By now you’ve almost certainly heard about Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, the book which has reignited debates such as “is Donald Trump actually suffering from Alzheimer’s, is he a sociopathic narcissist, is he just a viciously racist overprivileged arsehole who has never in his life had anyone say ‘no’ to him about anything he wanted, or are those things not actually mutually exclusive?”
Wolff’s book is the proximate cause of Trump describing himself on Twitter as a “very stable genius”, which is always the sign of complete stability and of genius, but does the book actually tell us anything we didn’t already know or hadn’t at least guessed? After all, the book’s principal subject did, earlier this week, publicly get into an actual dick-measuring contest with Kim Jong-Un over their relative willingness to declare nuclear war on the other’s country. The precise details of how truly loathsome a person Trump is, or what precise crimes led to him taking office, almost make no difference. Now that he has the office of the US Presidency, the only thing that really matters is for those in the US to get him out of office before he can destroy the entire world in a fit of pique, and to follow that by removing the rest of the Republican Party, who may not present as immediate a danger to as many people, but who are still committed to ensuring the deaths of many millions of people in the service of enriching the already rich and further privileging the privileged.
Given that we already know that, can this book really tell us anything?
Well, the first thing is, of course, that “we” don’t already know that. There are two things, in particular, which it is important to note about how Trump is seen in the US. The first is that he is far more unpopular than any other President in history, and more viscerally so — on my visit to the rural Midwest recently I noted that walking through the Barnes and Noble in the shopping mall, all the books turned out to show the faces to the customers fell into a few categories — they were either biographies of centre-left (by US standards) politicians like Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton, books about actual revolutionaries (I noted a book by Zizek on Lenin, for example), or dystopian fiction (this latter category containing most of the same books that started to appear face out in Waterstones in the UK in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote — things like “It Can’t Happen Here” and “1984”). The whole place *stank* of politicisation, in a way that it never has before. And my small-c-conservative mother-in-law spent pretty much the whole of Christmas ranting about the evils of the man — even though I’d never before heard her express a political opinion in the twelve years I’ve known her.
(Of course the counter to this is that those people who *do* like Trump have that support firmly rooted at this point, and will probably never decide that he’s less than wonderful).
But the other thing is that this unpopularity is still within a framework of “respect for the office” and a near-veneration of the President, whoever he happens to be. This means that it’s pretty much impossible for anyone — at least in the mass media — to talk clearly about the evident fact, that the man in the Oval Office has no understanding of the job to which he has been appointed, has no interest in learning about the job, and has neither the intellectual or emotional capacity to do it even were he somehow to be educated. Even the ostensibly left-leaning media doesn’t point out that the emperor has no clothes, and contents itself with saying that he is perhaps not as well dressed as he could be. Acts which, to anyone with a clear view of Trump, look like the petulant impulsiveness of a spoiled, not-very-bright, overprivileged white man who doesn’t actually understand or care about the consequences of his actions are, even by his enemies, interpreted as strategic maneuverings, as part of a wider game-plan. The whole set-up of the news media in the US — far more than over here — is predicated on this idea, that the person in that office is always worthy of it, no matter what.
And it is this, more than anything else, that distinguishes Fire and Fury. It is, quite simply, the first product of the USian mass media to simply take as read what is obvious to the rest of us — that Donald Trump is barely literate, has no understanding of the basics of the US Constitution, and has no concerns other than the shortest-possible-term gratification of his physical needs and his emotional desire for respect from rich and important people.
In truth, it doesn’t tell us anything new about Trump at all — no-one reading this is going to be surprised that Rupert Murdoch thinks he’s “a fucking idiot”, that Trump watches a lot of TV, and that he’s willing to sign any bit of legislation put in front of him by any of the small number of people he trusts. Trump is, in fact, almost an absent character from the book. Its impact actually comes from that fact — that the author has just blatantly decided that the monster in the White House is of no consequence except as someone the people actually trying to get things done must placate.
What this book really is, in fact, is Steve Bannon’s account of his feud with Jared Kushner. Trump is treated as a force of nature that must be placated, rather than as a person — much of the detail in the book comes from the way that Kushner and Bannon would both leak to media outlets which Trump followed, in the hope of swaying him to their points of view. Trump comes across as a man without fixed political views at all, and who is only concerned with gaining popularity — someone who genuinely doesn’t understand that in a polarised political climate, if you say things that will get cheers from people on your own side, you’ll get booed by the other side.
In this, Bannon seems to have encouraged Trump to say the things that will get cheers — the executive order about immigration is portrayed as entirely Bannon’s work — while Kushner seems to try instead to persuade Trump *not* to do things that will get boos. Kushner is portrayed as a naive young inexperienced child (though Kushner is thirty-six) who has much the same political views as a centrist Democrat of the Hillary Clinton type, but who has no real knowledge of or understanding of politics.
Indeed, one thing that is notably absent from the book is policy. It’s made clear that Bannon had a policy agenda, and similarly Reince Priebus (who is notionally the third part of a triangle with Bannon and Kushner, but who is given much less time than the others, presumanly because as a professional politician he doesn’t just run his mouth to everyone who’ll listen, but instead has a strategy and a staff who at least have the most basic idea of how things might look to the outside) had policy priorities, and that those two sets of priorities clashed, but what those priorities are is more or less glossed over.
