This review, originally published in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because any discussion of Donald Trump will involve extensive crossing the line that according to David Frum is a threat to American democracy.
"Again, I just wrote what I thought and what I heard. That's one thing about the book: There really aren't any politics in the book. I have no side here. I'm just interested in how people relate to one another, their ability to do their jobs and a much less abstract picture of this world than whatever the political thesis may or may not be." – Michael Wolff, Hollywood ReporterEven before the publication of Michael Wolff's mega bestseller, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Henry Holt and Company, 2018), media outlets, among them The Guardian and New York offered their own searing scoops: Trump's former strategist, Steve Bannon, claimed that the June 2016 meeting between Trump's son and Russian officials was "treasonous" and "unpatriotic"; Trump expected that he would not win the election nor did he covet it. Instead, he anticipated that he would become the most famous man in the world, a martyr to "Crooked Hillary," and that his daughter, Ivanka, harboured presidential ambitions.
Wolff, an award-winning journalist writing in such prestigious publications as New York and Vanity Fair, and the author of a biography about the media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, has garnered a reputation in the journalistic world that is not "bullet proof" according to Kyle Swenson of the Washington Post. Drawing upon a large array of critics who skewer Wolff as a purveyor of celebrity gossip and for being less than scrupulous with the truth – one questions his journalistic ethics for "pushing the facts as far as they'll go and sometimes farther than they can tolerate" –Swenson leaves us with the impression that Wolff should be read cautiously.
Based on my reading of Fire and Fury, I find Swenson's article persuasive. Once Wolff was granted access to a disorganized White House, he plopped himself on a couch and apparently as the proverbial fly on the wall, he was able to observe the chaos swirling around the President. His first two chapters, covering the campaign to the transition days, serve as a prelude and are largely based on conversations with Bannon and perhaps the late Roger Ailes, the founder and former President of Fox News. The rest of the book serves up Wolff's outlandish rendition on the first year of the Trump presidency, one that is most distinguished by its gossip and cattiness. He gives us the impression that he has absorbed the messy innards of the Trump White House and then reshaped them into a pacey narrative. Despite informing us that he conducted two hundred interviews, including with the President himself, Fire and Fury is not sourced. Instead, Wolff relies on the trope of unnamed sources who may have spoken off the record then were aghast when their responses were placed on the record.
With the notable exception of Steve Bannon, Wolff blurs the line between himself, the narrator, and the person he is writing about. The focus on Bannon could lead a reader to believe that he is a coauthor since his perspective seems at times indistinguishable from that of Wolff. At the same time, the author does not refrain from portraying a misanthropic, bomb-throwing Bannon capable of reducing a female aide to tears and waging war against members of the Trump family.
As a reader might anticipate, Fire and Fury is not stocked with an intellectually-driven team of rivals who collectively are working with the President to forge public policy. As Wolff acknowledges, his book is not about politics but about personalities, a factor that likely explains its vast appeal. He depicts the White House as a viper's nest, reminiscent of a Hobbesian 'war of all against all.' The most vicious blood-letting – at least in his telling – occurs between Bannon and Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner (a.k.a. Jarvanka). Their "liberal" agenda is not the conservative populist agenda that propelled Trump into the White House and therefore they must be destroyed if he, Bannon, is to survive. It must have been unnerving for Bannon to hear that Trump liked the work of the "kids" and that he mused about appointing his son-in-law as Secretary of State. In this high stakes, ideological and personality-driven warfare for the soul of Trump, the pugilistic Bannon was not adverse to going for the jugular – a character trait that he shares with his former boss – by calling Ivanka "a fucking liar" in front of her father whose only response was a hapless "I told you that this is a rough city, baby."
Wolff's portrayal of the "semi-literate," emotionally stunted Trump is the major reason for the book's appeal. If there is a thesis, it is that Trump is an unstable, angry and incompetent president who is fundamentally incapable of governing, one not exactly startling anyone who has cursorily flipped through the pages of any mainstream American newspaper or magazine. Nonetheless, Wolff provides juicy details that for some readers may be fresh. Whether we can trust them as being true will depend on whether they reinforce what we know about the man's character, temperament and judgment. Some of his anecdotes are even funny – as, for example, tells of an aide who, during the campaign, tried to educate Trump about the constitution only to see the candidate nod off when he was instructed about the Fourth Amendment. For a supposedly successful business man, Wolff informs us that Trump does not know how to read a spreadsheet. Others reveal his cruelty, such as his singling out his sons for derision when he apparently said that they were at the back of the room when brains were handed out. Most of all they reveal Trump's temper tantrums, his inability to read or educate himself, his unnerving tendency to repeat himself even two sentences apart, and his insatiable need to be loved and praised.
