WASHINGTON — Here they were, cast members of the reality show known as the Trump administration, arrayed beneath the vaulted skylight of the Trump International Hotel, safe from the oppressive Washington heat and the even more oppressive public condemnation that lately seems to follow them whenever they step out in public. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, seen frequently sparring with reporters at White House press briefings, looked perfectly happy, because the enemies of the people squeezing through the thickening crowd were outnumbered and knew it, meekly clutching notebooks and drinks. Reince Priebus bore no resemblance to the pallid chief of staff trying to impose order on a chaotic West Wing, desperate to keep Breitbart articles out of the president’s hands. Even Sebastian Gorka, the onetime presidential adviser whose job consisted of offering grim warnings on Fox News about liberals and terrorists, relaxed his signature frown for the evening. Donald Trump Jr. showed up, though briefly. So did Kellyanne Conway, wearing a floral dress and the summery scent of alternative facts.
The happy occasion was a decided un-Trumpian one: a book party. People read those, before Twitter, and a few insist on reading them today. The book was “The Briefing,” and its author was the erstwhile presidential spokesman who will never live down announcing, on his first day on the job, that his boss had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” Sean Spicer writes, in “The Briefing,” that he left the podium “expecting an ‘attaboy’ from the president,” only to find Donald Trump furious that the press had not bought his transparent lies. The pattern would continue for the next several months, with Spicer trying to “bring the White House press corps to heel” and failing miserably, thus eliciting the ire of both the president and the press.
Although it was, as of Monday, ranked No. 1,482 on Amazon, “The Briefing” is bound to be the most popular book ever, period. But its purpose is not quite clear, as the book is certainly not a tell-all about the most intrigue-laden West Wing in history. Nor is it a takedown of the kind a departed administration member sometimes writes, in the mold of “The Passionless Presidency,” a withering essay penned in 1979 for the Atlantic by James Fallows, who had left the employ of Jimmy Carter. “The Briefing” is more or less like one of Spicer’s briefings, its anger misplaced, its optimism misguided, the stink of self-preservation pervading the air.
Spicer writes, for example, of how he became the subject of many Twitter memes and how this bothered him, as “the memes made the briefings about me, not about the president and the administration’s policies.” Actually, it was dismay with the president and his policies, and the blithe untruths Spicer told in the service of both, that turned him into a meme, and often such a cruel one at that. Acknowledging some complicity in Trump’s assault on truth would have made “The Briefing” a far more compelling read. But Spicer, who memorably, if incomprehensibly, refers to Trump as “a unicorn, riding a unicorn over a rainbow,” clearly didn’t intend anything other than a hagiography of the Soviet kind. And like a Soviet dullard, Spicer uses cliché as a safety blanket: Steve Bannon is a “knife fighter,” and the media form “an endless negative headwind” to counter the Trump administration, obsessing over “palace intrigue.” The utterly preposterous has a star turn too, with Trump described as a “man of Christian instincts and feeling.” Yes, and Stalin brought joy and plenty to the masses of Ukraine. There are things one wants to know about a man who can put aside his dignity and write a sentence like the one above. “The Briefing,” unfortunately, reveals none of them, though we do learn that Spicer, who was paid with taxpayer dollars to shout at reporters, is intent on “restoring civil discourse.” Cool story, bro.
This was Spicer’s second party of the week. The first had been at the Wharf, a shiny new development on the Anacostia River waterfront popular with younger Trump administration members. The night of the Wharf party for Spicer’s book, there was another book party at the Trump International Hotel, this one for Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, whose “Liars, Leakers, and Liberals” had just been published, and was doing to sales charts what Sir Edmund Hillary had done to Mount Everest. Earlier that day, she brought her book to the Oval Office, where she posed with Trump holding the hardback.
— Jeanine Pirro (@JudgeJeanine) July 24, 2018
Trump does not like books. We know because he has said so himself and has said it proudly, the way one might declare he has no use for porn. “I never have” been much of a reader, he confessed in the summer of 2016. “I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.” This has not changed since he has come to occupy the Oval Office. He won’t read national security documents unless he sees his own name prominently displayed. And really, he would much rather look at “killer graphics.”
