One of the features of American ‘politics as usual’ and the mainstream way of doing business that Trump was meant to upend is the campaign book. Incredibly clubby, gossipy and focused entirely on the interplay of personalities of those in the room where it happens; this is not where you want to go if you want to find out why a key voting block in the Minnesota suburbs voted this way or that way. It is where you go if you want to find out who Jared Kushner was mean to in meetings. Written at great haste by journalists, with a few weeks at most removed from events that they were covering live for posterity, these books usually explode to much fanfare before rapidly fading from everyone’s collective memory, which is the case with the vast majority of books written by journalists. Some self-reflection on this format came last year when it emerged Bob Woodward had been sitting on the fact Trump had been saying privately that COVID-19 was actually very nasty and not at all the Democrats and the media’s “new hoax” for months before putting it in a book. This hasn’t stopped the usual campaign book merry-go-round from cranking up this year.
The classic of the campaign book remains Richard Ben Cramer’s What it Takes about the 1988 presidential election. It’s no coincidence that the style and rhythm of the 1988 and 1992 elections defined how we think about campaigns until very recently. The legacy of What it Takes and The War Room (the Chris Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennybaker documentary about the ‘92 campaign) can be seen in every subsequent depiction of American presidential campaigns. The punchiness and bravado of American Presidential election campaigns are always defined by tropes like the ‘Maverick’ advisor and pundits speaking of ‘everything going down to the line’, with the goal of offering readers the untold behind the scenes ‘story’ of the election. Taking the focus backstage inevitably makes everything in campaigns seem coordinated and controlled by puppet masters; the agency any normal people might have in the political process is deemed unimportant.
So does Frankly, We Did Win This Election by Senior White House reporter for the Wall Street Journal Michael C. Bender do anything different or interesting with this format? Yes and no. The most interesting aspect the book covers is the lives of the ‘Front Row Joes’; a group of diehard Trump fans who sit in the front row of all of his rallies, often travelling thousands of miles on small budgets just to get a dose of Fuhrerkontakt. Their loyalty to Trump causes them to slowly abandon more and more of their critical faculties; when one of their number dies of coronavirus, it is met with bewilderment at their Zoom memorial, when one of them storms Congress on Jan. 6th she is not there to “Steal things” or do damage but was “Just here to overthrow the government”. What might euphemistically be called the ‘events’ of 2020 are brought back to the campaign and their impact on people’s partisan hivemind without it involving men with their sleeves rolled up looking at maps saying something’s going to be ‘damn close’.
The half-rationalisation of ‘we were only trying to overthrow the government’ is key to understanding the Trump mindset. The biggest conclusion from the section that takes place after election night is how no one was actually working to any kind of endgame – just belligerently refusing to look and act like a loser. Its defensiveness and paranoia means that the Trump movement has a tendency to back itself into a corner from which the only escape is to follow its anger to its logical conclusion.
American politics has been covered in bombastic terms since What it Takes and The War Room, and in some ways it’s remarkable that it took someone this long to match rhetoric with action.
Bender struggles to get to grips with Trump World. The book spends half the time saying that the people we saw on tv – think Seb Gorka yelling “THE ERA OF THE PAJAMA BOYS IS OVER AND THE ALPHA MALES ARE BACK!” – were actually much more intelligent and rational in private. The other half was spent saying ‘gee, it was worse than you think’ with anecdotes about something horrible Trump nearly did, before either forgetting about it or being talked out of it. The most egregious was his revelation that Trump considered using the powers of the Insurrection Act against Black Lives Matter protests.
As this book says, covering Trump’s campaign operation is inherently difficult in a year when, more than any other, the campaign was fought and lost from within the White House rather than on the road. Rivalries between the communications and digital teams of the campaign feel a bit small beer next to everyone realising they’re living in a pandemic. The book’s focus too often skewed towards that of the classic campaign book, giving a play-by-play account of how Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, was getting on with Jared Kushner – only breaking from this to inform us George Floyd had just been killed.
This then, is half a good book. You may not remember anything on who Trump’s digital team did or didn’t get on with in campaign headquarters a week from now or even tomorrow. But for someone who wants to understand the nature of Trump’s connection to his voters this will be more enlightened at the end of this book than the beginning. This book won’t redefine the campaign book genre, but it does at least make an attempt to deal with Trump World as something other than ‘politics as usual’.