The worst calamity that ever befell Donald J Trump, according to Michael Wolff’s inescapable bestseller Fire and Fury, was winning the 2016 election. Trump was ambushed by electoral success, much like he was ambushed at birth with all the privileges of an heir to a Manhattan real estate fortune.
The only person more distressed, apart from Hillary Clinton, was the unwilling new First Lady Melania. Wolf aptly compares Trump’s ugly presidential campaign to the Mel Brooks comedy, The Producers, where two con men concoct a surefire Broadway flop in order to swindle investors, but the repugnant musical succeeds anyway and brings them down. Wolf credibly blames all the outrageous recklessness of Trump’s campaign on his own and his inner circle’s belief that they would never enter the Oval office. Suspicion confirmed.
Trump comes across in this gossipy tome both as a bully and a pushover, a “big warm-hearted monkey”, according to former advisor and Rasputin figure, Steve Bannon. Trump just wants to be loved… but of course exclusively on his own terms. His shambles of an administration resembles a Tudor or Czarist court full of obsequious scheming retainers scrambling to please a fickle monarch. Any displeasure and off goes their heads.
Trump does display a singular moment of insight into his own impervious psyche. Asked what “white trash” are by a foreign beauty queen, he replies that they are “people like me, only they’re poor.” Not everyone who backs Trump is white trash but myopic folks, who cannot see an inch beyond their own mean biases and desires, are his staunch base. By that definition, of course, all of Wall Street qualifies as white trash.
Do not mistake Fire and Fury for a moral exercise. Like Tom Wolfe in his 1980s book Bonfire of the Vanities, the author is not a critic of a rigged system but rather a scorekeeper of how the insiders perform. Nowhere in the book’s burlesque universe is there a single figure who is not reckoned to be in it entirely for themselves. Not Hillary. Not the media. Not the Congress. Not the Judiciary. Not the FBI. Wolff offers a supremely sour view from above the fray where refined cynicism reigns. What exists below is Trump, a narcissist not unlike either Clinton, arrayed against big influential outfits ranging from financiers to the legislative branch to the media to the “intelligence community.” all of which aim to preserve their institutional power against his petulant intrusions.
Not at all surprisingly, billionaire Trump swiftly makes peace with Silicon Valley tycoons, with the Pentagon, with most Fortune 500 firms, with the bankers and above all with Goldman Sachs, which he rebuked on the campaign trail. One can see how elites would forgive a lot of foolishness in return for more than a trillion in tax cuts and other indulgences.
When Trump tells media mogul Rupert Murdoch how he hoped to help poor neglected Goldman Sachs, Murdoch irrefutably retorts that “for eight years these guys had Obama in their pocket. They practically ran the administration. They don’t need your help.” Goldman Sachs wins no matter which candidate is elected, and that is the crucial problem that the author evades because he is busy mocking the incompetence of Trump appointees in toadying to the rich and powerful.
Competent toadies, like Hillary, apparently are required instead. Wolf notes that Democratic Party honchos hired a private investigation firm that peddled a dubious dossier accusing Trump of being blackmailed by Moscow. It seems fine for Democratic Party operatives to dig for dirt but it is reprehensible for Trump’s aides to meet a Russian who supposedly possessed dirt on Hlllary, though providing nothing.
That’s everyday politics, like it or not. FBI Director James Comey, Wolf tellingly observes, “converted rumor, leaks, theory, innuendo, and pundit hot air ~ and until this moment that was all there was, at best the hope of a scandal ~ into a formal pursuit of the White House.” Hot air is still all there is to the accusation but the real purpose of the inquiry is to dig up impeachable financial legerdemain that may indeed exist.
Wolff’s appraisal that Trump’s success “had always been about weaknesses in the two major parties” is on the mark. Trump won because he faced the lousiest candidate the Democratic Party apparatus, run by Hillary disciples, was willing to field. Trump rose to power not because of a preposterous Russian plot but because of a mindless commitment to “triangulation” ~ a strategy adopted by Bill Clinton in the early 1990s to situate the Democratic Party always slightly left of the Republicans and to the right of old New Deal forces, such as the unions. What happened next could be predicted by a 6-year-old.
The Republicans scooted ever further right in response, with the pragmatic Democrats sticking just behind them. The rightward slide of the Democrats under “triangulation” brought unhinged reactionaries like Trump to the fore.
The Hillary Democrats offered ordinary voters no alternatives, having scrubbed any policy trace from the FDR state interventionist days. If Hilary had eked into the presidency the next batch of candidates would be more rightwing than Trump who has no discernible principles other than self-aggrandizement.
As for Trump’s supposedly chaotic agenda, Wolf notes that what the Republicans want is “to build a radical free-market, small-government, homeschooling, antiliberal, gold-standard, pro-death-penalty, anti-Muslim, pro-Christian, monetarist, anti-civil-rights political movement.” It’s difficult to see how Trump has let them down in pursuit of those aims. Wolff’s book offers rueful laughs, but is no laughing matter.
The writers are authors of No Clean Hands, Parables of Permanent War, and other works.