Explosive political biographies are always published with a bang, but their legacy is often a whimper
Jonathan Gornall reflects on the big book story of the week, the publication of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury
Who can forget Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power? The heavyweight expose, published in 2016 and written by two Washington Post reporters, aided and abetted by the painstaking investigative grunt work of dozens of their colleagues, was a cluster bomb of eye-widening revelations detonated just over two months before Americans went to the polls to choose their next president.
Scattering revelatory bomblets into every corner of then-candidate Donald Trump’s private, business and internal worlds, Trump Revealed was a New York Times bestseller and hailed as the "Most Important Book of the Year" by the Los Angeles Times.
“Any voter who is not already devoted to Trump's cause will find plenty of reason to think long and hard about whether to support him after reading this book,” proclaimed USA Today. “Voters can't say they weren't warned.”
Backed by an open online archive containing “thousands of pages of interview transcripts, court filings, financial reports, immigration records and other material”, designed as a resource for other journalists and voters alike, the impressive and strictly factual takedown felt like the coup de grâce to Mr Trump’s presidential ambitions.
Except, as his presence in the White House today attests, it clearly wasn’t. The correct question isn’t “who can forget” but “who can remember Trump Revealed?”.
It wasn’t the only anti-personnel bomb dropped in Mr Trump’s path in the run-up to the 2016 election – for a while the seemingly equally damning The Making of Donald Trump, by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, threw up its own mushroom cloud of dust and debris. “This book,” declared the author, “is my attempt to make sure Americans know a fuller story about Trump than the one he has polished and promoted with such exceptional skill and determination.”
The Financial Times was not alone among prominent global newspapers in concluding that Johnston had made “a compelling case that Trump has the attributes of both 'dictator' and 'deceiver' and would be a disaster in the Oval Office”.
Again, voters were warned. And yet, there he is, in the Oval Office.
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Here’s the thing about explosive political biographies: thanks to a fundamental flaw in the type, pretty much without exception every one is a damp squib. Sure, they go off with much sound and fury, and perhaps ruffle their targets’ hair a little, but ultimately they fail to cause any lasting structural damage, for the simple reason that they preach only to the converted.
The dust is still airborne in the aftermath of the publication in the United States last Friday of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. It might have settled already were it not still being kicked up by Mr Trump himself, predictably unable to resist dignifying an assault on the highest office by returning fire in his usual hair-trigger fashion and telling the world he is a “smart … and … very stable genius”. But, inevitably, the dust will settle and, by the next time Mr Trump faces the voters, Fire and Fury and its author, Michael Wolff, will be long forgotten.
In Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s former chief strategist, sacked this week from Breitbart News for his damning anti-Trump comments in Fire and Fury, Wolff’s book has, it’s true, caused some collateral damage. But Mr Bannon was not the target – he just wandered into the crosshairs. If anything, Mr Trump’s me-or-him ultimatum to his right-wing allies, including Breitbart funder Rebekah Mercer – a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented and certainly undignified presidential intrusion into the principle of free speech – shows that if anything the book has served only to strengthen its target’s power base. Fire and Fury, it could be argued, has backfired.
Biographies of contemporary political figures give the lie to the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” for the simple reason that each carries within it the seeds of its ultimate irrelevance. Whatever the cover blurb might say about high-minded, principled investigative journalism, no one embarks on the arduous business of researching and penning a political biography without an ideological bias for or against their subject – and that means they are preaching only to the converted.
Take Trump Revealed, from the liberal-leaning makers of The Washington Post. The Post is a great American newspaper, with an honourable journalistic heritage that stretches back to Watergate and beyond, and a shelf-straining collection of Pulitzers to prove it. But one only has to glance at the Post on any given day to see its position on Mr Trump – right behind him on the platform edge, poised to shove him in front of the next available train.
The chatterati and the media, new and old, love books such as Trump Revealed and Fire and Fury. They offer up juicy titbits to be chewed over, scandalous revelations that supply headlines and light up Twitter feeds for a few days and, most importantly, feed the need of individuals and institutions for confirmation bias. But rare will be the Trump supporter who buys Wolff’s book, let alone reads it. If anything, they will dismiss it and coverage of it as yet more evidence of the liberal elite’s fake-news conspiracy against their chosen leader. Likewise, few supporters of Hillary Clinton will have read Edward Klein’s The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She'll Go to Become President in 2005.
For the converted of either stripe, it is satisfying to own and display books that bolster one’s world view, but sales figures do not reveal how many of the buyers who anoint such books as bestsellers actually get round to reading them.
The real surprise about the rumpus over Fire and Fury is that Mr Trump even noticed it existed. In July 2016, four months before his election, he happily told The Washington Post that he’d never read a single presidential biography, because he was “always busy doing a lot”.
There are, of course, unknown and unmeasurable potential consequences of such mud-slinging. Regardless of whether the muck sticks on here-today, gone-tomorrow individuals, it can surely only tarnish the reputation of politics, and democracy, in general. And, whether driven in from the right or the left, each Fire and Fury is ultimately nothing more, or less, than a component part of the divisive and socially damaging partisan wedge that ensures consensus politics will never thrive.
Updated: January 11, 2018 02:54 PM