Book critic

Some are born Trump sycophants. Some achieve Trump sycophancy. And some have Trump sycophancy thrust upon them — since he’s a star, they let him do that.

Look past the cable-news apologists, rally die-hards and compulsive @realDonaldTrump retweeters, and you find the fawning, best-selling pro-Trump book authors, those who bind their allegiance in hard covers for all eternity. These writers have elevated the reflexive defense of Trump to an art form, even if, as often as not, it’s of the paint-by-numbers variety. Their book titles (“Trump’s America,” “Understanding Trump,” “Let Trump Be Trump,” “The Russia Hoax” and the like) and book jackets (Trump flashing his thumbs-up, his antagonists lurking in ominous black-and-white tones) make the works’ audience and purpose clear. Crack those covers, and you find that whatever the author’s vantage point — former staffer, outside adviser, legal analyst, Fox News host — there is a particular way to write these books. The works display recurring tics of Trump-like language, comfort with cynicism, talent for tautology, weakness for flattery and freakish rhetorical and moral contortions.

These do not appear to be difficult books to write, but for one challenge: At some point and in some way, they must grapple with Trump himself. The authors often dance around their central character, euphemizing him — extolling his “vivid” language, for instance, or his decision-making style that “places a greater emphasis on speed than mistake avoidance” — and simply ignoring his more sordid traits. Submission reveals itself through omission. Even for this group, it is easier to defend the man by attacking his enemies, real and invented; by picking at the scars of our national divide; by waving flags, shouting slogans and reliving 2016 all over again.

Even some discarded Trump loyalists still praise him in their books, perhaps hoping for another #MAGA hit, that feeling that they’re winning against all those horrified elites. But when a believer is suddenly cast out of Trump World or realizes that continued fealty offers nothing, as in Omarosa Manigault Newman’s book, “Unhinged,” then the line between devotion and disdain can become vanishingly thin — both inside the White House and, more consequential for Trump, beyond it.

Among the first things one notices about pro-Trump literature is how much the authors come to sound like Trump himself, echoing not just his views but his voice. In “Liars, Leakers, and Liberals,” Fox News host Jeanine Pirro relies on standard tropes: “Fake News,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Sloppy Steve” and “low-Energy Jeb” all make cameos, and Pirro even coins new characters such as “Pipsqueak Papadopoulos” and “Rotten Ryan.” She also parrots Trump’s weakness for the caps-lock key; every reference to her title categories is capitalized, as in “LIAR Obama” and “LIBERAL haters.” (Given how often these terms appear in the book, the habit proves DISTRACTING.)

Trump loves to boast that his supporters form a movement “the likes of which the world has never seen before,” so his acolytes frequently deploy the same superlative. In “Let Trump Be Trump,” former senior campaign staffers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie say Trump is a messenger “the likes of which had never appeared in American politics.” Newt Gingrich, in “Understanding Trump,” the first of two books he’s written on his new political patron, calls the president a force for change “the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in American history.” (Newt’s a historian, so you know it’s true.)

More frequently, the authors match Trump’s use of outrageous hyperbole in the cause of honoring Donald Trump. The 2016 election, we learn from Lewandowski and Bossie, was the greatest political event in the history of our republic. Pirro swoons over Trump’s “Kryptonite-proof aura of invincibility” — which I suppose makes Trump stronger than Superman. The 45th president’s inaugural address resembles Lincoln’s first inaugural, Gingrich assures. And in his memoir “The Briefing,” former White House press secretary Sean Spicer says Trump is so special that he’s “a unicorn, riding a unicorn over a rainbow,” so tough that he’s “like an inflatable ball in a swimming pool. . . . Nothing could sink him.” It’s almost like the authors are hoping Trump will read their books, love some line and call with an attaboy.

The second conceit of any hardcore work of Trumpism is to recognize that, yes, the man has a complicated reputation, but that’s only because you don’t know him the way I know him. On countless flights aboard Trump’s plane, Lewandowski witnessed “the side of Mr. Trump few would get to see,” he explains. “The funny, magnanimous, gracious, loyal person who wanted only to change America for the better.” Spicer concedes that the president projects a tough-guy image but notes that, “in private, I have seen many instances of empathy and kindness from him.” And if you’re worried about Donald and Melania’s relationship, relax: When Pirro first met Melania Knauss aboard Trump’s plane in 1998, she confides, “It was clear to me that their relationship was real.” Less clear is why the president doesn’t share this loving, humane persona with the public more often. Perhaps it only materializes at cruising altitude.

