Book review: Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse, by John Nichols
“Presidents can often be inconsequential – or foolish, or erratic, or incomprehensible. But presidencies are never any of those things. They are powerful, overarching, definitional. They shape more than policies; they shape our sense of what the United States can be…Donald Trump’s presidency will make America something different than it has ever been – something darker if his autocratic agendas prevail, something brighter if the resistance to those agendas coalesces into the welcoming, humane and aspirational America that Langston Hughes promised it could be.”
The Nation editor and reporter John Nichols details, chapter by terrifying chapter, the many ways that each member of Trump’s cabinet has proven themselves unfit to serve as civil officers. His argument is that we have to be aware of how very dangerous these people actually are, because a president is after all only a single person supported by a network of many others who should be experienced and accomplished in their fields. That’s not the case here and now, and it’s not a matter of partisanship, it’s a matter of what their own track records show.
“This is the story of cabinet secretaries and assistants, commissioners and counselors, blood relatives and retainers, billionaire ‘advisors’ and un-indicted co-conspirators who make up a Trump administration that is absolutely unprepared ‘to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity’ but more than ready for a mission of provocation and plunder.”
As Nichols argues, Trump himself can’t destroy the country or its progress alone, but he can chip away at it pretty mightily when he’s backed by such a cadre of crooks, cheats, incompetents, yes-men, and know-nothings, to put it nicely.
“There is not enough greatness or horror in any man or woman to turn the page of any nation. This is why the intricate webs of individuals and policies and movements that make and unmake presidencies matter more than presidents.
The men and women Trump chooses to surround himself with, and to empower, will determine the America that will emerge from his presidency. They will shape and implement the policies of this presidency. They will check and balance Trump’s excesses, or they will steer this inexperienced and impulsive man toward precipices from which neither he, nor this nation, nor this world, can turn back.”
There’s a lot of commentary, some melodramatic, but the actions of these people speak for themselves, with or without commentary or opinion from the left.
We owe it to ourselves to be informed about where our civil officers come from, what makes them qualified for the high positions they hold in our government, and how their personal beliefs, voting or performance records shape the way they will influence policy.
All the major players are here (DeVos, Sessions, Bannon [already ousted since the book went to print], Conway, Paul Ryan, Ivanka and Jared, Tillerson) and plenty of names I didn’t previously know. Nichols reserves special ire for a few, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, using her as an example of Franklin Roosevelt’s concept of “malice domestic.” FDR borrowed it from Shakespeare, this concept of cloaked malice intended to gain authority. But really, it’s not that Nichols dislikes her or a few other particularly dastardly figures more; it’s that they have enough dirt on themselves to fill a cemetery.
In the book’s conclusion, Nichols mentions an interesting point made by Ralph Nader (I know, but it’s important) that presidential candidates should have to disclose who they’d nominate for cabinet positions during the campaign, not after being elected. I agree, although I’m not sure the several thousand voters in a few states who won Trump the electoral college would’ve cared much. But it’s something we as a people should be considering as a potential change.
A few quotes that show the dark sense of humor Nichols employs throughout, making this such a hard-hitting, morbidly fascinating, eminently readable account:
On Steve Bannon: “Darkness is good,” says Bannon. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they [the enemies] get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
If that’s not enough to keep you up at night, I don’t know what is. Even after he’s no longer White House-employed, I’m not any less nervous about him and his beliefs.
A chapter about Attorney General Jeff Sessions opens with the line, “What can be said about Jeff Sessions that has not already been said by Dr. David Duke?”
He could’ve probably ended the chapter right there, mic drop, but there’s much more to say about this “leopard that did not change his spots.” The message from Duke is that Sessions was a great pick who would, in his view, hopefully “stop the massive institutional race discrimination against whites!” Oh boy.
Paul Ryan wants very much to be recognized as the adult at the kids’ table that the Republican Party has become.
And this anecdote, both hilarious and terrifying, about Trump asking an editor of the Economist magazine if he’d heard the expression he’d just used in an interview, “prime the pump,” which Nichols defines as a “common term for the sort of governmental interventions that John Maynard Keynes proposed to avert, or at the very least address, recessions and depressions.”
The editor tried to joke that it was “very Keynesian,” meaning Keynes said it, and all this in front of Trump’s Director of the Economic Council, former Goldman Sachs (one of many alumni in Trump’s cabinet) Gary Cohn. Trump harped on: “Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just…I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good.”
“Gary Cohn, the former president and co-chief operating officer of the Goldman Sachs investment banking empire, who had left his previous position with a $285 million severance package in order to bring a measure of coherence to the young Trump presidency, was very quiet. Presumably, Cohn knew about priming the pump and John Maynard Keynes and all that. But he just let the president talk himself out.”
So he’s surrounded by yes-men who don’t even correct him when he claims he invented google-able theories of Keynesian economics. Perfect.
Nichols shows that Trump transitioned “from a campaign in which he promised to ‘drain the swamp’ of official Washington to a presidency in which he would expand the swamp as never before.” He also makes myriad comparisons to previous presidents, founding fathers, and admirable cabinet members who shaped the nation for the better, who have kept America great all along:
“The wisest of our forebears proposed to assemble administrations that would guard against foreign entanglements and against the corruptions of empire at home and abroad. They wanted to err instead toward ‘the light of reason in the human mind.’ In the Trump administration, unfortunately, that light is extinguished.”
Attention-grabby title aside, Nichols makes impressive, fact-backed points. He’s collected a wealth of information and distilled it into readable form. This book reads like a tensely unfolding horror-thriller: it’s hard to look away, it’s surreal, it’s impossible to stop thinking about long after it’s closed.
Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse:
A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America
by John Nichols
published August 29, 2017 by Nation Books (Hachette)
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.
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