Frenemies, a love story: Michael Wolff, Steve Bannon and the great Trump hunt

Michael Wolff's White House tell-all spells doom for Steve Bannon. But why does the whole thing feel so slimy?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 6, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

Donald Trump; Steve Bannon; Michael Wolff (Getty/Carolyn Kaster/Jim Watson/Win McNamee)
Donald Trump; Steve Bannon; Michael Wolff (Getty/Carolyn Kaster/Jim Watson/Win McNamee)

Of all the moral and political and human failures that led to the current state of the United States of America, maybe the one that bugs me the most is the failure of rhetoric. No superlatives, no extreme analogies, no level of hyperbole seem even remotely adequate. We can say there has never been a presidency anything like this one, that democracy and truth and reality are under attack, that our political system seems broken, perhaps permanently. We can say that the universe seems to have slipped a gear and we’re now in some alternate timeline of the Matrix, a mashup of “The Man in the High Castle” and “They Live” programmed by malicious aliens. All of that is true, and all of it feels too small and not quite right.

Of course it’s ridiculous to focus on language, in the face of possible nuclear war and impending constitutional crisis: More important things are at stake than how we describe what has gone wrong. At least, I think they are. But how would I actually know? The failure of language, to my thinking, reflects a failure of understanding and thought, perhaps of meaning. We can’t even name the landscape around us; we don’t know where we are or how we got here, still less how to go somewhere else. It’s like one of those murky, allegorical sci-fi realms (Area X from Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, or the Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”), except with more Twitter emojis and an irredeemably stupid overarching theology.

Nothing could illustrate this unclear predicament more clearly (see what I did there?) than the sped-up publication of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” the dishy tell-all from semi-inside the Trump White House that claims to confirm all the worst things anyone has ever said or thought about our current president. It turns out, according to Wolff, that Donald Trump is a juvenile ignoramus driven by petulant impulses and that his staff is riven by incompetence, infighting and incompatible or impossible visions. We never would have figured that out on our own, just based on the available evidence.

Wolff’s book also seems to have brought Steve Bannon’s career as mini-mart Machiavellian genius and master strategist of the 50-year Republican Fourth Reich to an untimely end. (To be fair, the shambolic self-described “Leninist” was doing a pretty good job of that already.) No two people have ever deserved each other more than Bannon and Wolff — a pair of devious parasites on the underbelly of conventional wisdom — and I won’t pretend it isn’t satisfying to see the latter suck the former dry and leave him by the side of the highway like a squashed caterpillar.

Unfortunately, the rest of us deserve them too. And the enemy of your enemy — more like the frenemy of your enemy, in this case — is not always your friend. Wolff is the guy, let us note, who told us all in 2016 (repeatedly) that we were way too freaked out by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. In his June 2016 Hollywood Reporter interview with the then-candidate, Wolff wrote that the anger-fueled demagogue who “calls people names” on stage did not square with the guy he ate Haagen-Dazs with in Beverly Hills, who “has only good, embracing things to say about almost everybody.”

Wolff depicted Trump, at that time, as the author and director of a complicated performance, a shameless salesman who understood “that we’re all in on this kind of spectacular joke.”

The anti-Christ Trump, the Trump of bizarre, outre, impractical and reactionary policies that most reasonable people yet believe will lead to an astounding defeat in November, is really hard to summon from Trump in person. He deflects that person, or, even, dissembles about what that person might have said (as much, he dissembles for conservatives about what the more liberal Trump might have said), and is impatient that anyone might want to focus on that version of Trump. It does then feel that the policies, such as they are, and the slurs, are not him. They are just a means to the end — to the phenomenon. To the center of attention. The biggest thing that has ever happened in politics. In America.

As with everything he writes, Wolff had a point here, kind of. Or rather he had several points, coexisting in uneasy tension. He is highly agile when it comes to arguing all possible positions, without ever saying clearly where he stands. (If anywhere.) Instead of media critic Jay Rosen’s famous "View From Nowhere," Wolff favors the View From Everywhere, or more accurately the View From Wherever Is Most Convenient.

