At the State of the Union address on January 31, which everyone agreed was listless, inflammatory and rambling, Donald Trump, elected 45th President of the United States of America by what is clearly a disastrous-for-all turn of events, painted a rosy picture of the country. The reality is far from it. The Atlantic wrote, “By a wide margin, Americans believe that the nation is on the wrong track, and the president’s approval rating is historically low.” The New York Times said Trump “is actually trying to drag it (immigration system) back to a shameful, bigoted past… He is delivering the most ruthless, conventionally conservative domestic policy in memory… Washington is more paralyzed than ever by partisanship, and as for corruption—well, lobbyists can now do their deals in the bar of the Trump International Hotel”.
Woe is upon a country where the free media can describe its President in such horrific words. Yet, this is no worse than the content of Michael Wolff’s book on Trump that has been acclaimed as 2018’s publishing sensation just weeks into its launch. Far better, in fact. In a thinly-veiled attempt at fiction, or a non-fiction novel that turns out to be a black comedy, Wolff gives a sensational and ironical portrait of a man who, being ridiculously unprepared for presidency, is trying to brazen it through like a quintessential greedy salesman, but only ending up paralysing the government and trashing a hallowed institution! And his office, full of hangers-on equally unprepared and undeserving and scared and confused to boot, is trying to cobble together a day-to-day government, probably hoping that everything would soon collapse, much to their secret relief!
Indeed, Trump and his entire election machinery was horrified with the win. Trump was so unconvinced about being President that he even refused to spend a penny on the campaign, loaning just $10 million towards the end, when $50 million was needed to reach the finish line. Trump told his long-time friend Roger Ailes just a week before the elections, “I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing. We’ve totally won.” The man just wanted to be famous, for god’s sake! But no, his small team sniffed an opportunity, thought it could work, massively underestimated the challenges, and a year later, with a Jared-Ivanka-controlled West Wing and bereft of all big names, is struggling just to contain damage! Trump, according to Wolff, is already history; the future of Trumpism or even Republicans seem to be Stephen Bannon, former chief strategist (horror of horrors!), or Ivanka, the highly ambitious first daughter, looking to be America’s first female president!
The humongous muddle can be truthfully described only by using the famous expressions that are a singular American contribution to the world, also used by multiple Americans to describe the President and his tenure! George W Bush describes Trump’s inaugural speech as “some weird shit”; Bannon calls the Trump campaign a “broke-dick” one, and thinks the future will be “wild as shit”; Gary Cohn calls him “dumb as shit”; Murdoch thinks he is “a fucking idiot”! And the White House, as a result, is the venue of the shitstorm!
Trump doesn’t even like the White House; he finds it “vexing and scary”, and lives in a single bedroom with three TV screens and a locked door, spending most evenings with his cheeseburger and his phone, venting and spouting like a large volcano that he resembles. For a 70-year-old man who had lived alone for 35 years in a triplex apartment in Trump Tower, going down a few floors to his same office to meet the same old retinues, the White House must have unnerved him completely, especially with his longtime fear of being poisoned. These self-pitying, cajoling phone calls have resulted in the cyclone of gossip surrounding him, and forms a major part of Wolff’s book, all of which Trump has denied, and ensured Wolff free publicity and stupendous sales, even paving the way for David Frum’s book Trumpocracy!
Wolff claims to have based his story on more than 200 interviews, including with Trump and his inner circle, predominantly Bannon. He took up a “semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing” but not as an honoured guest. From what we now know, he must have been a welcome ‘ventee’ for the workers and visitors! For all the hard work, the book is majorly a salacious mish-mash of the gossip; few of the facts can be confirmed, and few new points added, other than some revelatory stuff by Bannon, such as a “treasonous” meeting between some Russian operatives and senior members of the Trump campaign.
Wolff is a master at assessing the rich, powerful and power-hungry people he writes about. He has a keen understanding of the people around Trump and their petty jealousies and squabbles, and of Trump’s love-hate relationship with the media, like that between a child and a stern father. It is page after page of accounts of events so outlandish and persons so small and self-centred in their dealings, that it is nightmarish. By trying to capture a period where anything goes, Wolff falls into the same trap: his account may be plausible but never gives the impression of being right—just well-crafted with the help of a libel lawyer.
Scathingly critical of Trump and the circle around him, Wolff succeeds in bringing out the morbid fascination of the world in seeing Trump dig himself deeper into the sewage, or in simply watching the antics of the world’s unlikeliest man to become US President! Trump, to give the man his due, has never really claimed to be much more than what he is; at best, he has described himself as one who “can be presidential”. Wolff writes of a story when Trump tried to move in on a friend’s date by convincing her of a stopover in Atlantic City, the city where he made his money. The friend tried to dissuade her by saying there was nothing to see, just white trash. When the foreign model wanted to know what that meant, Trump replied, inimitably, “They’re people just like me, only they’re poor.” The man who just wanted to run to gain untold mileage for his business suddenly finds himself in a position much like the central character of his show, The Apprentice.
Running the country, clearly, is not the same as running a business, a realisation that may have accounted for Trump’s continuous petulance and irresponsible outbursts throughout the past year. The stress must be insufferable, triggering the health rumours. Yet, the fact that the economy has strengthened in the meanwhile shows how American business and its global reach is singularly unaffected by what happens around the White House. But a fully and intelligently-functioning presidency is essential to the survival of the American democracy— the half-a-million Americans in Puerto Rico still without electricity, the deporting immigrants, the racially disadvantaged, the opioid and gun-law affected, and the jobless and the homeless. Fire and Fury is also a glimpse into the deepening doom for these vast classes of citizens!
Paromita Shastri is a freelance writer