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Fighting Fire with Fire

By Emma Ruiters, MSc Development Economics

Mark Twain once said: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” If the portrait of Donald Trump in Fire
and Fury is by any degree accurate, we should all be terrified. If the leader of the Free World (and in theory the most powerful man on earth with influence extends in the form of policy, aid,
military presence) is so mentally feeble as Michael Wolff describes, the world is surely not far
from self-destruction. Trump comes across as an infantile, borderline senile person surrounded
by sycophants and opportunists. On one hand, a potentially pliant vehicle for the machinations of his staff (primarily Bannon, Kushner and Ivanka) – on the other, his unpredictable moods and
love affair with Twitter make him hard to manage. The book reads like fiction. Michael Wolff’s
provocative and often witty writing style belies the gravity of the content. These days the media
seems to offer entertainment just as it informs.

Perhaps fuelled by the medium of the Internet, the 24 hour news cycle has stoked an appetite for
minute to minute updates on world affairs. The hit of dopamine released with every click of a
headline has become an addiction for some. Even when there is no news, the appetite remains.
Wolff released excerpts of the book to the Guardian, before full publication. Despite a curious
amount of factual errors and even typos in the book, it held the attention of readers and drove
the click counter higher. Politics and the internet make a toxic cocktail.

The left have acquired new weapons to engage the Trump movement. Just as the alt-right used
fake news stories, Fire and Fury feels like the left’s attempt to fight fire with fire. The book feels
true, it feels plausible, but the journalistic methods used to produce it are questionable. It has
delighted all with its sordid details, has enraged Trumpists, and has brought up an interesting
discussion around the ethics and standards of journalism. Wolff has been accused of using
underhand or dubious means to acquire the information in the book, cosying up to its subjects
and gaining their trust, only to profit on their misfortune. These drawbacks aside, it is certainly
the most effective attack on the Trump administration since it began, denting the chaos and
smokescreens with its believability. It feels like an attack in the style of Trump himself –
provocative, sordid, uncaring of standard conduct.

The fall out has resulted in Steve Bannon’s subpoena and inclusion in Robert Mueller’s Russia
investigation. Doctors have been called in to confirm Trump’s fitness to hold office. For all its
flaws, Fire and Fury appears to have pushed back against the seeming untouchability of Trump’s
transgressions. It also highlights the media’s curious relationship with Trump, since the book’s
release the headlines have focused on little else, no doubt he has been the greatest thing to
happen to the media in terms of profit, but they have no choice but to revile him (or adore him if
you are Fox News).

The falling standard of journalism has resulted in a more entertaining news cycle, episodic and
dramatic like an episode of Game of Thrones, but it has undermined the function of the news
media, which is accurate reporting. The news media should not be a weapon in culture wars.
Alternative facts and truthiness should not be the norm. But these are strange times we live in.

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