Three Ways to Read Trump
When journalists write books on the presidency of Donald Trump, they tend to choose one of three options. They write about personality, they write about paper, or they write about people.
This choice not only determines what kinds of work they produce but also affects how their audiences interpret Trump’s continuing influence over American life. In personality-driven narratives, the former president’s uniqueness and unpredictability render him mesmerizing but always verging on self-destruction; after all, when you suck all the air out of the room, you risk bursting. Writers who focus on paper — meaning the investigations, memos and ritual documentation of Washington, which Trump challenged with equal measures of deliberation and carelessness — depict his presidency as a tug between disruption and procedure, as the political system and Trump resisted and adapted to each other. An emphasis on people tells the story of Trump’s craven enablers, his true believers, his embattled opponents and, looking ahead, his most opportunistic imitators.
The personality stories fascinate for their color and detail; they appeal to the versions of history that place a singular individual at their center. The paper stories resonate for their clash of cultures and institutional heft; the findings and accusations of the House’s Jan. 6 committee offer but the latest plot point in this dramatic arc. The people stories captivate for their steady supply of characters who, facing the unthinkable, decide to go ahead and think it, who, having experienced Trump’s America, opt to live there full time. Just about every Trump book that aims to shape the historical record and not just cater to momentary passions is a variation on one of these themes, even if most contain elements of all three. Depending on the accounts you choose and trust, you may come to believe that America is experiencing the death throes of the Trump era, awaiting its miraculous resurrection or feeling the birth pangs of Trumpism by another name.
In the epilogue of her recent book “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America,” Maggie Haberman recalls an interview with Trump in which he muses that talking to her is like talking to his psychiatrist. Haberman, a New York Times reporter, dismisses the line as a “meaningless” attempt at flattery. “He treats everyone like they are his psychiatrist,” she writes. Even so, “Confidence Man” constitutes a study of Trump’s “personality and character traits,” as Haberman affirms. She writes of his stunted emotional development, of the loneliness “that always seemed to be stalking him,” of the “emotional balm” that campaign rallies provide for him, of how he displays “both the thickest and thinnest skin” of any public figure she has covered, of his tendency to live in the moment yet inhabit an “eternal past” full of unquenchable grievance and of his “irrepressible self-destructive streak.” Haberman concludes that her subject is “a narcissistic drama seeker who covered a fragile ego with a bullying impulse.”
Haberman may not be Trump’s shrink, but she puts him on the couch, takes detailed notes and offers a diagnosis.
This focus surfaces some odd Trumpian obsessions and tendencies. On multiple occasions in the book, for instance, Trump wonders aloud about who is and isn’t gay, and he even seeks heterosexual reassurance from the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie. (“Me and you, just chicks — right, buddy?” Trump asks Christie.) Trump appears to enjoy mocking his son-in-law Jared Kushner (“Can you imagine Jared and his skinny ass camping? It’d be like something out of “Deliverance.”) and, in the pettiest way possible to assert his authority, grants himself one more scoop of ice cream for dessert than the Democratic House members attending a dinner he hosted in 2017. Haberman distinguishes between what some confidants call the “Good Trump,” capable of generosity and humor, and the “Bad Trump,” who is abusive and insecure, but Bad Trump is the lead actor of “Confidence Man,” with only rare cameos by his alter ego.
This emphasis on personality should not be confused with journalistic superficiality. Haberman makes clear how Trump’s instincts and impulses shaped the substance of the presidency day to day, minute to minute. “His aversion to hearing bad news led to people tiptoeing around him or trying to avoid telling him certain things,” she writes, a dangerous trait when your job involves managing all manner of emergencies.
Trump relished fights with Republicans more than with Democrats, Haberman explains, because he prefers battles over “interpersonal dynamics such as loyalty and respect” over ideology or policy, of which he cares little and knows less. She suggests that the move to clear protesters from Washington’s Lafayette Square and the subsequent photo op in front of St. John’s Church, with the president brandishing a Bible and a get-off-my-lawn scowl, flowed in part from his humiliation at a Times report that he had taken refuge in a White House bunker. And Trump’s transactional response when Christie urged him to disavow white-supremacist supporters during the 2016 campaign helps clarify why Trump socializes with antisemites, white nationalists and QAnon adherents in 2022. “A lot of these people vote,” he told Christie.
