I hope I’m not exaggerating when I say that Donald Trump is the most written about first term US president. Generally, you have to wait until after a president has left office for the flood of books to come out, chronicling and analysing the events of his era. Sometimes, the former president, members of his administration or, perhaps, the former first lady get the ball rolling with their memoirs of their times in office.
Trump is different.
Readers were already thirsting for books about him after his first months in office and the journalist Michael Wolff satisfied that market in January 2018 with Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Before the year was up, the famous investigative journalist Bob Woodward came out with Fear: Trump in the White House and the former FBI director James Comey (2013-2017) produced A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.
As it turned out, Comey set the precedent for the tell-alls by former members of the Trump administration or his close associates. Comey’s book was quickly followed by Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House by Omarosa Manigault Newman, who served as director of communications for the Trump administration’s Public Liaison Office from 2017 through 2018. More and more books appeared as the presidential election campaigns moved into their final stretch.
This September, two books appeared one right after the other: Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J Trump by Michael Cohen and another exposé by Bob Woodward called Rage which, like his other works, was based in innumerable interviews with White House staff, including the president who gave the veteran journalist nine hours of his precious time (over different periods of time, of course) even though he knew in advance that the book would not paint him in a favourable light.
In fact, none of the books that were written about this president by individuals who were famous in their own right were at all kind about him, which begs the question as to why Americans, an educated, technologically and economically advanced people with liberal democratic traditions and revered institutions of government, elected Trump in the first place, choosing him over Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state, senator and first lady.
In the abovementioned books, we read descriptions ranging from unhinged, a Russian mole, to a cheat, a liar and fraud, a sexist and dissolute womaniser to a person who has no moral compass or genuine feelings for others, who is connected with the big crime families and who is manipulative and abusive towards all who work with him. All these traits and others are bundled up in that package that is leading the US as well as the rest of the world one way or another.
Shortly before Rage and Disloyal appeared, The Atlantic, citing first-hand sources, reported that Trump called soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their country “losers” and “suckers”. As other examples of the president’s disdain for the military, the article discussed his contempt for Senator John McCain, a decorated war hero who suffered more than five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, and Trump’s attack against the Gold Star parents of Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq in 2004.
Bob Woodward’s last book cites damning quotes from his interviewees, including Trump, himself, who told the reporter that he knew the coronavirus was deadly but he wanted to play it down, so he did not take measures to prevent its spread. On another occasion, Trump boasted to Woodward that the US had developed a new nuclear weapons system superior to anything ever made before. The implication in both cases is that the president was remiss in the performance of his constitutional duties. He failed to safeguard the lives of American citizens and he blurted out a national security secret.
There is something off kilter in this relationship between authors, the president and readers who will draw certain deductions about politics and society in the US. Perhaps more surprising, the revelations by Jeffrey Goldberg, the author of The Atlantic article, by Woodward and by all the other authors who preceded them is that none of this appears have made a big dent in Trump’s popularity or, more precisely, the electoral base he had in 2016 and, accordingly, his prospects of winning the November elections.
Moreover, he is closing the gap between him and Joe Biden even as his campaign tactics continue to rely on packed rallies and indoor conventions in defiance of Covid-19 and social distancing and face mask precautions. He even defended himself, saying, “they wanted me to come out and scream, ‘people are dying, we’re dying.’” But, he said, he refused to spread panic.
In brief, regardless of the many details in the various books about Trump, they reflect an American narrative that differs from that more familiar to us. It has its roots in America’s “Eastern seaboard establishment” which no longer is confined to just the Atlantic seaboard but has long since spread to the Western seaboard, namely to California, Oregon and Washington state, homes to the US’s high-tech aerospace, communications and information technology industries and to high concentrations of the intellectuals of globalisation.
These people have a global narrative that is shared in Europe and in what we call the West, in general. It focuses on liberalism, “globalisation” and the certainty of progress under stable and democratic institutions, free and periodic elections and, of course, an open market.
The Trump narrative, on the other hand, suddenly showed its face to the world in 2016. Like other major narratives that have emerged recently, this one is ultranationalist and unabashedly “White”, and it echoes the isolationist calls of opponents to US involvement overseas, from the two world wars and the Korean and Vietnamese wars to the wars in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.
This new wave of narrative inherently conflicts with the other “humanitarian” narrative. Instead of the human family, the individual person or human being takes the fore and his passions, egotistic drives and chauvinisms not only take priority but define divides in behavioural mores and political slogans.
The fact that the tell-alls about Trump, the articles in the press about his attitude towards soldiers and other revelations do not seem to have an impact on Trump’s electoral prospects, should not lead us to believe that he already has a second term in the bag. The night is still young, as they say, so we’ll have to wait until 3 November to find out whether Trump or Biden is the winner, and/or whether the US will explode between two narratives that have failed to find common ground.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly