Immediately upon beginning Michael Wolff’s political tell-all, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, I was reminded of the books Barnes & Noble once placed near the checkout line, the amusing books about courtly scandals and the ridiculous hijinx of prominent historical figures. Some of them had silly titles, like Napoleon’s Privates. Some of them offered soap opera-worthy drama about royal family intrigue, exposing the private lives of long-dead nobility as entertainment for a 21st-century audience. No matter the book, no matter the subject, these revealing and sometimes ridiculing accounts always left the reader with the simple thought, These people are idiots.
Fire and Fury is no exception.
Despite its poor writing and confusing narration of events, Wolff’s book has sold 1.7 million copies in three weeks, according to its publisher Henry Holt & Co. When New York magazine published a 7,000-word excerpt shortly before the book’s release, it became the magazine’s most popular article online.
Wolff’s work reads like a freshman Creative Writing major’s first assignment. He writes confusing, comma-heavy sentences in an attempt to paint intimate portraits of figures like Melania Trump and Roger Ailes. One easily forgets, as Wolff tries to flesh out these characters, that the subjects of his book are not fictional characters, but real people. His descriptions of the people in the White House feel immature and judgmental. Consider his description of Steve Bannon as “seemingly on the spectrum.” A few pages later, however, Bannon could have been a “romantic antihero” of days long passed.
Wolff intended to weave a dramatic, intrigue-filled story of Donald Trump’s first year as president from a collection of overheard conversations, deep background sources, and gossip. Fire and Fury is the reality TV version of the White House, where rumors are replicated as fact and every moment feels low-quality.
Clearly, then, this begs the question of how Wolff’s book could become such an instant hit. Even those members of the public who do not intend to read it know random details and anecdotes, as particularly outrageous quotes spread over the internet.
Fire and Fury is a spectacle. Unfortunately, so is Trump’s presidency.
Amidst furious tweeting, rapid-fire changes of personnel, and the Russia investigation, this administration has offered a constant stream of headline-worthy activity. Readers are so quick to believe and propagate the contents of Fire and Fury because not many officials in the administration have given compelling arguments to discredit it. Donald Trump did try to claim that his inauguration crowd was the largest in history, which was incorrect. Who’s to say that he doesn’t also have an irrational fear of being poisoned, and that he didn’t say that one of life’s greatest pleasures was “getting your friends’ wives into bed?”
The sensationalist writing and excess of trivial descriptions demonstrate a significant problem with America’s current political culture. Politics, and the office of the presidency, are now entertainment. Because the American public is distracted by the story that Ivanka Trump thought she would be the first female president, activity like the complete gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt goes unnoticed. Fire and Fury is the published form of our collective short attention spans and love of drama.
Simply put, Michael Wolff wrote a bad book. Fortunately for him, however, he chose a popular source of entertainment — the White House. Like fans of WWE wrestling, one tolerates the ridiculous for the hope of catching a glimpse of something real. Unfortunately for America, our love of reality TV moments may distract us from serious dangers and may leave the office of the presidency forever damaged.