Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Review: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michel Wolff

Media hype aside, Fire and Fury is a compulsive read of the early days of the Trump White House. For most of 2017 Wolff had "fly on the wall" access to daily goings on of one of the most disorganized, mostly incompetent administrations in American history. Limitations of the book aside, it's uneven and repetitive, what emerges is a study in power that's illuminating, comical, and disturbing.

At its best, Fire and Fury provides a vivid portrait of Trump and the people around him. Steve Bannon, former chief strategist, is the Iago like protagonist. Others include Trump's Son-In-Law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, usually referred to as Jarvanka. Other figures come and go, but the book is framed as a sort of Shakespearean tragedy with elements of King Lear, Othello, Julius Caesar. But only a writer with a true sense of the absurd will be able to make sense of this West Wing.

The book begins with a meeting between disgraced Fox News creator Roger Ailes and Bannon after Trump's improbable electoral victory over Hillary Clinton. Ailes expressed concern over the rumblings about Trump's Russia connections, which Bannon dismissed outright. Bannon ranted about China being the longer term threat, offering his usual reply when confronted about the peccadilloes of his man, "Trump is Trump."

The story of the first year of the Trump administration, according to Wolff, was the power struggle between Bannon and Jarvanka. Trump enjoys the infighting, the Darwinian struggle to win his favor, even tolerating Bannon's frequent vulgar language towards his Ivanka, telling her "it's a tough town." To note, some Presidents have taken such an approach, Nixon and FDR among them.

Bannon's backstory is one of disappointments - and resentment against the establishment. A working class Catholic, he overachieved as a student and was a naval officer in the 1970s, mid-level Goldman Sachs banker, and a frustrated screenwriter. A voracious reader of history, Bannon fancies himself a master historian who speaks in grandiose terms. He found a niche at Breitbart, a right wing media outlet, that views itself as the vanguard of the alt-right. Bannon's own ideas come across as incoherent, viewing globalization as a vast conspiracy to destroy Judeo-Christian civilization. Many on the left are also critical of globalization, but Bannon and his co-horts at Breitbart like to dabble with racist ideas under the guise of being politically incorrect. Bannon and his allies glean most of their pleasure by driving liberals up the wall. 

Bannon came into the Trump campaign at its lowest point in August 2016 and advised him to focus on Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida as the pathway to victory. During "Billy Bush weekend", a point when even Trump's closest allies were suggesting he end his candidacy, Bannon called for a scorched earth strategy, to double down and fight fire with fire. Trump's victory gave Bannon an almost mystical aura within the media. Yet, when given a position of power, Bannon proved to be a lackluster Machiavellian. All bluster. 

Jarvanka are the moderate influences on Trump, Kushner is viewed as an Establishment Republican, the last remnant of the liberal Rockefeller wing. Kushner often takes advice from Henry Kissinger (now 94) as his foreign policy protege. Wolff describes Kushner of taking Zen approach towards his boss/father-in-law, the key is getting to him at just the right time since Trump usually adopts the views of the last person he talked to. Needless to say, Jarvanka come off as out of their depth. They were behind the firing of FBI Director James Comey last May, an almost fatal mistake that led to the special counsel of Robert Mueller (Trump thought the media would love the dismissal of Comey).

As for Trump himself, I think he's got ADD. Wolff reports him getting always bored during briefings, talk of history and foreign policy bores him, especially power point presentations. He'll just get up and leave a meeting when he gets bored. Much of his time is consumed with watching TV and tracking what the media says about him, often driving his Twitter feed. Like Nixon, he feels the whole world is against him. He's described as an "old fashioned misogynist", who prefers working with women (he believes men are scheming and dishonest by nature). Working with him makes everyone depressed and crazy. 

Past presidents including Obama, Bush 41 and 43, and Clinton took the job seriously and appreciated the history behind it. Trump sees the Presidency as something to endure, he only cares about the prestige that comes with it. Wolff describes election night as an existential shock to the Trump's camp, most in his circle were planning for lucrative media careers. Trump envisioned a TV network to rival the power of Fox News. Long story short; everyone associated with the man is miserable.

Nothing in the book should be shocking to anyone who follows the news up close. Whether Trump will survive the term is anyone's guess. Vice President Mike Pence keeps a safe distance from the Trump camp, possibly prepping for his big moment. While most traditional Republicans pay lip service to him, deep down, they know they deserve better. Where will all this end up? All one can do is throw up one's hands and hope for the best - and vote!