It’s been a while since I posted anything up here, and I finished reading Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury earlier tonight, so here are my thoughts.
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Michael Wolff)
I try not to get too political on this blog, for the simple reason that it’s (hopefully) eventually going to become my public-facing web presence in the event I make it as a published author. However, like most of the rest of the world over the past year, I’ve been watching, aghast, as a whole mob of badly-written movie villains have taken over the United States of America.
I pre-ordered Fire and Fury and, thanks to the White House’s futile attempt to cease and desist, got it several days earlier than expected when the publishers decided to tell Trump what it thought of his attack lawyers.
While I’ve been reading the book, I’ve also been reading/watching the parallel news articles and criticism of it and its author. A lot of the criticism makes very valid points. Although the story feels too in-sync with the news and gossip that’s been coming out of the White House over the past year for it to be, as the administration has claimed, a work of fiction, even the author admits that some of the events described are composites of reports from different sources, i.e. they’re probably not exactly what happened, but an interpretation of several versions of events.
Most of my issues with the book’s reliability are challenged in this video from Stephen Colbert, who, frankly, doesn’t seem overly convinced by Wolff’s claims of authenticity – note that he signs off the interview with a comment about looking forward to listening to the tapes of Wolff’s interviews, despite the author earlier saying he had no intention of releasing those:
The problem with Fire and Fury is also its biggest strength: it feels exactly right. Even if you were to assume it was a complete work of fiction, the characterisation of the real people in it feels so spot on that it’s hard to tell the difference. Events described tally up really neatly with actual historical events that have occurred. If this book’s fiction, it’s one of the best alt-history books out there. If this book’s 100% true, it’s terrifying.
My thoughts are that it’s somewhere in the middle. I’m not suggesting that Wolff deliberately made up events, but his sources (which he generally fails to cite) are, by his telling, generally unreliable narrators anyway, in competition with one another and either delusional or with a strong interest in portraying themselves as righteous and their rivals as imbecilic or ideologically flawed.
(Oh, and if even 10% of the events in the book are accurate, then the US is in deep, deep trouble…)
It’s been suggested that Wolff has delved into some pretty unethical journalistic practices to get his material – at least one of the various dinner parties mentioned in the book actually took place at Wolff’s house, and I’ve seen some suggestion that he ‘burned his sources’ by quoting them on the record when they didn’t wish to be identified.
Even if that wasn’t the case, it’s pretty clear who his main sources in the book were. Steve Bannon, for example, is almost a protagonist in this story, with extensive direct quotations that appear to have been spoken to the author rather than another character. Some critics have accused Wolff of describing him overly favourably – I don’t see that. Bannon’s characterisation is as a self-delusional egomaniac who’s downfall comes because he believed he could control an even greater self-delusional egomaniac. Jared Kushner, or someone close to him, appears to have been a major contributor as well, which makes sense, considering most of the book’s action revolves around the infighting between the Bannonite and Javanka factions.
Wolff says, in the Colbert interview above, that the book’s accuracy can be measured by how much it ties in with what we already know. Yeah, that’s called confirmation bias and is typically something best avoided. Just because the characterisation is so spot on to what we think we already know about the Trump administration doesn’t mean that it’s true.
That said, events since the book’s publication appear to be something of a continuation of its own narrative. Bannon’s career as an alt-right prophet has continued its dramatic decline, with him even losing Breitbart, and Trump’s vengeful attacks on him match the very style of casual cruelty and denial of history that the book ascribes to the president. But then, you only need to read @RealDonaldTrump to recognise how consistent both his recent tweets and his portrayal in Fire and Fury are to his previous recorded actions and statements.
I suspect there’s a lot more fact in Fire and Fury than (even inadvertent) fiction, but sadly its very writing process makes it difficult to identify which is which. All we can do is, as with Bannon’s dramatic fall, watch the ongoing events Wolff describes gradually come to their natural conclusions (or not, as the case may be). It will be very interesting to see, in decades to come, how much of this book reappears in actual scholarly texts about Trump’s term of office.
Ultimately though, the most damning revelation Fire and Fury brings is its very existence. I can’t imagine Obama, Clinton or either Bush allowing a single journalist such unrestricted access that he could even write such a book and have it appear plausible; nor would the vast majority of staffers and aides in those administrations be stupid enough to say the things that they allegedly said to Wolff.
The header image is a promo image from ‘Olympus Has Fallen’, a film which has the alternate title ‘Gerard Butler Shoots Lots Of Koreans, And His Best Friend, In The Head’.