If in recent years American politics books have been noted mainly for ephemera, in 2021 the winds of history began to blow open the doors – occasionally to devastating effect. The advent of a new administration loosened tongues and made documents more readily available as some sought redemption, justification or simply fame.
Such books illustrate the truth that one cannot keep a thing hidden and generally share certain characteristics that convey the ring of truth. They report bitterly angry outbursts by Donald Trump, staff reeling from dysfunction, chaos and the pressures of a campaign in a pandemic. They frequently recount interviews with Trump himself. They contain sufficient profanity to make sailors blush.
And, happily, this paper celebrated its bicentennial in part by scooping many of them, with real consequences in the case of Mark Meadows, who published The Chief’s Chief this month. Some – the former White House chief of staff in particular – may wish they had not written books. But some books are essential to understand the danger in which the country finds itself.
The former FBI director James Comey opened the year with Saving Justice, a second book defending the rule of law. Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes followed with Lucky, a quick but full postmortem of the 2020 campaign, noting: “Luck, it has been said, is the residue of design. It was for Joe Biden, and for the republic.”
The heart of the year was a series of blockbusters from prominent reporters, each containing significant new information on aspects of the chaos that was 2020. Michael Bender led off with Frankly, We Did Win This Election, in which Trump’s words, on the record, are unsurprising but nonetheless shocking.
In Landslide, Michael Wolff completed his Trump trilogy with a focus on the campaign – including Chris Christie, in debate preparation (as a result of which he tested positive for Covid), earning Trump’s ire for asking hard but predictable questions on Covid response and family scandals – and on a post-election dominated by Trump’s anger as the levers of power, including the supreme court of which he chose three members, failed to overturn his defeat.
Wolff is keenly analytic: as he writes, Trump “knew nothing of government, [his supporters] knew nothing about government, so the context of government itself became beside the point”. Instead, Trump was “the star – never forget that – and the base was his audience”. This self-referential and adulatory mode of governing failed in a divided country facing a pandemic and rising international challenges. Landslide is a fine book, though as new evidence from the 6 January committee emerges, Wolff’s conclusion limiting Trump’s own knowledge of and responsibility for the events of that day may come to seem premature.
Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker followed with I Alone Can Fix It, in which Gen Mark Milley said the US was in a “Reichstag moment” on 2 January, four days before the insurrection, and referred to “the gospel of the Führer” poisoning American democracy. Trump’s anger at his pollster, Tony Fabrizio, for being the bearer of bad news on Covid and the electorate is telling too: “They’re tired? They’re fatigued?” Politics as empathy was not the campaign’s theme.
Bob Woodward, writing with Robert Costa, likewise completed his Trump series with Peril, whose title sums up its conclusion. The book, notable for revealing Gen Milley’s attempts to reassure the Chinese military in the waning days of the presidency, quotes Trump’s apparent view that “real power [is] fear” and asks, “Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power?”
Adam Schiff’s Midnight in Washington brings a former prosecutor’s eye and perspective of a House intelligence committee chairman to issues surrounding Trump and Russia. His book is both history and warning.
Among Trump loyalists, former trade czar Peter Navarro released In Trump Time, in which he criticized Meadows and anyone else he deemed insufficiently loyal. The book’s most memorable line calls Vice-President Mike Pence “Brutus” to Trump’s “American Caesar” – all without irony or, one hopes, knowledge of Roman history.
Not all notable books were tell-alls. Some contained real policy insights. Josh Rogin’s Chaos Under Heaven looks at US-China relations from a strategic as well as pandemic perspective, noting US conflicts of both interest and policy as well as Trump’s inability to develop a workable strategy. Rival books on antitrust policy by two very different senators, Amy Klobuchar and Josh Hawley, illustrate Congress’ increased focus on large technology companies. Evan Osnos’ Wildland chronicles the lives and fortunes of billionaires and the growth of the Washington machine – and the effects, including rightward political shifts, on those at the bottom. On a related theme, in Misfire Tim Mak delivers a shocking history of the National Rifle Association and its former leaders.
Several books will serve as first drafts of history. Madam Speaker, Susan Page’s biography of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, describes how she “took on the boys club and won” through mastery of legislation and her caucus. Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue compiles the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinions, speeches and other documents, with Amanda Tyler as co-author.
Unsurprisingly in the second year of a pandemic, healthcare featured prominently. In The Ten-Year War, Jonathan Cohn recounts the 10-year history of Obamacare. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain tells the sad and painful story of the promotion of opioids in America. On the pandemic, Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta in Nightmare Scenario focus on the Trump administration’s response. Leaving responsibility mostly to the states had deleterious consequences, as did chaos, turf wars and giving priority to “the demands of Trump and his base” as he sought reelection rather than an effective response.
Scott Gottlieb, a well-regarded former FDA commissioner, takes a broader, more philosophical view in Uncontrolled Spread. Absence of leadership and a “sizeable enterprise devoted to manufacturing skepticism” about the virus and public health solutions meant the US failed the bar of “delay[ing] its onset and reduc[ing] its scope and severity”. But the Operation Warp Speed vaccine effort “proved what government could accomplish when it functions well” and makes one keenly regret the absence of leadership elsewhere as confirmed US deaths, so many among the unvaccinated, surpass 800,000.
The pandemic’s broader impact is equally profound. In Gottlieb’s words, “Covid normalized the breakdowns in a global order that it was presumed, perhaps naively, would protect us, just as Covid pierced our own perception of domestic resiliency, cooperation, and fortitude.” Vaccine hesitancy in the face of clear science is only one pandemic effect.
With honorable mentions for Wolff, Leonnig and Rucker, Woodward and Costa, and Gottlieb, ABC’s Jonathan Karl produced arguably the year’s most significant book in Betrayal, in which Trump cabinet members “paint a portrait of a wrath-filled president, untethered from reality, bent on revenge”. The attorney general, Bill Barr, decries election-related conspiracies; the acting defense secretary, Chris Miller, seeks to dissuade Trump from attacking Iran by taking (and faking) an extreme position in favour:
Oftentimes, with provocative people, if you get more provocative than them, they then have to dial it down.
Such was government in the Trump era.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in his Nobel Lecture that “one word of truth shall outweigh the whole world”. The amount of newly uncovered truth is already outweighing a fair number of the more than 4,000 exoplanets Nasa has recorded.
Yet the vital question remains: what will Americans, in particular Republican officials and independent voters, do with this information? As Karl wrote, “The continued survival of our republic may depend, in part, on the willingness of those who promoted Trump’s lies and those who remained silent to acknowledge they were wrong.”
Is it to be Solzhenitsyn’s hope – or his fear that “when we are told again the old truth, we shall not even remember that we once possessed it”?