Books

Michael Wolff’s Latest Page-Turner Gives Trump’s Final Year the Trashy Treatment It Deserves

The administration’s gruesome climax pitted entertainment vs. reality. Few understand this tension like Wolff.

Trump sits hands clasped at a large conference room table with a speaker phone near him.
Donald Trump takes a phone call from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 4 in Bethesda, Maryland, while he was infected with the coronavirus. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tia Dufour/The White House via Getty Images.

God help me, but I inhaled Landslide, gobbled it up despite the notorious opaqueness of Michael Wolff’s reporting methods, his overfondness for the word quite, and the suspicion that several of his sources are former Trump administration staffers seeking to launder their reputations. After reading a hefty stack of memoirs by Trump underlings last year, I wanted to see how the inchoate drama factory of the Trump White House dealt with the over-the-top crises of the past 12 months: the pandemic, Trump’s own COVID case, the election, the president’s delusional refusal to accept its results, and finally the storming of the Capitol by a mob who shared that denial. As a friend recently put it, one reason why Trump has so preoccupied the minds of both supporters and critics is narrative. It’s not just that he’s unpredictable and outrageous; it’s that he kept us in a state of suspense about what would happen next, specifically when he might finally cross the line and do or reveal something that his political accomplices would consider unforgivable or incontestably illegal.

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Trump ran his administration not by the logic of governance—which as Wolff and many others have made clear, he so deeply fails to understand that, for him, it basically doesn’t exist—or even by the logic of politics. He ran it by the logic of entertainment, and if not for the appalling fact that his regime was real rather than fictional and that it culminated in the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of the citizens he was sworn to protect, his term would have been the best show in town. Now that his presidency is in the past, and now that Trump’s power (still very real) operates outside of the executive branch of government, it feels a bit safer to scrutinize the spectacle of that last year and its resemblance to the final season in a run of prestige cable drama, the kind with a repellent but mesmerizing antihero at its center, full of twists and reversals and ending in cataclysm.

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Landslide lends itself well to this type of reflection. In the middle of the book, Wolff summarizes a report by Axios’ Jonathan Swan, in which Trump presided over an Oval Office meeting in which “the crazies”—led by Sidney Powell, a lawyer “mired in fantastic conspiracy theories” who wanted Trump to declare martial law, and Michael Flynn—faced off against “the regulars,” a group of aides and staffers who appear to be both Swan’s and Wolff’s primary sources and are portrayed as attempting to keep the administration on the rails. Wolff observes that while the president seemed to stand back and watch the show, he was in fact its instigator, “a kind of Jerry Springer, polling people in the room and egging them on to take pot shots at one another.” This diversion, despite Trump’s tormenting conviction that the 2020 election had been “stolen” from him, seems to make the president happy. “It was impossible,” Wolff concludes, “to know who was ahead in this argument, or even if, in any sense, the argument was real.”

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Wolff is good at ontological flights like this, which would seem florid if applied to anything other than the madness and confusion of the postelection White House. Surely the reportage and probably the writing in I Alone Can Fix Itthe account of Trump’s last year in office by Pulitzer winners Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, authors of 2020’s A Very Stable Genius, publishing next Tuesday—will be better than Landslide’s. But the sheer, freaky liftoff from the planet Earth that constituted Trump’s response to his defeat at the polls cries out for the sort of meta rumination that Wolff provides.

If Landslide has an argument, it’s that while Trump and a handful of his most demented loyalists—first and foremost, Rudy Giuliani—were fully ready to overturn the election, they were far too isolated in that resolve to accomplish anything beyond spinning their wheels. “The nature of the Trump chaos,” Wolff writes, “is that, beyond his immediate desires and pronouncements, there was no ability—or structure, or chain of command, or procedures, or expertise, or actual person to call—to make anything happen.” While his staff, and GOP politicians hoping to appease Trump voters, put on a show of supporting the president and seriously entertaining his allegations that millions of votes had been either fraudulently cast or suppressed, “everyone” understood that Joe Biden had won the election and would become the 46th president of the United States. The staffers were accustomed to humoring Trump in order to (by their own accounts at least) moderate his heedless uninformed impulses. The politicians were dependent on Trump’s base. Neither thought that a pretense of going along with his “stop the steal” campaign until his term ran out would cost them anything—not until Jan. 6.

