In the course of the research for his book, The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump, Rob Sears trawled through all of the President’s interviews and writing from the 1980s to the present. He concluded: “There is no complexity to anything he says. People have said he writes like a third grader with a limited vocabulary. I’ve read so many of his words and there really are no exceptions.” Sears comes up with some rather funny stuff. Take his poem, ‘I am the best’: “I predicted Apple stock would fall / I will build a great, great wall / I build buildings that are 94 stories tall / My hands – are they small?”
Michael Wolff’s book, ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump’s White House’, set to be published on January 9th gives Trump the same treatment in prose. From extracts published in New York magazine, Trump emerges as an overgrown infant, impulsive, easily led, aggressive, petty, self-interested, and just plain thick. He can’t take jokes. He is tin-eared. He gets everything the wrong way round. He can’t concentrate for five minutes. He tries to woo Rupert Murdoch only for the mogul to call him an idiot in private.
But how true are the revelations? The book is certainly an engaging (and hilarious) portrait of the President. But Wolff is a complex character, with a complex and at times, difficult relationship with journalistic standards of truth.
A piece published by the Washington Post yesterday, disputes some of Wolff’s specific claims: “Wolff … writes that Thomas Barrack Jr., a billionaire friend of Trump’s, told a friend that Trump is ‘not only crazy, he’s stupid’. Barrack on Wednesday denied to a New York Times reporter that he ever said such a thing. Katie Walsh, a former White House adviser, has also disputed a comment attributed to her by Wolff, that dealing with Trump was ‘like trying to figure out what a child wants’.”
Wolff has said he has many hours of tapes as evidence, and some of those who talked to him do not all seem to have established whether they were talking on or off the record.
Wolff has long come across as a bit of a huckster. The Washington Post continues: “In a 2004 cover story for the New Republic, Michelle Cottle wrote that Wolff had become the ‘It Boy’ of New York media after winning two National Magazine Awards for his commentary: ‘His quick wit, dizzying writing style, and willingness to say absolutely anything about anybody made his column a must-read,’ she wrote.
But she added, ‘Much to the annoyance of Wolff’s critics, the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created — springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events. Even Wolff acknowledges that conventional reporting isn’t his bag’.”
Most of the most interesting and revealing comment comes from Bannon himself. Bannon, who has touted himself as a film producer in a previous incarnation, knows how narratives work, and how they can be shaped, how to perform, how to play a role. He comes across as the philosopher adviser to the errant boy-king, auditioning for the role of a latter-day Seneca to a latter-day Nero.
And what we have seen so far of the book fits a little too easily with lazy (but, I think, almost wholly justified) responses to the Trump era as simply absurd, as totally grotesque.
Wolff’s book may owe more to the literary appraisals of the Trump Presidency, like Howard Jacobson’s Candide-like satire ‘Pussy’, or Salman Rushdie’s absurdist fairy tale ‘The Golden House’. Indeed, in an interview with Reaction, Jacobson said: “His mistrust and fear of words is pathological … He is trapped. When he is talking, he looks like a bee trapped in a bottle. He cannot get out.” This is how Wolff’s account should be judged, a playful, funny, and diverting snapshot into Trump’s world, not a forensic work of examination.