Donald Trump has been out of office almost two years, but he is still lodged in America’s consciousness. In mid-November, he declared his 2024 re-election bid. Days later, Merrick Garland, the attorney general, appointed Jack Smith as special counsel.
Trump has since demanded that the US constitution be terminated, and dined with Ye, the recording artist and antisemite formerly known as Kanye West, and Nick Fuentes, the white supremacist. This week, on a bleak Tuesday afternoon in New York, a jury found the Trump Organization guilty on all counts in a tax fraud trial.
The Trump show is never dull. As expected, in 2022 the 45th president left his mark on what Americans read about politics.
In February, Jeremy Peters of the New York Times delivered Insurgency, capturing how the party of Lincoln and Reagan morphed into the fiefdom of Trump. Peters caught Steve Bannon rating his former boss among the worst presidents, and likening Trump’s history-making 2015 escalator ride to a scene from Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film.
“That’s Hitler, Bannon thought.” By extension, that makes Mar-a-Lago Trump’s Eagle’s Nest.
As for Bannon, having burned through a Trump pardon, he awaits sentencing for contempt of Congress and will stand trial next year in Manhattan for conspiracy and fraud.
In March came One Damn Thing After Another, another installment of Trump alumni performance art, this time by Bill Barr, the ex-attorney general.
Barr took aim at Joe Biden for his stance on Russia, saying “demonizing [Vladimir] Putin is not a foreign policy”, nor “the way grown-ups should think”. Looks like the author didn’t have an invasion of Ukraine on his bingo card. In case anyone cares, Barr still loathes progressives, as his book makes abundantly clear. But he did spill his guts to the January 6 committee.
May brought the first political blockbuster of the year, This Will Not Pass, in which Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns delivered 473 pages of essential reading. Kevin McCarthy denied having talked smack about Trump and the January 6 insurrection, so Martin appeared on MSNBC with tapes. The House Republican leader lied.
Burns and Martin’s subtitle was “Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future”. They closed with an anxious meditation on the state of US democracy, quoting Malcolm Turnbull, a former prime minister of Australia: “You know that great line that you hear all the time, ‘This is not us. This is not America.’ You know what? It is, actually.”
Later in May came A Sacred Oath by Mark Esper, Trump’s last defense secretary, and Here’s the Deal by the former White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, Trump administration memoirs – and personas – as different as day and night.
Esper pulled no punches, depicting Trump as unfit for office and a threat to democracy, a prisoner of wrath, impulse and appetite. His memoir was surgically precise in its score-settling, not just fuel for the pyre of Trump alumni revenge porn.
Here’s the Deal was just that. Disdain unvarnished, Conway strafed Bannon, Jared Kushner and Mark Meadows, Trump’s last chief of staff. Unsurprisingly, she had few kind words for Biden, blaming him for the Ukraine invasion and for Iran threatening nuclear breakout. Trump junked the Iran deal and was Putin’s toady. Then again, Conway is the queen of “alternative facts”.
In August came Breaking History, Kushner’s own attempt to spin his triumphs while playing the victim. His book was predictably self-serving and selective, even trying to spin as something understandable his ex-con dad luring his own brother-in-law into a filmed liaison with a prostitute. The Kushners and the Trumps are not your typical families.
Breaking History also came with conflicting creation stories. The New York Times reported that Kushner took an online MasterClass from the thriller writer James Patterson, then “batted out” 40,000 words of his own. By contrast, the Guardian learned that Kushner received assistance from Ken Kurson, a former editor of the New York Observer, and two other Trump White House alumni. As luck had it, Trump granted Kurson a pardon for cyberstalking, though Kurson later pleaded guilty after being charged with spying on his wife.
‘The first thing he told us was a lie’
Labor Day signaled a pre-midterm publication rush. With The Divider, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser offered a beautifully written, utterly dispiriting history of the man who attacked democracy. In electing Trump, the New York Times and New Yorker, husband-and-wife pair wrote, the US empowered a leader who “attacked basic principles of constitutional democracy at home” and “venerated” strongmen abroad. Whether the system winds up in the “morgue” and how much time remains to make sure it doesn’t were the authors’ open questions.
The results of the midterms – Republicans squeaking the House, Democrats holding the Senate, election deniers defeated in key states – offered a glimmer of hope. Truth, however, remains a scarce commodity for Trump.
