Fire and Fury, then, is at its core a book about how to write a book like Fire and Fury. In one of the most rhetorically important sections of the book, Wolff takes aim at an earlier volume that helped to define serious political nonfiction, The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. Steve Bannon, Wolff writes, encouraged Trump staffers to read Halberstam: “It makes the world clear, amazing characters and all true,” Bannon enthused. Wolff himself goes on to describe The Best and the Brightest as “Tolstoyan,” signaling not just its scope and seriousness, but the way it embraces traditional canons of realism, the genre of which Tolstoy is the acknowledged master.
But Trump, Wolff argues, simply cannot be written about as if he were a character in a Tolstoy novel, or a Halberstam tome. Realism is a convention, an illusion, that Trump simply barges through, like the Kool Aid man tearing through a brick wall. “If Halberstam defined the presidential mien, Trump defied it—and defiled it,” Wolff writes. Ironically, Trump is impossible to write about because he is, as Wolff puts it, “a real-life fictional character.” That is why he was so successful on The Apprentice: Long before reality TV was invented, Trump was living in a reality TV show, playing a cartoon version of himself.
In this way, the political and moral problem of Trump—his nullity as a human being— turns into a literary problem: How do you write about a character that has no consistency, complexity, or mystery? It is a problem that has bedeviled journalists since Trump first announced for President: you can never get to the bottom of Trump because he is all surface. Wolff’s solution is not even to try. Instead, he writes around Trump, focusing on the staffers who surround him. It is not just because Steve Bannon offered Wolff such great quotes that Wolff makes him the effective center of the narrative. It is because Bannon, unlike Trump, is fun to write about. Indeed, Wolff repeatedly wonders what other writers would make of him, describing him as “a character for Richard Ford, or John Updike, or Harry Crews”—a middle-aged American everyman, struggling to find his place in the world. Or perhaps, he suggests later on, Bannon comes out of Elmore Leonard—a garish con man, part of the pageant of the American grotesque.
But Bannon, too, finally comes across in Fire and Fury as a “real-life fictional character.” Indeed, all of the major players in the Trump White House seem to be engaged primarily in telling stories about themselves. The problem is that each of them thinks they are in a different kind of book. Bannon thinks he is in a Dostoevsky novel, full of ideological fury and violent intrigue. Jared Kushner thinks he is a Balzac hero, a young man from the provinces who comes to make his name in the big city. And Trump himself, a mental and emotional child, seems to treat the White House more or less like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, where he presses a button and gets exactly the treat he wants: a Diet Coke, fulsome flattery, a glowing orb from the King of Saudi Arabia.