Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency by Michael Wolff review - wow. Just wow

 (ES Composite)
(ES Composite)

If Donald Trump seems like a distant, bad dream, Michael Wolff’s pacily readable account of his last months as president warns that we shouldn’t write him off yet. This is the US journalist’s third book on the Trump administration — after Fire and Fury and Siege — and it uncovers new depths of dysfunction there. Wolff had peerless access to the White House operation and has an enviable ability to put us in the room. And as he says, that room closely resembled the cantina scene in the first Star Wars movie.

As the mad king’s court, buffeted by Covid and BLM protests, slides through a losing election into denial of reality, incitement to insurrection and a second impeachment, the main players are augmented and at times obscured by a collection of misfits, oddballs, grifters and wackos. The Trump children get few mentions, Melania only two.

Even the orange ogre himself is often felt rather than seen, through the reaction of aides to his raging tweets, phone calls and lashings out. Trump’s own brush with Covid is rushed over, and Joe Biden features only as a paper demon to be overcome. There’s no talk of policy because there is no coherent policy, just an obsession with winning, slavish loyalty and media spin.

It’s a vivid portrait of a regime governed by chaos and venal favouritism, where trusted staffers could become bitter enemies in a moment, and you could gain the President’s ear if he saw and liked you on TV. Remember lawyer Sidney Powell, who blamed Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (dead since 2013) along with George Soros and the Clinton Foundation for trying to “steal” the election? Or “MyPillow entrepreneur Mile Lindell, a former drug addict and a current fervent conspiracist”, among the weirdos addressing a crowd of deplorables in Washington on December 12, an event that paved the way for the storming of the Capitol on January 6?

Trump takes to data analyst Matt Oczkowski because his nickname is Oz (“like the Wizard”) but Oz is apparently never seen again after Fox News calls Arizona for Biden: because by then the Trump White House “had left behind the world of actual vote counting and empirical data”. When people start deserting Trump in the wake of the election defeat he won’t acknowledge, Wolff takes delight in the fact that Hope Hicks, the spokeswoman who “reliably calmed the president”, is among their number: “Hope was gone.”

Among the diligent careerists, mad loyalists and people like Dan Scavino, Trump’s ever-present “Twitter guy”, the two most vivid figures are Jared Kushner and Rudy Giuliani. Trump’s Teflon son-in-law is always there, quietly pulling strings but always absent when the shit hits the fan. Giuliani, the former hero mayor of New York, now a flatulent gargoyle with melting hair dye, rants outside a garden-landscape business and seems prepared to do anything to stay in Trump’s orbit. Even to work on a no-win, no-fee basis.

There are many moments of comedy here. A man called Tony Bobulinski claims to have three cell phones with text messages implicating Joe Biden and his son Hunter in foreign payoffs, but he loses all three. The Trump campaign’s election fraud hotline is deluged with “dick pics, animal porn and virulent screeds”.

But it’s not really funny. Wolff chillingly renders the Capitol attack through snapshot quotation from cellphone footage. He points out that Trump was locked in a “sadomasochistic” relationship with Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, but this is also true of the wider Republican hierarchy, who despise yet remain in thrall to him, even now. Arguably, Trump’s relationship with the whole USA and the wider world remains warped and controlling.

One of the book’s more startling revelations is that Trump was negotiating, pre-election, to move his social media activity from Twitter to right-wing chat site Parler: “In return, Trump would receive 40 percent of Parler’s gross revenues, and the service would ban anyone who spoke negatively of him. Parler was balking only at this last condition.”

Even as we marvel at the madness and the delusion, the awful facts of Trump’s popularity and his counter-intuitive ‘relatability’ remain. He reawakened something. In a phrase that surely echoes beyond America’s borders, Wolff says this presidency showed that “the real right wing had not gone away but, apparently, flourished unseen, becoming ever more baroque, ecstatic, and as far from the bourgeois world as it was possible to get”.

Of course, these days Trump no longer has to see the crazies he fired up in his rallies and baited with red meat: “Obama’s birth certificate, the wall, taking the knee, fake news… a stolen election.” The book’s epilogue finds him surrounded by abject ass-kissers in Mar-a-Lago, a future Republican kingmaker, untroubled by regret or doubt. Wolff tells him he’s thinking of calling this book Landslide, and wonders if Trump might notice the double meaning. “Cool title,” says Trump.

Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency by Michael Wolff (Bridge Street Press, £20, published today)

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