Without precedent: Books that shed light on America under Trump

Why We Wrote This

Amid the flood of books about President Trump, three thoughtful ones stand out. They go beneath the surface to examine the president’s actions and character, but also the currents of thought that first brought him to power. 

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With Election Day looming, it’s important to understand the presidency of Donald Trump, his character, and the nature of the country that he has governed. For students of American history and readers simply looking for more context about this tumultuous period, which are the most important books about President Trump?

Here are three substantive analyses by a veteran Washington reporter, a noted linguist, and a book critic who digested a range of other accounts of this presidency.

They are a good start on understanding just what it is that’s been going on in U.S. politics these past four years.

The top-selling book of 2020 so far, according to Amazon’s bestseller list, is “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” Mary L. Trump’s exploration of how her uncle, President Donald Trump, became the person he is.

“Too Much and Never Enough.” A reader might use that phrase to describe the overall flood of Trump-related books that has emanated from publishing houses in the United States over the last four years. 

Beginning with journalist Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” and continuing through a string of tell-all revelations from former staffers (ex-National Security Adviser John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir”) and pro-Trump defenses (Donald Trump Jr.’s “Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us”), they’ve poured forth like water over a spillway of the Grand Coulee Dam.

With Election Day looming, it’s important to understand the Trump presidency, the character of the 45th president, and the nature of the country that he has governed. For students of American history and readers simply looking for more context about this tumultuous period, which are the most important books about President Trump?

Here are three substantive analyses by a veteran Washington reporter, a noted linguist, and a book critic who digested a range of other accounts of this presidency.

They are a good start on understanding just what it is that’s been going on in U.S. politics these past four years.

White House access   

There’s a scene in Bob Woodward’s book “Rage” that I can’t get out of my head. It’s not the one that’s been widely publicized at this point, where the president says he’s purposely played down the dangers of the coronavirus because “I don’t want to create panic.”

No, it’s much later in the book, when Woodward prepares to interview the president on April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday. The coronavirus was again the subject. Woodward had a list of 14 critical areas where sources had told him major action was needed.

“My goal was to cover all 14 in our interview and find out what Trump thought and might have planned,” Woodward writes.

It didn’t go well. Trump ignored some of the questions and redirected the conversation after others. 

That’s “Rage” in brief: a collision between a famous, dogged reporter who is a justifiably renowned symbol of traditional Washington, and a president who is not detail-oriented. Both seem to struggle to understand the other.

Still, it’s an excellent book. Woodward’s métier is the accretion of facts, not analysis. His 14-point thoroughness is astounding, from his unveiling letters that passed between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (Kim wrote that their historic first meeting was “reminiscent of a scene from a fantasy film”) to his obtaining Jared Kushner’s tips for understanding his president father-in-law (compare him to the Cheshire Cat in “Alice in Wonderland” was one).

In the category of books-that-document-the-inner-turmoil-of-the-Trump White House, this might be the one to read if you’re reading only one. As to Woodward’s final reading on the president, it’s not positive. Early on Trump tells the reporter that when you’re the president there is “dynamite behind every door” – an unexpected explosion that could change everything. By the end, Woodward decides that the real dynamite behind the door is in plain sight. 

“It was Trump himself,” Woodward writes.

Rhetorical devices

As to a deeper analysis of Trump’s political behavior, and how it got him where he is, the book that’s struck me the most in recent months is “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump” by Jennifer Mercieca, a political communications expert at Texas A&M University.

Mercieca has produced a field guide to how Trump speaks, and how it helps him. She identifies many of his favorite strategies as tools of classic rhetoric. 

For instance, where he says something like “I’m not saying, I’m just ... saying, this is what I’ve heard ...” He used it in August, when he repeated the false claim that Sen. Kamala Harris can’t run for vice president because her parents are immigrants.

“I heard today she doesn’t meet the requirements,” Trump said.

“I have no idea if that’s right,” he added.

Scholars call this “paralipsis.” It’s a classical way of introducing rumors or false information into rhetoric. The speaker can stand alongside his own words without taking responsibility, and gauge how the audience reacts.

Then there’s the president’s use of “ad baculum,” threats of force or intimidation. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” candidate Trump said about a protestor at a 2016 rally. 

Calling reporters “very dishonest,” their stories “probably libelous,” and their whole industry “fake news” carries with it an implicit air of retribution.

Mercieca skillfully explains Trump’s use of other argumentative tools such as ad hominem attacks (using personal attacks to sidestep the substance of an argument) and “ad populum” rhetoric (appealing to the wisdom of the crowd, using popularity as the measure).

All leaders are demagogues, she writes – some good, some bad. But the former reality show star is a new kind. 

“He is a demagogue of the spectacle – part entertainer, part authoritarian,” she writes.

Explaining America  

As to the meaning of President Trump in American society – the trends he personifies, the groups he represents, the nature of his opponents – a new book by Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada, “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era,” is a unique and valuable resource. 

To write his book, Lozada set out to read some 150 other books about Trump and his presidency, dissecting and organizing them into a kind of group review, or a literary spreadsheet, covering the last four years of U.S. life.

He devotes a chapter (titled “Heartlandia”) to books that try to explain the rural white working class, the bedrock of the president’s support. There’s a chapter on resistance books, one on immigration books, one on identity politics, and one titled “Chaos Chronicles,” which is just what it sounds like.

One of Lozada’s main conclusions is that many, many of these books aren’t very good. They rehash the same White House scenes and try to top each other with chyron-ready anecdotes. They contain the same blind spots and failures of imagination as Trump himself.

“Individually, these books try to show a way forward. Collectively, they reveal how we’re stuck,” Lozada writes.

His other interesting insight is that some of the best Trump books aren’t really about Trump at all. It turns out that, just maybe, the best way to explain the man is to explain America itself, in all its faults and strengths.

So the 12 best Trump books that Lozada picks in his epilogue include “The Fifth Risk” by Michael Lewis, a short examination of the dangers of hollowing out the federal bureaucracy; “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy” by Carol Anderson, on the history of vote suppression in the U.S.; and “We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America” by Jennifer M. Silva, which examines the cultural and economic forces of working-class life.

Lozada’s book is a kind of “Norton’s Anthology of Trump Literature,” a scholarly guide that weighs and compares so you don’t have to read all 150 of those books yourself. The odds are good that, like the Norton Anthology, there will be a Vol. 2. Trump books will be rolling off the presses for years, even if he loses his bid for reelection. He has been a singular figure at such an extraordinary time in American history that readers will still be waiting eagerly in 50 years for the last volume of a definitive Trump biography by whoever has become the Robert Caro of the time.

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