Trump’s inexperience with governance, separation of powers, national security, social policy and other matters relevant to his job would seem to pose a challenge for anyone writing an unctuous account of this presidency. That’s why the third requirement of a pro-Trump book is to acknowledge the president’s ignorance but recast it as one of his greatest strengths. “One of the things I have learned about Donald Trump is that he learns very fast — and that the speed at which he operates optimizes his learning,” Gingrich writes. He later explains that Trump is an “entrepreneurial” learner, not an academic one; there is little need for him to “drown himself in unnecessary details.” And Lewandowski and Bossie dismiss Trump’s lack of prep work before his debates against Hillary Clinton, because “he had been preparing his whole life.” Through interviews with the news media, the candidate would figure out what was important for him to know by the questions he was asked: “It was political genius and a talent for which he gets very little credit.” Ignorance, in this telling, is plain smart.

In the third presidential debate of 2016, Clinton warned that Trump would be a puppet of Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, and Trump famously replied, “No puppet, no puppet. You’re the puppet.” This I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I debate strategy is the fourth obligatory element of the sycophant canon. Trump does not lie; everyone else lies about him. Trump did not collude with Russia; the Clintons did. Trump is not endangering the rule of law; Robert S. Mueller III is the real threat. Trump does not display authoritarian instincts; the far left and the “deep state” are the tyrants. Trump is the true patriot; his opponents are traitors. Trump’s offenses are always minor or nonexistent, and defending him involves little more than highlighting the venality of those opposing him.

Gregg Jarrett, author of “The Russia Hoax,” exemplifies this style. “This is a story of corruption,” Chapter 1 starts. “It begins, as it must, with Hillary Clinton.” All matters Clintonian deserve the deepest investigations and most serious suspicions, while any possible Trump misdeeds are dismissed. Not only did the Trump campaign not collude, but even if it did, collusion is no crime. And what of that Trump Tower meeting in the summer of 2016? “Even if the Trump campaign had acted on information allegedly offered by the Russian lawyer, it would still not constitute treason,” Jarrett affirms. “Conspiring to subvert the government does not rise to the level of treason.” The obvious traitor is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not for failing to disclose to Congress his contacts with Russian officials but for failing to tell Trump that he would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation — a “serious betrayal” against the president.

Jarrett argues by adverb: Attacks on Trump are “transparently partisan” or “patently absurd”; his opponents are “arguably corrupt”; Clinton “plainly violated” multiple laws. Jarrett’s more persuasive moments — such as his contention that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is too much a part of the events involved in an obstruction-of-justice investigation to also supervise that investigation — are overwhelmed by his leaps of logic. Jarrett suggests that Trump could not have obstructed justice in the Russia investigation because, well, he is innocent: “If the president knew he did nothing wrong, it makes little sense that he would try to impede a probe into no wrongdoing.” Yes, of course, if your premise is that the president is blameless, the conclusion that he remains so does follow.

Washington Post fact-checkers have tallied more than 4,000 false or misleading claims by President Trump, and the rate of his untruths is increasing. Yet in these books, the real liar is that mendacious news media. “One of the continuing surprises to President Trump has been the willingness of the elite media to lie,” Gingrich explains. “He was simply unprepared for the brutality and the depth of dishonesty of our national media.” Trump, by contrast, is the truth-teller in chief, so much so that he is “redefining the very structure of American political and governmental dialogue by insisting on fact-based conversations.” It is his enemies in the news media, Pirro writes, who “twist words and play with facts until the American people can’t tell what’s true anymore.”

Other authors don’t bother to project blame elsewhere, declaring that whatever Trump says or does never means what it means. Lewandowski and Bossie defend Trump’s racist drive-by in his speech launching his 2016 campaign, when he suggested that Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug traffickers. Not only were his words not racist, but they were “as close to the opposite of racism as any words could be.” After all, they remind, Trump distinctly said that he assumed some Mexicans were good people — so how is that racist? Trump, by definition, cannot be wrong: Popular support is proof of his rightness; popular disapproval confirms the insidious influence of the “fake news.”