Despite his own admitted aversion to the printed word, Trump has been busy promoting a slew of books on Twitter, in tweets expertly timed to those books’ publication dates:
“The Russia Hoax, The Illicit Scheme To Clear Hillary Clinton & Frame Donald Trump” is a Hot Seller, already Number One! More importantly, it is a great book that everyone is talking about. It covers the Rigged Witch Hunt brilliantly. Congratulations to Gregg Jarrett!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2018
A friend of mine and a man who has truly seen politics and life as few others ever will, Sean Spicer, has written a great new book, “The Briefing: Politics, the Press and the President.” It is a story told with both heart and knowledge. Really good, go get it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2018
Our great Judge Jeanine Pirro is out with a new book, “Liars, Leakers and Liberals, the Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy,” which is fantastic. Go get it!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2018
Great book just out by very successful businessman @AndyPuzder. Always known as somebody who knows how to win, “Capitalist Comeback” will be a big hit!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 5, 2018
Terrific new book out by the wonderful Harris Faulkner, “9 Rules of Engagement.” Harris shares lessons from a military family. Enjoy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
I don’t expect that you will be especially impressed to learn that I have read all of these, without needing to sequester myself in a backwoods cabin for most of July. One I managed to more or less finish as the Metro crawled toward downtown Washington, D.C., from my home in the northern reaches of the city. I blew through another on a flight from the East Coast to the West. By the time we were crossing Ohio, I was done and on to Netflix. Have you seen the “Full House” remake? It’s really, really good. Gregg Jarrett’s “The Russia Hoax,” on the other hand, is really, really not.
In aggregate, these pro-Trump books put me in mind of an old Soviet joke. It sounds a lot better in the original Russian, but here it goes anyway.
An official from the Communist Party comes to an insane asylum on the outskirts of Moscow. He announces that Stalin will visit the following day. When he does, the patients are all to shout, “Stalin is great!”
The next day, Stalin comes, and the patients praise him as they’ve been told, except for one man standing sullenly with his arms folded. A party functionary reproaches him:
“Comrade,” he says. “You’re awfully silent. You don’t think Stalin is great?”
“Of course I don’t think Stalin is great,” he replies. “I’m not insane, I’m just the janitor.”
These books are, in effect, dispatches from an asylum where the patients suffer from a collective delusion: that Trump is a serious statesman genuinely concerned with the welfare of the American people, rather than self-enrichment and ego gratification; that his policies have led to an economic revival unrivaled in modern history; that his bellicose rhetoric has terrified Iran and North Korea into submission; that all of this would be readily apparent if not for the relentless efforts of the liberal media, the seditious Democrat (never “Democratic”) Party and the Deep State bureaucrats who have mobilized all their resources — the op-ed page of the New York Times and MSNBC, though also vast swaths of observable reality — to derail his presidency.
For a thorough tour of this Trumpian delusion, I recommend Pirro’s “Liars, Leakers, and Liberals.” Actually, it should be LIARS, LEAKERS, and LIBERALS, as the words are rendered in caps throughout the text, as so: “I’ve watching for too long as LIARS, LEAKERS, and LIBERALS try to take what isn’t theirs.” It’s best if you imagine Pirro saying this in the voice she uses on her Fox News program, which is to say in a nasal shout as soothing as a jackhammer.
In order to reproduce that very effect, I listened to a portion of “Liars, Leakers, and Liberals” on audiobook, narrated by the peerless Pirro herself. It was a lovely afternoon in the nation’s capital, with tourists out en masse in front of the White House and on the National Mall. But there was Pirro whining in my ear about how we were all about to become “serfs on the globalists’ plantation” if “Donald Trump’s enemies — our enemies” were allowed to prevail. It was enough to make me think that I was running from armed rebels through some war-ravaged backwater, not ambling through the glorious epicenter of Western democracy. Finally, exasperated, I shut off the audiobook and returned to my primary form of escapist relaxation for this era of political tumult: cooking podcasts. Within moments, a perfectly pleasant Midwestern lady was telling me about a skillet cornbread recipe. A lot of butter was involved. Now that’s the America I know and love.
I wasn’t a huge fan of Pirro, though I hope that doesn’t make me a LIAR, a LEAKER or, God forbid, a LIBERAL. You, however, will definitely like Pirro’s book if you believe that Obama’s administration was “riddled with corruption” and that he left the nation “teetering on the brink of socialism.” And it was under his watch, apparently, that immigrants began “driving around with the foreign flags of their home countries waving atop their vehicles.”
