Throne of Games
Like the made-up discipline of “presidential history,” the Oval Office tell-all is a curious totem object in the journalistic worship of power. Going back at least to the heyday of Woodward and Bernstein, the breathless insider’s account of a White House’s strategic battles, its baroque rites of courtiership and Machiavellian undermining, its bunker-style message discipline and arrogant-to-criminal self-regard, all serve to advance a grander Washington master-narrative. The central plank of this faith is that the conduct of White House infighting is the chin-jutting, high-professional stuff of history-making—and we, the oracles and enforcers of D.C. journalistic consensus, are the guardians of the sacred mysteries clustered in and around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
On this basis alone, Michael Wolff’s sensational insider chronicle of all things Trump, Fire and Fury, is a welcome hubris corrective. Far from serving as a bit-lip clash of lofty policy directives and robust bureaucratic prerogative, Wolff’s narrative shows the scrum for power in Trumpland to be a manic land rush for crude and untrammeled favor of the king—routinely upended and rescripted by the blank idiot ravings of the king himself. The behind-the-scenes bid to conquer the blasted landscape of Trumpian favor, in other words, has less to do with standard Beltway displays of calculated sycophancy or shows of ideological strength than with the theatrical psychodramas of professional wrestling—a world that Donald Trump once gleefully lorded over, and that found him far more at home than in the deliberative exercise of executive political power.
What’s impressive about Wolff’s reportage is his understanding of just how stripped down and purposeless all the power-jockeying in the Trump White House was from the word go.
To be sure, undignified power scrums are the stock-in-trade of Michael Wolff, a longtime media gossip hound, and as a growing chorus of D.C. journalistic detractors have noted, Fire and Fury teems with flubbed basic details—from truncating Kellyanne Conway’s national politics resume to placing Washington Post national politics reporter Mark Berman on the scene at an Ivanka Trump-led breakfast gathering when he decisively was not. (Wolff says he meant lobbyist Mike Berman, not reporter Mark Berman.) Such mixups are indeed embarrassing, if all too common in an editing-challenged, conglomeratized book-publishing scene. Still other Beltway cavils about Wolff’s book say more about the self-appointed priests of the presidential sacred-mysteries cult than about Wolff’s own sloppily rushed copy—that, for example, he maligns the memo-composing prowess of alt-right Trump aide Stephen Miller and favors the inelegant term “Jarvanka” for the White House alliance of Trump’s daughter and son-in-law over the preferred usage of “Javanka.” It’s hard to see such gnat-straining complaints as anything other than excruciatingly labored defenses of the inane and terminally delusional creed of the White House beat, which posits that a bigoted hack like Miller has to be competent on the basis of his job title, and that the gossipy handle for a D.C. power marriage somehow matters to anyone outside the D.C. press corps.
In any event, the saga retailed in Fire and Fury doesn’t stand or fall on Michael Wolff’s grasp of detail (thank God). Indeed, what’s striking about the book is how entirely it bears out the theology of personality-driven power based on the amply documented power grabs, hate-mongering self-promotions, and ego rampages of Donald Trump over the past four-plus decades. And it hammers away at another central lesson of the Donald Trump success story: that the exercise of power in the American plutocracy is not remotely meritocratic (even in the debased Yank misapprehension of the term); it is, rather, baldly feudal.
By now, the most salacious revelations from Wolff’s nine-month tour as a fly on the wall of the Trump White House have coursed through the mediasphere, from the news that the Trump campaign expected to lose and didn’t really want to win to Trump senior aide Steve Bannon’s characterization of Donald Trump, Jr.’s campaign meeting with Russian operatives as “treasonous” to daughter Ivanka’s ambition to be the first woman president. These reports have undeniably leveled whatever may have remained of the fanciful image of the Trump White House as a faintly accomplished or harmonious hive of federal agenda-setting—or as a minimally sane workplace. But apart from the singularly wooly and vindictive character of the major players, these disclosures don’t really deviate from the main run of Machiavellian intrigue within modern presidencies. Bannon’s contempt for his Ivanka-Kushner rivals doesn’t exceed that of, say, Robert Kennedy for J. Edgar Hoover—or Richard Nixon’s for the better part of humanity.
No, what’s impressive about Wolff’s reportage is his understanding of just how stripped down and purposeless all the power-jockeying in the Trump White House was from the word go. Here, for instance, is his unsparing summary of the de facto org chart nominally enforced by initial Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus:
No one in Trump’s inner circle doubted that [Priebus] would lose his job as soon as, practically speaking, his losing it would not embarrass the president too much. So, they reasoned, no one need pay any attention to him. Priebus, who, during the transition, doubted that he would make it to the inauguration, and then, once in, wondered if he could endure the torture for the minimally respectable period of a year, shortly reduced his goal to six months.
The president himself, absent any organizational rigor, often acted as his own chief of staff, or, in a sense, elevated the press secretary job to the primary job, and functioned as his own press secretary—reviewing press releases, dictating quotes, getting reporters on the phone—which left the actual press secretary as a mere flunky and whipping boy. Moreover, [Trump’s] relatives acted as ad hoc general managers of whatever areas they might choose to be general managers in. Then there was Bannon, conducting something like an alternate-universe operation, often launching far-reaching undertakings that no one else knew about. And thus Priebus, at the center of an operation that had no center, found it easy to think that there was no reason for him to be there at all.
Even Beltway interloper Michael Wolff is moved by this hulking spectacle of solipsistic dysfunction to announce that it was an affront to “what politics is supposed to be . . . a business supported by, tended to, and indeed, ennobled, by a professional political class.” But that’s not really the case, and has not been so at least since the consolidation of the modern imperial presidency. If anything, Wolff’s formulation has things backwards: the leaders of our political class are beholden almost exclusively to the dictates of their moneyed keepers.
Trump’s inner circle exists in acute triage conditions, and is forever unable to anticipate the next squalid yawp from the presidential id.
Yes, Trump’s inner circle exists in acute triage conditions, and is forever unable to anticipate the next squalid yawp from the presidential id. But just as Trump himself is the logical culmination of the resentment-drenched opportunism of the contemporary Republican party so are the undignified inner-circle rites of Trump appeasement distinct from the normal conduct of moral abasement in American politics only in degree, not kind. (See the chilling recent cases of Lindsey Graham and the latest donor-pleasing mustering of sold-out Democrats, just for starters.) Instead of operating under the guidance of an ennobling professional class, American politics simply, and gleefully, peddles itself out to the highest (or all too often, the merely middling) bidder.
That’s how we got the absurd fiction of Donald Trump as a populist tribune in the first place—and for that matter, the allied spectacle of Steve Bannon, militant populist para-intellectual. As Wolff reminds us, Bannon’s late entry into the 2016 Trump campaign came at the behest of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the hard-right father-and-daughter GOP donors who were also bankrolling Bannon’s Breitbart empire. In lieu of Trump kicking in a sizable share of his own fluctuating branding fortune, the Mercers stepped into the money breach at a low point in the Trump team’s polling, foisting both Bannon and former Ted Cruz flack Kellyanne Conway on the Trump operation in the process. (Trump greeted the Mercers’ kingmaker play with a grateful but typically out-of-his-depth reply: “This thing is so fucked up.”)
Indeed, if you peer beyond the triangular struggle for influence in the fledgling days of Trump’s reign—with Team Ja(r)vanka, Team Bannon, and Team Priebus (and later John Kelly) ineptly trying to block each other out and recombine in new alliances, you’re reminded of Trump’s other pet cultural avocation: reality television. Just as in the Big Brother house or in Jersey Shore, rivals routinely seek to psych each other out and ride out exhilarating streaks of perceived clout—only to have the whole works predictably, and pathetically, collapse around their heads. It’s not just that the game isn’t worth the candle, in any larger ideological or moral sense—it’s that the host has eaten the candle, and is sputtering a new line of gibberish each new day on the set. This is the epiphany that besets bold-thinker Bannon as he tries to recapture his waning Oval Office mojo at the expense of the Ja(r)vanka team: “If Trump, in his dark, determined, and aggressive mood, could represent Bannon and his views, he could just as easily represent nothing at all—or represent solely his own need for instant gratification.”
What, exactly, is the point of trying to gain the favor of a powerful political figure who “could just as easily represent nothing at all”? At least Big Brother and Jersey Shore offered fifteen minutes of fame, and various other pecuniary inducements. In Trumpland, you can register some provisional wins—as Bannon did, by his lights, when he got his benefactor to sign the executive order enacting the racist Muslim travel ban. But, as Bannon soon learned, too much success rapidly earns you the ill-disguised rancor of the king, and you’re consigned in short order to the outer darkness of D.C. influence. The Reince Seat, as it should probably henceforth be known, is the dismal terminus awaiting any remotely competent non-sycophant in Trumpland—unless, that is, you’re the king’s blood relation or happen to be married to one.
Indeed, Wolff’s narrative rests heavily on the Bannon side of the power struggle—and reveals that the Ja(r)vanka “geniuses,” as Bannon derisively calls them, are responsible for some of the most colossal fuck-ups in the White House, from the call to fire FBI James Comey on a transparently trumped-up pretext to the botched effort to contain the damage from the news of Don Jr.’s Russian dalliance to the hilariously brief reign of Anthony Scaramucci in the administration’s communications division. Kushner, a pisher princeling of the Manhattan real estate scene in the young Trump vein, has no discernible politics beyond a longing for moneyed “centrism”; Ivanka, meanwhile, appears to all the world, inside and outside the Oval Office, to be a brand without an underlying signifier. As the disastrous news of the Don Jr. meeting broke, Wolff writes, Ivanka was in Hamburg, pitching a neoliberal policy initiative—“a World Bank fund to aid women entrepreneurs in developing countries”—that might have been lifted wholesale from the Hillary Clinton policy playbook. It certainly commanded no interest whatsoever in her dad’s White House; as Wolff delicately puts things, “Ivanka, in the view of almost every White House staffer, profoundly misunderstood the nature of her job and had converted traditional First Lady noblesse oblige efforts into White House staff work.”
Then again, in Ivanka’s slight defense, she doesn’t really have a job, in any conventional sense: her job is to be the president’s daughter, and as Wolff queasily suggests, surrogate wife. And viewed from the angle of hereditary privilege, neither her policy overreach nor her presidential ambition seems all that outlandish. With the mere workaday career expectations attached to White House service rudely obsolesced by Trump’s ADD-driven megalomania, the only way forward is apparently to turn yourself into a mini-Trump. So one of Ivanka’s pet recruits, former Goldman Sachs executive Dina Powell, mainly viewed her national-security gig as a stepping stone to the thankless chief of staff position—and from there, a private sector post to briskly monetize her White House sagesse. She was, after all, as Wolff writes, in an enviably juiced position at Goldman: “She stood at an intersection of image and fortune, in a world increasingly swayed by private wealth and personal brands.” Small wonder that, in practical terms, the role Ivanka and Kushner envisioned for her extended to little more than serving as “a deliberate, circumspect adult guest on the Sunday morning shows.” (It’s worth noting in this same desperate regard that Ivanka also talked up Scaramucci as someone who was, yes, “good on television.”) In any event, Powell’s dreams of world domination were likewise thwarted by the miasmic condition of the White House; she’s already announced that she’s gathering up her chits and forsaking the job.
The real epilogue to Wolff’s eye-opening saga comes in the post-White House humiliation of Steve Bannon.
Likewise, Fire and Fury ends with Bannon musing, in his overheated Spenglerian way, on a 2020 presidential run, as Bannon has soured on the prospect that Trump will serve out a full term. Hell, even U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley—another GOP brand in search of a mission statement—is angling to succeed Trump after his first term sinks into oblivion, since she’s one of the only public faces of the Trump administration not yet exposed as an operatic fuck-up.
The real epilogue to Wolff’s eye-opening saga, though, comes in the post-White House humiliation of Steve Bannon. Even as Trump’s flacks moved with alacrity to smear Wolff’s credibility, Trump himself assumed the Wolff portrayal of Bannon was accurate and declared that Bannon had “lost his mind.” And, scandalized by Bannon’s disloyalty, Rebekah Mercer had been withholding funding for Bannon’s projects for many months.
So in true oleaginous D.C. fashion, Steve Bannon, self-appointed scourge of elite corruption, issued a shit-eating apology claiming that he intended his offending Donald Jr. comments to refer to the already burned and discarded figure of Paul Manafort, Bannon’s predecessor as Trump campaign manager. No sane reader of English can give passing credit to this claim—any more than any honest and literate soul could accept the many proffered rationales for Comey’s firing, or Trump’s own serially delusional running account of his many record-setting presidential successes. But that’s not the point. The point, rather, is that Steve Bannon, no less than the rest of official Washington, is a complete nonentity without his billionaire retainers—and they must be made to believe that he’s contrite; honesty, as usual, doesn’t figure at all into the political world’s transactional value scheme. Reality-show intrigue is diverting and all, but it can never be seen to come at the expense of the sponsors.