But the *way* those things are glossed over is, itself, indicative — the failure of the healthcare bill is presented as Priebus’ failure, and as something from which Bannon was completely dissociated (Bannon indeed is presented as supporting universal healthcare — the best picture one can actually get of Bannon’s policy agenda from reading this places it shockingly close to people like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, oddly enough, with an emphasis on rebuilding old industries, on closing borders, and on government spending — with the vicious racism deemphasised so much, Bannon appears almost as a left-populist, though again this is very much Bannon’s account of himself). On the other hand the immigration executive order is presented as a triumph for Bannon, but the fact that courts ruled against it is reduced to an aside.
This is, fundamentally, politics-as-soap-opera. It’s The West Wing or House of Cards, where the effect of a policy doesn’t matter at all, and all that really matters is the backstabbing and feuding between the President’s advisors — who’s in, who’s out, who’s ganging up with whom.
But, assuming that this is a relatively accurate picture of what was going on (a dangerous assumption, since this is Bannon’s view for the most part, but I think we can take the broad outline as being correct), what strikes me about it is the similarity of the descriptions of the inner working of the Trump administration to that of the Nazi administration in the 1930s.
In particular, Trump is presented as having a similar personality to Hitler — an unwilllingness to work, an impatience with detail, and an arrogant belief that he already knows everything that he needs to know (these are traits that I also share, incidentally, so I’m not making this comparison to Hitler as a solely pejorative one). This has led him to structure the White House organisation in much the same way — have multiple people you believe to be loyal to yourself, but who hate each other, give them competing, overlapping, responsibilities, make vague pronouncements and leave the details up to them. They will then fight among themselves over the interpretation of your words, you take responsibility if there’s a success, and you let them stab each other in the back if there’s a failure.
In Nazi Germany this was known as “working towards the Fuehrer”, and it’s a strategy which, once you are already in power, does a surprisingly good job of keeping you there, because it means that the ambitions of your underlings are turned against each other, rather than against you. But it’s also a strategy for turning policy-making ever more extreme — if people are competing primarily to show that they are loyal, and if they’re working from the vaguest of instructions, this process selects for the most radical of policy viewpoints, and doesn’t allow for nuance or course reversal, short of the underling falling out of favour and being sacked (as both Priebus and Bannon, of course, have).
Not one single person in this story comes out well. Of course, that is in some ways to be expected — these are, after all, people who are willing to work for an administration which is, if not outright fascist in the textbook sense, at least Poujadist with many fascist tendencies (I would personally say it’s absolutely a fascist government, but I am trying to be as generous as possible here). Fascists tend not to be nice people, and they also tend not to be very intelligent.
But astonishingly Trump actually comes out of this better than most of the other people involved (with the slight exception of Mike Pence, who gets about two sentences either because he’s a professional politician like Priebus or because he’s really a complete non-factor in the regime’s decision-making). He just wants people to like him, to not have to do any hard work, and to eat hamburgers and watch TV. Those are completely comprehensible motives, and one could almost feel pity for him being put in a situation which is distressing for him, except that he’s making it much more distressing for hundreds of millions of other people.
But Bannon comes across as a cut-rate Machiavelli whose intellectual limitations would have been far more obvious were anyone involved in the Trump campaign a basically functioning human being. Priebus, Paul Ryan, Rupert Murdoch, and most of the other supporting players are just kleptocrats plain and simple, while Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are, in this portrayal, people who are more concerned that other rich people will say nice things about them than they are with the effects of the policies they espouse.
(Also in this Bannon-heavy version of history, the whole Russia mess is solely the fault of Kushner and the people in his camp, which seems… very convenient.)
The really odd thing about the book is that, as incendiary as it’s been, it actually seems to skirt round saying some much more explosive things. There are hints in here which seem designed to encourage the type of prurient speculation which I won’t indulge in, but which will definitely cause a storm on social media if people put the clues together.
But fundamentally, for most people reading this, Fire and Fury is not a book you need to read. Much of the new stuff just confirms what everyone who pays the slightest attention already knew, providing a few extra details to a general picture that was already very clear, and what we didn’t know is far more gossip than it is material that will provide any real insight, at least to those of us who don’t care about Jared Kushner’s relationship with his father or Donald Trump’s marriage. The excerpts that were published in advance also contain almost every single revelation in the book — there’s nothing, at all, in the whole book that’s new if you’ve read the web articles that preceded publication.
In the end, the only worth the book has is that it is the first example in the mainstream US media of someone actually pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, without skirting round the matter. While the fact that the US president is a fascist is still not mentioned in the book, and is still taboo among US mainstream news reporting, at least the fact that he is incompetent, and that not one single person in the whole Government organisation thinks otherwise, has now been publicly, clearly, stated on the record.
Hopefully now the discussion can move on to what to do about at least the fact that the person in control of half the world’s nuclear weapons has no real understanding of what that means, and also has no impulse control. And hopefully, once the gigantic toddler has his finger taken from the button, the discussion could even move on to how to stop *any* fascists, even competent ones, from getting power in the US.
This blog post is supported by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Patreon’s well-publicised missteps last month led to the level of support dropping dramatically, so I appreciate even more than usual the people who continue to back me, and now would be a better time than ever to join them.