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Posts Tagged ‘fake news’

As I write, the story of the Trump administration is one without a definite ending. It is therefore surely rather precipitate for anyone to be writing its history. And yet, at first glance, this is perhaps what Michael Wolff seems to be trying to do with his book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the juicy bits of which have been all over the news media for weeks and which I have finally got around to reading.

I find myself in a slightly odd position here, not least because I am viewing the ongoing Trumpclasm as (thank God) a foreigner, but also because anyone likely to be remotely interested in Fire and Fury will not only already know the key claims made within, but also the details of how the book came about. That said, of course, the extent to which we can all agree on anything about Fire and Fury is extremely limited, something to which we shall return.

Nevertheless, there is always the remote possibility that this small corner of t’Internet is all that remains to inform and illuminate future generations (in which case: hail, posterity! I bring you greetings from the past and can only imagine the strange world you must inhabit – for instance, did Star Trek ever recover? So much to wonder about), so I suppose a little background information would not go amiss.

The transition period following the rather unexpected election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the first few months of his administration were documented by the writer and journalist Michael Wolff, who (he claimed) had more or less free access to the incoming regime. Wolff’s many hours of interviews with key players, not to mention hanging about the White House taking notes, are the basis of Fire and Fury.

Like I say, all the really explosive stuff in Fire and Fury hit the media at the start of the year – suggestions that Donald Trump is mentally incapable, or at least not up to the standards required of the job; that he spends long evenings alone in his bedroom eating cheeseburgers and looking at an array of TV screens, before making rambling, self-pitying phone calls to casual acquaintances; that his wife was reduced to tears of despair by the news he had won the election in the first place.

Certainly, the first big revelation in the book is one which kind of got lost, compared to all the others: the suggestion is that Trump did not expect to win, and indeed never expected to win – his presidential run was essentially a massive exercise in self-aggrandisement, designed to make him the most famous man in the world, which fame he would later use in the launching of his own TV network. Actually becoming president was never part of the plan.

But, of course, become president he did, and with Trump installed in the White House Fire and Fury provides a whistle-stop recap of all the peculiar things that have happened since then – the ‘alternative facts’ squabble, the tweeting, the sacking of the director of the FBI, allegations of collusion with Russia, the strange, rambling speeches, the other sackings, the strange personnel choices, the legislative ineptitude – and, if Wolff is to be believed, an almost inconceivable level of political in-fighting within the administration itself.

It’s not so much The West Wing as a cross between I Claudius and The Addams Family, a bizarre narrative populated with a coterie of grotesques – right-wing guru Steve Bannon, who for some reason seems to think that being known as ‘the brains behind Donald Trump’ is somehow a positive thing; Trump’s androidal daughter and her husband, apparently referred to as Jarvanka; the hapless press secretary Sean Spicer; the alarming Kellyanne Conway; Anthony ‘the Mooch’ Scaramuchi… it kind of makes sense that all of these people would congregate together, as you can’t really imagine any of them finding a role in a more conventional administration.

Not that they appear to have got on, of course: the Bannonites, the Jarvankans, and the few mainstream Republicans involved all battling for control of the legislative process, not to mention the ear of the president. Wolff returns again and again to Trump’s apparent flaws – his tiny attention span, his inability to recognise his own lack of expertise, his refusal to grasp the principle of cause and effect, his almost pitiable need to be liked, and the vulnerability to flattery that comes with it. The biggest problem of the Trump presidency, Wolff suggests, is that it has Donald Trump at its heart: ‘a moron’, in the alleged words of one senior cabinet member.

It should be an alarming, or at least deeply depressing account of an epic historic misfire in the democratic process, and I suppose it is to Wolff’s credit that the book reads more like an absurd black comedy than anything else. He is unstinting in his evisceration of many of the key players, and forensic in his analysis of Trump’s many media fumbles. It almost goes without saying that if even a small fraction of this book is factually accurate, then the USA is in very serious trouble: not just because Trump is president, but because he was able to get elected in the first place.

And yet it seems to me that Fire and Fury is symptomatic of a wider problem. There’s not a lot of wriggle room here: either the book is, broadly speaking, truthful, in which case the leader of the free world is an incompetent narcissist overseeing a compromised administration notable for its ineptness and nepotism, or it is an absurd hatchet-job of blatant untruths, executed by a member of a biased liberal media determined to destroy a threat to it. You’re either on one side of the fence or the other.

And this, I think, is the main problem with the United States today – it’s not a very united set of United States. While it is notable that even people who support Trump hardly do so in an unqualified manner – there’s always a hint of ‘Yes, but…’ when they defend the latest presidential fiasco, and the general tenor of Trump’s Twitter pronouncements is certainly in keeping with Wolff’s depiction of him, the fact remains that people seem very reluctant to agree on anything beyond the most basic facts. Either you believe what you see in the media or you believe in the Trumpian ‘fake news’ conspiracy theory; there’s not much in the way of middle ground.

By being quite so gleeful in its savaging and Trump and those around him, Fire and Fury makes it rather too easy for anyone disagreeing with its central thesis to dismiss it as just another crude hatchet job. Wolff certainly seems a bit too keen to deliver a zinging phrase, even if it comes at the expense of conventional journalistic style – ‘Trump found himself at the promised gala dinner seated on one side next to a guy who looked like he had never used a utensil and on the other side Jabba the Hutt in a golf shirt’. This near-tabloidese is largely the idiom in which the book is written, and is hardly likely to make anyone inclined to dismiss it as trash reconsider. No doubt Wolff would suggest that Trump supporters would dismiss the book no matter what, but that’s just another way of acknowledging the great divide.