Are there any real surprises? Most of this devastating portrait is familiar. So why is Fire and Fury a publishing phenomenon? Is it because the salacious tidbits are conveyed in the same breathless tone which pervades the glossy celebrity tabloids that peer at us in grocery lines? Is it the book-sized equivalent of television skits that Samantha Bee and Saturday Night Live thrive upon in which humour offers the only defense against Trump's awfulness? Or is it because Wolff's reputation for possessing a cavalier relationship with accuracy mirrors Trump's easy affinity with "alternative facts"? Several outlets, including The Washington Post, have noted that, over the course of one year, Trump made 2000 false or misleading claims. Could it be that Fire and Fury is an accurate reflection of the current zeitgeist?
The closest that Wolff comes to registering a political statement comes when he reports on the infamous meeting that occurred on June 9, 2016, at Trump Tower that Don Jr., along with Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, conducted with a Kremlin-connected Russian attorney. The New York Times broke the news of the meeting over a year later, and sources told the paper that Don Jr. was looking for dirt on Clinton. Wolff's purpose in relating this episode is not to explore its political implications but for him and Bannon to excoriate the younger Trump family members for their naive ineptitude, a vitriolic volley that infuriated Trump and the far-right pro-Trump Breitbart News triggering his banishment to the political and media wilderness.
By contrast, David Frum in his much superior book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (HarperCollins, 2018), teases from the same meeting the political ramifications noting that the Trump family members and Trump's campaign manager met with "spies" and that "Russia mounted a costly and aggressive espionage campaign to elect Donald Trump and congressional Republicans." This meeting occurred a few days after Trump Jr. received an email with a Russian offer to provide damaging information on Clinton. Frum quotes his response from the paper trail detailed in the Times report: "If it's what you say, I love it..." I can only imagine that if the situation had been reversed and Chelsea Clinton had met with Russian agents in order to secure damaging material on Trump and had emailed "I love it," we would be in the middle of a Clinton impeachment trial. What Frum does not report is that before the Times published its piece, it alerted Trump to its intentions. The President responded that the purpose of the meeting was merely to discuss the issue of American adoption of Russian orphans – a claim that is at best misleading, at worse a fabrication.
"The man inside the Oval Office did not act alone. He held his power with the connivance of others. They executed his orders and empowered his whims for crass and cowardly reasons of their own, partisanship, ambition, greed for gain, eagerness for attention, ideological zeal, careerist conformity..."If anyone does not know who Frum is, you can be forgiven for thinking that he is a liberal Democrat or worse "an extreme leftist." Actually, he is a conservative Republican, once a speech writer for George W. Bush, who coined the phrase "the axis of evil." Since the campaign and presidency of Trump, he has become one of the president's most trenchant and vociferous critics. His anger suffuses almost every page of Trumpocracy, which is an expansion of a perceptive article that he wrote almost a year agoin The Atlantic where he is a senior editor. That piece like the present book is less about the blustery Trump – although Frum does not ignore his abundant character failings, particularly Trump's one-way view of personal loyalty – and more about how he poses a threat to American democracy “not [through] the bold overthrow of the constitution, but the stealthy paralysis of governance; not the open defiance of law, but a covert disregard of law; not the deployment of state power to intimidate dissidents, but the incitement of private violence to radicalise supporters.” It's a powerful thesis from a bona fide conservative, and unlike Wolff, Frum carefully attributes his evidence with extensive endnotes.
– David Frum, Trumpocracy
If Trump was upset with Wolff's incendiary anecdotes – which hugely swelled its sales – he should be infuriated with Frum's incisive analysis of his character flaws, his nepotism and the damage he is inflicting on the political system. Above all, Trump demands loyalty, even from historically independent law enforcement and intelligence agencies. When any official or institution places the rule of law above Trump or his family's personal interests – in short anyone who refuses to be his shill or a lickspittle – the President has unleashed vicious partisan tweets that impugn the integrity and patriotism of his target. He has fired or threatened to dismiss personnel who do not provide pledges of personal allegiance to him. He has left positions unfilled if he does not find the right people, leaving administrators demoralized and the bureaucracy close to paralysis.
