Fire and Fury: A Damning Portrait of our Accidental President
“There was, in the space of little more than an hour.. a befuddled Trump morphing into a disbelieving Trump and then into a quite horrified Trump. But still to come was the final transformation: suddenly, Donald Trump became a man who believed that he deserved to be and was wholly capable of being the president of the United States.”
“Miss Minium, I’m going to need you to put that book down.”
Ever since I purchased Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, I’ve been hearing this a lot. It’s easy to get consumed in this drama of intrigue, suspicion, and chaos that casts a believable narrative to a larger-than-life year in politics. Fire and Fury is a guiding compass to understanding the presidency and election of Donald Trump. In this exposé, many of your suspicions are confirmed. The first suspicion confirmed is one we all held about the election of the Donald Trump:
It was a horrible, chaotic accident.
Not only did Trump never actually believe he would be president, he had virtually no desire to be. The portrait of an infantile, self-absorbed man with no interest in politics is too believable to be a ruse. While we all secretly suspected a more ominous stratagem at play, it turns out the simpler, more horrifying explanation is the one that rings true: no one, least of all the Trump campaign, thought this would actually happen. Nods are made to Trump’s fixation on a TV network and the right-wing desire to rebrand and harness extremism into a commodifiable empire of profitable rage, but not a single figure of import seems to take the possibility of a Trump presidency seriously. It simply couldn’t happen. No one, least of all Trump himself- a man perhaps historically ill-equipped to govern- imagined or desired it would.
Once the task was before him, he found it tedious, and showed little to no interest in the process of governing.
Worse, he seemed utterly incapable of comprehending the way government worked. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t simply just do things, or why he couldn’t simply just fire people and get his way. Most of all, he showed no understanding of the subtlety or nuance and extreme educational expertise required to oversee political processes. Wolff writes, “On the most basic level, Trump just did not, give a fuck. You could tell him whatever you wanted, but he knew what he knew, and if what you said contradicted what he knew, he simply didn’t believe you.” The complexity of governing was frustrating, unfathomable, and, most of all, boring for Donald Trump. “Managing” the president, a man who showed little to no capability for managing an office (let alone a government), was the task of many hardworking, lost-in-the-dark individuals who strove tirelessly to corral and sustain some semblance of governance.
The White House in Fire and Fury is in a state of constant damage control. The premise for Wolff’s access to the White House’s inner workings is shockingly believable- he says, in few words, “They were simply so disorganized that no one questioned me being around.” Anyone who’s worked in a poorly-managed office will understand the situation White House officials found themselves in- whoever was the first to do something is who would get it done. Job titles mattered little, and power and influence mattered more. Access was everything and bureaucracy was almost totally irrelevant. This anti-bureaucracy, an office run by individuals almost entirely with zero experience in government, explains the shocking inefficiency and chaos of the administration’s first 300 days. And as in any free-for-all management situation, power was anyone’s to grab: and in a pool of highly motivated and power-hungry individuals, the war for influence was cutthroat and life-or-death. More than any outside party, the White House staff was constantly warring with itself as every individual vied for power and influence. The man in the Oval Office had little to no interest in being president, so everyone around him saw an opportunity- if this man refused to be president, anyone could.
What this dynamic yielded was a war zone of rich socialites and media czars constantly grappling for power and control, while also forced to work together to insulate the narcissistic man at their center from the reality of the outside world. A pivotal element of this was controlling his access to media- Trump, despite his slanderous outbursts, loved the media, and wanted nothing more than for them to accept him. He simply didn’t understand why the press didn’t like him, when everything he’d done in the past had been celebrated and printed without critique. He simply did not understand the gravity that his words now held. Trump, rather than changing, was business as usual- I’ve always done business this way (a way that’s savvy for a businessman, but entirely illegal for a president), why change? I’ve always spoken this way, I’ve always treated women this way, I’ve always provoked others this way- why change? Why should things be any different?
In a way, Trump, at least here, is an honest man. He is, and has always been, entirely himself. He was scandalously racist, cutthroat, narcissistic, reactionary, and vitriolic throughout his campaign and throughout his entire public life. Perhaps he is right in wondering, “Why would now be any different?” And perhaps Trump voters, not Trump are to blame- did you think this man would change? As Wolff wonders on Fury page 6, “Did the playboy billionaire really get the workingman populist cause? But it was possibly a point-black question about the nature of power itself. Did Trump get where history had put him?” The answer is no, but perhaps more poignant is the question, did we get it? Did we get what we had done by legitimizing this man? What, exactly, did we expect?
Because with Donald Trump, what you see is what you get. That’s the horrifying, honest, and self-indicting message of Wolff’s expose. “Never account to conspiracy what can be attributed to human error.” The Trump presidency, in this view, is not an anomaly. It is the natural product of sound-bite news, bloodsport politics, viral media, anti-intellectualism, and apathy towards government. It is the inevitable conclusion of a “burn-it-all-to-the-ground” populace that does not care, and in its utter disengagement has abdicated democratic involvement for the more-convenient oligarchical structure of special-interest, market-ready, amnesiac politics.