Trump “reoriented an entire country to react to his moods and emotions,” Haberman asserts in her book’s closing paragraph. From his Trump Tower campaign announcement in 2015 to the spasms of Jan. 6, 2021, the story of Trump’s personality became the story of America.
It was not, however, the story of Washington. That tale is told in “The Divider,” by another New York Times reporter, Peter Baker, and Susan Glasser, a New Yorker staff writer, both of whom I worked with closely during the years we overlapped at The Washington Post. This volume captures how the political establishment dealt with Trump the only way it knew how — with lots and lots of paper.
Documents assume enormous importance in “The Divider,” a preoccupation that feels retro for a presidency so dominated by social media and cable news yet one that more than merits its place. In moments of high drama, resignation letters by key cabinet members and top advisers are started but not finished, are drafted but not sent or are written, delivered and rejected but not immediately returned. Washington’s recurring Trump-era dilemma — whether you can serve this president without being corrupted by him — is usually answered in an anguished affirmative, only to elicit profound regret soon thereafter.
Memos, letters and reports tell the story of the administration. The May 2017 memo by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, made the case for firing James Comey as F.B.I. director, but it left Rosenstein as the White House’s “fall guy” for the move, Baker and Glasser explain. Rosenstein in turn appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign’s links to Russia, but Mueller’s 448-page report was neutered on arrival by another document: the four-page letter to Congress by Attorney General William P. Barr, which painted the report in “the best possible light,” the authors write, allowing Trump to claim exoneration. Read those three documents, and you have the story.
From Trump’s perspective, the Mueller investigation constituted the “ultimate showdown” against his deep-state enemies, Baker and Glasser write, meaning “the Democrats, the F.B.I., the intelligence agencies, the news media, the State Department, the Pentagon, the career civil service, the establishment writ large, fellow Republicans who had never fully accepted him. In other words, Washington.” Indeed, “The Divider” is the story of Trump versus Washington, so much so that I began to read the book’s title as a reference not only to how Trump divided the country but also to how he set himself against the capital — and how Washington fought back.
When Gen. John Kelly became Trump’s chief of staff in mid-2017, the White House staff secretary Rob Porter drafted memos aimed at helping Kelly professionalize the place. “Decisions are not final — and therefore may not be implemented — until the staff secretary secures a cleared [decision memorandum] that has been signed by the president,” one of them read. In other words, Trump could tweet whatever he wanted, but without a formal process, nothing was official. “The sentence was underlined to make the point clear,” Baker and Glasser write, and you can almost see them rolling their eyes. Imagine trying to neutralize Trump’s Twitter feed with a formal paper trail.
Special counsel reports don’t deter him. Vote counts don’t deter him. Not even the Constitution fazes Trump, whose recent call for the document’s “termination” is the ultimate battle against paper. His initial response to the Jan. 6 committee’s conclusion that he committed multiple federal crimes reflected a standard Trump tactic. “These folks don’t get it that when they come after me, people who love freedom rally around me,” he declared. “It strengthens me.” Trump always tries to turn paper fights into personality fights and then rallies people to defend him. For Trump, personality beats paper, and the support of his people beats everything.
Paper matters in “Confidence Man,” too, though mainly because it offers further insight into Trump’s personality. Haberman reports on how the president tore up documents and tossed them in the trash or the toilet, episodes that could reflect mere “behavioral tics” or signal the president’s “inherent paranoia.” Personality matters in “The Divider,” too, though mainly as an indication of how removed Trump’s presidency felt from the traditions of the office. “The psychological state of the world’s most powerful man was a source of never-ending speculation, commentary and concern in a way that simply had no parallel in American history,” Baker and Glasser write.
In an odd coincidence, the two books rely on the same Hollywood metaphor to explain the former president. “The Divider” cites a Trump-era national security official who, describing how Trump learned to undermine his administration’s so-called axis of adults, likens him to the velociraptor in “Jurassic Park” who learned new ways to hunt his prey. “It was a chilling thought,” Baker and Glasser write. “Who can forget the scene where the audience discovers this, when one of the predators chases the film’s child protagonists into an industrial kitchen by turning a handle to open a door?” Haberman cites the son of a Trump Organization executive who recalls the first time the future president fired off a tweet on his own, without staff help. “He later compared the moment to the scene in the movie ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” Haberman writes, “when dinosaurs realize they can open doors themselves.” Apparently the secret to writing a Trump best seller is to compare him to an angry, carnivorous beast that terrifies little kids.
