What Fire and Fury tells us about us — 1791
There is little more bizarre than the frenzy this book has whipped the public into. For the book’s proponents, it’s seized upon as yet another clincher that will bring about the inevitable demise of Donald Trump’s presidency. For critics of the book, it’s confirmation of the media’s ongoing crisis of credibility. But the reality is that it’s something more like a gossip magazine primarily informed by the notoriously delusional and self-indulgent — Steve Bannon.
The accounts that are true are nothing new or even remotely interesting: that Donald Trump likes fast food and watches a lot of television, or that he doesn’t like to read. Others are abjectly false, such as the claim that he didn’t know who then-Speaker of the House John Boehner was, even though he tweeted about him. Ironically, Wolff doesn’t seem to know much about Boehner himself as he stumbles into yet another inaccuracy about the man. Wolff claims that Boehner resigned in 2011, which was only off by four years.
Something as glaring as this you’d think would be caught by an editor who’d been following politics even casually for the last several years, which calls into question whether or not one had even looked at this project in the first place. But moving beyond the careless editing like spelling public as “pubic” in two separate instances, Wolff himself acknowledges the questionability of the tales within.
He explains, “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book. Sometimes I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. “ This quote highlights the guiding philosophy of Michael Wolff, which was described by Maggie Haberman of the New York Times: “He creates a narrative that is notionally true, conceptually true, the details are often wrong.” In Wolff’s view, the facts or details of a matter run secondary in importance to whether or not they compliment the higher truth of a matter, which is very convenient if you’re the magistrate of what that highest rung on the ladder of truth is.
Most bizarrely, a strange outgrowth of this affair has created an alternate universe — a universe in which those who once firmly believed that Steve Bannon is the pre-eminent ‘white nationalist’ of the era suddenly have credulously swallowed his most widely-reported and inflated claim, which is that the unproductive meeting between Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort was “treasonous.” This is the most explosive claim made in the book. Even more, Bannon speculated that there was “no way” the Russian “jamoes” in attendance didn’t meet with Trump Sr. “No way,” though, is a far cry from being definitive knowledge. Which is something Bannon couldn’t possibly have had given that he had no involvement with the campaign at that point. Nor has he suggested that the claim is anything more than bloviation. This is hardly a definitive proof, regardless of how wishful impeachment devotees might be. Bannon’s theories aside — up until this curious moment, the former Chief Strategist was universally thought to be an unreliable and exaggerating man who heads a notorious rag, which he himself admitted was not the most legitimate publication. And, yet now his word is taken unquestioningly when channeled through a book by Wolff. If the #Resistance’s integrity wasn’t already in question, it’s hard to seriously claim otherwise now that they would suddenly flip to his side the moment he spins tales that flatter their far-flung case for impeachment.
Wolff’s credibility doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny, either. Wolff himself was asked blankly if Bannon was his primary source. Fumbling and flustered, he rejected the idea. And yet, the stories the media frames as being of utmost importance are based on Bannon’s words. With that in mind, Bannon’s transparent anger with various Trump administration officials and his unconventional political tactics have led to repeated exaggerations and dubious claims. A laughable irony is that if Bannon’s uncorroborated ramblings had been published in Breitbart he’d have no credibility whatsoever, but if he has a self-described “famous bloviator” write him a book comprised of stale news and technical inaccuracies it becomes a bombshell revelation.But there’s something much more perniciously far-reaching hiding beneath the gossip and spectacle. The popularity of this book reveals the country’s relentless infatuation with the executive branch, and the cult of celebrity it’s become. This is a trend that emerged with the advent of the radio, which enabled the president to take on a much more direct and present role in Americans’ lives. Initially conceived of as more of a federal custodian than a proactive force, this was forgotten as the president’s presence increased in the public’s mind. Consequently, the presidency began to take on more of a king-like status — reaching its apex with JFK, whose Presidency has now come to be remembered as “Camelot.” Naturally, this taps into our primitive desire to rally around a single pillar of tribal unity, which is precisely why the founders rooted the bulk of federal authority in the much less centralized Congress. In the end, it’s the dependable ignorance of the proper role of government and the superficiality of the contemporary political culture that Wolff appeals to in Fire and Fury.
Bannon, his principal confidante, had staked the hopes of his political rise on subverting the established order, but all he found was an endless chasm. Bannon made the critical error of believing that he had won the presidency and that he had a base of his own. He didn’t, and when he made that prideful discovery he fell right in. While Bannon may have indeed had his “hands on his weapons,” it turns out they were pointed at his swollen head.
In the end, this book does succeed as a clever marketing ploy to extract millions out of the pockets of bored suburban impeachment devotees, even if the minority of factual information is as old as leftover ham from Christmas, and the rest is plagued by one mistruth after another.