‘Writers are always selling somebody out’. So sayeth Joan Didion in the warning/statement of principle in the Preface of her 1968 collection of journalism Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Luckily, for Michael Wolff – the author of the bestselling exposé Fire and Fury: Inside Donald Trump’s White House – no one in the West Wing seems to have read Didion. In fact, few seem to have read anything at all. According to Wolff’s sources, the President is ‘semi-literate’ and text averse. Aides hoping to wrangle a decision out of him show large blow-up photographs to illustrate his options. The ‘stable genius’ has his insecurities and his terms of abuse regularly include the sarcastically intoned ‘expert’ and ‘professor’.
But this rancor towards intelligence extends also to his circle. For all his reputation as the ‘intellectual’ of the alt-right, Steve Bannon is the kind of man only dumb people can think clever. He’s read a few popular history books – the kind Tom Clancy might use for research – but his reputation for cleverness rests solely on his lively enthusiasm for calling other people idiots: Hope Hicks is as ‘dumb as a stone’; Ivanka Trump is as ‘dumb as a brick’. However, his own self-image as a Machiavellian schemer is belied by how totally useless he is at it. See his subsequent downfall and even his collaboration with Wolff’s book as evidence.
Wolff’s account has come in for some pushback specifically from the White House but there’s been little substantive refutation. Cease and desist letters issued to his publisher failed to highlight any actual factual errors, although some MSM journalists with their pernickety obsession with ‘factual accuracy’ have picked up on the odd wrong date. And Bannon’s own late apology actually enforces the veracity of Wolff’s account. If he misspoke, then he wasn’t misquoted. Further, the legal action threatened by Trump would open his presidency and his White House up to a legal examination of their operations that would be highly embarrassing even if only a fraction of what Wolff has written proved true.
You probably already know the gist of Wolff’s account even if you haven’t read the book, but here’s the nut. Donald Trump and the people working his campaign never thought he could or even should win the election. Once President, he has consistently proved himself inept, unqualified, unstable and potentially an existential threat to American democracy. Everyone working in the White House knows this, and discussions about the Twenty-Fifth Amendment have been lively and ongoing. The White House itself has been riven by infighting from day one with the Bannonites, the RNC, and Jervanka (like Brangelina with a dash of Patrick Bateman) tearing at each other and leaking left, right and center. In fact, Wolff himself is a major beneficiary to many of these naïve players. The Commander-in-Chief, meanwhile, enabled by former model turned PA Hope Hicks, watches a lot of television, plays a lot of golf, and eats cheeseburgers from MacDonalds because he doesn’t want to be poisoned – which reminded me of the Emperor in I, Claudius who only eats figs from his own fig trees to avoid a similar fate. (SPOILER: He doesn’t. His wife poisons the figs on the fig trees before he picks them.) Conversely, he seems blithely unaware of his own legal jeopardy and the limits and responsibilities of presidential power.
In the past, the White House has taken a beating. Doris Kearns Goodwin gave a great portrait of ramshackle disorganization and rodent infestation in her Lincoln book Team of Rivals. Gore Vidal’s iconoclastic Narratives of Empire novel-cycle delights in debunking the grandeur of the Capitol and its chief resident. It has been elevated by Martin Sheen in The West Wing and flattened by alien spaceships, but not since General Zod in Superman II has someone taken it over with such contempt. Of course, most of the perks that come with being President – entourage, private plane, residence – were all things Trump already had, and usually with significantly more bling and less, you know, thinking about stuff. The White House is pokey and being President is ultimately being an employee.
So the questions remain: how much of this is true? And what does it matter?
As beautiful as it would be for Trump’s alternate facts Presidency to be taken down by an alternate facts book, the book looks largely to be accurate. It has a rushed feel with repetitions and some typos showing an urgency to get to press. No doubt hurried fact-checking might also mean some dates are wrong and what not. But the author’s and the publisher’s defense looks confident and solid and the backlash has been generally dismissive of the author’s reputation rather than tackling the specifics of the reporting.
Does it matter? It has now become a truism that the Trump’s base is holding solid. I think that argument has two problems. One, Trump didn’t win with his base. He won with his base plus disgruntled Democrats, independents refreshed by the entertainment factor and Never Hillary Republicans who were willing to punt on an unsavory character. Now, he only has his base of roughly thirty some percent. And (this is the second problem) that base currently exists without an alternative. They’re defending a past choice, rather than being offered a new one. Should the Democrats field a strong candidate (Oprah!?), or the Republicans put forward a challenger (Roseanne!?), that base could rapidly jump ship.
What the book contributes to – along with the President’s twitter feed – is a degradation of legitimacy. If the mid-terms go the way they are currently polling, Trump’s presidency could effectively be over by this time next year. And that’s without even going into the Mueller investigation or the invocation of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. But this isn’t a happy ending (and I’m loathe to predict it with any confidence). Much damage has already been done. If President Trump proves a one-term president, this embarrassing stain on American political life will take a lot longer to remove than the smell of French fries and cheeseburger from the Lincoln bedroom.