We seem to be living through a golden age for the political tell-all. After all, there is so much to tell! As politics careens from one car wreck to the next, it is irresistible to hear from the people at the wheel how it felt as the next pile-up lurched into view. And they can’t resist explaining to anyone who wants to listen why it was always someone else’s job to slam on the brakes.
Tim Shipman’s All Out War, which spilled the beans on the Brexit campaign and its chaotic aftermath, set a pretty high bar for tales of skulduggery, rage and epic incompetence. The drama is rich, and so too is the comedy: look out Boris, Michael is behind you! Fall Out, Shipman’s follow-up, which takes us inside the botched general election of 2017, has even more spectacular moments of meltdown. Here we are on election night at Tory campaign HQ, just after the exit poll has been announced: “There was incredulity … Shortly afterwards, the deathly stillness was broken by the sound of retching.” Now we have Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which exposes what life is like inside Trump’s White House. Already some of the political world described by Shipman seems to belong to a quainter and gentler time.
There are still plenty of parallels between the goings-on in Westminster and Washington. According to Shipman, Sarah Vine told her sleepy husband Michael Gove the morning after Britain voted to leave the EU: “You were only meant to blow the bloody doors off!” Melania Trump might not get the reference, but she would definitely understand the sentiment behind it. Wolff reveals that Mrs Trump spent the night of her husband’s electoral triumph weeping inconsolably, once she realised that he might actually become president. One notable feature of recent politics is that the winners have often been as surprised by their victories as the losers. That leaves their family members having to make painful adjustments as the fantasies they’ve been humouring for months suddenly morph into hard reality. Be careful what you wish for could be the motto for any of these books.
Family dynamics turn out to be a large part of what’s driving these narratives. It helps give them their soap opera quality. The poisoning of relations between Mrs Gove and Mrs Cameron was far more spectacular than that between their husbands. Often, the politicians can forgive and forget, but their partners can’t. Theresa May’s husband Philip proved to be the key figure on election night in 2017, persuading the prime minister to keep going when others were ready to throw in the towel, once they weren’t too busy throwing up. Ivanka Trump and her super-ambitious husband Jared Kushner are the main villains of Fire and Fury, portrayed as scheming know-nothings, who compensate for their ignorance only with their ability to get in the ear of the president. As Steve Bannon, Wolff’s primary source, discovers to his cost, blood is thicker than water, in every sense.
But the role of “Jarvanka”, as Bannon contemptuously dubs them, also makes clear just how different the Trump story really is. In Shipman’s version of events we are shown a recognisable world of professional politics, albeit at a particularly unpredictable time. The lead actors are the elected politicians, who plot and scheme with more or less success, while everyone else tries to pick up the pieces afterwards. All Out War and Fall Out belong to a recent tradition of tell-all books that includes Andrew Rawnsley’s insider accounts of the Blair-Brown wars during the New Labour years. It’s tempestuous, it’s sweary, it sometimes gets close to physical violence, but it also makes sense in its own terms: these are politicians and their hangers-on fighting for their careers in a very competitive business. The great unknown is the voters. It is the capriciousness of the electorate that keeps everyone on a knife edge.
In Trumpworld, the great unknown is the president himself. That places Wolff’s book in a different and much older tradition, where writers expose the inner workings of a monarchical court. Family drama is at the heart of Fire and Fury because no one can understand quite what they are doing there – it’s as though an act of God transplanted a dysfunctional property mogul into the most powerful job in the world, leaving everyone else to make of it what they can. His caprice becomes their opportunity. People with no previous connection to Washington, such as his daughter, suddenly find themselves with extraordinary power, if only they could think of something to do with it. It might send anyone a little mad.
In this respect, there is another tell-all book that Fire and Fury closely resembles, though from much longer ago. The Court and Character of King James first appeared in 1650. It was published anonymously but its author was soon identified as Sir Anthony Weldon, who like Bannon was a disgruntled courtier taking revenge on his former boss, who had exiled him. Weldon’s offence had been to give voice to his racism, though in this case it was directed against the king’s fellow Scots. The king never forgave him, and he never forgave the king in turn.
The result is a deeply unflattering account of life at court. King James I is described as a lazy chump, totally out of his depth in the big, bad world of English politics, which, being a Scot, he doesn’t understand (just as Trump, a New Yorker, does not get Washington). The king spends too much time in bed, eats and drinks too much and is “fat enough, his clothes ever being made large and easy”. Worse, he always eats the same thing, having a terror of anything new. He is not a good husband and avoids his wife as much as possible. James much prefers the company of his favourites, though he keeps changing his mind as to who these should be.
