Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Ruby reviews Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff


It would take a special kind of secluded living not to know that Donald Trump has been in the role of President of the United States of America since January 2017. He’s the media’s villain and the media’s darling, depending upon the media. Notoriety is generally more newsworthy than being a hero and so most of the Trump stories we hear in Europe are disparaging. But where does the truth lie?

News media tend to have a bias. If your personal tendency is right-wing then you are likely to follow certain news sources that reinforce your world view. If you’re more left-wing then another list of media outlets will be more to your taste. Sometimes people sample the news via channels they don’t respect or believe, just to get a bit of spice thrown into the mix. Social media can broaden people’s news church but it can also narrow it. Facebook, in particular, will serve up newsfeeds from individuals’ newsfeeds and pages that are matched by algorithms to your own friends list, pages you have visited etc. The risk is that people end up preaching to the choir, or end up in the choir being preached to, and only one perspective gets presented. These days a lot of folk get their news from social media and believe what they see. The problem is this may sometimes be – yes, a phrase that is synonymous with the Trump presidency – fake news.
Social media is full of fake news these days. Was that always the case? It seems I can’t remember when it wasn’t. As an author, I don’t take a strong political or idealistic stance (perhaps sometimes I should). I have a wide circle of facebook friends and this gives me a broad perspective when it comes to viewpoints, both politically and geographically. I read stuff that makes me groan, other things that make me laugh, and content that makes me think further, wondering if it’s fake. Rarely do I unfriend, unfollow or block someone on social media. Also I don’t engage in political or idealistic online conversation. (I lurk and throw in the occasional one-liner with hopefully comic effect. But I take it all in, I see human nature in the raw and absorb what I see to help fuel my writer’s imagination.) When I see something outrageous, I fact check. Almost invariably, regardless of the viewpoint, it’s either fake news, taken out of context or only partially true. 

In the run up to Trump’s election, and since his inauguration, fake political news has been crashing through social media like a hailstorm. It’s bewildering. As a larger-than-life character, Donald Trump is a soft target for cheap ridicule. Mocking him for his creative hairstyle or those strangely small hands is just being mean. His oratory style and tendency towards hyperbole are not what a lot of people typically expect from a POTUS, but he doesn’t claim or want to be a typical POTUS. He wants to shake things up. According to The Guardian UK newspaper, he had made 7,645 false or misleading claims since taking office, sometimes more than 100 in one day. How could this possibly be the case? Surely a Head of State has to be taken at his/her word and any untruths would be a cause for grave concern? 

The peculiarity of the Trump presidency is perplexing to us Europeans, over in these staid old countries where one bold-faced lie can bring down a leader or even a government. Just 12 hours ago, Trump tweeted a quote from One America News - “There’s not one shred of evidence that President Trump has done anything wrong.” How did the world become a place where the president of a huge and powerful nation feels he needs to share those words? 24 hours ago Trump tweeted Despite the most hostile and corrupt media in the history of American politics, the Trump Administration has accomplished more in its first two years than any other Administration. A quick Google search on this topic produced an interesting article from the UK’s BBC, which suggests that there were some areas where the Trump administration has exceeded the results of previous ones. However, rate of turnover amongst senior level advisors and length of government shutdown due to funding are probably not the medals he’s looking for. But hey, we know he doesn’t really believe what he himself is saying, except in the moment. He’s just trumpet blowing, like the childhood rhyme of dominance – I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal.

So what is the truth? What’s going on? Normally I would raise my hands (in Trump fashion) and say look, America is a very different society to ours. All countries have their problems, often depending on complex historical factors. In little old Ireland, where I live as an ex-pat Brit, we have very few deaths due to firearms, there isn’t an opioid crisis and racism is more subtle than skin tone. How can we begin to understand life across the pond? Leave the USA alone. If they want Trump (and the majority of voters, by whatever rules in play, must have chosen his team) then let us just enjoy the spectacle and see what results. But then, while trying to use up a spare half hour waiting for a train in Dublin’s Heuston Station, I stumbled over a copy of Fire and Fury. I rarely read non-fiction but something made me pick it up. Perhaps reading this would make things clearer?

The surprising thing about Fire and Fury was that there was nothing surprising in it, when it came to a catalogue of White House events. From stories of the Trump campaign trail, the rousing calls of the candidate at mega-rallies, the tumultuous early days of the presidency, and the myriad well-heeled individuals who made cameo White House appearances before being sacked or resigning – everything was familiar. When Wolff quoted such a person or an anonymous source as having said or done something, I knew it already. This wasn’t because I was late to the party – I had bought the paperback a year after the hardback was first released. It was because the world, through global media, had lived through all this. 

Wolff tells a story of a latter-day Game of Thrones, with the houses of Trump, Bannon and Priebus battling for ascendancy. GoT with a twist, because none of the main cast has any real gladiatorial experience in the Washington colosseum. White Walkers, Wildlings, the Night’s Watch, noble dynasties, Viking types, warrior queens, mean-looking lads on horses, all waving their weapons and circling each other, with one eye on the media scavengers who sniff for carrion. The chaos proves too much for some would-be warriors who leave the field after their first blood wounds. New heroes then arise, only to have their skulls ceremoniously crushed by dominant champions. The Princess summons her dragon to breathe fire upon the weakened in-house foes, but we know the dragon will eventually take his own flight. Once I finished the book, I had to google the characters’ real-life names and find out what happened in the sequel. Sure enough, the outsider victors of the Wolff story have all since succumbed to their fate, Trump blood and marriage being the only certain protection against treachery and spells.

Critics have said that Wolff played with the facts on occasion. One reviewer criticised him for using the device of unreliable narrator (although I’m not sure that review really properly explained the method) but surely that’s the whole point of the story. Everyone in the organisation has a different world view, and many live in their own reality. Some (albeit not many) see themselves as following their great leader. Others endeavour to mollify his excesses. Another plays the role of guru. The big man himself just wants to be loved and plays fast and loose with any material at hand to achieve that end. 

This book has, however, had an unexpected effect upon me. I am no longer surprised or appalled by anything that Donald Trump says or does. If I look at his historical tweets I just say yeah, that’s him, or no, I think someone else wrote that one. Fire and Fury has numbed me to the unfiltered thoughts of the current POTUS. I find myself able to step back and wonder if what he does and says will really have any impact upon my little world. Bearing in mind that the House of Representatives shifted control to the Democrats after the recent mid-terms (which, of course, very often happens during a US presidency), Donald Trump is going to have increasing difficulty implementing his campaign promises. Until next time.