirely of a piece with his tweets at their epigrammatic worst. There is no between-the-lines, no secret code: it is all simply there, blatant, ugly, and stupid.
But even more disturbing is learning that amid the chaos of the White House, Trump’s own staff—Bannon included—would themselves pore over these texts, trying to decode his most basic intentions and policy priorities. “One of the ways to establish what Trump wanted and where he stood and what his underlying policy intentions were—or at least the intentions that you could convince him were his—came to involve an improbably close textual analysis of his largely off-the-cuff speeches, random remarks, and reflexive tweets during the campaign,” writes Wolff. Wolff reveals that Trump’s staff, and Bannon specifically, would log what they gleaned from such readings to Trump, who would then cosign their interpretations: “some of these promises Trump enthusiastically remembered making, others he had little memory of, but was happy to accept that he had said it.” In other words: Trump’s understanding and ownership of his own intentions would be constructed, post-facto, by the interpretations of others—all of which he would then immediately bulldoze the next time he opened his mouth or turned on his phone. A perfect, hermeneutic circle, but also so much sound and fury, idiotic, signifying nothing.
Toward the end of Fire and Fury, Wolff takes stock. He writes:
The process of accomplishing the smallest set of tasks within the sprawling and resistant executive branch is a turtle process. The burden of the White House is the boredom of bureaucracy. All White Houses struggle to rise above that, and they succeed only on occasion. In the age of hypermedia, this has not gotten easier for the White House, it’s gotten harder . . . And yet, contravening all cultural and media logic, Donald Trump produced on a daily basis an astonishing, can’t-stop-following-it narrative. And this was not even because he was changing or upsetting the fundamentals of American life. In six months as president, failing to master almost any aspect of the bureaucratic process, he had, beyond placing his nominee on the Supreme Court, accomplished, practically speaking, nothing. And yet, OMG!!! There almost was no other story in America—and in much of the world. That was the radical and transformational nature of the Trump presidency: it held everybody’s attention.
Whatever the first year of Trump means for the history of the executive branch, Wolff has a point. As Fire and Fury’s sales will no doubt underscore, Trump has been remarkable in terms of monopolizing the attention of large swathes of the American public, largely in direct correlation to how attuned we are to the post-circadian rhythms of our unholiest unit of time, the “news cycle.”
Yet as Fire and Fury confirms, when it comes to executive function, in all the senses of the phrase, Trump is both a personal and a political black hole. And it is precisely because of—and not despite—this that he has proven so enthralling. Black holes in space, physicists theorize, emit pulses of their own, exotic radiation, even as they suck all matter in and crush it to nothing. So too with Trump: the tweets, the speeches, the gossip, it all draws us in, dragging us toward him, even as he presides over an apparatus of governance that is steadily dismantling and despoiling what remains of the liberal state. The pull of his gravitational force is strong, and the need to somehow assert control over it by weaving a comprehensible narrative is hard to resist. But Trump is what he has always been, and the endless interpretation only gives him more power. Paradoxically, the palace-intrigue play-by-play Wolff offers, which caters to this very impulse, winds up not just fulfilling, but pointing beyond it. Perhaps, in this next year, we can all resolve to stop being captivated by the need to decipher the obvious, and instead focus on breaking the pull.