Weldon’s King James is an accident of history. Around this empty vessel swirls ferocious intrigue. All sorts of unlikely characters see their chance to make it big. It invariably goes to their heads, as they “rise with honour and swell with pride, being broken out of the modest bounds that had formerly impaled them”. It is a world that Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s former communications director, would recognise, just as he would recognise the fate that soon befalls these upstarts. They don’t last long. The bulk of Weldon’s account is a breathless description of all the plots and conspiracies at court, which are neverending. Many of them involve foreign powers, though no one can ever be sure who is pulling the strings. This is not a work of carefully sourced reportage. But nor is Wolff’s, which has already been derided as a tissue of innuendo, deeply biased by the grievances of its main source, Bannon. These books aren’t much more than gossip. But the gossip does not have to be accurate to paint an accurate picture of the political chaos on which it feeds.
Despite the chaos, Weldon’s King James has some sound political instincts: he knows how to turn the intrigue to his advantage. It might be thought that by raising and dismissing so many ambitious people he would put his own position at risk. In fact, the opposite happens. Weldon writes: “He ever desired to prefer mean men in great places, that when he turned them out again, they should have no friends to bandy with.” Read that, Steve Bannon, and weep. London ends up full of courtiers who were once something, even if just for a short while, just as Washington is today. “There was in this Kings time, at one instant living, two Treasurers, three Secretaries, two Lord Keepers, two Admirals, three Lord Chief Justices, yet but one in play; therefore this King had a pretty faculty at putting in and out.” The rapidly revolving door into and out of the White House looks as though it should blow Trump down. But it might just keep him in place.
The big difference between a book about an actual king and a democratic one is that Weldon’s could never have been published in real time, while its subject was still on the throne. It had to wait until long after the king’s death and eventually the author’s too (Weldon died around 1648). Otherwise everyone involved risked losing more than just their reputations: their lives were at stake. Bannon has lost his job at Breitbart, but he lives to fight another day. Wolff is doing the lucrative rounds of what’s liable to become a permanent book tour. Every threat Trump has made to have his book suppressed just adds to its sales. Wolff gets to have it both ways: spilling the beans about the world’s most powerful man, who lacks the power to stop him. As he said when told that Trump was planning to sue: “Where do I send the box of chocolates?”
Weldon’s story would only have been known to a handful of people before it was published, and not many more even after it had appeared. For most people in 17th-century England what happened at court was as remote as if it had been happening on Mars. The bedlam of Trump’s administration is not being hidden from anyone: it’s there on Twitter, day after day. The political tell-all might look redundant at a time when so much political gossip gets shared with millions. Yet in fact that’s what gives these books their particular spice. We already have a good sense of what’s going on behind the scenes. What we want to know is what even these people are trying to hide. In an age when more and more of private life is on public display, getting access to the innermost chambers of power has added piquancy.
Fire and Fury is a compelling read, with much of the pleasure to be found in the little details. Who knew, for instance, that Bannon’s favourite newspaper is the Guardian? It is also an occasionally terrifying book, as we get a glimpse into the political void that Trump represents. Yet, for a tell-all, the irony is that the most frightening moments are the ones that required no digging on Wolff’s part at all. He includes, verbatim, the full transcript of Trump’s impromptu remarks on his visit to the CIA, the day after his inauguration, when he was sent to reassure the agency that the new administration was on their side. It is so unhinged the reader doesn’t know where to look. Nor do his audience, who are sufficiently “confounded and appalled that, in the seconds after he finished, you could hear a pin drop”. The worst things Wolff has to tell are already available on YouTube. What his book does is force you to take notice.
The Court and Character of King James gave modern politics one of its first and most memorable soundbites, when it described James as “the wisest fool in Christendom”. Trump is not that, though he might just be the dumbest genius in all creation. Weldon ends by stating his wish that the kingdom should never have a worse ruler than James, but also never a better one, given that his reign ended with the country prosperous and at peace. The chaos at court was a substitute for wider political turmoil, not a promoter of it. Maybe Trump’s reign will be the same. Then again, by the time Weldon’s book came out, there was no kingdom left and the country had been torn apart by a brutal civil war. Either way, there’s going to be plenty more to tell.