Throwing the book

09 Sep 2020


Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

THERE may come a time when Donald Trump proclaims himself to be the saviour of the American publishing industry. After all, never before have the first four years of any US presidency witnessed so much verbiage.

The phenomenon itself is hardly novel. Americans tend to be fascinated by the ‘imperial presidency’ (‘imperialist’ might be a more appropriate adjective) and the concomitant status of their head of state/government as the most powerful person in the world and, to boot, the leader of the so-called ‘free world’. Hence journalists, historians and political scientists are habitually keen to describe and/or analyse presidencies as they are unfolding — or folding up: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All The President’s Men was published just weeks before Richard Nixon became the first US president to resign, in August 1974.

More recently, Barack Obama’s first term reportedly occasioned 500 titles, both critical and laudatory. His predecessor, George W. Bush, was also the subject (and usually the target) of hundreds of books during the early years of his disastrous incumbency. Neither of them came close, though, to the 1,200 unique titles Trump has inspired thus far. And the hits just keep on coming.

Woodward is still at it: two years after Fear, his Rage will be released next week. This week’s contender for the lightweight crown, though, is Disloyal, a memoir by Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, a long-standing acolyte who can’t quite explain his still smouldering infatuation with the man he describes as “a cheat, a liar, a fraud, a bully, a racist, a predator, a conman”.

Donald Trump has inspired 1,200 unique titles thus far.

The descriptions fit, but they were all common knowledge four years ago. Cohen offers details about how porn star Stormy Daniels was paid off to keep her mouth shut (which, to her credit, she didn’t, contributing to the Trump genre with Full Disclosure), and the extent to which the president’s racial hatred extends all the way from Obama (a faux version of whom Trump crudely disparaged and dismissed in a video intended for the 2012 Republican convention) to Nelson Mandela.

“Nobody loves Hispanics more,” the president declared at a 2019 rally in New Mexico. Cohen cites him as declaring a few years earlier: “I will never get the Hispanic vote. Like the blacks, they’re too stupid to vote for Trump. They’re not my people.”

He also quotes his former boss as saying about his supporters, “I bet they’d think it’s cool that I slept with a porn star,” but that’s hardly more surprising than his hero worship of Vladimir Putin — because, in Trump’s eyes, he rules Russia like a CEO and has thereby become the richest man in the world — or his recently revealed disparagement of deceased American soldiers as “losers” and “suckers”. Even his repulsive perception of the lawyer’s then 15-year-old daughter as a sex object is hardly revelatory, although one is also compelled to wonder how Cohen could possibly remain in Trump’s employ thereafter.

No president before Trump inspired even a fraction of the diatribes (and the odd panegyric or two) from former subordinates, aides and associates; in fact, most of them, including Obama, scored zero in that respect. It’s arguably more intriguing, though, to delve back into a past that illuminates the present, reminding us that Trump didn’t spring out of nowhere.

Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America has lately been turned into an HBO miniseries, but there are echoes of the Trump phenomenon to be found almost 70 years earlier, in the 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here, which envisages a ruthless populist called Buzz Windrip masterminding a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party and winning the White House, before being cast aside by an aide who comes across as a hybrid of Steve Bannon and Mike Pence, followed by a military coup.

Perhaps more pertinently, a recent biographer of the 1950s virulently anti-communist crusader Senator Joe McCarthy says that “in secret transcripts of closed-door hearings, I realised that if you crossed out McCarthy’s name, you would think you were listening to our 45th president”. It’s not entirely surprising that McCarthy’s infamous colleague Roy Cohn subsequently served the Trump Organisation as an indispensable fixer and lawyer.

Then there’s this question: “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?” It was raised just ahead of a presidential election by Richard Hofstadter in The New York Review of Books. He sympathises with the Republican moderates’ twin task, “first of retaking the party from the cult that now runs it and then of finding for it a program that steers clear of right-wing ultra commitments”. He was writing in October 1964 about Barry Goldwater.

The task remains the same. And it probably won’t be achieved by throwing books at Trump, who reads only his Twitter feed.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2020