In any case, Wolff, who was also a columnist at the Hollywood Reporter, knows how to write an absurdist drama and is obviously repelled, if not adequately alarmed, by the former reality TV president, at one point comparing him to former tabloid talk show host Jerry Springer. What Wolff doesn’t want to grasp, though, is how this kind of isn’t-it-hilarious politics-as-entertainment media coverage of Trump is what led to Trump’s shocking rise in the first place; it’s what keeps him powerful and relevant and may enable his comeback. In that sense, this is a troubling, lackadaisical book written by a man who breezily shirks his most basic professional and moral obligations.
“Landslide” is told through sources within the Trump White House and reelection campaign, people with a vested interest in laundering their reputations through Wolff. And Wolff seems happy to oblige, adding bleach to the whites. He accepts the narrative of aides who present themselves as “the self-appointed adults in the room” and claim to have a taming influence on Trump’s wilder instincts. “Hence,” Wolff writes, channeling the thoughts of these people, “you wanted to be there to guide him away from the people who might otherwise encourage his fire and fury.” Fighting valiantly against other malignant actors were the normies who were shocked to be in this position, appalled by the president and those who encouraged him. As Rudy Giuliani appeared at a now-infamous news conference, hair dye running in a blood-like rivulet down his ear and neck, Wolff writes, “Some White House aides, in trying to understand how they’d gotten here, would agree that the tale of the frog in the pot of slowly heating water might describe their situation: somehow they did not realize they were being boiled alive. But now they knew, and nearly all marked Rudy’s hair dye press conference as the moment when they could no longer, in any fashion, deny that the Cartesian world had ended.”
Except this was more than four years into Trump’s political life — enough time that Wolff himself had written two other books about the man’s time in office, each of them detailing an unhinged narcissist surrounded by cynics and lunatics. Trump did not slowly turn up the heat on anyone. He was, and has always been, on full blast. Who would voluntarily work for such a person? Perhaps there’s some leeway to be offered those career civil servants or reasonable Republicans who believed they were doing their civic duty in trying to keep the president from going too far off the rails. But that justification by definition can’t extend to trying to get the man reelected. And yet Wolff largely absolves, or at least doesn’t indict, the great many Trump White House and campaign staffers who knowingly imperiled the nation by catering to the whims of an unfit leader and who took steps — if often amusing and idiotic ones — to enable him and keep him in power. That Wolff’s most relied-upon and trusted sources are either alarmingly stupid or unforgivably evil is not a logical conclusion he wants to address.
For many journalists and commentators — this reviewer included — Trump’s ascendance remains something of a mystery. Several rough concepts have cropped up in place of real explanations, from “economic insecurity” to “White working-class resentment” to “right-wing propaganda,” each true to some extent, all incomplete. One part of the story, though, is us: not just the political journalists who failed to take Trump seriously from the beginning, but the reporters and commentators who have spent the past four years selling drama and disaster to a public now addicted to it. A barrage of post-mortem Trump books is hitting the shelves this summer, and readers are buying them in droves. Does that suggest that the American public — including the ostensibly disgusted liberals who are the main market for books that are ostensibly critical of the former president — is sick of Trump and his shenanigans? Or does it suggest that, as much as any reasonable person is relieved he’s out of office, there’s still a prurient hunger for Trumpian spectacle — and that liberals feel better when it’s refracted through the lens of serious investigative reporting?
Trump himself understands as much as any astute toddler that capturing people’s attention, even for a bad act, is preferable to getting no attention at all. That’s why the Trump White House considered just about any domination of the news cycle to be a win, no matter what disgusting or feckless deeds it perpetrated. Trump appealed to all of our baser impulses, and his campaign, then his tenure in the White House and now his time outside of it, continue to be written about as though it were all a farcical comedy.
That’s far from universal, of course; plenty of journalists have covered the human cost of Trump’s bigoted policies, his legitimation of misinformation, his disregard for a deadly pandemic and his attacks on American democracy. But that’s a sad and dark story, and even though we’re still in the middle of it, lots of people have gotten bored or simply exhausted. The Wolff version, with its cast of imbeciles and incompetents and adult babies who could have been pulled from an HBO writer’s room, is a far sunnier read, insofar as its big takeaway is: It was an even crazier ride than you thought, but the wheels of democracy stayed on.
One worries, though, that Wolff has turned his back to the road and doesn’t see that we’re still hurtling toward a cliff.
The Final Days of the Trump Presidency
By Michael Wolff
312 pp. $29.99