13 October 2020

The literature of Donald Trump is more righteous than right


Donald Trump’s presidency may not have been good for the health of the Republic, but it has been a boon to its publishing houses. Over the last four years, America’s bookshops and bestseller lists have been stuffed full of works about the 45th President of the United States. From explosive accounts of White House dysfunction to tell-all memoirs from relatives and former consiglieri, the Trump era has been a golden age for political blockbusters.

The irony that “a man who rarely reads, preferring the rage of cable news and Twitter for hours each day has propelled an onslaught of book-length writing about his presidency” is not lost on Carlos Lozada, the Washington Post’s pulitzer-prize winning book critic. Lozada, who has made his made his way through more than 150 Trump-era books, now has his own entry in the canon. What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History Of The Trump Era is a meta contribution: a sharp, concise survey of the books that America’s hyper-engaged political obsessives have devoured since 2016.

Lozada organises the many works of the Trump era into a dewey decimal system of their own.

Perhaps the best known works of the Trump era are filed under “The Chaos Chronicles” — Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Bob Woodward’s Fear and Rage, his 2020 follow up, A Warning by an anonymous member of the Trump administration, memoirs by Jim Mattis and James Comey. Here Lozada is at his acerbic best: Comey is “the kind of writer who doesn’t just quote Shakespeare but quotes himself quoting Shakespeare”; the number of times top aides are “on the brink” of resigning in A Warning makes it more “Profiles in Thinking About Courage” than Profiles in Courage.

Heartlandia works, such as J.D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Arlie Russell Hochschild Strangers in Their Own Land, seek to understand and explain the motivations of the white working-class Trump voter. At their worst, such books fail to transcend their authors’ own biases, with aggrieved Trump voters being used to ventriloquize personal gripes. Lozada actually runs into the same Trump voter from Pennsylvania in two separate books, where he is apportioned completely different motives. Ed Harry apparently tells The Great Revolt authors Salena Zito and Brad Todd he’s worried about losing US jobs to China. Yet in Ben Bradlee’s The Forgotten, he seems much more interested in the culture wars and 9/11 conspiracy theories. The most compelling accounts, Lozada argues, are those that avoid clear cut distinctions between economic and cultural motives among Trump voters, instead explaining the complex interplay between the two.

On the right, Trump books run the gamut from Never Trump break up letters with the Republican Party and the conservative movement to the contortions of conservative intellectuals seeking to “retrofit an ideological framework on to the whims of a man whose positions show few organising principles beyond self-interest and self-regard”, and the sycophants who pledge unqualified allegiance with “Trumpian language… talent for tautology, and weakness for flattery”. The Never Trumpers lean on the word “somehow” when describing Republicanism’s Trumpian turn to avoid implicating themselves in the process. The result, Lozada writes, is more “meh culpa than mea culpa”. Lozada is as unpersuaded by the defences: “Trump the virtuous, Trump the inclusive. Trump the generous. A good way to defend this president is to imagine him to be someone other than himself,” he writes.

Russian Lit promises to uncover financial ties to, and historical echoes of, post-Soviet authoritarianism. These books “landed with great anticipation and the promise of big reveals,” but, Lozada argues, they “were trapped in their moment racing, to find collusion or disprove it” only to be overtaken by events.

“How Awful I Felt On Election Night” started off as a genre of Facebook posts and Twitter threads but then grew into book-length calls to arms. These progressive testimonies are an emotional cocktail of “shock, despair, grief, fury and resolve” and make for one of the more tedious shelves in the Trump Lit library.

Other categories include works that grapple with “fake news” and post-truth, contemplate the “death of democracy”, and explore immigration and identity, MeToo and other subjects more tangentially relating to the president but nonetheless firmly of the Trump era.

There are good and bad entries in every category but if there is a theme that runs through What Were We Thinking, it is a preference for the thoughtful and nuanced over the headline-grabbing and alarmist. Jaw-dropping revelations of White House dysfunction will fade in significance, the best attempts to put the Trump presidency in context will matter long after he has left office.

“Too many of the books of the Trump era are more knee-jerk than incisive, more posing than probing, more righteous than right, more fixated on calling out the daily transgressions of the man in the Oval Office — this is not normal! — than on assessing their impact,” writes Lozada. “Individually, these books try to show a way forward. Collectively, they reveal how we’re stuck.”

What Were We Thinking aims to “preserve a snapshot of how we grappled with the Trump era in real time”. It is an important exercise, and one Lozada executes with style. But it is also, by definition, limited by the unfinished story at its heart. Will the Trump era lasts four years or eight? Whatever the result in November, work will have started on another round of additions to the Trump lit book shelf before the votes are counted.

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.