By Vikas Datta
New Delhi, Jan 17 (IANS) Donald Trump began and served his term as US President amid controversy, polarisation and general ignorance. He is set to leave office under the shadow of an unprecedented second impeachment, with the country reeling under a devastating pandemic, its society bitterly divided and its international credibility at its lowest ebb. What do we make of it?
While posterity will hold the final judgement on his epoch, with “Trumpism” set to outlast its founder as his large number of unwavering supporters attests, the tenure of Trump has inspired more than a fair deal of works, covering its various facets. If journalism is the first draft of history, contemporary accounts, whatever the orientation, outlook or objective of their writers, offer a more detailed and nuanced look.
It is also ironic that a man — who, as per his close advisors, is not at all fond of reading, including the policy briefs that are part of his job — should trigger a veritable avalanche of books. While those keeping track will have their own preferred reads, these dozen-odd works may be helpful for those seeking an overview of his emergence, victory and rather chaotic term — characterised by a high turnover of top officials, a string of gaffes, and estrangement of allies, as the whole milieu that enabled his rise.
“How the Hell Did This Happen?: A Cautionary Tale of American Democracy” (2017) by libertarian P.J. O’Rourke is a good start.
Combining his articles on the 2016 campaign trail with more analytical pieces on the rise of populist leaders and the growing disenchantment with the traditional political elite, it culminates with an uproarious glossary of political pundit-speak. Its tenor (viciously satirical but humorous) can be made out by quips like “America is experiencing the most severe outbreak of mass psychosis since the Salem witch trials of 1692” and observations on the business “acumen” of Trump.
As Trump prepared for office, his — and his close circle’s — stunning ignorance and disdain of the complexities of the presidential transition, not to mention the federal government’s functioning, painfully became obvious. Financial journalist and author Michael Lewis’ “The Fifth Risk” (2018) uses the cases of the incoming administration’s attitude to the staffing of vital but low glamour Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce to show how much.
For example, we learn in Department of Agriculture jobs, the Trump team had “inserted a long-haul truck driver, a clerk at AT&T, a gas-company meter reader, a country-club cabana attendant, a Republican National Committee intern, and the owner of a scented-candle company, with skills like ‘pleasant demeanor’ listed in their resumes…”. There is much more.
However, the gold standard for the internal workings of the Trump administration would be legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s meticulously researched and engrossed “Fear: Trump in the White House” (2018) and then “Rage” (2020), which, unlike the first, draws on interviews with Trump himself.
Woodward, who has written accounts of every Presidential administration since George Bush senior, begins the first showing how Trump’s key aides go to the extent of removing documents awaiting his signature from his desk in their scramble to forestall the potentially ominous consequences of the impetuous decisions of their politically immature, enormously ignorant but immensely egoistic boss.
Both go on to chronicle the dysfunctional atmosphere, the pettiness, the one-way loyalty demanded by the President, the rapid turnover of top officials and aides, the scandals, the inconsistent and rapid reverses of policy, Trump’s manipulation by authoritarian leaders and worse.
While “Rage” also chronicles Trump’s handling of the Covid threat and racial unrest, it is “Fear” whose ending gives Trump’s besetting “flaw”, which a lawyer, ending his relationship, can’t bring himself to say out loud to Trump: “You’re a f***ing liar”.
A possible third volume covering the last few months of the Trump presidency will be eagerly awaited.
More in this vein are journalist Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” (2018) and “Siege: Trump Under Fire” (2019), while two insider accounts are Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir” (2020) and former political aide Omarosa Manigault Newman’s “Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House” (2018).
A damning account by a family member is niece and clinical psychologist Mary L. Trump’s “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man” (2020).
On more psychological underpinnings of the phenomenon, psychiatrist Allen Frances, in his “Twilight of American Sanity” (2017), argues that the triumph of Trump represents the ascendancy of some of human’s worst traits, bolstered by some less-than-wholesome features that are particularly American.
For those who want a more succinct account, there is Carlos Lozada’s “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era” (2020), which deals with many of these and others on the subject — and their limitations.
A totally different side can be found in “The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump” (2017), where Rob Sears combines Trump’s tweets, including those long-deleted, and quotes, including from the pre-internet era, to fashion Trump’s “verse” across various styles from couplets (“I use both iPhone and Samsung/A great leader has to be flexible”) to quatrains like “I am the best” (“I predicted Apple’s stock would fall/I will build a great, great wall/I build buildings that are 94 stories tall/My hands – are they small?”) and more.
There is also fiction.
Howard Jacobson’s “Pussy” (2017) purports to be the fable of Prince Fracassus, the heir apparent to the Duchy of Origen, of “golden-gated skyscrapers and casinos”, but there is no confusion who it actually refers to: he emerges as a beast whose “face was as the face of a spoiled child…and “was given unto him a mouth speaking foolish things…” but yet is given power and worshipped by the people. As they later wonder why, they realise that he arose from their own hearts, and once out, will never be persuaded to go back.
Fiction always ‘trumps’ fact.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])