The book arguably has other flaws – Wolff seems mesmerised by Bannon and all his works, and as a result arguably overlooks some other key figures – Mike Pence barely gets a mention – but this seems to me to be the key one. You have to ask yourself what this book is trying to achieve and just why it’s coming out now. One answer to the latter question is the distinct sense that the Trump presidency might implode at any moment, one way or the other, but another might be that it’s an attempt to sway how the administration is perceived and thus influence the 2020 election. As I say, the simple tone of the book makes this highly unlikely, which means that Fire and Fury is essentially just comfort reading for anyone distressed and appalled by Trump’s presence in the White House: don’t worry, Wolff often seems to be saying, he really is even more stupid and ridiculous than we all thought. Pretty cold comfort, I would say, even if it’s true, and I don’t see that mocking the darkness is much better than cursing it – though how one would go about lighting a candle right now, I’ve no idea. As I say, Fire and Fury is much more part of the problem than any solution to it.

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I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I’m getting a little bit tired of having to start virtually every new film review by talking about the ‘unique moment’ which America and the rest of western society currently seems to be going through. Maybe this is not in fact a moment; maybe things really have undergone a permanent and fundamental change, one way or another. I would submit it is really too early to tell. Nevertheless, it certainly seems to be the case that Hollywood believes a unique moment is in progress – based on the films that are coming out in time for this year’s awards season, where being the right kind of bien pensant is a reliable route towards success.

Then again, exactly what is this moment which I can’t seem to stop going on about? Is it the Trump moment? The Weinstein moment? The Black Lives Matter moment? Are these separate things or all facets of the same thing? Once again, I think it’s really too early to be sure, but having a good go at making an oblique comment on several of these topics is Steven Spielberg’s The Post – the unusual speed with which Spielberg got this production together and into cinemas revealing the extent to which the director believes it’s a topical movie.

And maybe it is, for all that it is mainly set in 1971 and concerns the Vietnam War. The title refers to the Washington Post, which as the story starts is generally regarded as a local, family paper, published by Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), who for most of her life has been a society hostess rather than a businesswoman. Rather more experienced and pugnacious is her editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), a career newsman constantly on the lookout for a major scoop.

And when one comes, it is to their competitors at the New York Times: a disillusioned government analyst leaks papers relating to the US government’s involvement in Vietnam and the fact that the war was deemed unwinnable by the mid 1960s. Richard Nixon’s White House immediately takes out an injunction against the NYT, stalling publication on the ground this publication is a threat to national security.

But the newshounds of the Post have also been on the case and indeed managed to track down the source of the leak, getting their hands on thousands of pages of classified documents with the potential to seriously embarrass every American administration going back decades. However, the Post is also undergoing a stock market flotation and a potentially controversial, perhaps even illegal move like this is guaranteed to scare the investors. Bradlee is certain that the Post should publish; Graham’s lawyers and most of the board of the company are equally convinced this will be a disastrous move. So which way is Katharine Graham going to jump…?

Well, you can probably guess the answer, all things considered, and it is to Spielberg and his writers’ considerable credit that he has managed to make a gripping and pacy thriller out of a story where the conclusion is never particularly in doubt. Then again, the film is not so much about the story as it is about the message, which is one about the importance of freedom of the press and its role in holding the powerful to proper account.

The subtext of this movie is so clear that even a very stable genius could probably work it out – it’s about a clash between a hostile, mendacious president (Nixon is presented as a shadowy, malevolent presence) and the principled heroes of the fourth estate. I suppose the period setting of the film provides a certain camouflage – there are various scenes where the setting of type is lovingly dwelt upon, and the key moment at which the presses finally thunder into life – but it’s all still very applicable to the current situation. Folk in the news media, especially the press, are not so much fake as paladins of probity with an impeccable regard for the truth. (Did I mention what good reviews The Post has received from newspaper critics?)

On top of this, the movie manages the neat trick of attaching itself to two current causes celebre, by also managing to say something about the place of women in society, too. Quite apart from the fact that both Graham and Bradlee were to some extent Washington insiders who had to choose where their loyalties truly lay, the film also makes much of the challenges she faces trying to be taken seriously as a businesswoman: during key moments of challenge she is literally surrounded by men, in a hardly accidental piece of composition, and equally finds herself with an honour guard of young women in her moments of triumph.

Of course, as this is a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, you know it is going to have a certain heft and quality about it. Spielberg works his usual magic of taking a story which could have been a little dry and portentous and making it accessible, funny, and actually quite thrilling in places. Hanks in particular is on top form, but Streep is also doing good work (not at all over-rated, on this evidence), and there’s an ensemble of fine actors further down the cast list, including people like Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Bruce Davison and Sarah Paulson.

There is a tendency for films dealing with big events in recent American history to come over here and feel slightly incongruous, largely because the events depicted have no resonance for British viewers – a recent example would be Detroit, which appeared accompanied by a stentorian ‘It’s time we learned the TRUTH!’ ad campaign, to which my response was, ‘the truth about what, exactly?’ The Post manages to evade this pitfall, partly by dint of its superior storytelling, partly through focusing on more universal issues of truth and freedom. Sometime members of the current American administration have occasionally referred to the media as the real opposition party, and it may be they have a point. The Post is essentially the heaviest of Hollywood heavyweights coming together and making a point about what the United States is supposedly about, and it’s as effective a statement as you might expect. This movie concludes with the beginning of the end of the presidency it depicts, and if it doesn’t wind up playing a role in bringing down Trump, it won’t be for want of trying.

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