The first US government to be led by a full-time businessman with no political background is being run like a terrible business overruled by internal politics. This is one of the paradoxical narratives that has dominated Donald Trump’s America.
From the insightful, deadpan reporting of Maggie Haberman for the New York Times to the supposedly accidental on-the-record venting of Anthony Scaramucci and Steve Bannon, the details and anecdotes amounting to the tale of a childish, unhinged president who never intended to be one have abounded through the first year of the current administration. Having won the opportunity of perpetual televised glory, Trump is now being voted and graded by the public, just as he did the candidates of his TV show, The Apprentice.
Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is the latest—and most detailed—body of work critiquing the White House’s chronicle. Intrigue, insight, light backstabbing: The book has it all. It’s an engaging window into the administration that’s been running America for the past year and contains intimate knowledge of the president’s business.
Although it was written with tremendous access to important sources, such as former chief strategist Steve Bannon himself, and has generated Trump’s ires, in many ways it doesn’t add much to what we already know (beyond new juicy details and some good snark, that is).
As many have noted, there are problems with Wolff’s methodology, such the fact that many of his accounts appear to be based on a single source, and his fact checking is nearly inexistent. Wolff’s tome should therefore be taken with a grain of salt—but not so much that it’ll ruin your appetite. Despite its downfalls, this is a book that people will likely be discussing over dinner tables for the weeks and months to come.
Quartz read the book so that you don’t have to, and there were three main talking points we found within:
Steve Bannon is featured prominently in the book. In the prologue, Wolff describes him as an “unshaven, overweight sixty-three-year-old” arriving three hours late to a dinner party “wearing a disheveled blazer, his signature pairing of two shirts, and military fatigues.” He’s an enigmatic figure for a lead character, and it’s hard to tell the extent of his influence over the president. Was the campaign and early White House what “president Bannon” wanted it to be? Did he believe or want the world to believe that he had far more power—and understanding of Trump—than he did? Or was the reality somewhere in between? As Bannon is among the most important sources of Fire and Fury, surely he had a motive for spilling the beans?
Inside the Trump White House, Bannon had a dedicated press operation and a strong belief (whether or not based on facts) that he was the brains behind the agenda. “I’m cracking my shit every day. The nationalist agenda, we’re fucking owning it. I’ll be there for the duration,” he’s quoted as saying early in the administration.
Some of his priorities seem to have been turned into policy, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem (although he wanted that done on “day one”); getting the president to install the Muslim ban—and on a Friday, “so the snowflakes would show up at the airports and riot”; and treating the beginning of the administration as an executive-order-fueled, zero-sum game, with Trump undoing Obama’s actions.
He lost some battles, too—before losing his job altogether. He wanted hawkish diplomat John Bolton to be secretary of state, but Trump didn’t think he looked the part—because of his mustache. He was not chosen to be chief of staff (provided he wanted that) because he was just too disorganized. And he wanted to engage in a much tougher confrontation with China, which the president eventually softened on. Wolff writes:
The real enemy, said an on-point Bannon, careful not to defend Trump too much or to dis him at all, was China. China was the first front in a new cold war. […] “China’s everything. Nothing else matters. We don’t get China right, we don’t get anything right. This whole thing is very simple. China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930. The Chinese, like the Germans, are the most rational people in the world, until they’re not. And they’re gonna flip like Germany in the thirties. You’re going to have a hypernationalist state, and once that happens you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
When Trump decided to run—reportedly thinking, until the very last day, that he would lose—he didn’t count the favors of too many. For someone with his kind of wealth, he uncharacteristically lacks high society’s respect. Instead, he ran a campaign with what former chairman and CEO of Fox News Roger Ailes described as “the ultimate avatar of Fox’s angry common man”—and he was known to be one, too. “What is this ‘white trash’?” Trump is asked in one anecdote reported in the book. “They’re people just like me, only they’re poor,” he replies.
But once he was commander in chief, the music changed. Many tried to get on his good side, and some succeeded, at least temporarily. Among them:
- Jeff Bezos, who started courting Trump and Ivanka, causing Trump to go from saying Amazon was “getting away with murder tax-wise” to calling Bezos a “top-level genius.” (He would eventually change his mind back, at least publicly, when attacking the Washington Post.)