Most of this craving to be fulsomely praised has occurred behind closed doors. But Trump did allow the cameras to record the beginning of a Cabinet meeting in which each member was required to fawn over him, an embarrassing spectacle that was reminiscent, as Frum rightly references, the obsequious servility expected by Politburo members toward Stalin. Frum might have made a similar comparison when he discusses media coverage toward Trump that does not flatter him. The president reviles the presentation of accurate news not only as fake news but its purveyors as "the enemy of the American people," a damning epithet that is comparable to what the official media in the Soviet Union under Stalin deployed – "enemies of the people" – when casting a potential death sentence against an individual or group. Frum does not make this connection but he does compare Trump to Putin when he analyzes the former's penchant for his interminable prevarications. He quotes the Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen, who employs impeccable Orwellian logic: "Both Putin and Trump lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself."
Frum's argument that the presidency is occupied by a homegrown strongman comparable to an authoritarian foreign ruler, whom Trump is loathe to criticize, gives further credence to his thesis that American democracy is indeed threatened. Furthermore, his demagogic and anti-democratic impulses, and disdain for the separation of powers, are in effect endorsements for other countries, such as Poland, which are in the throes of dismantling the democracy that the world once heralded after the 1989 demise of Communism.
The vitiation of democracy is abetted by those in the conservative media that debase themselves by uncritically peddling the administration's alternative facts, in effect parroting the Trump party line, and by the distributors of genuine fake news. They range from WikiLeaks to Russian troll factories which conducted a disinformation campaign. As of this writing, the special counsel, Robert Mueller, has now charged thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian organizations with meddling in the 2016 election for the express purposes of sowing discord and affecting the outcome of the election in favour of Trump. One method was the purchase of ad space in social media and then with stolen American identities posting items that disparaged Clinton. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, provides a specific example. One of their many political advertisements read, “Hillary is Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.” According to a piece in The New York Times, some of the defendants posed as Americans and communicated with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign." In one instance involving street theatre, the Russian team hired an American to attend rallies dressed as Mrs. Clinton in prison garb, toting an ersatz jail. What is yet unknown is whether Trump or any of his campaign staff knew or encouraged these Russian efforts.
The specifics of the Mueller indictments confirm what Frum wrote months ago. The evidence continues to accumulate that Russia has engaged in an act of cyber warfare that was designed to undermine democracy. Trump has shown himself unwilling to acknowledge the attack and refuses to respond to it by stating what his administration would do in the likelihood of a follow-up attack.
The corruption endemic in the Trump administration was further cemented when Republicans in Congress agreed to a devil's deal with Trump. Frum argues that they had an ambitious, radical agenda – to rewrite the corporate tax code, to redistribute income upward, to repeal Obama's health care act, to emasculate Medicare and Medicaid, overturn Obama's environmental regulations – actions that would require the signature of the President. Most of these proposals would not have been accepted by any other Republican President. But Trump would be willing if Republicans did not challenge his ethical transgressions: his kleptocracy – which Frum amply documents – on how he flouted traditional Presidential norms to enrich himself and his family without being required to disclose any potentially damaging documents, and to shield him from any investigation about his possible ties to Russia. In effect, this quid pro quo arrangement, "We'll protect your business if you sign our bills" (italics in original), was a Mephistophelian pact that would ultimately not serve Congressional Republicans well. What they had not counted upon was the unpopularity of their bills – even though the tax bill was passed after Frum's book was published – that they, more than Trump, would be blamed, and that the president at any point could and would betray them. The Republican Congress has not grasped that by capitulating to the White House, Trump “has imprinted upon his party his own prejudices, corruption and ignorance,” and Frum predicts that “Republican candidates will pay a price for that legacy for years and decades ahead.”
Frum's criticisms are not limited to Congressional Republicans. He skewers twenty Republican-controlled states, singling out Wisconsin and Indiana for rewriting their laws with the goal of suppressing the votes of Democratic-leaning constituencies. Inspired by fear, Republicans worry that they, the rightful custodians of power, will be replaced by people they consider unworthy, a pernicious attitude suggesting that Trump, far from being an aberration of modern Republicanism, is in fact its logical endpoint. Given the Republican aversion to the voting rights of minorities, its habit of erecting voting obstacles and its obsession with electoral irregularities, is it any wonder that Trump attributed his three-million loss in the popular election to widespread, albeit nonexistent, illegal voting?
Despite his withering criticism of Republicans, Frum insists that he is still a conservative but he wants “a conservatism that can not only win elections but also govern responsibly, a conservatism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible.” He is encouraged by “a new spirit of citizen responsibility (that) is waking in the land” in response to the threat to American democracy. The warnings set out in Trumpocracy should be heeded by all Americans, regardless of their ideological worldview, if they want to avoid witnessing the demise of the American democratic experiment.