Obviously, you cannot have a nation where people are driving around with Jamaican or Croatian flags (Confederate flags Pirro says nothing about). Luckily, a savior came along. You’ll never guess who that was. Take it away, Jeanine: “Donald Trump arrived just in time, when our nation needed him most, when we needed to be protected and inspired.”
It’s not that there weren’t credible reasons that Trump won. And even those of us who disagree with most of his policies can find points of congruence, rare as those may be. But it does Trump no favors to say, as Pirro does, that he is imbued with “the moral vision of the framers of the Constitution.” Tell me how Trump’s policy on Syria is superior to Obama’s, and I will hear you out. Compare Trump to Thomas Jefferson, and you deserve to be called a LAUGHINGSTOCK.
The same goes for the suggestion that Trump — easily the most secular president we’ve ever had — is a man of profound Christian faith. In “The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography,” David Brody and Scott Lamb make that very case, arguing that although Trump “could be described as a pleasure-seeker or a materialist,” he “has not lived apart from religion.” No evidence is offered of Trump’s abiding faith, but Brody and Lamb do point out that many other Baby Boomers have “practiced their religion in fits and spurts and sometimes not at all.” In other words, give the guy a break.
Giving Trump a break is what Brody and Lamb do for several hundred pages. There is less insight into Trump in this book than in a single segment of “Celebrity Apprentice,” but “The Faith of Donald J. Trump” does say plenty about an evangelical right that sees Trump as a convenient if painfully imperfect means of achieving its cultural aims. “Millions of Americans believed the election of President Trump represented God giving us another chance,” Brody and Lamb write. Yes, our national redemption must have been on the mind of the gentleman wearing a “Trump That Bitch” T-shirt at a campaign rally.
“We thank God every day that he gave us a leader like President Trump,” Lamb and Brody also write. Well, sure. But maybe they should be thanking Vladimir Putin instead. That the Russians helped elect Trump is an indisputable fact: Their interference in the 2016 election, almost entirely meant to hurt Hillary Clinton, has been confirmed by the entirety of the American intelligence community, not exactly known as a bastion of liberal sentiment. Only don’t tell Gregg Jarrett, a Fox News host whose “The Russia Hoax” new Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani would do well to read before his next cable news appearance.
“The Russia Hoax” is an exceptionally dreary book, like a Wikipedia entry written by a bot minimally acquainted with the English language — a Russian bot, if you will. It is packed with snore-summoning chapters like “The Leakers Committed a Crime, Not Flynn” and the even less thrilling “Sessions Mistakenly Recused Himself from Russian Investigation.” Tell us more, Gregg, whisper sweet nothings in our ears as you read from “Firing Comey Was Not Obstruction of Justice” and “Mueller’s Appointment Was Invalid.”
So what did happen? According to Jarrett, “powerful forces” conspired to “subvert the legal process.” This is my own understanding of the hoax: in the summer of 2016, the liberal global elite became terrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency. Hillary Clinton and the president she hoped to succeed, Barack Obama, were summoned to the secret Swiss chalet of George Soros, the billionaire liberal philanthropist. Members of the media were also invited, with private jets whisking us away from our lavish Martha’s Vineyard mansions. With Rachel Maddow and Don Lemon sitting at his side, and everyone eating tofu no-fry fries and speaking gamely in French, Soros devised a devious plan that would make it seem as if: Trump invited Russian hackers to attack Clinton’s campaign; top Trump campaign officials, including his own son, met with Kremlin functionaries promising compromising information on Clinton; Trump advisers like Jeff Sessions and Lt. Gen Mike Flynn had frequent contact with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign and the presidential transition, then lied about it; Trump adviser Roger Stone made overtures to the Russian hacker(s) known as Guccifer 2.0; Trump, as president, has assiduously courted the friendship of Vladimir Putin while rarely saying a mean word about the Kremlin’s top thug.
Fake news, all of it, “media malpractice” fueled by “political bias and personal animus” of the kind Fox News definitely, positively, never, ever displayed toward the nation’s first black President. Jarrett reproduces at length the emails between FBI agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page, who were having an affair during the presidential campaign and were no fans of Trump. He obsesses at length over Andrew McCabe, the deputy FBI director whose wife once received a campaign donation from Clinton associate Terry McAuliffe. And he impugns the motives of both former FBI director James Comey and special counsel Robert Mueller. They are all venal, corrupt creatures of the Deep State, whereas Trump is the selfless public servant whose only sin is wanting to do right by the American people.
