A year on, I still have no idea how Stephanie Zacharek of Time found the focus, energy, or electrolytes to wake up the morning after Donald Trump’s election and publish a short essay that contextualised a global nightmare that was just starting to unfurl. Her piece that day touched on populism, elitism, and the way that American culture had been twisted by the events of the night before, and I still read it once a month or so, just to remind myself that there’s some sort of roadmap through the chaos of a Trump presidency. But before Zacharek got to talking about Springsteen and punk and Thatcher and Dante she opened the piece with the same exhausted disbelief that her reader felt. “To wake up to a Donald Trump presidency is to wake up on the wrong side of a nightmare mirror world,” she wrote. “Our definitions of populism and elitism have gone haywire. The people have spoken, and roughly half of them want this guy.”
It was the first thing I read that morning, still stuck to my freezing bed, and it was the only thing I understood for a few weeks. The wrong side of a nightmare mirror world. It was a common experience that morning. Yesterday, Esquire ran an oral history of election night and its immediate aftermath that reads more like a fractured horror story, with Steve Bannon and Roger Stone jutting in with smug, ugly smiles. But when the villains shut up for a second, there’s the overwhelming sense that November 9 did feel like a nightmare. John Favreau says, “It felt like when you wake up after someone close to you passes away”; Shani O Hilton of Buzzfeed News says she got on the subway the next morning where, “It felt like an observable silence. I saw at least three people sitting by themselves, just weeping silently.”
It still feels like a waking nightmare now, in the midst of the deportations and the fascist rallies and the “both sides” speeches and the threats of nuclear annihilation and the “thoughts and prayers” after another mass murder. The line between sleep and waking consciousness has been blurred by the steady stream of micro-information that always – always – has something to do with Donald Trump. And that doesn’t tend to breed a constructive depression or bring out a righteous anger for more than a few minutes at a time – it’s just a brutal spiral.
Maybe there’s no way to properly break that descent, short of melting down your iPhone and actually trying to get some sleep that isn’t interrupted by another sweat-inducing crisis. But the books, essays and longreads that we’ve put together below might help to break that descent a little bit (they are all more than 280 characters, for a start). A few lines into her piece last year, Zacharek wrote that Trump, “seems proud of the fact that he hasn’t read many books.” So read these, if only to be less like him.
Hunter Thompson genuinely hated Richard Nixon. The hate inspired him, woke him up in the morning, drove him to write well past sunrise. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 – still his best book – is the clearest example of the insanity that Nixon inspired in him. But the most bitter and beautiful piece is Thompson’s 1994 obituary for Nixon, first published in Rolling Stone. Thompson attacks Nixon from every angle, often one after the other: “He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president,” he writes. “Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.” It’s a reminder – if we need one – that a vicious and immoral man has already assumed the presidency, buoyed by angry white people. And it’s a sharp example of how to write about a powerful man who cared only about himself.
Matt Taibbi: Insane Clown President
Taibbi is a brilliant journalist and a feverish writer; nobody else can twist horror and comedy around each other so tightly in non-fiction. Insane Clown President is built off of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 – a series of dispatches from the road as the country sank into madness. There are few writers better equipped to tackle the hysteria around Trump than Taibbi. And nobody can boil the absurdity down to so few syllables. Like this: “The man who once famously pronounced “I know words, I have the best words” scorched through the primaries using the vocabulary of a signing gorilla (“China—money—bad!”).”
Ivanka Trump: The Trump Card
The eldest Trump daughter’s 2009 self-help book can tell us more about Donald Trump than Donald Trump himself. It’s endless, littered with self-obsession and a false sense of perseverance – all family traits. A century from now, people will read this book for insight into our times, and they will read this very real line that was published in this very real book that actually exists: “Gosh, I sound like my father, don’t I? But that’s what you get from this particular Daddy’s girl.” If you’re not moved to spend the one penny (plus postage) on Amazon, there’s always Jia Tolentino’s forensic takedown of the book, written late last year, which comes with a perfect closing line.
Allan Lichtman: The Case for Impeachment
Lichtman, a political historian who correctly predicted the outcomes of every US presidential election between 1984 and 2012, published this book in April. With the Mueller investigation picking up pace and Trump debasing himself afresh every week, Lichtman could have written his book three times over in the last few months. But The Case for Impeachment is rooted in precedent – Watergate, for a start – so there’s weight to the argument that doesn’t just rely on Trump’s daily outbursts.
Kevin M Schulz: Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties
Let’s not spend any time dwelling on whether or not William F Buckley Jr was or was not a bastard in public. He held reprehensible views on race and equality for most of his life, and he was a salesman more than a thinker, so there’s a cynicism to that nastiness too. Schulz’s history of Buckley’s friendship with the Norman Mailer goes past that though, detailing a discontent with the political centre and a battle for America’s soul that was played out somewhere between the pages of Playboy and the lecture halls of a hundred volatile college campuses. “I don’t care if people call me a radical, a rebel, a red, a revolutionary, an outsider, an outlaw, a Bolshevik, an anarchist, a nihilist, or even a left conservative,” Mailer wrote to the editor of Playboy in 1962, “but please don’t ever call me a liberal.” It’s a worthwhile reminder that bold ideas have always existed near enough to the American mainstream.
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