‘Fire and Fury’ is the hottest book of 2018. Too bad it’s so dull.
By Alyssa Rosenberg
The excerpts from Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” that began to run in early January read like a strychnine cocktail. President Trump excoriated his former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who had talked extensively and intemperately for the book, and became notably hysterical, even for him, on Twitter. Readers dissected the available tidbits so passionately that Wolff’s publishers pushed up the date the tell-all would arrive in stores. More than one Uber driver asked me what else I thought the book would reveal.
But now I’ve read “Fire and Fury,” and it’s clear that Wolff has managed a feat even more daunting than turning a nonfiction book into a genuine phenomenon: He has written a chronicle of the Trump administration that, vicious excerpts aside, is a real slog to get through.
The figures in “Fire and Fury” often think in cliches and dated references. To Roger Ailes, Trump is “a rebel without a cause” and simultaneously someone who “would jump through hoops” to earn Rupert Murdoch’s approval. Jared Kushner warns about putting carts before horses and sees Bannon as Rasputin. Conservative media entrepreneur David Bossie invokes Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” while Bannon thinks of his pronouncements as “Shakespearean,” without any clear sense of what that means.
Wolff might have used this trite language to note his subjects’ limited thinking and vocabulary. Unfortunately, though, the author seems to live in, or at least write from, the same tired universe. Throughout “Fire and Fury,” eyes of storms are always swirling, curtains are coming down, genies pop out of bottles, and the fates of various devils and clown princes hang in the balance. In the spate of three short sentences, some of Wolff’s protagonists “make it up as they went along” and “seize the day.” In one, Trump tries to “tow the accepted line . . . like a kid called on the carpet.”
Even if you’re just reading “Fire and Fury” for the dish, Wolff’s pseudo-insights, delivered as if they’re awe-inspiring epiphanies, generally tend toward aphorism dressed up as revelation. In a 2004 profile, Michelle Cottle suggested that Wolff wasn’t as strong when he wrote about politics as he was when dissecting wealth and New York media. That imbalance has not been rectified in the 14 years since.
I’m not sure I needed Wolff to inform me that “anyone studying the position would conclude that a stronger chief of staff is better than a weaker one, and a chief of staff with a history in Washington and the federal government is better than an outsider,” or that Trump-era news cycles have been overwhelming. And I am not convinced that sons-in-law are inherently deferential to their fathers, that “the American man is a right-wing story,” or that “you can’t rule by decree in the United States, except you really can.” When Wolff does come up with an interesting, Washington-specific observation, such as the Trump administration’s growing and particular antipathy to the women who work at the Justice Department, he doesn’t delve more deeply into it (though he does repeat the surface idea multiple times).
This makes for a sharp contrast with the moments when “Fire and Fury” seems to shake itself awake and become another book entirely. It’s vastly more engaging to read Wolff on the history of the New York Observer, which Kushner bought in 2006 and which he profoundly misunderstood, or to see what Wolff comes up with when he parses the way New York socialites such as Ivanka Trump rebranded their self-interested pursuits as feminist-lite empowerment.
In the end, “Fire and Fury” doesn’t have much of a narrative other than the basic march of time. It lacks an argument beyond the same Trump-is-a-dummy-and-a-nut vision that plenty of writers have peddled without asking Ailes and Bannon to dinner or hanging around the West Wing. To the extent the book has a main character with an arc, that protagonist isn’t Trump, but Bannon — who, judging by the romantic way Wolff tends to describe him, must have been fairly willing to talk. Wolff describes Bannon alternately as “a character for Richard Ford, or John Updike, or Harry Crews,” “something of an Elmore Leonard character” and “a country music star — he was Johnny Cash.”
Even here, Wolff doesn’t reckon deeply with Bannon’s worldview. But he does capture a self-deluding air to Bannon’s adventures in Trumpism. Bannon, Wolff writes, “knew Trump to be a fundamentally emotional man, and he was certain that the deepest part of him was angry and dark.” If Wolff was actually as sharp and devastating as he believes himself to be, he might have explored how Bannon’s misreading and emotional mismanagement of Trump undermine the perception of Bannon’s strategic genius. But that’s simply not this way this book works: Why structure an argument, or even a narrative, when you can repeat some hoary gossip and throw around phrases like “joie de guerre” instead?
Wolff is a lot like Trump himself. They’re both New York creations with a genius for spinning — and existing in uneasy symbiosis with — the media. But when they got to Washington, neither was fully capable of doing the job he intended. Wolff seems to take a lot of pleasure in insinuating that Trump can’t read. Judging by the full text of “Fire and Fury,” Wolff couldn’t write the sort of book he wanted this to be.