The Michael Wolff book about Donald Trump has a great deal more art in it than most reviews would have you believe. It’s written with a deft and elegant touch, and although it is undoubtedly an assault on Trump with both rapier and bludgeon, the crudest blows are dealt by Trump himself. Wolff prefers a rapier, sometimes moving so fast that the blade has been withdrawn before the victim realises they are bleeding. Consider these three sentences, and especially the last one: “But what did Ivanka and Jared really think of their father and father-in-law? ‘There’s great, great, great affection—you see it, you really do,’ replied Kellyanne Conway, somewhat avoiding the question. ‘They’re not fools,’ said Rupert Murdoch when asked the question.”
You learn a lot about Wolff and about Murdoch from that; you learn something about Jared and Ivanka (has Murdoch read them right?) – but by that stage we learn nothing at all about Trump. That he is a pampered boor and ignorant bully has been already established by the brutal technique of quoting him at length.
When Trump talks to an intelligent and moderately sceptical audience – people who respect his office but not necessarily the man – he has no idea what to say. His speech to the CIA, which Wolff quotes at length from the official transcript, is quite terrifying. I have heard less self-obsessed and more articulate people on daytime television. But they are not Presidents of the USA. What I think Wolff gets importantly right is in his portrait of Trump as a seducer: a man with the ability to listen to people he is trying to con, and usually to gauge their responses accurately.
This doesn’t always work. It didn’t work with James Comey. But one of the most striking aspects of Trump’s infantilism is that part of him is clearly always asking “What can I do to make you love me?”; even while another, closely related part, is ready to pre-empt rejection and say “You are completely worthless and I care nothing for your opinions”. This last, of course, is where inherited wealth has really shaped his character, by largely insulating him from the consequences of that attitude.
Hence the rapport with crowds and the gift as an entertainer: he tries out whatever line falls into his head and goes with the one that gets the best response. But when he sees no need to con or to manipulate, he has nothing to say except whatever was placed in his mind by the most recent TV programme he saw: “Much of the president’s daily conversation was a repetitive rundown of what various anchors and hosts had said about him.”
The other theme in the book which is completely believable is the constant dishonesty and backstabbing of everyone involved. I loved this passage:
“After the bill had been pulled that Friday, Katie Walsh, feeling both angry and disgusted, told Kushner she wanted out. Outlining what she saw as the grim debacle of the Trump White House, she spoke with harsh candour about bitter rivalries joined to vast incompetence and an uncertain mission. Kushner, understanding that she needed to be discredited immediately, leaked that she had been leaking and hence had to be pushed out.”
The lying is seen from two perspectives – Bannon’s hatreds are voiced, so you can hear the personality behind them; whereas the other players, Jared and Ivanka mostly, are heard from the outside, at second hand.
“Jail was possible. So was bankruptcy. Trump may have been talking defiantly about offering pardons, or bragging about his power to give them, but that did not solve Kushner’s business problems, nor did it provide a way to mollify Charlie Kushner, Jared’s choleric and often irrational father. What’s more, successfully navigating through the eye of the legal needle would require a careful touch and nuanced strategic approach on the part of the president—quite an unlikely development. Meanwhile, the couple blamed everyone else in the White House.
“Jared and Ivanka helped to coordinate a set of lurid leaks—alleging drinking, bad behavior, personal life in disarray—about Marc Kasowitz, who had advised the president to send the couple home. Shortly after the presidential party returned to Washington, Kasowitz was out.”
Bannon’s reaction to that expulsion is even juicier now that we have the porn star scandal to cope with:
“Kasowitz has gotten him out of all kinds of jams. Kasowitz on the campaign—what did we have, a hundred women? Kasowitz took care of all of them. And now he’s out in, what, four weeks? He’s New York’s toughest lawyer.”
Yet all those lies are, so to say, adult. They are told in pursuit of limited gains which can be accomplished. The lies that Trump himself tells are only sometimes of that sort. Often they are simply vanity covering emptiness, like his hair. And this sense of evil as a privation, an insatiable hunger, is the strongest flavour the book left me with. There is a kind of destructive instinct which is simply a hunger: a primal need to see what you can get away with; an acid which eats at weakness as if it were etching wax away. I’ve known corrupt policemen, and journalists too, who carry this hunger but the type is as old as history. Only this morning, looking through the history of the Thirty Years’ War, I came across Christoph Karl von Slippenbach, a Swedish diplomat who said in the late 1650s that
“In the modern world a convenient opportunity of injuring a neighbour and annexing territory must take the place of dreams and prophecy as indicating the Divine Will”.
Such men investigate humanity by probing its wounds. Nothing but superior force will stop them. All that makes Trump remarkable is that he has never yet met a lasting, superior force. Three wives and four bankruptcies have not left him poorer. The horror and derision of the establishment has not checked his path to glory. He must feel the Divine Will leading him onwards.