When Donald Trump was first elected president in 2016, it became briefly fashionable to quote The Second Coming by WB Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” As the anarchy of Trump’s presidency was loosed upon America, those lines — written by Yeats in the aftermath of the First World War — felt particularly apt.
And yet for three years the center pretty much held. The system found a way to absorb Trump. The Republican party set him to work on their agenda and nuclear apocalypse was postponed. Things never quite fell apart.
Until year four that is, when the confluence of a once in a century pandemic, a once in a generation racial protest movement and Trump’s deep-rooted inability to accept defeat at the hands of Joe Biden seriously threatened to rip American society to pieces.
Now that Trump’s presidency is passing into history, it’s time to reflect on that last year of perilous unrest and ask what in unholy hell just happened. The first two books on this subject — and there will be many — have arrived to do just this.
Lies and Shambles
In Landslide, Michael Wolff, the shrewdest and most colorful chronicler of the Trump years, focuses on “the big lie”, how Trump’s conviction that November’s election was stolen from him led him down the path toward insurrection and infamy. In I Alone Can Fix It, Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, two Washington Post reporters, traverse the entire Covid/George Floyd/election fraud omnishambles, picking the carcass dry for the final morsels of scandal and outrage.
There is still some astonishing new meat on the bone. Post-election, as Trump started appointing unqualified loyalists to the Pentagon, Rucker and Leonnig discover that the chairman of the joint chiefs, Mark Milley, called colleagues to work out if he was facing a genuine coup plot or not. Along with the heads of the army, navy and air force, he then rehearsed how to block a presidential order to use the military in an illegal manner.
Meanwhile Wolff finds that Trump spent a period of the election campaign utterly convinced that he should go easy on Biden, because Democrats were planning to pull his candidacy at the last minute and replace him with New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
The confluence of a once in a century pandemic, a once in a generation racial protest movement and Trump’s deep-rooted inability to accept defeat at the hands of Joe Biden seriously threatened to rip American society to pieces.
Of the two books, Wolff’s is the livelier read, his prose purple and his anecdotes scabrous. Even after three Trump books (Fire and Fury and Siege preceded this one), Wolff remains dazzled by the scale of his subject’s flaws. In his telling Trump becomes an almost mythical figure, unmoored by reality, powered by some unearthly cocktail of ego, malice and Diet Coke.
“There was a not-infrequent sense among the president’s aides that he had magical properties,” Wolff writes. Trump certainly thought so, sure that he could will his own reality into being, convincing himself and millions of others that the only way Biden could have defeated him was through mass fraud.
As things get really crazy, Wolff begins to stretch his legs. Trump’s irrepressible consigliere Rudy Giuliani starts cooking up demented conspiracy theories about fixed voting machines, Mark Zuckerberg and deep state plotters. The hair dye flows down Giuliani’s cheeks as he farts and bloviates his way through one cataclysmic press conference after another.
Covid runs rampant through Trumpworld, knocking out most of the remaining professionals and leaving the real wingnuts in charge. Lawsuit after lawsuit challenging the election results is decisively and derisively rejected by baffled judges. “It was,” Wolff writes, “mental derangement of a kind and at an intensity never before known at the highest level of the US government.”
Unsurprisingly it ended in catastrophe. On January 6, as Trump’s attempt to persuade his vice-president, Mike Pence, to reject the certification of the election results failed, thousands of his followers, energized and encouraged by Trump himself, left a “Save America” rally and stormed Congress. Momentarily at least the center had collapsed.
Lest we allow January 6 to obscure what came before, Rucker and Leonnig’s able survey dives into Trump’s epic mishandling of the pandemic: his promotion of bleach as a cure for coronavirus, his attempts to bully the virus out of existence by defying guidelines around masking and his own mesmerizing made-for-TV Covid hospitalisation. “Not only did he fail to keep Americans safe,” Rucker and Leonnig write, “he couldn’t even keep himself safe.”
In Wolff’s telling Trump becomes an almost mythical figure, unmoored by reality, powered by some unearthly cocktail of ego, malice and Diet Coke.
Despite being vehement Trump critics, all three authors are invited to interview him in exile at Mar-a-Lago. The man they find is unrepentant and unyielding, still insistent that he was robbed, still lording his power over the Republican party.
Trump is off Twitter now and rarely on the front pages, but his Avignon presidency continues apace. His political rallies have restarted and his grip over the base remains tight. He is, as Wolff puts it, a “maximally reliable phoenix”.
Which means we cannot fully ignore him. “Rather,” as Rucker and Leonnig declare in their introduction, “we must try to understand what made him appealing to so many, and what that reveals about the country.”
Yet these bestselling Trump court histories never actually address this point. Why did someone whose campaign was as cursed and hapless as Trump’s come close to retaking the White House? Why is his base still so willing to follow him into the abyss? What does this say about America? These are the most important questions that Trump has always posed and they remain as challenging as ever.
“At the end of the day,” Milley tells Rucker and Leonnig, “the country did stand tall. The line bent, but it didn’t break.” America did indeed survive the Trump years. But at Mar-a-Lago the reliable phoenix is rising once more. Trump never stops. And this isn’t over.
Josh Glancy is a U.K.-based writer