Along with a significant segment of the planet, I downloaded Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Michael Wolff’s ubiquitous new tell-all book, the first morning it was available. I expected to love it, for no other reason than its very existence motivated Trump into a paroxysm of cease-and-desist threats and looming defamation suits. How is that not fun all by itself?
I plowed through it, highlighting passages like a college kid working a thesis … then it was over, and there I was, just absolutely hating it. I felt dull, dirty and mean in its wake. It was as if the slime contained in the pages had slithered under my fingernails and into my bloodstream. I felt polluted. I felt like lice. I felt like the president of the United States.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine read in the main. While Wolff’s reporting in the book has taken a number of justified hits for being sloppy with the details, the essence of what he describes has been confirmed time and again by other reporters pursuing other stories. Since the very first day of this administration, Donald Trump and his people have approached their duties like kids dropping bricks off a highway overpass, and that sort of behavior leaves a very visible mark.
Since the very first day of this administration, Donald Trump and his people have approached their duties like kids dropping bricks off a highway overpass.
This is how it is, and due respect to the author, anyone who has been paying attention didn’t learn much of anything new from Wolff’s book. The stories I’d never heard before were only depressing, not revelatory. Take the scene where campaign aide Sam Nunberg was tasked early on to explain the Constitution and Bill of Rights to candidate Trump, who had little understanding of either. The way Wolff tells it, Trump was rolling his eyes and bored by the time they got to the Fourth Amendment.
Not only did a candidate for president have no grasp of the country’s founding documents, according to the book, he didn’t care to know. Indeed, aggressive ignorance has been Trump’s battle cry since he came down that fateful escalator like a blood sausage on a conveyor belt. Wolff’s anecdotes paint a picture we can already see. It’s not confirmation bias when it’s already been confirmed a thousand different ways.
A great many people are hoping Fire and Fury has delivered a terrible blow to an already disorganized and disoriented administration. Perhaps it has. With the Mueller investigation still ticking away behind the White House walls like the tell-tale heart, and with the very real possibility of an electoral bloodbath lurking in November, Wolff’s book may be remembered as the first real haymaker anyone has managed to land on Donald Trump since the 2016 campaign began, the one that buckled his knees on his trip to the canvass.
Still, Fire and Fury is a storyboard of the putrid place we occupy in history, for everything that has gone sideways and down, for what we have become as a nation. It is a collection of terrible people doing terrible things for terrible reasons. It broke my heart to read it, and I didn’t think politics could do that to me anymore.
Fire and Fury is a storyboard of the putrid place we occupy in history.
I hated reading it because it not only encapsulates the reality TV show our government has become, it expands upon it and in many ways, feeds it. Although there is merit to the book’s publication, we should remember while reading it that there is no President Trump without the corporate news media’s lavish assistance throughout the 2016 campaign. Candidate Trump was great TV; President Trump is even better. Throw a juicy scandal book onto the pyre and the ratings pop like a knot in the bark.
In April 2016, CBS CEO Les Moonves delivered some remarks at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in San Francisco. Holding forth on the profitability of political advertising on local networks, Moonves shared some observations on Donald Trump’s antics during the ongoing presidential campaign. “It may not be good for America,” he said, “but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say. So what can I say? It’s — you know, the money’s rolling in, and this is fun.”
There you have it. The presidency of Donald J. Trump has been a million white Broncos for much of the media, a million Desert Storms, a million 9/11s. Much of the North American continent has not turned off the TV since the man took office, because anything could happen at any minute, and even good people are going to ogle the wreck in the road. Such is the founding principle of modern TV journalism: Get them to look.
It broke my heart to read it.
Trump has been a media creation all his life. His ascendancy, his vividly ongoing calamities and now a book that breathlessly describes what we already knew have formed a frictionless moneymaker for Murrow’s lights and wires in a box. The TV loves this. Next up on the celebrity presidential parade: Oprah! Before long, we’ll be amending the Constitution to stipulate that you can’t run for office until you’ve appeared in at least one pilot.
I don’t like Donald Trump. The Wolff book doesn’t like Donald Trump. I was predisposed to enjoy it, and I did, because it is a peek at a wreck, and if some of the facts have a case of the wobbles, it’s still difficult to look away.
Let’s remember, though, that it is also a confection for the media, grist for the mill, cash money. Mainstream media outlets, clearly, are not at all tired of all this winning. We’re trapped in a bad plot we didn’t write, binge-watching history as the ratings soar.
Finally and for the sake of argument, say Michael Wolff made everything in his book up out of pure sunshine, that it’s the tapestry of lies Trump’s allies claim it is. It still doesn’t matter, not one bit, because the behavior of the president of the United States of America — every day, for many long years now — makes every single thing in that book seem not just plausible, but likely. It looks like him, sounds like him, smells like him, and there is no joy in knowing it.
We can enjoy this read, but we must also hope the next big book is about what we are doing to fix all this.
When I was 13, my father took me to see the movie Gremlins because I asked him to. It was blood and guts and puppets running amok, and my father frowned all the way through it. When it was over and the lights came up, he looked pained. I asked him what he thought of it. “It reminded me of the end of the world,” he replied softly. “All those people getting killed in so many terrible ways, and the audience thought it was hilarious. Everyone was laughing at the wrong things. If that’s how people are, it makes me feel doomed.”
I hadn’t thought of that moment in many years, not until I finished Wolff’s book. There is nothing to feel good about with this, no “Gotcha” jolt or sense of empowerment that usually comes with new knowledge. It is just darkness painted black, and I feel doomed, too. We can enjoy this read, but we must also hope the next big book is about what we are doing to fix all this. Right now, there is too much laughter at the wrong things.