Such reluctance to exercise any independent moral judgment is the fifth commonality of the Trumpist literary collection. When the writers must confront odious behavior or statements on the part of the president, they revel in his political savvy or personal determination. When Trump stood firm after declaring that John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured, Lewandowski marveled that he “had never seen a candidate have such courage in his convictions.” (One candidate that comes to mind: John McCain.) Similarly, when Trump insisted to stunned campaign advisers that he would win the election despite the “Access Hollywood” revelation, Lewandowski writes that “even if we didn’t share his confidence, there wasn’t a person present who didn’t admire his balls.” And though Gingrich concedes that Trump was “not fair” to Mexican immigrants when he branded them criminals, the depiction was useful because the future president “sent a signal to all the voters sick of cowardice on this issue that he did not care about political correctness and could not be intimidated.”

Gingrich does not pause to consider what additional signals were sent with that statement.

War heroes, women, immigrants — there is no category of people off limits to Trump’s assaults and to the indifference of these authors. Except the Trump family itself. Praising the talent, charm and even looks of the Trump clan is the sixth and most obsequious component of a typical pro-Trump book. Even though Jared Kushner reportedly pushed for Lewandowski’s ouster as Trump’s campaign manager, Lewandowski still hails Trump’s son-in-law as “invaluable” during the presidential race. Gingrich also bends the knee, reminding readers that all of Trump’s children “are in­cred­ibly bright and accomplished.” (No surprise that Eric Trump writes the foreword to Gingrich’s “Understanding Trump.”) And Spicer details how he defended Ivanka Trump’s honor after a vulgar tweet by a journalist. But Pirro is the most gushing. Fred Trump, the president’s father, was “uncommonly brilliant,” she writes. Ivanka is also brilliant, as well as “extremely motivated” and devoted to her husband. Then again, who couldn’t love Jared? He’s “handsome . . . tall and trim, with an easy smile and piercing eyes.” Melania, meanwhile, “has a deep love for the United States” and resembles “another Jacqueline Kennedy by the president’s side.” Even young Barron gets the treatment — “tall, smart, and, like the rest of the inner circle, will in time make great contributions to his country.”

This focus on the president’s family fits an overriding theme of the Trump presidency: that certain groups matter more than others, that Trump governs only for himself, his family, his base. Save for a few lines at the end of Spicer’s memoir, there is little pretense in these volumes that Trump should be a president for all Americans or that he even wants to be. Embracing exclusion and division is the seventh and final precondition of a loyal pro-Trump work. Gingrich puts it most cynically in “Trump’s America,” his second book on the president, asserting that the nation is in the midst of a cultural and political “civil war,” with hard-working, flag-waving citizens on one side and a bunch of radical, liberal, globalist, academic, identity-obsessed, duplicitous, establishment, America-hating swamp creatures on the other. “Trump’s America and the post-American society that the anti-Trump coalition represents are incapable of coexisting,” he writes. “One will simply defeat the other. There is no room for compromise. Trump has understood this perfectly since day one.” Gingrich congratulates Trump for continuing to hold rallies throughout his presidency. “It’s important to see an arena full of people and be reminded that he speaks for them.” Any effort to speak for anyone outside the arena falls beyond the scope of the exercise.

None of these books is especially memorable or useful on its own. As a genre, however, and a reflection of their subject, they are instructive. These books scarcely attempt to persuade; like Trump, they focus on the already converted. Pirro dismisses Trump’s critics with catchphrases rather than arguments. “Not on my watch,” she declares, as if that meant something. “Give me a break.” “Drives me nuts.” “I don’t think so.” And my favorite: “Don’t get me started on those wackadoos.”

Arguments don’t need to be any stronger if all you hope to elicit is vigorous assent rather than debate or thought. For that, “not on my watch” does fine. Jarrett writes that “the anti-Trump crowd is so adamant in their disdain that no amount of reason will reach them.” No wonder that in so many of these books, little amount of reason is offered.

This gets to the paradox at the heart of the pro-Trump works: Even for these writers, it is simpler to demonize Trump’s opponents than to fully embrace Trump. It happened in 2016, too, when many Trump voters were driven more by contempt for Clinton than excitement for her rival. The president’s unceasing attacks on his 2016 opponent and the press suggest he sees this fault line in his support.

