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The post-presidential wave of books about Donald Trump is beginning to crest, with more and more autopsies of his presidency and deep-dives on specific subjects on the way – all adding to the already swollen canon of Trump literature, a genre that’ll be alive for decades to come (maybe even longer).
And Trump isn’t just one of the most written-about modern presidents: he’s also one of the most published, as well as one of the best-selling. And when the 45th president’s surely inevitable memoir of his time in office materialises, it will be the 20th book credited at least in part to him – though he has made no secret of the fact that his oeuvre was mostly penned by ghostwriters, many of whom he has bitterly and publicly fallen out with.
But in 2021, things are different. While Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, Bill Barr and others have had no trouble finding publishers to pay massive advances for their stories, Mr Trump is reportedly struggling to get a book deal at all.
There are plenty of reasons this might be. A report from Politico quoted a publishing industry insider pointing out that Trump has “screwed over so many publishers that before he ran for president none of the big five would work with [him] anymore”. That point was borne out by the ex-president’s statement in response to the Politico story, in which he claimed to have received and rejected offers from “two of the biggest and most prestigious publishing houses” (he did not name them).
“If my book will be the biggest of them all,” he opined, “and with 39 books written or being written about me, does anybody really believe that they are above making a lot of money? Some of the biggest sleezebags [sic] on earth run these companies.”
There’s more to it, though, than publishers not wanting to work with someone so erratic and difficult. Unlike the works he published in the decades before he became president, Trump’s post-presidency is a hard sell in the publishing world because his own position is a difficult one too.
He’s quite possibly going to run again in 2024, but faces intimidating legal investigations on multiple fronts that might well prevent him from doing so. He still has phenomenally high approval ratings among the Republican base, but he hasn’t yet found a new place in public life that will consistently hold the public’s attention, at least not in a way that flatters him.
And most problematically of all for publishers, his narrative of the last four-plus years – and especially the months since 3 November 2020 – is a flat-out lie that’s widely credited with inciting deadly violence at the US Capitol.
Anyone releasing a book that restates Trump’s version of events would put themselves in serious reputational and legal jeopardy. And any publisher who attempted to put out a version watered down in service of the truth and the law would surely feel Trump’s notorious rage soon enough.
Then again, problematic presidential memoirs have certainly been published before.
On many fronts – multiple accusations of high crimes and misdemeanours, for one – the best ex-president to compare Trump with is Richard Nixon. And so it goes with the possibility of a Trump presidential memoir, which apart from its problems getting published in the first place can surely expect a major public backlash upon its release.
When Nixon’s first memoir, RN, was lined up for publication in 1978, it was met with public disgust. The New York Times reported that at an American Booksellers Association gathering, a group calling itself the “Committee to Boycott Nixon’s Memoirs” tried to discourage visitors from buying the book, selling T-shirts that read “Don’t buy books by crooks”.
For its part, the Times – which had already paid for the serial rights to the former president’s memoirs – was happy to “let the marketplace decide the issue”.
“Any potential reader who is offended by the notion of adding to Mr Nixon’s wealth by adding to his royalties,” the paper’s editors wrote, “has an inalienable right to borrow the book from library or from a less fastidious acquaintance, or simply to forgo the experience.
“Whatever one’s opinion of the former president, if scoundrels could not publish, the world would be deprived of much literature.”
However awful the Nixon presidency might have been, Trump might not get such a generous response from the media today. Craig Fehrman, whose Author in Chief tells“the untold story of our presidents and the books they wrote”, thinks a massive backlash to a Trump book deal is guaranteed.
“One interesting shift,” he says, “will be that a Trump book creates the potential for protest not just outside the publishing house but inside it, too. Minus a few notable exceptions, most literary types – editors and booksellers – were fine to publish Nixon’s memoirs. With a Trump book you’d have a huge backlash from editors and booksellers and authors affiliated with the publisher.
“That’s a big shift from the Nixon era – and even from the backlashes against George W Bush and Sarah Palin’s books. Trump is a far more divisive figure than they ever were, and we live in a much more partisan time.”
And speaking of partisan times, perhaps the best template for Trump to work from is the one he’s least likely to use.
Of all the presidential candidates to have lost an election in recent decades, only one has carried enough weight to write a genuine post-defeat blockbuster: Hillary Clinton, Trump’s own vanquished rival and to this day his bete noire, whose What Happened became both a bestseller and the subject of heated debate.
As with almost every interview she gave after her shattering loss, the book was met by Ms Clinton’s detractors with complaints that she should stop talking about the election and withdraw from political discourse altogether. But those dubious critiques aside, What Happened offers much more than many post-campaign or post-presidency memoirs can be bothered with.
In the book, Ms Clinton doesn’t just defend herself on some points while acknowledging mistakes where they mattered; she also offers what might be the closest thing any such book has included to a multicausal political science analysis of why the election went the way it did, explaining with reference to data why no single external event, campaign decision or cultural shift can on its own account for her defeat and Trump’s victory.
(She gives particular credit to James Comey’s announcement a week before the election that the investigation into her emails was being reopened, but even she doesn’t go so far as to say his intervention was the only factor.)
Whether or not Ms Clinton’s analysis holds water is up for debate, but the important thing about What Happened as a text is that its title is a statement, not a question. It seems safe to say that if or when Trump publishes a book on his defeat in 2020, it will be similarly declarative rather than reflective.
Whereas Ms Clinton gives a rationale for why she campaigned in the way she did before weighing different hypotheses about her defeat against each other, Trump has only two claims to make: that his presidency was a golden age of towering achievements, and that the election was stolen from him.
As was true when RN hit the shelves, publishers have put out myriad books by the world’s most powerful people despite their history of elision, misrepresentation and outright lying. But Trump’s legal situation, his corrosive effect on the US’s culture and society, and the fact that he may yet try to rise again make the opportunity to pay him for his words and then profit from them a dubious one indeed.