- Anna Wintour, who once again tried to become UK ambassador, as she had also attempted under Obama: “Wintour arrived at Trump Tower (but haughtily refused to do the perp walk) and, with quite some remarkable chutzpah, pitched herself to Trump to be his ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. And Trump was inclined to entertain the idea. (“Fortunately,” said Bannon, “there was no chemistry.”)”
- Elon Musk, who in Trump Tower “pitched Trump on the new administration’s joining him in his race to Mars, which Trump jumped at.” (Eventually, Musk would leave the president’s business council.)
- A range of CEOs, who then joined the business council: “CEOs were reporting good vibes from Trump’s effusive and artful flattery—and the sudden relief of not having to deal with what some knew to be relentless Clinton-team hondling.”
According to what the book presents, Trump’s relationship with women—his daughter, wife, staffers, and women in general—shapes a proudly anti-feminist and subtly misogynistic White House, which mirrors its president.
The book contains passing notes that reflect this outlook. Young women in the administration would wear the “Trump-favored look of high boots, short skirts, and shoulder-length hair.” There’s the casual banter, such as Bannon noting that Trump might change his mind on Bolton if he knew that “he got in a fight in a hotel one night and chased some woman.” And then there are the women-diminishing metaphors, such as a White House insider describing former US attorney Sally Yates as someone who acted “like she found out her girlfriend’s husband flirted with somebody else and standing on principle had to tell him.”
And then, there are the plainly disgusting episodes:
A close Trump friend who was also a good Bill Clinton friend found them eerily similar—except that Clinton had a respectable front and Trump did not.
One manifestation of this outlaw personality, for both Trump and Clinton, was their brand of womanizing—and indeed, harassing. Even among world-class womanizers and harassers, they seemed exceptionally free of doubt or hesitation.
Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter. Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise … And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.
Wolff himself falls into misogynistic descriptions, too. Of Kellyanne Conway—who Ivanka apparently calls “nails” behind her back—he describes “her spasmodic smiles and strange combination of woundedness and imperturbability, peculiarly telegenic face.” When noting that Trump keeps women closer at work, Wolff also doesn’t seem aware that the president does so out of the fundamental patriarchal understanding that women have lower ambitions, and are bound to be more loyal. He writes:
While Trump was in most ways a conventional misogynist in the workplace he was much closer to women than to men. The former he confided in, the latter he held at arm’s length. He liked and needed his office wives, and he trusted them with his most important personal issues. Women, according to Trump, were simply more loyal and trustworthy than men. Men might be more forceful and competent, but they were also more likely to have their own agendas. Women, by their nature, or Trump’s version of their nature, were more likely to focus their purpose on a man. A man like Trump.
It wasn’t happenstance or just casting balance that his Apprentice sidekick was a woman, nor that his daughter Ivanka had become one of his closest confidants. He felt women understood him. Or, the kind of women he liked—positive-outlook, can-do, loyal women, who also looked good—understood him. Everybody who successfully worked for him understood that there was always a subtext of his needs and personal tics that had to be scrupulously attended to; in this, he was not all that different from other highly successful figures, just more so. It would be hard to imagine someone who expected a greater awareness of and more catering to his peculiar whims, rhythms, prejudices, and often inchoate desires. He needed special—extra special—handling. Women, he explained to one friend with something like self-awareness, generally got this more precisely than men. In particular, women who self-selected themselves as tolerant of or oblivious to or amused by or steeled against his casual misogyny and constant sexual subtext—which was somehow, incongruously and often jarringly, matched with paternal regard—got this.
These are just some of the ways in which “conventional misogyny” expresses itself—they go hand in hand with the grabbing. Even the seemingly harmless idea that “[communications director Hope] Hicks, sponsored by Ivanka and ever loyal to her, was in fact thought of as Trump’s real daughter, while Ivanka was thought of as his real wife,” betrays the ultimate view that the role of women is only to be wives or daughters.
But misogyny extends beyond the president himself, and in that sense, the book offers a peek into the ways in which it permeates circles of power. The book opens on the meeting and conversations of Roger Ailes, who is famously responsible of sexual harassment in the workplace, and Steve Bannon, whose very world view is misogynist. It answers the question ‘What do sexual predators do when they fall from grace?’ If they are Ailes, it looks like, they get a new home in Palm Beach and sit secretly “plotting [their] comeback with a new conservative network,” all while passing on the torch to a new protégé—Bannon.