It should be a tip-off that Jarrett’s acknowledgments thank Sean Hannity, “a constant source of support” who “liked the notion of a book from the outset.” Of course he did. Hannity is Trump’s chief propagandist, using his primetime Fox News show to smear opponents of the president while glorifying Trump at every turn. Much like Hannity, Jarrett shows a puerile fascination with the Strzok-Page affair, even though it reveals nothing substantive about the FBI’s handling of matters relating to either Clinton or Trump. And, again like Hannity, he indicts the media as co-conspirators in the plot to take down Trump. The media, he writes, “assert political control by denigrating and vilifying” and therefore “deserves a good mugging.” No need to mince words, Gregg. You might as well just tell your readers to shoot a journalist or two, like they do in your beloved Russia.
A fixation on the media unites all these Trump books. Andy Puzder’s “The Capitalist Comeback” is a laughably premature celebration of Trump’s economic policies, one that tries as quickly as possible to dispense with the indisputable fact that it was Obama who rescued the nation from the 2008 housing and banking crisis. Despite its purported theme, Puzder’s book is rife with attacks on “the left-leaning media,” “the increasingly Progressive media” and “the Democrats and their media allies.”
Puzder was supposed to be Trump’s secretary of labor, but his nomination was withdrawn after Politico and others uncovered records of domestic abuse. The records were old, but credible. Puzder describes his ex-wife apologizing to him “in tears” for the media’s unjust attacks on him. But if those attacks were so unjust, so wildly free of fact, then why did Puzder withdraw from consideration the day before his confirmation hearing, rather than confront the accusations in public?
Puzder is also outraged that journalists would question — and sometimes criticize, quite harshly — Trump’s policies, as if he were owed special deference by the Fourth Estate. No such deference was tendered to Obama, of course, least of all by Trump himself, who was a regular presence on Fox News, making unfounded insinuations about Obama’s citizenship, not to mention his record as president. But that’s all bygones, as is so much else. We must be “inspired by the future,” Puzder counsels, “not bound by the failures of the past.” It’s a nice turn of phrase and would have been much nicer if made with anything approaching honesty.
So, would I recommend any of these books? Yes, wholeheartedly, but only as replacements for waterboarding in Guantanamo Bay. If they succeed in anything, it is less in bolstering Trump than in perverting the English language, which may be the best favor they can do Trump. It’s no wonder that Pirro, Spicer and company spend so much time attacking the media. The media wields words, and those words tend to be more accurate, more descriptive, more true, than the words Trump uses. He wants Americans to believe his words; the media caution against that by pointing to that pesky guidepost known as reality.
Trump and his supporters are not the first to turn dissimulation into a state policy. “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible,” George Orwell wrote in his famous essay on politics and language. “Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” These pro-Trump books are fun house mirrors that, uncannily, take the distortions of Trumpism and render them into something resembling reality. See, they collectively say, everything is good here. Go on your merry way, and don’t worry about the migrant children forced into cages.
These efforts seem to be working. Pirro and Jarrett have both been atop the bestseller lists in late July. Of course, one can’t trust numbers compiled by fake-news outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times. But they are atop the Amazon charts too, right up there with “The Complete Ketogenic Diet for Beginners” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
But a countervailing effort is underway, with books like “The Death of Truth” by Michiko Kakutani, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times critic, “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling, the Swedish public intellectual, and “Truth Matters” by Bruce Bartlett, a top Ronald Reagan adviser. Although these books have not benefited from the vast marketing power of a presidential tweet, they have found an audience, one clearly not buying the tall tales of Jarrett, Pirro and friends. They have made a case so basic, it is monstrous to consider that such a case needs to be made. But it does.
Don’t join the book burners, Dwight Eisenhower advised in 1953, at a commencement address at Dartmouth College. It was the height of McCarthyism, and there was a Republican president criticizing — implicitly but clearly — those within his own party who allowed the red-baiting demagoguery to continue. “Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed,” Eisenhower counseled.
The book burners have gotten clever. Now, they are writing books of their own. Instead of concealing evidence, they have offered their own. Instead of eliminating facts, they have smothered them with fictions.
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