I’m not usually in the business of writing book reviews, but here goes…
Some friends with whom I’d normally volunteer heard, back in January or February, that I was back in hospital and sent me a present. It was the book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff. In the event, I had other reading material and only read it a few weeks ago. It was published after much hype on 6th January. My colleagues were well-intentioned: they knew how deep my contempt for Trump was thought it would keep me amused.
My summary: don’t bother – it’s a pile of crap.
Wolff’s face stares out from the end cover of the sleeve, which informs us he has received “numerous awards”. He certainly has an over-inflated sense of his own self-importance and access to the Trump White House during his early months in office. Try as he might, it’s obvious he’s a bit of a fan of Steve Bannon: the book kind of runs out of steam when Bannon joins the long list of White House resignations and sackings.
Apparently, according to Wikipedia, it was the New York Times’ No. 1 bestseller, which tells you more about the alien nature of the USA, and New York City, than anything else. Well, whoopee-do.
Not familiar with Steve Bannon: if you saw any of the amusing Saturday Night Live sketches in early 2016, he’s the one depicted as the Grim Reaper standing behind Trump at his presidential desk and exercising a malign influence over the totally inexperienced (to politics) Trump. A fair depiction of the man. Bannon and Breitbart’s views are so far to the right they would be off the scale in any European context.
Nevertheless, I read the whole book from beginning to end, but I was mightily relieved when it was all over. It put me in mind of an incident from the 1980s when I was on holiday on a Greek Island with my first wife and kids. A friend, whose judgement I thought I could trust, lent me a book by a very well-known American author. Clue: he sold over 750 million books and is mentioned in the episode of Fawlty Towers called The American. Against my “better” judgement, I took the book on holiday: it was the only reading material I had.
The incident I remember distinctly took place on the beach. A fellow Brit tourist, noticing what I was reading, approached, thinking he had found a fellow fan. He made some reference to the book and how much he enjoyed it. In an excess of candour and distinct lack of diplomatic skills, I said just four words in reply – I regretted the words even before they had left my lips: “I think it’s crap”. I still recall his disappointed facial expression as he backed away, confused: why would this idiot (i.e. me) read a book he didn’t like? Why indeed?
The Language Used
The book is really unsuitable for a UK audience. It’s written in a style which required a good understanding of US (or New York) slang terms and requires a great deal of knowledge of the workings of the White House. It’s full of the characters Trump has surrounded himself with and the macho, testosterone-fuelled aggression of the rich and powerful. Much of the language is simply inaccessible to a UK reader and I had to let it wash over me and get the general drift.
The Premise: Life in the White House
The overall tale is of a bunch of non-politicians totally unprepared for government: the Trump White House is utterly dysfunctional. It starts its days as a random bunch of feuding tribes, all busy stabbing each other in the back and leaking like crazy to the traditional media, the purveyors of “fake news”. Then it gradually coalesces into two rival groups, vying for Trump’s attention (his attention span is notoriously short). One faction is the uber-right, an incomprehensible world inhabited by Bannon, Breitbart and such like, the other faction Wolff calls “Jarvanka”, basically the family running government like the Trump businesses, Sopranos style. (It’s a conflation of Jared and Ivanka, of course: witty or not?)
The overall picture presented is of entirely dysfunctional White House. Two of our favourite US box sets were The Sopranos and The West Wing. The picture painted is pure Sopranos. Trump’s White House differs from the Sopranos in two ways. Unlike Tony Soprano and his extended family, no one in the Trump White House has any endearing human qualities: it’s all scheming and back-stabbing. And Trump and his rich cronies with whom he has chosen to surround himself are rich enough to pay for very clever lawyers who can help keep them out of trouble with the law.
(That having been said, Jared Kushner’ s father Charlie has spent time in prison for “tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign donations” – p17).
If the book is to be believed – and it’s clearly “sexed up” to sell more copies – Trump himself is every bit as dreadful as your worst nightmares – and then some. He has the attention span of a gnat, refuses to read any written brief if at all possible and certainly not any longer than one side of A4 paper. He refuses to watch PowerPoint presentations (some sympathy there!) so White House staff have had to try various methods to get his attention. His outright refusal to study detail and his almost total ignorance of foreign policy matters are confirmed in the book. One chink in his armour is a child-like need to be liked personally: this trait is exploited by the cannier members of staff.
I’ve always seen him as a petulant 3 year old. At different points in the book, colleagues liken him to 2 year old and 9 year old. In the latter stages of the book, it’s clear Trump has absolutely none of the basic attributes needed to be President. Audit trails exist all over the place, any one of them damning enough to start impeachment proceedings. By the end of the story, his supporters on the uber-right broadly divide into two groups. There’s the “let’s make the best of it and wait until 2020 and find another empty vessel as our puppet” group – Trump doesn’t have the self-discipline to be their man. And then there’s the “Trump must go now” camp.
These folks are really not interested in the affairs of our little island. Theresa May makes her first – and only – appearance on p258 – and then only in describing the seating plan at a G20 conference. Mr Slime fares rather better, if only in word count. On p275, he is described as “the right wing British Brexit leader who was part of the greater Breitbart circle”. Oh, and on the following page, there is, surprisingly, an extensive quote lifted from the Guardian. And that’s it.
So, further evidence (of sorts) that our infantile, needy delusion about a “special relationship” with the USA is just that: delusion. I draw the obvious conclusion as to who our best friends are (and it’s not Trump’s America).
A Warning for the Future
I finish with a direct quotation from the book: it brought a chill to my spine.
“Trump, in Bannon’s view, was a chapter, or even a detour, in the Trump revolution, which had always been about weaknesses in the two major parties. The Trump presidency – however long it lasted – had created the opening that would provide the true outsiders their opportunity, Trump was just the beginning.
Standing on the Breitbart steps that October morning, Bannon smiled and said ‘It’s going to be as wild as shit’” (My emphasis)
Be very afraid, and avoid this dreadful book!
[Since writing the above, I have looked at “professional” reviews from the Guardian, Irish Times, Amazon (4 stars) and the New York Times. Two comment on Wolff’s previous notoriety for inaccuracies in reporting. Otherwise, nothing to add.]
[And finally, I realised that the still picture comes from a Monty Python Sketch called Book of the Month Club. Its selling point, according to the John Cleese deleivery character, was “Join our club and, after the third book, you get a pile of dung”. It left me pondering what three books I’d be forced to read to get Wolff’s book for free!]