The best literature on Trump is not fiction

While not enough books cover the early parts of Donald Trump's presidency, its end is extensively covered

Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 near the White House, in Washington. AFP
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Joe Biden may be a remarkably successful, albeit low-key US President, but his predecessor, Donald Trump, continued to grab headlines. Last year saw the best batch yet of journalistic books on the Trump administration, several of which deserve particular attention.

Ironically, Mr Trump's influence inspired the worst piece of fiction last year, the manufactured resume of George Santos, one of New York’s newly elected representatives. He appears to have fabricated almost every element of his purported biography. The unheard of levels of shamelessness and disregard for truth modeled by Mr Trump reached their apotheosis in Mr Santos. Confirming this new ethos of zero standards, the Republican Party appears happy to welcome him into its congressional ranks, its silent leaders blithely unconcerned that he won election by presenting voters with an entirely fictional persona behind which the real, unaccomplished mediocrity lurks.

Returning to the most harshly realistic non-fiction, The Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, is surely one of the most important volumes in US history. The committee succeeded admirably in its evident twin goals: to create the first, and perhaps only, official account of Mr Trump's attempted coup that culminated in the insurrection, and to essentially lay out the case for criminal charges against the former president and several of his aides, including his former chief of staff Mark Meadows and attorneys John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark and Rudy Giuliani, among others.

The report and related committee work is vast: 800 pages plus numerous appendices and invaluable transcripts of depositions that the committee is releasing online. The report itself establishes beyond doubt that Mr Trump privately accepted and understood that he lost the election and outlines in impressive detail the numerous unlawful schemes he organised to retain power anyway.

The transcripts are filled with damning nuggets, such as that a breast pocket card was placed in front of Mr Trump at 2.44pm stating that a civilian – almost certainly one of his supporters – had been shot in the chest outside a main Capitol Building interior door. The card remained there for almost two hours before he did anything to quell the insurrection.

Still, the report is a political document, not journalism or history. It is not objective, although it does purport to be essentially fair. Naturally, Mr Trump and his supporters are dismissing it as “worthless” partisan propaganda, but they don't have a credible counter-narrative and are not likely to develop one. It is much more probable that the committee’s work will serve as the basis for criminal prosecution, if not of a former president, then at least for his worst coup plot enablers.

Alas, the record might never be complete since shocking new testimony reveals that Mr Meadows was seen unlawfully burning piles of government documents in his office on at least a dozen occasions.

Last year saw several excellent efforts at journalism as the rough draft of history on the Trump administration. The Divider by the husband-and-wife team Peter Baker and Susan Glasser is the best and most comprehensive single-volume account of his four tumultuous years in power.

At first glance it seems a straightforward, detailed 752-page chronology. But, as the title suggests, the authors slowly tease out how Mr Trump was a purveyor and creature of division. He came to power by recklessly dividing the country, he ran his administration by constantly dividing his staff, and it ultimately becomes clear he is divided against himself, a lonely, hollow figure driven by endless appetites and boundless grievances, but without a real core identity.

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The American voting majority 'gets it', and they're not amused

In Confidence Man, Maggie Haberman reads Mr Trump's presidency through his earlier incarnations as a brash young New York City outer-borough rich kid trying to break into the haughty world of the Manhattan social elite. Many of his grievances were clearly formed by his ongoing failure to gain such acceptance. Haberman goes further than anyone yet in examining how the villainous attorney Roy Cohn and his unscrupulous and domineering father Fred Trump were the two primary influences shaping, and warping, his personality and worldview. Haberman's book is mainly useful for those who know little about Mr Trump's life before his hit TV show The Apprentice, but there is much more to be done to link the different periods in his life.

Donald Trump in the '90s with his family. Left to right: his brother the late Robert Trump, his former sister-in-law Blaine, Donald Trump, his parents Mary and Fred, and his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, a retired US federal judge. AP

Thank You for Your Servitude by Mark Leibovich is surely the most entertaining book yet written about this dark political episode. He explores the various ways through which Mr Trump's minions, no matter how apparently accomplished, ended up debasing themselves in his orbit, and how, no matter how earnestly they began, they almost inevitably were left corrupted or degraded, or both. The razor-sharp cynicism of the prose mirrors its subject matter, frequently provoking irrepressible laughter.

The guiding metaphor is "the joke" that all insiders are convinced they "get”, meaning that they are supposedly not taken in by Mr Trump's, or arguably Washington’s, absurdist masquerades that are frequently no better than professional “wrestling” routines. Yet, with rare exceptions, they eventually realise that “the joke” is on them. The American voting majority appears to have come to that very conclusion. They “get it”, and they're not amused.

In Why We Did It, Tim Miller, a former Republican insider who recoiled from Mr Trump’s anti-democratic movement, tries to explain why, rather than how, this so often happens. He outlines his experiences as a right-wing true believer who became increasingly disaffected, but the most potent passages consider why so many traditional conservatives allowed Mr Trump to transform their party and their own politics into an extremist, quasi-authoritarian, and often racist faction with little resemblance to the business-oriented policies associated with, for example, Ronald Reagan. Miller doesn't uncover many rational answers, and the explanations mostly feel inadequate. But it is a fascinating, extremely intelligent, and creditable first effort to decipher a complex and mysterious, perhaps ultimately irrational, and hence inexplicable, conundrum.

There are some major gaps left in the early literature covering Mr Trump's calamitous presidency. There is, for instance, no serious and successful evaluation of the QAnon phenomenon that remains extremely dangerous and increasingly boosted by Mr Trump. Nonetheless, these books and a few others constitute an excellent start.

But while the Trump chapter in American politics may be turning its last page, the Trump saga certainly has many more chapters yet to be written. There's certainly a great deal more ink yet to be spilled by the 45th US president.

Published: January 03, 2023, 5:00 AM