“When we sat down with [him] a year after his defeat,” Baker and Glasser wrote, “the first thing he told us was a lie.”
Specifically, Trump claimed the Biden administration had asked him to record a public service announcement promoting Covid vaccinations.
Baker and Glasser also depicted Hitler as a Trump role model. To John Kelly, his second chief of staff, a retired Marine Corps general and a father bereaved in the 9/11 wars, Trump complained: “You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?”
“The German generals in World War II.”
“You do know that they tried to kill Hitler three times and almost pulled it off?”
According to Baker and Glasser, Kelly used The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, a study by 27 mental health professionals, as an owner’s manual.
Next, a month before the midterms, Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man made its debut. A political epic, the book traced Trump’s journey from the streets of Queens to the Upper East Side, from the White House to Mar-a-Lago.
Haberman gave Trump and those close to him plenty of voice – and rope. She caught Kushner gleefully asking a White House visitor: “Did you see I cut Bannon’s balls off?” To quote Peter Navarro, another Trump tell-all author, like Bannon now under indictment: “Nepotism and excrement roll downhill.”
Haberman interviewed Trump three times. He confessed that he is drawn to her like a moth to a flame. “I love being with her,” he said. “She’s like my psychiatrist.” But she saw through him, writing: “The reality is that he treats everyone like they are his psychiatrists.”
Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence, tried his hand with So Help Me God, a well-written and well-paced memoir that will, however, do little to shake the impression that he is the Rodney Dangerfield of vice-presidents: he gets no respect.
Pence delivered a surprising indictment, cataloging Trump’s faults, errors and sins from Charlottesville to Russia and Ukraine. But Pence’s is a precarious balancing act. He upbraided Trump for his failure to condemn “the racists and antisemites in Charlottesville by name”, but also rejected the contention Trump was a bigot. As for Putin, “there was no reason for Trump not to call out Russia’s bad behaviour”, Pence wrote, while calling Trump’s infamous, impeachment-triggering phone call to Volodymyr Zelenskiy “less than perfect”. In the end, So Help Me God was a strained attempt to retain political viability.
‘As long as you make the right friends’
Not all the notable books of 2022 were about Trump himself. Some examined the people and movements that lie adjacent. We Are Proud Boys by Andy Campbell looked at the violence-addicted street fighters who have become best friends with many of Trump’s past and present supporters, from Ann Coulter to Roger Stone.
As Campbell put it, the Proud Boys have “proven that you can make it as a fascist gang of hooligans in this country, as long as you make the right friends”.
Andrew Kirtzman’s Giuliani provided a vivid reminder that Trump’s gravitational pull induces destruction. The author covered Rudy Giuliani when he was New York mayor. Rudy wasn’t always a buffoon. The book is masterly and engrossing.
Broken News, by Chris Stirewalt, doubled as a critique of the media and a rebuke of Fox News, his former employer, and Trump. The Washington Post, the New York Times, MSNBC and Joe Scarborough fared poorly too. Substantively, Stirewalt contended that much of the news business is about the pursuit of ratings. These days, Fox is battling defamation lawsuits arising from repeatedly airing Trump’s “big lie”.
Robert Draper’s Weapons of Mass Delusion dissected the Trumpian nightmare, focusing on the consequences of the world the internet created. Republicans like the far-right Arizona congressman Paul Gosar and his mentee, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, are much more likely to be rewarded than penalized for “outrageous, fact-free behavior”.
Gabriel Debenedetti is the national correspondent for New York magazine. His first book, The Long Alliance, brought depth and context to the near-two-decade relationship between the 44th and 46th presidents, emphasizing that the pair’s time in power together was no buddy movie. Barack Obama was the star. Joe Biden played a supporting role – until he too seized the brass ring.
The most memorable contribution to this year’s American political literature, however, was not a printed book. The Trump Tapes, subtitled “Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews with President Donald Trump” is an audio collection that offers a passport to the heart of darkness.
In June 2020, Trump confided: “I get people, they come up with ideas. But the ideas are mine, Bob. Want to know something? Everything is mine.” Wow.
Woodward’s tapes convincingly demonstrated that Trump knew in early 2020 that Covid posed a mortal danger to the US, but balked at telling the whole truth.
Trump holds the press in contempt but yearns for its approval. He flattered Woodward as “a great historian”. Maggie Haberman knows the feeling.