For students of politics and government, Michael Wolff’s gossipy glimpse inside the early months of Donald Trump’s White House evokes the same reaction I imagine a surgeon must feel as she prepares to operate on a shotgun blast victim – what a mess.
This is not a great book. It consists of a series of loosely organized anecdotes purporting to represent the reactions of Trump’s inner circle to the chaotic events that are familiar to anyone who has tracked the news of the past year. Wolff asks the reader to trust his reporting, even though the sourcing for much of the information is murky (Wolff was apparently given carte blanche to roam the White House, talk with staff and sit in on meetings). There are sometimes perceptive observations – or, more accurately, speculation – about personalities and the social dynamics of the Trump team. But this is not the place to look for deep analysis or penetrating insights into Trump and his presidency.
Mostly, Wolff gives voice to Steven Bannon’s interpretations of the people and politics of Trumpworld. Bannon’s antipathy and disdain for the amateurish antics of Ivanka and Jared Kushner drip from virtually every page. Yet Wolff also suggests the one thing that united the various squabbling factions inside the White House was a shared concern that Donald Trump was not up to the job of president. The infighting among Trump aides is therefore a secondary concern to the incapacities, ignorance, inexperience and intemperance of the president himself.
A bit of a sketchy character himself, one can understand how Wolff was able to insinuate himself into the daily routine of the White House. With his background as an entertainment and media reporter, he no doubt fit in among a White House crowd that views governance almost solely through the prism of media management.
A book must be judged by what the author set out to do. Still, it is worth taking stock of what Wolff’s book leaves out. His account lacks any historical or institutional context. Wolff rarely strays in focus beyond a small cast of characters surrounding Trump himself. One should not expect to find a probing assessment of Trumpism or the nationalist and populist currents that have upended American politics. Nor does Wolff provide any serious comparison between this White House and the operating style of previous presidents.
Rather, Fire and Fury depicts White House politics as petty soap opera, with a childish, ignorant tyrant surrounded by a retinue of self-serving, backstabbing, and inexperienced hangers-on. After setting down the book, one feels the need for a cleansing shower.
Wolff notes that, outside of a few military generals and investment bankers, the Trump White House is astonishingly free of the Establishment characters that typically play key roles in steering new and inexperienced presidents toward mainstream policies and processes. When Jimmy Carter ran for president as a non-establishment, outside-of-the-beltway candidate, his campaign manager Hamilton Jordan opined that: “If, after the election, you find a Cy Vance as Secretary of State and a Zbigniew Brzezinski as head of National Security, then I would say we failed. And I’d quit.” Once elected, of course, Carter turned to precisely such Establishment figures for guidance. The social networks of power in American life have in the past served to curb wild swings from mainstream orthodoxy.
Trump’s nomination, general election victory and his staffing choices all reflect the weakening of any such coherent Establishment in American politics. The Establishment is nowadays mostly a creature of the fevered imaginations of populists of right and left. Democratizing forces have dispersed power and undercut the deference and legitimacy previously accorded a relatively small cohort of WASPish power-holders who advised presidents of both parties and served (for better or worse) to insure a high degree of continuity in American politics and policy during the post-World War II period. The missing backstory underlying the Trump White House is the crumbling of any semblance of a governing elite (there remain people of power and privilege, yes; but a self conscious and coordinated elite capable of setting the national agenda, no).
Those constraints that continue to hem in an authoritarian, disruptive president such as Donald Trump are less social (like-minded elites) than institutional. Time and again, Trump has come up against constraints posed by the rule of law, the courts, bureaucratic processes, the press, and even, on occasion, the Congress. Precisely because he is not only ignorant of governing institutions but disdainful and distrustful of them (e.g., the “deep state”), Trump lacks the ability to manage institutions or to steer them toward his preferred outcomes (which are themselves unclear outside of a few longstanding viewpoints). He is often, though not always, outmaneuvered by those who have institutional knowledge and position.
The two parts of the story help provide context for understanding the rather alarming portrait of a dysfunctional White House that Wolff provides. The centrist character and overall stability of American democracy for over a half century depended upon the nexus of a narrow but coherent and self-confident elite and the workings of a set of political institutions designed to limit autocratic power. The collapse of the first factor – the disintegration of the Establishment – allowed a figure such as Trump to gain the presidency. But the continued steadiness of American institutions – thus far – have limited the damage that it is in the power of even this most illiberal of presidents from wreaking on the American body politic.