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One reason why Trump had no effective executive staff to do anything much beyond damage control is his appetite for pitting his people against one another. Perpetual conflict makes for a dysfunctional workplace, but it’s the heart of good TV, and as Wolff points out, “television was the singular point of the Trump administration.” Incapable or just unwilling to read, surrounded by yes men, and reluctant to leave home for anything besides his rallies, Trump’s rudimentary knowledge of the world came entirely from television. He sees it, as Wolff astutely puts it, “as the real battleground and an end in itself. So, not policy debate or legislative maneuvering, but television performance and the impression it left were what mattered.” Because the political TV Trump devoured presents itself as news but is in fact shaped by the rules of fictional storytelling, his is a world of good guys and bad guys, where history is made by personalities rather than institutions or social forces. He was at war with reality throughout his term, and in the final season of his presidency, reality, his greatest foe, summoned its mighty forces to fight back.

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Not much of Landslide concerns itself with the COVID-19 pandemic or the way that, while playing Trump’s nemesis, it nevertheless seemed to bend to the symbolic gravitational field that surrounds him by arriving just in time to provide a fifth-act crisis. Who can forget waking up on the morning of Friday, Oct. 2, to the news that, in a cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers, Trump himself had tested positive for the virus, a mere month before the election? I can remember looking at the notification on my phone and wondering if I were still asleep, if the world had been swallowed by a feverish potboiler. Of course, it’s hardly surprising that Trump, who pressured staffers not to wear masks in the White House, should catch the virus. But that timing! And in the denouement of this tale, as the White House sheds employees after the election and the mad king rants in his tower, what few aides and lawyers remain keep coming down with COVID and going out of pocket for weeks, some of them, like Jenna Ellis, falling out of favor permanently during their time exiled from his presence. And who better to cast in the role of the mad king’s ghoulish, sniveling minister than Rudy Giuliani—drunk, manic, farting, hair dye oozing down his forehead, and fulsomely hated by everyone else in the White House?

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Embedded in Landslide is Wolff’s implied argument that American democracy was never in real danger, that the forces of reality finally triumphed over Trump like the storm battering King Lear as he roams the heath. This, he suggests, is because Trump didn’t have a “real” administration or, eventually, even a “real” legal team to defend him in his second impeachment trial (the description of which is one of the book’s funniest passages), and so he never had a real chance of achieving his admittedly blinkered goals. Trump doesn’t even seem to really want power. He wants to be a winner, to be endlessly flattered, to be worshipped at rallies, but apart from his desire to crush the long list of people he feels have betrayed them, he doesn’t actually want to do anything much besides watch TV. That entertainment has an increasing ability to usurp reality is the lesson of Trump’s political career.

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As Trump fell deeper into the orbit of Giuliani’s delusional case for election fraud, the narrative the two of them cooked up resembled nothing so much as fan fiction, the continuation of a canceled series by a cadre of superfans who just couldn’t let it go. Trump is, of course, his own biggest fan, but he is also a star, and while he and Giuliani cooked up their alternate timeline in the emptying White House (staffers were deserting right and left), the most devoted and demented core of his fan base was concentrated a few blocks from the Capitol. And make no mistake: These were fans, not just voters or political supporters. He loved himself even more than they loved him, but he would refuse to assume responsibility for how they acted on their love. They’d come up with their own fantastical story about what was really going on, and it was far more enthralling than Trump’s own personal litany of triumphs and grievances.

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Landslide ends with an interview Wolff conducted with Trump, as repetitive, boring, and unrevealing as the nonstop diatribes the former president was famous for delivering in office. What, really, is the point of interviewing Trump? Somehow his fate has seemed increasingly out of his own control, partly because of the political operatives who thought they could use his popularity to enact their own agendas, but also because the universe seems spookily determined to exploit his life for maximum drama. Last but far from least, there are the fans, who, as anyone in the entertainment industry can attest, have become a wild and unpredictable force to be reckoned with. What power Trump commands resides in his fans, and in this story, that may be the scariest twist of all.