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Past is prologue in two new books that explore the Trump era

The genesis of the Trump-era and its ultimate impact on American politics is explored in two new books.
NPR
The genesis of the Trump-era and its ultimate impact on American politics is explored in two new books.

Maggie Haberman's biography Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America has been among the most anticipated accounts of the 45th president's impact on American politics.

Robert Draper's new book on the post-Trump state of Republican politics, Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind, has not had nearly as much attention.

But moving swiftly across timeframes and landscapes, both depict a political world that few Americans could have foreseen less than a decade ago. They also hint at a future many will fear.

Haberman has one subject, a singular actor who has wrought much of the change in the landscape himself. Draper works with an ensemble of characters who are far less familiar, but offer compelling insight into Trump's surprising rise within the Republican Party. Together, they help us understand how Trump has held sway in that party even as his single chaotic term led to the loss of the House and the Senate and the White House –and how he has maintained party dominance even after his abortive attempt to subvert the 2020 election.

Tracing Trump's rise

Haberman covered Trump first as a young reporter for the New York Post, then for New York Daily News, Politico, and finally for the New York Times. Her persistence and Trump's own love-hate fixation on the Times have long supplied her with unparalleled access to his moods and media manipulation. Trying to handle all this as even-handedly as possible has earned her admiration and anger alike. Some have called her the "Trump Whisperer" and worse.

But Haberman deploys a deep sense of Trump's origins and career, including his relationships with New York's mayors and powerful Democratic ward bosses such as Meade Esposito. Haberman helps us understand how his lifelong desire for stardom pushed him to bid for the presidency and how his unorthodox credentials and tactics enabled him to win. She has a witness' eye for much that she relates, as when Trump first came to Washington to flirt with a presidential candidacy in 2011: "When he took the stage, with the Apprentice theme song "For the Love of Money" blaring overhead, the room was packed, a mix of religious activists, libertarian-minded college students, and corporate lobbyists unlikely ever to assemble anywhere else."

In a gripping chapter titled "Rising on a Lie," Haberman describes how Trump sorted out themes and gimmicks he might use to take Obama down. He hit on a theory "that had floated through the right-win information eco-system since before (Obama) was elected," the idea that he had not been born in the U.S. and was therefore not constitutionally qualified to be president. The so-called "birther controversy" had played out in 2008 and died out. Trump said "I think this might work," and brought it back.

But having been present for the White House years, she also shows how poorly the same life history had prepared him for the office itself. He came to office still looking to his various gurus from Gotham, mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani and bigtime sports figures such as George Steinbrenner. And always, as other Trump biographers have recounted, relying on the teachings of Roy Cohn, the legendary lawyer for senators and mobsters who shaped Trump's worldview.

Haberman begins her download with a succinct prologue that outlines much of what she wants us to know. Five hundred pages later, in her Epilogue, she writes "Trump had proven that the majority of Washington Republicans who had initially opposed him were exactly as craven as he had said they were, as he bent them to his will because they saw personally opportunity or necessity for survival, even after the Capitol riot."

That is the link from the Trump-centric era described in Confidence Man to the even more foreboding outlook in Draper's Weapons of Mass Delusion. Draper locates Trump in the worst traditions of his party – or of any political party anywhere. These include both the cynical politics of Machiavellian self-interest and the perpetuation of division within the body politic in service of that self-interest.

Draper's difference

Draper's access is also the key to his reporting, but it is won one interview at a time with persistence and old-school shoe leather. Draper, who writes for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, is well-known for getting out of Washington and working the hustings. He goes to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy's home district in Bakersfield, Calif., to interview people McCarthy knew in high school contacts. McCarthy figures prominently in Weapons, not only because he could potentially become Speaker of the House (assuming a Republican majority beginning in January) but because he personifies the Trump transformation of the GOP.

We learn that McCarthy was a teenager when he was first attracted to that era's version of Trump as skyscraper builder and golden-touch businessman. Now known for Trump's nickname for him ("My Kevin"), McCarthy had a moment of rebellion on the night of January 6, but Draper reveals him repenting that moment step by step until he was back on the Trump track.

For contrast, Draper gives us generous helpings of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the Republicans on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the Capitol. But these are mournful, head-wagging sessions that underscore the interviewees' despair.

But while touching on the big names as he must, Draper returns to the grit of the political trenches. His fascination is with the GOP's fringe and its dramatic departures from mainstream politics. His passion is for fact-checking the fantasy that feeds those departures.

When Draper saw a campaign ad referring to illegal immigrants leaving "a thousand pounds of rubbish" on the streets of San Luis, Arizona, he went to the little border town himself and interviewed many of the officials there to fact-check the ad (which turned out to be wildly misleading).

The politician behind that ad was Paul Gosar, a dentist and junior member of Congress from northern Arizona, well-removed from the border but obsessed with it all the same. Gosar appears as the target of Draper's first chapter and again and often at length in Weapons. Also recurrent is Gosar's chief of staff Tom Van Flein, who previously had worked for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Gosar and Van Flein have shared much of their time and worldview with Draper, opening deep recesses of the current conservative movement to him.

Gosar also provides a narrative connection back to former congressman Steve King of Iowa, who was condemned by House Republicans for his comments on white supremacy and another connection to Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia congresswoman described as Gosar's "mentee" in chapters with titles such as "Arc of the Crazy."

Greene's unswerving devotion to Trump and tireless pursuit of social media fame have propelled her to a prominence rarely granted to first-termers. To give her, or Gosar, so much space will prompt disbelief.

Are these outliers really the forerunners of Republicans in the future? Draper is clearly arguing that they are.

A film director begins a shot focused on the face of a single figure, then "pulls focus" back to reveal a wider cast of characters and the set that surrounds them all. So Haberman has given us a long and thorough exposure of Trump as the protagonist in our present politics, and Draper has pulled focus to the crowd of lesser pretenders in his wake – and the elements of the nation that have embraced them all.

An era ending?

It is now widely expected that Republicans this month will easily erase the five-seat majority that makes Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat, the Speaker of the House. It is also an even-money bet that Mitch McConnell will be back as Senate Majority Leader as that chamber breaks its 50-50 tie in favor of the GOP.

If either chamber goes Republican, Donald J. Trump, the former president can be expected to declare himself vindicated. There will be talk of his return to the White House, and he may make some formal moves in that direction.

But in reading these two tomes, it is hard to escape the impression that Trump's career has passed its apogee. Just as President Biden is widely expected to pass on seeking a second term, Trump is no longer the best fit for the Trumpist party he created. An indictment, or more than one, is not the best launching pad for a third presidential campaign.

If that proves to be the case, the portents of Draper's reporting are the more pressing for our present moment. This is not to take anything away from the timeliness, breadth and richness of Haberman's magnum opus. There is, after all, no guarantee Trump will not be president again. But right now, longtime Trump observers may sense something like that that sensation late in a long flight — the moment the airliner slows just slightly as it is about to begin to descend.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.