After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week I barely even want to talk about this madman who may actually be responsible for putting a third Supreme Court Justice on the bench, but I did read two books about him last week. I don’t know why I do these things to myself, besides that it feels like a civic duty.
First up, Liar’s Circus: A Strange and Terrifying Journey Into the Upside-Down World of Trump’s MAGA Rallies, by seasoned journalist and investigative reporter Carl Hoffman. Hoffman has spent his career traveling to far-flung, dangerous locations — rainforests of the Congo, living among headhunters in New Guinea among them — but he maintains that such immersion is the only way to understand this social-cultural anthropology.
So it’s with a certain sense of frustration that he admits he doesn’t understand what’s going on right now in his own country, and begins attending the frequent rallies thrown by the Trump campaign. I had no idea how frequent, really — they all blend together when I catch up on news highlights — but as this disturbing work of “immersive contemporary anthropology” shows, they’ve significantly impacted Trump’s standing and perception.
This is on-the-ground reporting of what the atmosphere at MAGA rallies is like, including its attendees’ racism, spread of misinformation, and rampant belief in conspiracy theories, as well as their genuine concerns, misguided and not troubled by data as those may be. Although he quotes directly from supporters who allege things like “serious Satanic stuff going on in this country,” Hoffman doesn’t always clarify where those beliefs come from. I know they’re not always able to articulate it, but I would’ve appreciated more of an effort, or research on the author’s part.
He gives off a palpable sense of exhaustion, even burnout, in these conversations. And following his thought process through the rallies was frightening. I can’t think of another word for it. You can see the bizarre hypnosis they evince.
What this book most revealed wasn’t anything illuminating about Trump voters, even the most fervent ones — “Front Row Joes,” they call themselves, who make a hobby of attending as many of his rallies as possible, spending days in line to get up close. Instead it reveals more of the evangelical-religious intensity of the rallies, and how they’re fueling fervent, unwavering support for Trump. Multiple times Hoffman paints a scene of near-religious ecstasy, disturbing as that is, and observes that “for the first time I began to grasp what people drawn to cults might feel.”
And he examines a wide strip of the country that has been hard hit economically, and thus is susceptible to that populist idea of a “mythical, nostalgic greatness.” He also fact checks some important points while observing how well attended these rallies are (pre-Covid) and how unusual that is for presidential campaign events, although noting that the 100,000 people who attended an Obama rally in St. Louis in 2008 outnumber any Trump event.
This is informative although felt mostly like familiar territory, and left me depressed. He’s back to throwing these rallies again, Covid be damned, and this lays out how strongly they drum up a kind of blind, passionate excitement, which leads to the votes he needs in states where he needs them, where presidential candidates don’t even traditionally spend much time. Yeats kept ringing through my head reading this: The worst are full of passionate intensity. (September 1, Custom House)
But now let’s really get to the worst. Rage is journalist Bob Woodward’s follow-up to 2018’s Fear. Woodward is not only a journalist of absolute highest renown dating back to his investigation of Watergate, he’s a smart, prescient observer and analyst. He recalls here in an interview about Fear, when asked for his “bottom-line summary of Trump’s leadership, responding, “Let’s hope to God we don’t have a crisis.'” Well.
The 17 interviews Woodward conducted with Trump beginning in December 2019 cover the lead-up to and the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, providing an alarming picture of the chaotic, disorganized, emotional atmosphere Trump cultivates. He had declined interviews for Fear but allegedly expressed regret to aides about this decision, so this time he cooperated.
Woodward writes at the end of this that he feels weary. I felt the same reading it (that’s not to say anything negative about the writing or content, which, depressing as it is, is vitally important especially in these immediate pre-election weeks).
The biggest bombshells are already out — Trump’s admission that he purposely played down the severity of the pandemic, his fawning letters with Kim Jong-Un. The excerpts from these are worth the price of admission alone. They left me speechless. As did a moment when Trump relates to Woodward that KJU told him he had his uncle killed, beheaded, and displayed with his head on his chest on steps where “senators” (Trump’s word, not mine) walked past. He uses it as an example of politics being “tough” there, which again. Speechless.
He writes to Kim after their 2018 summit in Singapore that the American media “[has] great respect for you and your country.” Do what now? Meanwhile, in private, he likened their meeting to meeting a woman and knowing immediately “whether or not it’s all going to happen.” He is a vulgar pig.
Trump even gifts Woodward a poster-size picture of himself with KJU, while marveling at his own largesse because it’s his “only one”. What is even happening here? I can only imagine how surreal this must have been for Woodward, because reading about it is surreal enough.
Trump harps on the same points he always does and has “his own facts”, namely: “Nearly everyone was an idiot, and almost every country was ripping off the United States.”
He bullies others and lauds himself, talks in circles and until you hardly know which way is up anymore, in an Alice in Wonderland-esque dream-state. (Stick a pin in Alice; we’ll come back to her.) At one point former Defense Secretary James Mattis comments on the bullying, saying he got over public humiliation in second grade. Trump ignored him and continued tweeting.
Despite much of the most influential material here already being reported, Woodward’s strength is in his fact checking and analysis, and the way he tells it. He’s blunt, and exasperated — he merely follows up each of Trump’s outlandish statements or claims with the truth. Like after Trump extols his relationship with Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claiming they get along although everyone says he’s a “horrible guy.” Woodward follows this by reminding the reader that Erdogan “is a repressive leader with a terrible record on human rights.”
The problem is that Trump never allows a pesky fact to get in the way of what he wants to be truth. As with every other book that’s emphasized the myriad problems of this administration, the unprecedented and illegal ways they’ve manipulated government and power, it’s clear that Trump’s boldfaced lying doesn’t matter. His supporters emphatically explain it away, or admit he lies and it’s fine with them, and Trump refuses to be pinned down on anything. He’s a con artist of exceptional ability, I’ll give him that.
A recurrent concept here is how he can never stay on topic (I mean, welcome to my reviews, but they’re the pinnacle of narrative organization compared to his stream of consciousness ramblings). Multiple people, from Mattis to Dr. Fauci to Woodward himself come up with analogies to try and describe what it’s like to speak to him, with his gnat’s attention span and constant whiplash-inducing redirects.
Something that did shock me was Jared Kushner’s “recommendation for understanding Trump”: a reference to the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, when he says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” Woodward distills this as a strategy of “endurance and persistence, not direction.”
Kushner was explicitly saying Alice in Wonderland was a guiding text for the Trump presidency.
Let that sink in. Or a fact that Woodward explicitly tells us to ruminate on: also according to Kushner, “Twenty percent of the president’s staff think they are ‘saving the world’ from the president.”
One of his final points is to consider the number of top national security figures who have left their positions holding the belief that the US president was a danger — “an unstable threat” — to his own country.
Please don’t allow your fatigue from the last year(s) to win, or exhaustion at the relentless barrage of bad news, or over the way that we’re forced to listen to authoritarian-esque proclamations of what the truth is when we see with our own eyes that it isn’t, yet it seems like no one cares. Today is National Voter Registration Day. This is one of the most important elections of our lifetimes. Please stay informed, please vote. As Woodward powerfully ends this book asserting, Trump is the wrong man for the job. Rage couldn’t be a clearer thesis for that. (September 15, Simon & Schuster)