We’d rather swallow the narrative of malicious conspiracy than the far more damning reality of en masse complicity. Believing in a high-level underground network of operatives, neo-Nazis, and foreign agents is appealing, because in this narrative “Trump the President” is someone else’s fault. In fact, it makes sense for us to believe that this surreal parallel world is somehow the result of Dark Arts beyond our control, because then we have a dissonance-soothing formula easily rectified to restore the rightness of the “way things were before.” This was a mistake, and we are the victims, and things will, of course, go back to normal.
The reality of Fury is far more sensible, and far more damning: this is the way things have always been, and this unmasking of the absurd is exactly what Americans voted for. This is simply our desires, unmasked and without façade, in their most appalling, hellish form. And it is exactly what we asked for, and exactly what we deserve.
“The Breitbart formula was to so appall the liberals that the base was doubly satisfied, generating clicks in a ricochet of disgust and delight,” Wolff writes in summation of the climate that legitimized Trump and the violent extremists who now emulate his cause. “You defined yourself by your enemy’s reaction. Conflict was the media bait — hence, now, the political chum. The new politics was not the art of the compromise but the art of conflict.”
Where will this bring us, in the age that’s been called “post-literacy,” “post-truth,” and “post-intellect?” What is the mandate and role of intellectuals, students, and engaged citizens now? What must we do to move forward?
Democracy is, as it has always been, painfully subject to its one most fatal flaw- the anomaly of despots. In a fair government chosen by the people, it is possible that people can fall victim to the rhetoric of a demagogue, and elect a democracy-hating man in a fair and free election. What this looks like is chaos and crumbling, and an atmosphere more often wrought by unchecked pathos than malicious plot, but one in which conspiracy and corruption can easily thrive. Wolff’s book is a relieving life-raft of reality that explains the subplot of the last year, in which we have all been perplexed to make sense of the urgent question, “What is going on?” The answer, Wolff reveals, is far less complex than we suspect- it is sheer accident, inefficiency, corruption- in short, exactly what it looks like. Wolff’s expose is less shocking than it is darkly damning- The truth rings innocuously honest, believable, chaotic, and embarrassing: It confirms what we suspected, deep down, all along.
Donald Trump is exactly what he seems, and America’s collective outrage is too little, too late.
We crave a tale of plot and intrigue that leaves us, Americans, as victims, and Trump the villain. But in Wolff’s account, Trump is as much a victim to an unsuspecting fate as we are. The anomaly is not Trump being Trump, the anomaly is that we bought this and embraced it.
I wish I’d read, in Fury, a tale of conspiracy. What I found instead was a tale of ineptitude, chaos, and the vivaciousness with which millions embrace an “alternative” reality, which brings to mind the government of Hitler, and the malleable nature of public opinion, the fragile balance upon which truth hangs so delicate and so susceptible to the loudest voices and the heaviest fists of those who wield mass power- in the age of a lightning-fast information economy, where outrage and shock are worth more than moral sense, it has been disturbingly easy for “alternative facts” to take hold as true. The Trump White House, Wolff often recounts, lives in a state of “parallel realities.” These staffers, more than anyone, are suspended in a panicked state of constant cognitive dissonance. Their moral panic, attempts to limit harm, and desire to rise professionally are constantly at war, often at their own peril in what is ultimately a zero-sum game. It brings to mind the inner circles of dictators, most remarkably an uncanny similarity to the character of Henry VIII- yet the conflict, as Wolff and Trump staffers repeatedly observe, is that Trump, the would-be totalitarian, is embedded in a democracy- yielding his dictatorial impulses to endless frustration and self-sabotage. Trump is, in his own mind, a totalitarian ruler constantly crippled by (democracy) those around him “holding him back” from exercising his full power. He simply does not understand, at the most basic level, the nature of the position he holds. The end result is a despot unmanned, stripped of glory, and eternally outraged at his subjects and, even more so, his ardent supporters. Nothing, no one, is good enough, least of all Trump himself, though that, of course, is never his fault, and he will forever be the last to admit it.
It is the story of an infantile, foolish man thrust into a solemn role that requires gravity and wisdom- a clown in a king’s court. I almost find myself pitying the fate of this man so tragically ill-fit for survival within the role he errantly sought, the role history has chosen him for as an emblem of despotism, a role in which he is forever embarrassed, self-sabotaged, and unmanned. In a way, I almost pity this Empty Chair, this absent leader, this violent despot of his own imaginary world so utterly detached from reality, a man more a fiction than a person: Donald J. Trump, the Freudian id personified, a violent, stupid, ignorant man as incapable of conspiracy as he is of actual change- a portrait of rage unchecked and the power of hatred at large given a voice-
a man like thousands, millions others, who thrive without notice in politics, entertainment, and business, with their cruel ideals of supremacy and violent instincts, yet are lucky enough to never be given power of government-
a man who, in more ways than one, is our scourge, our penance, our tragedy, our historic embarrassment and spiritual shame-
The man we asked for, the man we deserve. Like so many historical anomalies, not conspiracy, but accident.
Our accidental aberration.
And now, I’m afraid, our president.
America, behold your own unflattering portrait. You will find plenty of fury in that.