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Two new books about the final year of Donald J. Trump’s presidency are entering the cultural bloodstream. The first, “Landslide,” by the gadfly journalist Michael Wolff, is the one to leap upon, even though the second, “I Alone Can Fix It,” from the Washington Post journalists Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, is vastly more earnest and diligent, to a fault.
This is Wolff’s third book about Trump in as many years. It’s Leonnig and Rucker’s second, after the excellent “A Very Stable Genius,” which appeared in early 2020. This one, alas, reads like 300 daily newspaper articles taped together so that they resemble an inky Kerouacian scroll. Each article longs to jump to Page A28 on a different scroll, in another room.
Perhaps it’s not the authors’ fault that “I Alone Can Fix It” is grueling. It may be that a reader, having survived Covid-19, “stop the steal” and the bear-spray wielders, and feeling a certain amount of relief — relief, John Lanchester has said, is the most powerful emotion — is uneager to rummage so soon through a dense, just-the-facts scrapbook of a dismal year.
A primary and not insignificant achievement in “I Alone Can Fix It,” however, is its bravura introduction of a new American hero, a man who has heretofore not received a great deal of attention: Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A better title for this book might have been “Mr. Milley Goes to Washington.”
There tend not to be a lot of people to root for in Trump books. Reading them is like watching WWE fights in which all the wrestlers are heels, smashing each other with folding chairs. Milley provides Leonnig and Rucker not just with an adult in the room, but a human being with a command of facts, a long view of history, a strong jaw and a moral center.
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Milley explains the Constitution to Trump. He delivers cinematic, Eisenhower-worthy monologues, such as: “Everything’s going to be OK. We’re going to have a peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to land this plane safely. This is America.” In one meeting he tells the egregious Stephen Miller to “shut the [expletive] up.”
We were, Milley suggests, closer than we knew to the precipice. A crucial moment in this book details the final weeks of Trump’s presidency, when the stitching was really coming off the ball. Milley told aides he feared a coup, and, Leonnig and Rucker write, “saw parallels between Trump’s rhetoric of election fraud and Adolf Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior.” Milley told aides: “This is a Reichstag moment.”
About the Proud Boys and their ilk, he tells military and law enforcement leaders: “These are the same people we fought in World War II.”
There’s a vast amount more in “I Alone Can Fix It.” It’s an almost day-by-day accounting of Trump’s last year in office, from the fumbled Covid response to the second impeachment to Rudy Giuliani’s public self-immolations. There are apocalyptic scenes of Trump dressing down and humiliating those around him, including former Attorney General William P. Barr.
A final scene worth mentioning occurred during the siege on January 6. The congresswoman Liz Cheney called Milley the following day to check in. She described being with the Trump dead-ender Representative Jim Jordan during the attack on the Capitol, and how he said to her, “We need to get the ladies away from the aisle. Let me help you.” Cheney responded, the authors write, by slapping his hand away and telling him, “Get away from me. You [expletive] did this.”
Among the first intellectuals to take Trump seriously as a cultural and political force was Camille Paglia. Writing in Salon six months before the 2016 election, she presciently described him, in a photograph with a busty younger woman, as resembling “a triumphant dragon on the thrusting prow of a long boat.”
Paglia’s “dragon” comment came back to me while I was reading Wolff’s book, “Landslide.” Wolff, too, tells a broad, jumpy, event-laden story about Trump’s shambolic final year. But he’s particularly interested in Trump’s X-factor, his Luciferian pride, his engorged ego, his gargoyle chi — as well as his darkly telepathic relationship with his admirers and the sick realization that in his universe standard morality is waved aside as if by force majeure.
Wolff blames the “striving, orderly, result-oriented, liberal world and its media,” including this newspaper, for missing the point about Trump. Wolff suggests Trump dwells outside the knowable and the conventionally understood. He was never cynical and armed with a grand strategy. He had “completely departed reality.”
His aides stuck with him, in part, because they came to believe he had magical properties. He was unkillable. He was that dragon on a thrusting prow. “Why bet against him?” Wolff asks.
Wolff is a sometimes-mocked figure in the worlds of journalism and politics. He’s been accused of being less than diligent in his fact-checking. He’s been ticketed for careless writing violations. These complaints are valid, up to a point. But “Landslide” is a smart, vivid and intrepid book. He has great instincts. I read it in two or three sittings.
It’s the book that this era and this subject probably deserve. In that way it’s like “His Way,” Kitty Kelley’s brutal 1983 biography of Frank Sinatra or, more flattering to the author, Tina Brown’s sinuous and alert 2007 book about Princess Diana.
You never sense Wolff has the political world in his hands, the way Theodore H. White did in his “The Making of the President” books. He lacks the bristling erudition of a Garry Wills. “Landslide,” with its impudent and inquisitive qualities, put me in mind of Joe McGinniss’s “The Selling of the President 1968.” Like McGinniss, Wolff embeds himself like a tick, even while socially distancing.
Wolff doesn’t have Mark Milley. He’s not so interested in the Covid narrative. He zeros in on the chaos and the kakistocracy, on how nearly everyone with a sense of decency fled Trump in his final months, and how he was left with clapped-out charlatans like Sidney Powell and Giuliani. Giuliani’s flatulence is a running joke in this book, but the author doesn’t find him funny at all.
Wolff has scenes Leonnig and Rucker don’t. These include election night details, such as the freak-out in Trump world when Fox News called Arizona early for Biden. Wolff, who wrote a biography of Rupert Murdoch, describes the frantic phone calls that flew back and forth before the word came down from Murdoch himself about Trump’s complaints: “[Expletive] him.”
In this accounting, Trump belittles his followers. “Trump often expressed puzzlement over who these people were,” Wolff writes, “their low-rent ‘trailer camp’ bearing and their ‘get-ups,’ once joking that he should have invested in a chain of tattoo parlors and shaking his head about ‘the great unwashed.’”
Wolff has an eye for status details. A typical comment: “Bedminster had hopeful airs of a British gentlemen’s club, but looked more like a steak restaurant.”
It was another Wolfe, Tom, who commented that “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” The authors of both these books conclude with fresh Trump interviews, seaside at Mar-a-Lago. None think the threat of that night will pass anytime soon.