Guess what? Donald Trump is a raving idiot. Every sentient person knows this, and if Michael Wolff is to be believed, so does most everyone in the White House. So why are we talking about Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” as if it’s the news sensation of the decade?
The answer lies in that timeless definition of the word “gossip”: Hearing something you like about someone you don’t. “Fire and Fury” is catnip for everyone who detests this president. Trump gorges on burgers in a bed he doesn’t share with his wife! He barely reads and constantly repeats himself! He has mastered the fine print in the Bill of Rights — all the way from the First to the Third Amendment!
But gossip isn’t journalism. And Wolff’s book is Exhibit A in how not to damage Trump’s presidency, much less his chances of re-election.
So much was apparent in Tuesday’s televised meeting of the president with congressional leaders to discuss immigration. This was not a good performance by past presidential standards: Trump seemed unable to grasp what a “clean” bill meant, or where Republicans stood on it. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., acknowledged as much when he said the meeting got “confusing.”
Yet to a normal person casually tuning in, the president appeared reasonably affable and businesslike. He listened. He cracked an appropriate joke. He said he was prepared to defer to the wishes of Congress. Where was the drooling man-child we had been led to expect from Wolff’s book and the nonstop coverage of it?
The net result is that “Fire and Fury” has so thoroughly succeeded in lowering public expectations for Trump that it makes it that much easier for him to exceed them. If the White House were smart it would tweet photos of Trump reading Dean Acheson’s “Present at the Creation” looking deeply engrossed. That should inspire a half-dozen Washington Times columns on how the press used to think Reagan and Eisenhower were boobs, too.
That’s not all the damage Wolff has done. The president often misuses the term “fake news,” typically by treating every media mistake as evidence of willful and systematic mendacity. This may be enough to bamboozle his ardent supporters, even if the rest of us understand the distinction.
In “Fire and Fury,” however, Trump really does have something resembling fake news. The book is replete with casual errors of fact. Invidious stories are unsourced or unverifiable or, on close inspection, simply nonsensical. It was written with white-hot venom. The book’s only truly credible voice, if credible is the right word, is the peerlessly self-serving Steve Bannon.
The book also comes from a writer already accused of playing it fast and loose with the facts. Wolff may fancy that he stands alongside Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein by exposing the hidden intrigues of power. In truth, his book is like a movie “based on real events,” an exercise in the art of pleasingly plausible storytelling.
Wolff’s book does more than just lend substance to the administration’s corrosive fake-news allegations. It brings out the worst in Trump’s critics, admittedly including me. Isn’t it vindicating to know that White House insiders take the same appalled view of the dim bulb in the Oval Office? Isn’t it just delicious to hear those words — “moron,” “dope,” “idiot” — whispered about the president by the grown-ups in the room?
But if the anti-Trump movement has a crippling defect, it’s smugness, and Wolff’s book reflects and richly feeds it. We’re the moral scolds who struggle to acknowledge the skeletons in our own closet, the smart people whose forecasts keep proving wrong. We said Trump couldn’t win. That the stock market would never recover from his election. That he would blow up NATO. That the Middle East would erupt in violence when Jerusalem was recognized as Israel’s capital.
The catastrophes haven’t happened, and maybe that’s just a matter of luck. But by constantly predicting doom and painting the White House in the darkest colors, anti-Trumpers have only helped the president. We have set an almost impossibly high bar for Trumpian failure. (Will anything less than provoking a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula suffice to convince Trump loyalists that he’s an unfit commander-in-chief?) We have increased the country’s tolerance for the president’s venial sins. And we have turned the “Resistance” into a byword for the hysterical and condescending ninnies of American politics.
This is not a winning strategy. One of Trump’s underappreciated strengths is his sly command of irony, on display again last week when he tweeted that his two great assets in life were “mental stability and being, like, really smart.” Note the superfluous “like,” which is stupid when spoken but intended as humor when written. The president isn’t making a fool of himself. He’s having a laugh that’s part self-deprecation, part trolling, and actual wit.
Misunderestimation has already been the political stock in trade of one two-term Republican president. I believe that Trump is ignorant, incurious, vain, gauche, bigoted, intemperate, bullying, suggestible, reckless and morally unfit for his office. But he’s not deficient in cunning, and that cunning deserves healthy respect from his political opponents. That Michael Wolff fails to appreciate it only shows who’s the biggest dope in “Fire and Fury.”
Bret Stephens won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013. He began working as a columnist at The New York Times in April.