Donald Trump started by promising to stick it to the elites: he has ended up saving the book industry. Oops. US publishers are having the best year for political books on record, helping overall sales to rise 6 per cent so far this year. Current bestsellers include Rage by journalist Bob Woodward, Disloyal by lawyer-cum-felon Michael Cohen, and Too Much and Never Enough by the president’s niece, Mary Trump. So the book industry finds itself where TV news networks were in 2016: profiting from national downfall.
I am not one of those who argue that books don’t change anything. Books seed ideas into public debate; they appeal to open minds. Even the literature-allergic Mr Trump knows this, which is why he furiously promotes favourable titles.
Many of today’s bestsellers are insider exposés. They testify to the selfish idiocy of the Trump administration. John Bolton, former national security adviser, claims the president endorsed China’s Uighur concentration camps. Ms Trump says he paid someone to take his SAT exams. But this narrow lens is limited, just as it was when we had books about the wisdom of former president Barack Obama. We may have gone from Dreams from My Father to Nightmares from My Uncle, but the problem is the same. Accounts that focus on one White House are only half the picture. In Mr Obama’s case, they didn’t prepare us for what would go wrong. And in Mr Trump’s, they don’t prepare us for how things might go right.
This is partly why the Washington Post critic Carlos Lozada, who has read more than 150 books about Mr Trump and his presidency, concluded: “The most essential books of the Trump era are scarcely about Trump at all.”
The US’s problems go deeper and wider. Voters queue for hours at polling stations. Gun-toting private militias intimidate passers-by. A coronavirus patient is left with a $75,000 medical bill. A police officer runs his bike over a prostrate protester’s head. Politicians ignore devastating fires, floods and hurricanes. Life expectancy is falling, but abortion is the bigger political issue.
One advantage of watching US news from abroad is that you can say with certainty: this is not normal. I no longer see an American dream — I see a broken society. Indeed, it’s so easy to identify the US’s flaws from 2,000 miles away that I have a new respect for foreign critiques of the UK. All countries have systemic problems. But the US is exceptional. It has a geographic and historic bounty that made other countries jealous. Now it has a political system that makes us terrified. You can’t have a two-party democracy if one side ceases to believe in democracy. You can’t make a constitution that relies on bipartisanship work if one party refuses to participate. You can’t fix the socio-economic malaise until you fix the politics.
In their book One Nation After Trump, EJ Dionne Jr, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann argue that US democracy is now “biased against the majority”, through the electoral college, the make-up of the Senate, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and political donations. They want a new Voting Rights Act to be “the centrepiece of a new democracy”.
So I’m wary of reading Mr Woodward’s (no doubt riveting) book, only to conclude with him that “Trump is the wrong man for the job”. Such insider accounts give false hope that changing the president will change the entire country’s course. The bestsellers the US needs now are those with a blueprint for a fairer politics.
Mr Trump looks beaten. The exposé writers are salvaging their individual mementoes from a burning building. But the restoration will only come when there’s a plan to rebuild the structure. Publishers might not want to move on from the Trump soap opera; the rest of us have to.