The ludicrously, luridly credible stories in Michael Wooff's expose of Donald Trump's presidency, Fire and Fury, have worn us all out. We have given up laughing and crying too quickly. Not only is there more we need to read in Woolf, his book also scatters plenty of clues about what Trump himself needs to read.
The usual anthologies of Woolf anecdotes graphically depict a post-literate President, one who supposedly makes every issue personal, misunderstands cause and effect, has a limited attention span and believes "all news was manipulated and designed, planned and planted". A few of those shortcomings may be evident in other leaders, too, particularly ones who rarely bother to listen and to learn. Such vices are, however, not often exaggerated – as they are said to be with Trump – to the tipping point of pathology.
Surely other leaders have also proved hard to control or manage, to tutor or lecture. Without doubt, many have demanded that their staff "bring me big". Other minders have not always responded with what Woolf deliciously calls "throw-it-against-the-wall style", trying to guess what their boss might want, then give him credit for any ideas they have thought up themselves. In fairness to Woolf, he does balance Trump's narcissistic traits against three Trump assets: flashes of intuition, deft flattery and a shrewd capacity to play on others' weaknesses. None of those virtues, so to speak, is necessarily common, while each possesses a certain mercenary utility.
Although Woolf might have put Trump off reading any more books, students of governance must persevere. Allocating half an hour each evening for a quiet read would cut into Trump's nightly schedule but, according to Woolf, those nocturnal habits are so atrocious they should be disrupted. Fire and Fury has it that Trump changes at dinner time into his pyjamas, eats hamburgers, turns on four televisions, yells at the screens, then rings up his mates for a whinge. A good book would provide welcome respite from that routine.
For Trump, an easy way into books would be the diaries of Tony Blair's amanuensis, alter ego, eminence grise and spokesman, Alastair Campbell. Campbell was the sort of senior staff member for whom Trump seems to yearn. He is plainly resourceful, resilient, well-connected, foul-mouthed – a thinking man's Steve Bannon. Trump would surely revel in Campbell's dexterity in spinning, twisting and manipulating any controversy. Campbell's relentless denigration of his adversaries would also resonate. Author and reader might part company when Campbell emphasised the bedrock importance of discipline and focus, or when he confessed himself bluffed by the top-level jealousies tainting the Blair governments. Along the way, after a few diary entries, Trump would surely ask himself whether to co-exist with an adviser ready to answer back, impervious to intimidation, who knew his own mind.
After Campbell's English fire and fury, Trump might be tricked into studying a more sedate, subtle portrait of power. We could throw the switch to whimsy, and offer Trump some more palatable fare. My first pick would be the character of Stiva Oblonsky in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Oblonsky is the anti-Campbell, his personality the antithesis of Trump's. Tolstoy's creation decided early on in his career "not to raise any objections, not to be envious, not to quarrel, and not to take offence". So far, Trump seems to sustain himself by indulging that quartet of vices. In Oblonsky's senior position, as head of a government board in Moscow, he evinced "extreme leniency, founded on a consciousness of his own defects". Showing "complete indifference to the business", Oblonsky was "never carried away by enthusiasm and never made mistakes". As for recreation, he "loved his paper as he loved his after-dinner cigar, for the slight mistiness it produced in his brain".
Those habits seem essentially benign, even genteel. US Vice President Mike Pence sometimes pretends to aspire to the Oblonsky role. If Trump were to take lessons from Oblonsky, as 1920s US president Calvin Coolidge appeared to have done, we would all sleep easier. Coolidge used to awake from his afternoon nap to ask his security service whether the world was still there. Asked about any hobbies, Coolidge noted: "I hold office."
Were Oblonsky and Campbell too esoteric or obscure for Trump, he could turn for guidance to a British prime minister, not through more hackneyed Churchill quotes yet again but through Anthony Trollope's fictional creation (in The Prime Minister, still in print in Penguin). Trollope's prime minister actually prepared for the job. "I have put myself in a groove, and ground myself in a mould, and clipped and pared and pinched myself all round." The net effect of all that grinding, clipping, paring and pinching is wisdom, defined here as the ability to see through the pretensions and ambitions of "men who knew everything" (or presumed they did). Trollope's is the Eisenhower model of leadership, one which ensured that advisers would never say "neither awkward things nor impertinent things", that zeal was deplored on principle, and that nuance was all. Instead of four televisions, Trump might emulate the past British prime minister who liked to go to bed with a Trollope.
All those books might prove too long, with too many big words, too much to remember and too few wins for the hero. If Trump were "drifting softly, now at the gate of dreams", then he could open Homer's The Odyssey. Trump might cast himself as Ulysses: a man wily, strong, implacable, "who knew the world by heart". In his bedtime read, Trump might imagine himself, like Ulysses, assailed by monsters, distracted by women, deserted by his mates, concerned about his wife. He would do better to learn to pay attention to Homer's supporting players, folk with hearts "aswirl with evil", others "deaf to justice, blind to law", or even "the shambling, shiftless dead". All still stand ready to hand.
Abraham Lincoln would have known how to read such an exacting, unsparing morality play. Although other presidents might have lacked that skill, all Lincoln's successors, including Trump, could profitably have heeded Lincoln's challenge to them: "We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth."
Mark Thomas is a Canberra-based writer. Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff, is published by Little Brown (January 2018).