I’m reading Michael Wolff’s book on a long plane ride, so it’s possible my impressions are colored by the fact that I have little else to do. No Twitter, no email, none of the usual distractions. On the other hand, there are lots of movies to watch, so it’s not altogether fair to say my take is completely influenced by boredom.
It’s an eminently readable book, in fact, a page-turner.
Wolff’s impressions of people are compact and vivid. Here is an excerpt of his description of Katie Walsh, assistant chief of staff under Reince Priebus:
Walsh, the White House deputy chief of staff, represented, at least to herself, a certain Republican ideal: clean, brisk, orderly, efficient. A righteous bureaucrat, pretty but with a permanently grim expression, Walsh was a fine example of the many political professionals in whom competence and professional skills transcend ideology.
It’s also eminently believable. Unlike the impression given by the tasty bits previously published in the excerpts, much of the book’s facts are recitations of public events. The unattributed statements flow so naturally from those recitations as to be quite credible. They are largely logical conclusions based on an examination of the actions of the public Donald Trump.
And the tasty bits are tasty. But they are also believable. A man who does and says the bizarre things Trump has done and said in public might very well do and say the things in private that Wolff describes.
For example, Wolff says that when Trump’s assistant Hope Hicks wondered how to help Corey Lewandowski, with whom she’d had an occasional romantic relationship, after he was fired, Trump said, “Why, you’ve already done enough for him. You’re the best piece of tail he’ll ever have,” which caused Hicks to run from the room.
If someone had attributed that quote to say, Obama, no one would believe it. But to attribute it to a man who admitted grabbing women by their pussies is perfectly credible.
In law, sometimes a person’s previous acts are admissible as “prior similars.” This would be an example.
One of the many perceptive comments in the book, which causes it to transcend a mere tabloid “tell-all,” is this one, where Wolff explains why Trump never started acting “Presidential.”
Most presidents arrived in the White House from more or less ordinary political life, and could not help but be awed and reminded of their transformed circumstances by their sudden elevation to a mansion with palacelike servants and security, a plane at constant readiness, and downstairs a retinue of courtiers and advisers. But this would not have been that different from Trump’s former life at Trump Tower, which is more commodious and to his taste than the White House, with servants, security, courtiers, and advisers always on the premises and a plane at the ready. The big deal of being president was not so apparent to him.
Of course, other presidents had come from privileged backgrounds, notably John Kennedy, but still the difference would have been more marked for JFK than for Trump.
The book is almost as much about Bannon as it is about Trump, and in a way it’s a shame Bannon has repudiated it, since it is likely to be the most sympathetic portrayal he will ever receive. Wolff explains Bannon’s philosophy:
The United States had become a country of two hostile peoples. One would necessarily win and the other lose. … The country built on the virtue and the character and the strength of the American workingman circa 1955-1965 was the ideal he meant to defend and restore.
If this is true, and in some ways it does sound true, it’s not a dishonorable goal. It is a very understandable one, especially for a man Bannon’s age and background.
At the end of the day and of the book, one is struck mostly by the smallness of Trump. For all his wealth, his experience, he remains a small man, a child in man’s clothing, a sad, pathetic creature, more to be pitied than feared. There is no question he will do considerable damage to the fabric of the country. The environment will be damaged, people’s lives will be wrecked. But after his one term, if indeed he manages to complete it, we will restore America. We will not make it great. We will simply dust off and polish the greatness that never left.