The Value of Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury"

A number of my fellow journalists are saying privately and publicly that Michael Wolff's book is no big deal—“nothing we didn't know already.” This response makes me think of people who see some piece of modern art, a Jackson Pollock or an Ellsworth Kelly, and say, “I could do that.” Yeah, but did you?

I don't mean to compare Wolff to a great artist, but what he's done is triply valuable. The inside portrait of the Trump White House as workplace-from-hell may be “gossip,” but then, gossip has ever been the bile of the news—and remember, the body needs bile. Then, too, there’s his intimate analysis of key figures such as Steve Bannon. Like many of us, I read a lot of such analysis—and I find Wolff making observations I haven't heard before and stating other, familiar ideas more succinctly than I've seen before. There’s Wolff’s surprisingly subtle read on the importance to Bannon of David Halberstam’s chronicle of establishment failure in Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, and his concise explanation of why Bannon may well have wanted the Muslim Ban to roll out so rudely. “Rather than seeking to accomplish his goals with the least amount of upset,” Wolff writes of Bannon, “he sought the most.” Or, even more to the point, his summation of Bannon’s worldview: “Expertise was the last refuge of liberals, ever defeated by the big picture.” That, as much as the “gossip,” is why the book is flying off shelves. Wolff is telling the story you “already knew” but couldn't repeat to yourself to save your life—and understanding the story of Trump and Co., not just the big picture of authoritarianism but the day-to-day operation, is, on some level, a matter of life and death. It is vital that this story be told and Wolff is telling it better than anyone else.

Which is essential to the third way in which this book is valuable. I hear wonks, activists, and theorists, ever dismissive of “gossip” (as they are so often of stories), whining that Wolff's book is distracting us from the “real issues” or the “real fight.” I believe the “real fight” involves cracking the spine of the Trumpist movement. Does Wolff's book do that? Of course not. But consider what it has achieved: Not only has Fire and Fury led to a serious rift between Trump and one of his most potent media allies, Steve Bannon, it’s also led to a collapse of Bannon’s support from his biggest financial backers, the Mercers. Stephen Miller, Bannon’s closest ideological comrade in the White House, has denounced him. Bannon, not known for repentance, is, as I write this, publicly groveling. He may make it back into the fold, but not likely ever again as strong as he was. And while Trump derides “Sloppy Steve” as irrelevant to his campaign, the truth is that Bannon, as much as Trump, created Trumpism. Both men are weaker without one another. Good. Wolff's book has hit Trumpism harder than everything in or on The Nation, the New Republic, the liberal talk shows, etc., combined. This is not even to speak of the many other smaller dents it has put in Trumpism, the lower-echelon figures whose betrayals may not make cable news but will surely be tallied—and avenged—by Trump and his trolls, leading to more Trumpist coalition crack-up.

Too many of the liberal attacks on Wolff remind me of the media attacks on the late Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone journalist who brought down General Stanley McChrystal by having the gall to print the crude banter of the general and his staff. When Hastings’s profile of McChrystal was published in 2010, many media pros said, “Oh, I hear that stuff all the time.” Right—in one ear, out the other. Either that, or they were protecting their access at the expense of the public. I think, often, both dynamics are at play. Journalists hear power speaking, and, because they listen more closely and more frequently, dismiss its ugliest burps as “the way it is,” when the public might think otherwise and do something about it. I've been guilty of this journalistic cynicism myself. The more polished journalists regale each other with insider tales of power's belching—which is another way of bragging about one's access to power. “Access to power,” though, might be also be phrased as “complicity with power.”

That’s the other charge against Wolff: What kind of truth teller can he be when he is, allegedly, such a slimy, ass-kissing, backstabbing moneyball himself? I say, “allegedly” because I don't know Wolff and never bothered to read him before this week. I hear a lot of fellow journalists declaring conventional wisdom on Wolff very confidently despite the fact that they, too, never followed him. This, far more than repeating what was said at one's own dinner table (the devastating opening scene of Fire and Fury, in which Wolff betrays the confidence of hospitality to bring us into Wolff's own dining room with Bannon and Ailes) is the kind of information we mean when we speak dismissively of “gossip.” But let's accept the likelihood that Wolff is, indeed, a slimy, ass-kissing, backstabbing moneyball. Who the hell else was going to get close enough to the power to describe the way it really walks, talks, and stinks? Bob Woodward? Not this time around, and not since Watergate, either. In his decorous books on the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, Woodward has preferred to cut deals—deals that have given him tidbits to peddle while also preserving his access.

Which would you prefer: An elite asshole who relishes his access to power as a way to improve his status with other elites, or an asshole who betrays power? Wolff, who by many accounts will betray just about anybody, was the writer for the job of bringing us inside the administration that wants to screw everybody.

Jeff Sharlet, associate professor of English at Dartmouth College, is the author, most recently, of Sweet Heaven When I Die (Norton, 2011) and the editor of the collection Radiant Truths (Yale, 2014).