Lewandowski and Bossie, for all their campaign nostalgia, point out that Trump could be awful in person. “The mode that he switches into when things aren’t going his way can feel like an all-out assault. . . . Around the campaign, we’d call it getting your face ripped off.” (They took special delight in witnessing the removal of Paul Manafort’s face.) They also put the lie to Trump’s swamp-draining talk. “To tell you the truth, the establishment/outsider distinction never mattered all that much to Trump,” they admit. “In his mind, people are placed into two distinct categories: loyal and disloyal.”

Pirro goes back a long way with Trump — her former husband represented him on various real estate deals, and they were early members at Mar-a-Lago — yet the very title of her book shows her preference for taking the offensive to his critics. Gingrich, for his part, devotes long portions of “Understanding Trump” to outlining pet policies (to fix health care, land on Mars and neuter the accursed federal workforce) and projecting those ideas onto the president, almost giving himself excuses to support the man. Apparently a smart way to produce a glowing Trump book is to avoid Trump entirely for chapters on end.

Spicer, a longtime GOP operative, seems the most quietly anguished. “I am a party guy who believes in the system and worked hard to make the party better — and the grassroots voters of our party chose Trump,” he writes, not defensive at all. The people he holds up as heroes and role models — such as Sen. John Chafee, “a gentleman of the old school,” and his father, Mike Spicer, who died during the presidential transition and to whom the book is dedicated — are mirror opposites of the president who will forever define Spicer’s contributions to public life. Spicer makes much noise about how “both sides” have made hurtful statements and how he wants to help “repair our broken politics,” but his self-assessment can be damning. “There were times I wished my dad had lived long enough to see me at the White House,” he writes, “and there were times, I must admit, when I was glad he did not.” It is a rare instance in these volumes of anything resembling regret or self-awareness.

Which brings us to Omarosa Manigault Newman. Author of the most recent insider Trump book, the former senior White House staffer, campaign surrogate and “Apprentice” villain may once have been the most sycophantic of all. She gushed to “Frontline” that, as president, Trump would become “the most powerful man in the universe” and that all critics would have to “bow down.” She emulated Trump, advancing her career through intimidation and relentless branding. Hugging Trump after his victory speech on election night was “one of the highlights of my life,” she recalls in her book.

No longer. In “Unhinged,” Manigault Newman now calls Trump a racist, misogynist and narcissist; a “cult leader,” a “little man” who is “just this side of functionally literate.” She even goes after his family, quoting the president trashing Donald Trump Jr. as a “f–k-up” and suggesting that the president has a sexualized fixation with Ivanka Trump. Manigault Newman contends that Trump was experiencing a mental decline that “could not be denied,” though she lacks any qualifications to render the diagnosis. Trump, who hired Manigault Newman multiple times in multiple fields, now denigrates her as a “lowlife” and even a “dog,” someone he kept on staff only because she said “GREAT things about me.” Meanwhile, Manigault Newman reveals secret White House recordings on network morning shows and suggests Trump used racial slurs during “Apprentice” outtakes. Rarely has a book title captured a relationship so well.

Manigault Newman declares that Trump’s reaction to the fatal violence in Charlottesville one year ago is what began to turn her against him, though it’s easy to conclude that losing a high-paying White House job may have done the trick, too. Whatever prompted her shift, and whatever one makes of her more brutal or questionable contentions, it’s useful to see how quickly and sharply a true believer can flip against the president, whether for principled or self-serving motives.

For most Americans, it is the ballot box, not the bestseller list, where such determinations are made, and where moralism and self-interest can and should mix. And it’s not hard to picture voters in 2018 or 2020 looking around, taking a breath and deciding they’ve had enough of the wackadoos.

Books cited in this essay:

  • Understanding Trump by Newt Gingrich. Center Street. 347 pp. $27.
  • Let Trump Be Trump: The Inside Story of His Rise to the Presidency by Corey R. Lewandowski and David N. Bossie. Center Street. 278 pp. $27.
  • Trump’s America: The Truth About Our Nation’s Great Comeback by Newt Gingrich. Center Street. 339 pp. $27
  • Liars, Leakers, and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy by Judge Jeanine Pirro. Center Street. 274 pp. $27
  • The Russia Hoax: The Illicit Scheme to Clear Hillary Clinton and Frame Donald Trump by Gregg Jarrett. Broadside. 332 pp. $28.99
  • The Briefing: Politics, The Press, and the President by Sean Spicer. Regnery. 278 pp. $28.99
  • Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House by Omarosa Manigault Newman. Gallery Books. 334 pp. $28

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