On the shelf
Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and America’s Collapse
By Maggie Haberman
Penguin: 608 pages, $32
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Yes, he joked about “how much longer” the ailing Ruth Bader Ginsburg could hold out against impending death. No, he apparently wasn’t pleased to be sitting on the White House toilet seat that Barack Obama once used. Yes, he claimed against all evidence that, contrary to personal inclinations, he did not watch the January 2021 riots unfold in the US Capitol. Yes, he thought it unlikely that his son-in-law Jared Kushner “and his skinny ass” would be comfortable on a camping expedition.
All of that — and much more — has already leaked out of “Confidence Man,” Maggie Haberman’s monumental look at Donald Trump and his presidency. Much of this has seeped into our awareness of the madness and chaos inherent in the Trump administration. Some of this has already seeped into our memories from the thousands of tweets, the hundreds of leaks from other Trump books, the dozens of legal challenges. Not to mention the one searing memory of the afternoon when Vice President Mike Pence refused to blame his boss for the election.
In the heyday of news magazines, reporters from Time and Newsweek derided the very kind of lurid tidbits collected in this season’s Trump retrospectives as “nuts on the pie.” And then, every week, the magazine correspondents would trip over each other to harvest those pecans, almonds, and, in the case of the Clinton administration, the macadamia nuts that the 42nd President used as a sex aid. Haberman’s collection is large enough to fill a container of Costco Salted Mixed Nuts. Here is a sampler:
How Trump wondered (loudly, of course) if Kushner was using the ban on working on the Jewish Sabbath to cover up his laziness. As 45 trumpeted, he has no intention of leaving the White House, maybe ever. How he thought he was supposed to emerge from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in a wheelchair after being treated for COVID-19, stand up, rip his buttons apart and reveal a Superman shirt. How (we know this, but now it’s doubly confirmed) he demanded during White House events that he be given more ice cream than anyone else. Some of the details are absolutely shoddy and sadly unworthy of a major newspaper; An example of this is on page 255 if you can stand it – but I can’t even bear the thought of typing it out.
Over time, such nuts go stale faster than a Christmas fruitcake, but what remains of “Confidence Man,” marketed by its most insightful chronicler as the most insightful volume on Trump, is Haberman’s take on the man.
From the start, the New York Times’ most prominent Donald watcher – whom Trump described as “a third-rate reporter … I don’t speak to,” although he has given her interviews repeatedly – portrayed a “good Trump” (charming, personable, personable to others) and an “evil Trump” (“primarily interested in money, dominance, power, bullying, and himself”). In her prologue, Haberman devotes 21 lines to good and 30 lines to evil, a far better ratio than what follows in the remaining 505 pages of her narrative.
She portrays Trump as a man hungry for wealth, notoriety and prestige, and willing to betray truth and tradition, law and logic in order to attain them. But we knew that. She tells us that Trump had a mania for building (hotels, casinos, golf clubs) and tearing down (rivals, institutions and ultimately democratic values). But we also knew that. Their Trump—a peculiar nutmeg of ego and hyperbole, contempt and contradiction—was motivated by greed and grandiosity. This isn’t exactly new.
And yet, despite all the criticism of Haberman in traditional and social media – the accusations that she is too hard on Trump, or that she is too easy on him, or most importantly that she has sinned against her newspaper and the country, by saving the damaging details of her book rather than sharing them as she learned them — she understands her subject perhaps better than any of her rivals on the Trump book tour.
The Haberman view: The world’s most powerful man was childish, prone to meaningless flattery, preoccupied with the fringe, impatient with details, dismissive of advice — and as a result, she writes, the executive branch of the United States government was “submissive.” the president’s whims and whims, his ideas of friends and foes.” She later tells us “that he recalibrated an entire country to respond to his moods and emotions.” Well, that’s power!
Sometimes she portrays Trump as a simpleton; After the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, Secretary of Staff Rob Porter urged the president to talk about history and “heritage.” Haberman says that got Trump’s attention. “He liked that word,” she writes. “He wanted to try to use it.” He was (no surprise here) preoccupied with physical appearance; he likened the Director of Intelligence, who had protruding ears, to “Dumbo.”
Trump partisans will no longer read Maggie on MAGA—needing to be persuaded less than Trump-haters would read or be persuaded by Jared on Jerusalem (“Breaking History: A White House Memoir,” published August). So the broader question about titles like these, and the many others that are cluttering the shelves of booksellers from coast to coast (and in Canada, where I live this fall and where anti-Trump animus is epidemic), is what is her ultimate post? ?
Nothing is likely to change in the debate over the Trump years. Certainly not to change a single opinion. Also not plausible for influencing the midterm congressional elections or shaping the 2024 presidential campaign. The best that can be said about them is that when they come together – and it will be a huge gathering – they will be sources for the biographies and historical analysis of a future time.
Countless books have come out of the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, but it is the assessments of David McCullough (who single-handedly redefined HST), Fredrik Logevall (who has completed just one volume of a promisingly influential JFK series), and Robert Caro ( hard at work on Volume 5 of his LBJ masterpiece) that will endure. All three – plus Richard Norton Smith on Gerald Ford, due out next spring – have drawn on books written shortly after their presidencies.
Haberman’s book, The Firefly of the Moment – certainly enlightening, if brief – will be one of them. It might even be first among equals. But inevitably there will be more; the final chapter on Trump isn’t written yet, and even if he doesn’t win in 2024, he’ll make headlines as long as he catches his breath. The definitive account of the impostor Haberman portrays is decades away. Most of us, exhausted or even repelled by the chaos, will be content to wait.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-10-03/review-yes-we-already-know-who-trump-maggie-haberman-book-still-matters Review: Why Maggie Haberman’s predictable Trump book matters