Never has a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s line been more fitting than with regard to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which has ignited a full-scale bonfire of the vanities in Washington this week. It is a typical example of the superficiality of contemporary journalism: full of detail and juicy gossip—some of it perhaps even true—but utterly devoid of insight and understanding. You might call it “Woodwardism,” after Bob Woodward, who pioneered the style of getting people to trust him enough to spill out lots of tantalizing conversations which he then weaved into a weak narrative that sold boatloads of copies. And then disappeared forever. Have any of Woodward’s books, after All the President’s Men, ever stood up over time as an important historical work?
Michael Wolff, the author of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” included a note at the start which casts significant doubt on the reliability of the specifics contained in the rest of its pages.
A number of his sources, he says, were definitely lying to him, while some offered accounts that flatly contradict those of others. But they were nonetheless included in the vivid account of the West Wing’s workings, in a process Wolff describes as “allowing the reader to judge” whether they are true.
Does the idea that Trump didn’t actually want to win the election make any sense at all? It’s one thing to expect to lose because the polls say you’re going to lose; but the intent to lose, as stated in Wolff’s account, simply can’t square with any serious understanding of human ambition, even with a person as unusual as Donald Trump. In addition, if this claim is true, how does it feel to be Hillary Clinton now—losing to someone who didn’t want to win? I almost like the idea for that satisfaction alone. And if it is even remotely true, then when is Trump going to tire of things and resign, claiming to have made America great again?
I keep imagining how Plutarch or Gibbon would write about Trump if they were with us today. In fact it is not hard to adapt Gibbon’s chronicle of the succession of Roman emperors to apply to our current moment. Just swap out some names, like this description of the installation of ten-year old Diadumenianus as emperor in 217: “[The senate] exulted in their unexpected deliverance from a hated tyrant, and it seemed of little consequence to examine into the virtues of the successor of [Obama].”
Or this description of the rule of Pertinax (circa 193 AD) sounds passingly familiar: “He removed the oppressive restrictions which has been laid upon commerce, and granted all the uncultivated lands in Italy and the provinces to those who would improve them; with an exemption from tribute, during the term of ten years.” Sounds a bit like Trump’s energy policy and tax reform.
But perhaps Gibbon’s description of Commodus that most makes us think of Trump:
The influence of a polite age, and the labour of an attentive education, had never been able to infuse into his rude and brutish mind the least tincture of learning; and he was the first of the Roman emperors totally devoid of taste for the pleasures of the understanding. . . Commodus, from his earliest infancy, discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or liberal, and a fond attachment to the amusements of the populace; the sports of the circus beasts.
Like WWE wrestling perhaps?
The point is, Gibbon and other classical writers give us some durable insight into the character of rulers, as well as an account of the character and effects of their rule. You get nothing of this from contemporary journalists like Wolff.
P.S. Worth keeping Gibbon’s account of the demise of Commodus handy. The parallels might well extend themselves as the Trump Show continues into its second season.
P.P.S. I can’t sign off without observing that the Wolff-Bannon chronicle has given us one of the greatest corrections of recent months:
I think everyone has it wrong. I’ll bet Bannon was actually comparing Kushner to Frito—as in the bandito.