Bookshelf of Nightmares: Readings for the Age of Trump

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman      October 2, 2020

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Bookshelf of Nightmares: Readings for the Age of Trump
As a journalist friend of mine said recently, Trump has been good for one thing at least: the book business. What I call “my bookshelf of nightmares” is groaning with more than two dozen Trump-related titles, and that’s not all of them. So, I was up for the challenge when The Canyon Chronicle editor Flavia Potenza asked me to come up with a reading list for these politically perilous times. The books fall into several broad categories covering various aspects of the man: the campaign, his presidency, his policies, and the fraught era that we are living through. First off, how did we ever get here? Artistic invention can reveal deeper truths than recorded reality, so let’s begin with one of the classic works of 20th century literature, “It Can’t Happen Here.” Sinclair Lewis published his novel in 1935 and it chronicles in unnerving detail the incremental descent of American democracy into fascist dictatorship. It was largely based on the journalism of his wife, foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson, who had reported critically from Berlin and Munich on the rise of Hitler before the Nazis expelled her. THE MAN Who was Trump the man and businessman, as opposed to the self-invented media personality? Some of the best books in this category are ace investigative reporter Wayne Barrett’s “Trump, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, the Downfall, the Reinvention;” “Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald” by Timothy O’Brien, who was Barrett’s former research assistant and a veteran New York Times reporter, who successfully beat back Trump’s resulting defamation suit. David Cay Johnston’s deep dive into Trump’s sordid financial dealings, “The Making of Donald Trump;” and most recently, “Too Much and Never Enough,” by Mary L. Trump, a withering takedown by Donald’s niece, the daughter of Trump’s alcoholic older brother Fred, who died at 42. A clinical psychologist, Mary recounts Trump’s dysfunctional family relationships and failed business ventures. She openly acknowledges a personal axe to grind: after their father Fred died in 1999, Donald and his three surviving siblings conspired to disinherit Mary and her brother. THE CAMPAIGN A sort of conventional wisdom has congealed around the disastrous 2016 election that lays much of the blame on alleged missteps by Hillary Clinton’s “inept” campaign. After noting that she won the popular vote by more than three million votes and only lost the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by fewer than 40,000 votes combined (less than Jill Stein’s Green Party vote), I would also note that she faced a perfect storm of Russian espionage and sabotage, Republican vote-suppression, and an inexplicable media fixation on her email server. If you can stand to relive it, two good explainers are “Shattered,” by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, and Hillary’s own “What Happened.” While not particularly stylish, both are packed with insightful details that add color and nuance to the black-and-white daily news coverage that we got. THE PRESIDENCY Countering Trump’s “braggadocious” claims of historic and unprecedented success, New York writer Michael Wolff published “Fire and Fury” and “Siege,” an entertaining pair of bitchy, but largely anonymous, insider accounts of Trump’s blundering mismanagement as he alienated foreign allies, burned through staff and cabinet members, and proved utterly incapable of conducting himself like a responsible president. Readers unconvinced by Wolff’s unsourced narrative, were ultimately persuaded by Bob Woodward’s “Fear,” which plodded along much the same ground but was copiously documented. The convoluted Russian conspiracy to interfere with and influence the 2016 election—certainly no “hoax”—is cleanly laid out in several books, particularly “Russian Roulette,” by Michael Isikoff and David Corn; Jeffrey Toobin’s recent “True Crimes and Misdemeanors;” and former FBI counterintelligence officer Peter Strzok’s “Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump”. While it is a useful reference, I found The Mueller Report virtually unreadable. POLICIES Two valuable critiques of Trump’s deeply troubling pro-Russian foreign policy are Washington Post columnist and historian Max Boot’s “The Corrosion of Conservatism,” and former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened.” In a related category, two conspicuous public penitents are one-time Trump fixer and whistleblower Michael Cohen, who recently published “Disloyal,” and longtime campaign consultant Stuart Stevens, author of “It Was All A Lie,” whose book jacket declares, “He [Stuart] helped to create the modern GOP that kneels before a morally bankrupt con man, and now he wants nothing more than to see it finally accountable.” POST-TRUMP REPAIR Even if, please God, we manage to rid ourselves of Trump in November, the global threat from right-wing populism and ascendant autocracies will remain. Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s “The Road to Unfreedom,” and the just-released “Authoritarian Nightmare,” co-written by former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean, examine and explain this dangerous phenomenon. “What a heavy oar the pen is,” Gustave Flaubert wrote, “and what a strong current ideas are to row in!” Well, folks, that current now threatens to carry us right over the falls. If we have any hope of survival, we’ll really have to put our backs into it—and paddle like hell.
Joel Bellman

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