After the election Wolff continued to play the “biggest thing ever” card to great effect, mocking the mainstream media's twisted-knickers outrage at Trump’s vulgarity and positioning himself, with Trumpian grandiosity, as the only member of the media Illuminati who grasped the true significance of this history-shaping moment. He parlayed all this epic up-suckage into an undeniably impressive degree of White House access (reports vary) and came back with an account that pretty much says we were right to be freaked out in the first place and that the dark carnival of the Trump administration is even weirder and more awful than we thought.

To restate it more simply, Wolff marketed the idea that Trump was in control of his alarming persona and probably not dangerous — a notion that at least arguably got Trump elected. Then Wolff turned around, with no apparent self-awareness or sense of historical irony, and told us that Trump was completely out of control, the alarming persona was real and his presidency was uniquely dangerous. Thanks, man. I guess.

Understood on those terms, Wolff’s entire operation was an ingenious sting, a brilliantly engineered work of tactical and psychological manipulation. It was also thoroughly mendacious, which is of course perfectly suited to his subject (and to our age) but leaves me with no idea how many of his anecdotes are true or whether the existence of his book is a good or bad thing. (Or whether that’s even a valid question.) Wolff took advantage of Bannon’s inflated sense of his own intelligence and also his inflated vanity, using Trump’s supposed Svengali as his entry point and intellectual window into a dysfunctional White House and then leaving him locked out on the frozen lawn in his boxers, holding a flaming bag of poop. Hustlers always know that other hustlers make the easiest marks.

Another aspect of Wolff’s grift is to suggest that the precise degree of truth or truthiness in “Fire and Fury” is irrelevant, and that those who insist on parsing the granular details are trapped in an old paradigm. Once again he has a partly-baked point here, and once again he tries to have his cake and eat it too, before throwing the crusts to Steve Bannon out in the doghouse.

Wolff is a consummate “access journalist” who slides effortlessly, in his ornate, high-middlebrow style, from episodes he personally heard or witnessed to those he was told about to dramatic reconstructions of things that may well have happened to the time-honored journalistic device known as “making shit up.” He has already quoted Rupert Murdoch two different ways in different contexts: Did the News Corporation tycoon call Trump a “fucking idiot” or a “fucking moron”?

Wolff repeatedly criticizes the institutional failures of journalism, often in preening, superior-minded fashion, while embodying many of the trade’s most insidious tendencies. It’s no wonder Wolff felt drawn to Trump and Bannon, both of whom he describes as lacking self-awareness and overloaded with hubris. As the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman said this week on CNN, “Michael Wolff and Donald Trump are not dissimilar people, right? I mean, there is a reason they knew each other before the president became the president.”

In an era when the president displays no regard for the truth, and does not seem quite sure whether such a thing exists, it’s reasonable to ask whether a book about the president should be held to a different standard. A few intra-media wonks have gamely tried to sort out where Wolff’s dishy anecdotes fall “on a spectrum ranging at least from ‘true’ to ‘highly dubious gossip,’” in the words of Vox’s Andrew Prokop. But it’s striking how many people who at least nominally care about such questions have more or less conceded the point.

In her aforementioned CNN appearance, Haberman wound up largely defending Wolff from host Alisyn Camerota, arguing that he had created “a narrative that is notionally true, that’s conceptually true,” even if, you know, many of its details weren’t actually true. That wasn’t optimally phrased — “notionally true” is uncomfortably reminiscent of “alternative facts” — and Haberman took considerable heat for it on Twitter.

In fact, ha ha, she was onto something. I’m honestly not sure what I would have said in her place, except perhaps what I’ve said here: Michael Wolff has a story to sell about the Trump presidency, and it’s an irresistible story because it’s close enough to being true (in his judgment, and for his purposes) and because both the nature of his story and his method of telling it confirm or augment everything his audience already believes.

Now, Wolff’s 2018 story about the Trump presidency is almost the exact opposite of the one he sold us about the Trump candidacy 19 months ago, and a fair amount of it appears factually dubious. Those things would seem to undermine the value of the whole thing considerably, if anyone actually noticed them or cared. But nobody does. Consider the parody-tweet claim that White House staff had installed a fictional “Gorilla Channel” on Trump’s bedroom TV. It isn’t true and doesn’t appear in Wolff’s book (although it’s hilarious). But it was widely retweeted at face value, on the left as evidence that Trump is mentally impaired and on the right as evidence that Wolff’s book is fake news. Is it too cynical to suggest that they were both right?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir