Mark Leibovich is the winner of a National Magazine Award, a former staffer of the New York Times Magazine, the author of a bestseller about Washington and a recent hire of the Atlantic, one of the hotter, the more serous news websites.
In short, he has a byline that arouses of expectations of thoroughness and thoughtfulness. So one might assume that his new 304-page tome (before the acknowledgments, the notes and the index) would include some new facts or several new insights about his subjects, the Trump sycophants who enabled the most disastrous presidency of modern times.
Sadly, Leibovich has almost nothing fresh to tell us. Instead of new information, we get a recycled account of “the dirt that Trump tracked in, the people he broke, and the swamp he did not drain”.
To be fair, Leibovich is remarkably up front about his lack of originality. As early as page 11 he warns the reader that “you will almost certainly recall many of the episodes described in the chapters ahead”. But it is still remarkable that he is unable to tell us almost anything new about the greatest hits of the Trump administration.
In its preoccupation with gossip and a near-religious avoidance of substance, this book is a parody of the worst practices of the Washington press corps – which are among the biggest reasons a dangerous buffoon like Trump was able to reach the White House in the first place.
Leibovoich does make one interesting observation in the first chapter, when he describes the Republican party as “a political version” of the “Stanley Milgram experiment on obedience” conducted at Yale in the early 1960s, when the researcher’s subjects were instructed to administer electric shocks upon innocent neighbors, ostensibly in the next room.
“The force of the shocks was apparently becoming more and more painful as the victims screamed” – yet 65% of the subjects kept following instructions to continue the shocks.
“The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes,” Milgram concluded. “He therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions.”
Leibovich writes: “Republicans demonstrated much of the same fealty during the Trump years.”
Unfortunately, his original insights begin and end there.
The rest of the book consists of everything he wrote down in his notebooks, which he wisely left there until he sat down to compose this volume.
His most frequent refrain is “Once again, you might recall all of it” – as indeed we do when he recounts the brief moment during the 2016 campaign when it looked like Marco Rubio might be the man to rescue the Republican establishment from Trump, or Rick Perry’s single spate of truth-telling, when he called the orange man from Queens a “toxic mix of demagoguery, mean–spiritedness and nonsense”.
Of course, this “did nothing” to stop Perry endorsing Trump and becoming his energy secretary – but yes, we already recall that too.
Like any good clip job, the book does include a few good lines – all of them from stories generated by others. Trump’s second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, was “like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass” (reported by Susan Glasser, in the New Yorker). Or Stormy Daniels, recoiling in horror when the late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel referred to her “making love” with the future president.
“Gross!” said Daniels. “What is wrong with you? I laid there and prayed for death.”
(A few paragraphs before that, Leibovich praises himself for the “minor feat” of not mentioning Daniels until page 153.)
The author’s tenuous grasp of substance is most evident when he fudges exactly how much the Republican party had done to prepare itself for this moment, after its decades-long dances with racism and homophobia, dating back to Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 and George W Bush’s courageous endorsement of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2004.
Leibovich makes fun of Mitch McConnell for telling Politico Trump was “not going to change the basic philosophy of the party”, a prediction which turned out to be completely correct, since Trump’s biggest accomplishments were huge tax cuts for the rich and the appointment of three of the most disastrous, pro-business and anti-civil rights supreme court justices of all time.
But Leibovich treats the Senate Republican leader’s comment with all the wisdom of a spokesman for the Republican National Committee: “This turned out to be 100% true, except for Trump’s ‘basic philosophy’ on foreign policy, free trade, rule of law, deficits, tolerance for dictators, government activism, family values … and every virtuous quality the Republican party ever aspired to in its best, pre-Trump days.”
If you want to hear Leibovich reprise all of the softball questions he asked (half of them off the record) of all Trump’s sycophants, this book is for you. But if you’re interested in explosive new facts about exactly how Trump tried to demolish American democracy, skip this and stay tuned for the next hearing of the House select committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.
July 17, 2022 at 11:58AM Charles Kaiser