In the first instance, Trump is testing the constraints on his power and manipulating the obstacles in his way. In the second, Trump is not just learning new methods but affirming old instincts. “No longer having to rely on staff meant there was no one to mediate his worst impulses,” Haberman writes. One is a Washington brawl, the other a personality unleashed.
In Robert Draper’s new book, “Weapons of Mass Delusion,” Trump is not the one battling Washington or undergoing a psychological assessment. Draper, a staff writer with The New York Times Magazine, studies the Republican House members who emulate Trump’s “performance art of cultural vendetta” and the MAGA supporters who, having absorbed the conservative media’s vilification of the left for so long, forgive whatever their side might do to counter the left. Even an assault on the Capitol is acceptable if the opponents arrayed against them are not just wrong but wicked. “So long as there was evil, there was righteousness,” Draper writes. “Identify evil, and the details did not matter.”
This is the third category of Trump books, the kind that concentrates less on his calculations or psychology than on the actions of those who come next, those who, viewing Trump as a mere baseline, have “plunged deeper into a Trumpian cult of compulsive dissembling and conspiracymongering,” Draper writes.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon-friendly Republican House member from Georgia who has minimized the Capitol riot as “Witch Hunt 2.0,” is one of Draper’s main examples. First Greene blamed the violence of Jan. 6 on antifa infiltrators, and later she excused it because the Declaration of Independence encouraged the people to overthrow tyrants. She has taken her statements even further of late, telling a Republican gathering in New York that if she and Steve Bannon had organized the attack on the Capitol, it would have succeeded, and it would have been armed. She later dismissed the remark as a “sarcastic joke,” but Draper emphasizes how even “her most outlandish rhetoric has become G.O.P. talking points.”
Conventional members of Congress often yearn for a “legacy project,” Draper writes, that one piece of legislation or vital initiative that constituents, colleagues and historians will long remember. For politicians like Greene, deep and abiding grievance is the only project that matters and the most consequential legacy. “Millions of Americans believed as she did,” Draper writes. “Their once-great country was under assault from within.” Though he provides sketches of ordinary Americans caught up in conspiracy theories and political violence, he still struggles to grasp the “emotional kinetics” that would compel so many people to gather in Washington on a single day and commit violence upon the seat of American democracy. “Will be wild!” Trump told them. So they came, and they were wild.
The emotional kinetics may be easier to understand if we recognize that “stop the steal” was never just about the presidency or the 2020 vote or even Trump himself. For those gathered on Jan. 6, what was stolen was not just the election; it was America itself, or at least the fantasy version of the country that the rioters and their supporters felt had been promised and never delivered yet somehow wrested away. The 2022 midterm election results may signal a weakening of such forces, and Trump’s early poll numbers for 2024 are not exactly commanding, but how often have we heard that a fever was finally breaking?
“The question of Trump’s influence was the wrong one,” Draper concludes. “The more salient question of the 2022 political season was whether it would augur the return of sanity to the Republican Party.” Too much of the G.O.P. has morphed into standard-issue Trumpism, no matter whether Trump is its standard-bearer.
Personality, paper and people are not just three ways to understand Trump. Even Haberman admits at the end of “Confidence Man” that, despite her best efforts, “almost no one really knows him.” They are also three lenses through which to make sense of the politics we are living through and the history we are writing. In her book, Haberman suggests that what began as Trump’s “personality-driven populism” has hardened into a longer-term political realignment. In “The Divider,” Baker and Glasser conclude that “there will be no return to the pre-Trump era of American politics.” Draper wonders if both Trump and Greene have become victims of their success, if they risk being “drowned out amid the Greek chorus of MAGA supplicants.”
One of the great questions of this time has always been whether Trump changed the country or revealed it more clearly. The answer is yes; it is both. He changed America by revealing it. On Jan. 6, Trump was the man who could win the country back for those who yearned for him long before they imagined him. If he can’t do it, someone like him will do. Or someone like him, perhaps, but more so.
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