William Blake once proposed that John Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it” because he referred to Satan in lost paradise with so much enthusiasm. In contrast, observed Blake, Milton seemed inhibited when he wrote about a heavy, judgmental old God. Have recent Donald Trump columnists, most of whom generously and relishly quote the former president, turned to the devil’s party?
Hateful characters bring out bouncy writing, and writers who portray Trump as a danger to democracy – that is, all writers with eyes and ears – might discover that the danger that the former president weighing in on America’s future is more cinematic than democracy itself.
Danger, the last great book on the former president, is not Bob Woodward’s best book, or even his best on Trump. It would be Fear, which was released in 2018. But in Danger, Woodward and his co-author, Robert Costa, manage to achieve a singular trick. They don’t let Trump’s ravings, tweets, and evil tantrums crush their own more disciplined voices. Woodward and Costa flex their rhetorical muscles not by writing Trump’s character hell, but by hitting their big bad, keeping a choke chain on every word he says.
When writing about the appalling presidential debate of September 30, 2020, they skip Trump’s cruel and confusing yawns about Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter. They are also ignoring the Proud Boys, whom Trump refused that night to condemn. Given this group’s involvement in the January 6 attacks, Trump’s words – “hold back and stay ready” – now seem overwhelming and fateful. But in Danger, the only line Woodward and Costa cite from this debate is Biden’s request to Trump, “Do you wanna shut up, man?” With this choice not to quote Trump at all, the book elegantly obliges Biden.
For years, Woodward has been accused of portraying himself as “impartial” during a crisis that demands bias. But that underestimates the ego of the old master. Woodward takes sides: his own. His voice in Danger is imperious, boastful and territorial. He and Costa lock their subject into a narrative cage, where it remains mostly gagged.
Other recent Trump books leave more room for them to strut around and worry about. This has costs, but it also means that they bring more brilliance to evoke the former president. These books are cooking pots: that of Stephanie Grisham I will answer your questions now, Michael C. Bender’s “Frankly, we won this election”, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker Only I can fix it, and that of Michael Wolff Landslide. These Trump books line up in that they keep the blazing psychopathy of the former president center stage, where readers can hate it. They all read like airport thrillers.
But the books also reproduce Trump’s lies, sometimes at full volume. Three derive their title from lies told by Trump, and two directly cite the so-called Big Lie. Trump did not win the 2020 election – neither âfranklyâ or by a âlandslideâ – and he alone could not fix Jack. But it’s not just the headlines that replay Trump’s lies. At regular intervals, Grisham, Bender, Leonnig and Rucker, and Wolff cite or cite Trump’s shit, often leaving it to smoke there, without correction.
This can have confusing effects. Towards the middle LandslideWolff writes of “the president’s determination to smear Joe Biden,” a motivation for defamation and lies if ever there was one. (See: Trump’s first impeachment.) But right after that statement, Wolff says Trump has “the absolute belief that the Bidens were among the most corrupt political families of all time.”
Is he? Absolute belief? Wolff doesn’t mention that this is a ridiculous claim, and with Trump, almost nothing is “absolute” or “belief.” But noting all of this would break Wolff’s narrative flow; his talent is for free indirect speech, which allows him to enter the minds of his principals, and he never encumbers his smooth prose with allegedlys or weasel words chosen by lawyers. So rather than punishing the character of Trump, like Woodward does, Wolff lets Trump run wild. In all of his books, including a new one this month on, no joke, “The Damned,” Wolff is inexorably drawn to the devil. (Unlike Milton, he always knows that.)
Another example of how difficult it is to make Trump’s bizarre deceptions can be found in a chapter on his 2020 election defeat in Only I can fix it. Describing Trump’s rejection of the data, Leonnig and Rucker write, âGeorgia was MAGA territory, at least that’s what Trump thought. Georgia in 2020 was not MAGA territory at all. Biden defeated Trump statewide to win the state’s 15 electoral votes, and his two Senate seats went to Democrats. But the fact that Trump’s stubborn illusion – “Georgia was MAGA’s land” – is allowed to speak this way means we’re in Trump’s head as he spins the Big Lie. Again: does he really think he won Georgia i.e. it was MAGA land? Or did he just want Georgian officials to pretend he won so he could stay in the White House?
The title of “Frankly, we won this election”: the inside story of Trump’s loss keep Trump’s Big Lie securely in quotation marks and correct the recording with its caption. But elsewhere in the book, Bender extensively recaps the senseless jokes between Trump and his pals while replicating some of Trump’s most persistent lies about, say, the size of his gatherings. “No one has ever seen anything like it,” Bender said, quoting Trump. âThere has never been anything like it. (Bender, to be fair, points out that Trump hurts himself when he imagines his distorted apprehension of crowd size to be more accurate than polls that predicted he would lose the election.)
During the 2016 campaign, cable news channels broadcast Trump’s rowdy campaign rallies live and did nothing to correct his lies. At the time, his whoppers seemed so self-defeating that they could pass for reality TV bacchanalia. Like Alex Jones, whose lawyer called him a “performance artist,” Trump’s barnumism has been left unchecked for years simply because nothing so appalling has ever been seen in politics. presidential. After five years, we’ve grown used to Trump’s lies, and many of us can recite them as if they were a rock hymn refrain. The verification of the facts, on the other hand, requires complexity and pedantry; no one sings the brilliant live tweets of Daniel Dale at Jones Beach.
Trump is simply a narrative headache. To write a monograph on a figure whose speech and actions do not correspond to identifiable beliefs – and even less to reality – is to enter deeply into a restless, fragmented and anti-social mind. Grisham, the former Trump press secretary, cites several of Trump’s non-sequels, including vulgar remarks about a prime minister’s mother. These chosen quotes stop her story like a record scratch. And there’s always a backlash: Grisham speechless in front of the audience, reflecting on herself WTF. She cites Trump’s bunk less to correct or satirize him than to render her own chronic bewilderment at the former president’s âshit stuffâ. It hits the mark.
Usually, depth psychology – the theory that there are distinct emotions, sensations, and needs somehow “under” the personality – is solid ground on which to build a portrait. But with Trump, it falters. Does he even have an interior life? In 1997, in a clever profile of Trump in The New Yorker, Mark Singer concluded that his subject leads âan existence without being disturbed by the growl of a soulâ. British writer Nate White also defines Trump by absences: humility, no honor and no grace.
If the afterwords and acknowledgments in all of these books are any guide, the authors seem to have gone through the effort entirely. Not surprising. Donald Trump’s skull, where illusions and despair cry out for food like hungry ghosts, is a dark place to spend time. Other readers may have chosen to leave these disturbing books on the shelf; I am grateful that so many observers have concluded, as Grisham did, “I have to get it all out so that I can understand, in my mind, what happened.”
In their various idioms, Bender, Grisham, Leonnig and Rucker, Wolff and Woodward and Costa have shed collective light on what happened. And they have rendered supreme public service simply by engraving the events of America’s dark recent history in the archives, where it will be more difficult for Trump and his heirs to lie in the years to come. When Condoleezza Rice recently urged Americans to âmove onâ after the January 6 uprising, all I could think of was, No, no, no, don’t move forward; read these books. And when Trump runs again in 2024, remember those who forget history are doomed-ah, but you know the rest.