Books to change the ballot box

From fire to fury: Which books could influence the 2020 US election?

Mary Trump's tell-all memoir may have the White House twitching, but those books that have true power to sway the ballot might not even be published yet, says John Self.

We are living, as you might have noticed, in interesting times, and people are turning to books in order to make sense of the world. That’s what they’re for, after all: a writer takes the chaos of life, boils it down to an essence, and straightens it out into sentences. In America in November, voters will make a decision which shapes not just their own country, but the world for the next four years. So which books could help us get to grips with this year’s US presidential election in November?

The one that’s been making waves recently is Too Much and Never Enough by Donald Trump’s niece Mary Trump, which sold almost one million copies on its publication day last week, and is already Amazon’s best-selling book of 2020. It stands out because it’s a rare type of political tell-all memoir: an archaeological excavation of Trump’s psychological makeup, based on Mary’s knowledge of his family background. It is not flattering, accusing Trump of weapons-grade narcissism as a result of being twisted into shape by a father who banished all signs of ‘softness’ from his sons, and which – according to Mary – drove Trump’s elder brother Fred, her father, to alcoholism and an early grave.

More typical attempts to sway the national mood are the inside stories of the Trump administration, of which there have been many, lined up like dominoes. The latest is by John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, with his eye-opening memoir of life in high office, The Room Where It Happened (I hope Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is getting a royalty for that use of his title). There’s something for everyone in these works that remind us, even in our virtual and remote year, that books still have power: Fear by legendary investigative reporter Bob Woodward is rigorously sourced, while society journalist Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and Siege are more gossipy. The problem with all of these books is that, first, that they are preaching to the choir – Trump supporters will not be buying them – and second, the books are squeezed for their juice by news outlets which tell us all the best bits before publication. They aren’t going to move the needle much in November.

Trump may find his fate is determined by major issues of the day that he can’t control

If the way to our hearts is through stories, where history and imagination are fused into fiction, then perhaps political novels are a better guide to the election than non-fiction. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham has made a splash, with its counterfactual tale of the life of Hillary Clinton without Bill. Could he have become president without the woman beside him who was, by all accounts, smarter, more brilliant and more driven? Could she? One of the wonders of Sittenfeld’s book is that it creates an empathetic Hillary Rodham that acts as a riposte to the sexist, performative charges of “unlikability” that dogged her in 2016 (Which brings to mind an even more tantalising alternative reality, where Rodham was published before the last election, and helped Hillary to win). Another excellent new political novel is Jessica Anthony’s Enter the Aardvark, a political satire about a Republican congressman that contains at its heart a plea for understanding of difference: a quality that might come in useful for us all around now.

But older fiction can also speak to our times: a classic, as Italo Calvino put it, is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) is often said to be the greatest American political novel: its peerless, frank portrayal of the political corruption of a populist state governor and his hangers-on might strike a chord with anyone wanting the Washington swamp to be drained. A more subtle and sprightly take on political corruption can be found in Muriel Spark’s 1974 novel The Abbess of Crewe, which relocates Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal to an English nunnery amid the election of a new abbess, complete with polling obsession, break-in and cover-up.

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It’s ironic that Donald Trump, a president who has governed by force of personality, may find his fate is determined by major issues of the day that he can’t control. On Black Lives Matter, Ibrahim X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist says that if your actions and words are not antiracist, they are racist. It is a book that demands the reader think about their own place in society and how that impacts others, which is a good preparation for your moment in the voting booth. For a reminder of how we got here, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s exceptional series of essays We Were Eight Years in Power reports year by year on the Obama years, concluding with a powerful piece titled ‘The First White President’, which argues that Donald Trump’s is “the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a Black president.”

'Where are the sweet family memoirs that almost every US presidential candidate has published in recent years ahead of the poll?'

The other issue that dominates the year is coronavirus. We’ve already written about books related to Covid-19, but in addition to those, one timely story in election year might be Dino Buzzati’s satirical story ‘The Epidemic’, which explores a flu virus that “attacks only pessimists, sceptics, opponents, enemies of the country lurking all over the place … while the devoted citizens, the patriots, the conscientious workers are untouched!”

Yet there is one traditional political book missing from this selection. Where are the sweet family memoirs – actually thinly disguised political manifestos to set out their policy platform – that almost every US presidential candidate has published in recent years ahead of the poll? Barack Obama did it most successfully with The Audacity of Hope in 2006, which became a huge bestseller. And these books might actually guide the national conversation ahead of the election, and help people decide who to vote for. Joe Biden has given us only an illustrated children’s book, Joey, about his upbringing, written by his wife. (Sample sentence: “He was just a regular guy, not rich, not privileged, but he always dreamed big and saw himself as a leader.”) Donald Trump also delegated his literary output: his most famous book, 1987’s The Art of the Deal, was ghost-written by Tony Schwartz, who has since distanced himself from his creation with the alacrity of Victor Frankenstein.

So neither candidate is a writer, but one book that both candidates might benefit from reading is Hillary Clinton’s What Happened, her account of her defeat in the 2016 election. Donald Trump may want to scour its clues to see if he can pull off an unexpected victory once again, and Joe Biden might like to learn from Clinton’s mistakes in order to avoid a repeat. Both men, after all, have but one ambition this autumn: to spend the next four years in the room where it happens.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

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