Just when you thought that the Trump literature spreading like ivy on retail bookshelves had finally completed its life cycle, here come Michael Cohen and Sarah Huckabee Sanders with more fertiliser. The steep decline in the quality of journalism over the last four years is regrettable, but our literary sensibilities might have also been damaged more generally. Walk into your neighbourhood bookstore and see how many of these things you can count on feature displays (which are somewhat reflective of consumer demand). Then wade through the invasive species and watch out for a newly prominent hybrid, to be cautiously handled: the confessional on somebody else’s behalf—the political tell-all hatchet job.
The memoir has been blooming since the 1990s. (Millennial novelists are especially comfortable with this form, as is evident in their auto-fiction.) The White House memoir, too, is an ancient genre. I can count nine non-presidential titles related to the Obama administration. Between 2000 and 2010, members of the G. W. Bush White House published twelve. By the end of this month, there will be as many Trump memoirs—and the old boy’s first term is not even over yet. Of these, we can discount six—by Chris Christie, Sean Spicer, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, Cliff Sims, Anthony Scaramucci, and probably Sarah Sanders—as self-absorbed, sedative bromides. The other six are of more or less the hatchety sort. They are partially self-absolving exposés that promise sordid revelations about others in high office. The metaphors that appear in their reviews should only ever be seen on tabloid covers: “jaw-dropping” (the New Yorker on John Bolton’s latest); “eye-popping” (CNN on the anonymous A Warning); “juicy” (the New York Times on Omarosa Manigault Newman’s book); “catnip to scandal-lovers” (Publishers Weekly on the same). Perhaps Bolton’s favourite words—“bombshell” and “explosive”—were printed by no fewer than three eminent publications reviewing The Room Where It Happened. As Michael Cohen’s Disloyal boasts, these are the books the government doesn’t want you to read. You’d be forgiven for not wanting to read them in any case.
Ridiculing authority and uncloaking corruption are vital activities in a republic. We are political animals naturally enamoured of the lowly truth-teller confronting power. In Sophocles’ Antigone, the young challenger to her tyrant uncle (not quite Mary Trump, doctor of clinical psychology), coolly accepts state execution resolute in her knowledge of the true and the good. In Plato’s Gorgias, plainspoken Socrates tries to distinguish the verbal finesse of careerist rhetoricians from philosophy and truth. Michel Foucault interprets this Greek notion of parrhesia—“saying everything,” or transparent, unfettered speech—in a series of lectures in 1983, delivered shortly before his death. Beyond telling it as he sees it, Foucault explains, which anybody can perform, the parrhesiastes is a person with moral virtues that enable him to know the truth (seeing it as it is) and bind him by duty to reveal it to an unreceptive audience at grave personal risk. This is, if you are feeling generous, the philosophical foundation of the now overused, passive concept of lived experience and its professed irrefutability.
Is Michael Cohen likely to be a Platonic parrhesiastes? He and his family incur a risk as a result of his forthcoming book, or he at least seems to believe so. But if Cohen were moved by a sense of patriotic duty, convinced of the spectre of either dictatorship or civil war looming over November, as he alerts in his foreword, shouldn’t he have made public his knowledge immediately and freely instead of selling signed hardcovers, available for pre-order at $40 apiece? (This limited offer has already expired.) Trump’s disbarred former fixer and foremost degenerate clearly lacks some basic moral qualities. How are we to assume that he has suddenly come to possess ones that not only motivate him to speak the truth but also enable him to see it?
Normally, the motives and character of the author are irrelevant to the truth or beauty of his writing. It is a vice, as Christopher Hitchens identifies, to believe that an adversary’s lowest possible motive is also the operative one. Research can be replicated, information can often be verified and opinion measured against other opinion. But the value of an expository, personal account lies wholly in the author’s honesty and discernment. His subject is a singular and irrecoverable experience. The right time and place for inculpatory information is probably a legal deposition or congressional testimony (see James Comey initially, as opposed to John Bolton), rather than a New York Times bestseller (see James Comey later, alongside John Bolton). A vicious author doesn’t necessarily misrepresent events. Character, however, colours perception: a cynic is certain to see cynicism everywhere and entreat his readers to see it, too.
We are what we repeatedly do (and read and write). Literature is soul- or character-crafting, argues Karen Swallow Prior, in a synthesis of Aristotle’s Ethics and Poetics. First, the content of good literature introduces the reader to complex illustrations of virtue and vice. Second, the very act of reading good writing cultivates virtuous habits, such as an aesthetic sense, deliberation, discipline, industry and wit. In the case of personal accounts by mistreated hacks, unsatisfied hawks and racketeers, the first seems dubious and the second impossible. Still implicated in their stories—scuffling to reposition themselves in relation to their peers and careers—the content of their work is usually uncharitable and narcissistic. Whatever new morsels of information they offer their publishers, you can extract from recurrent headlines without having to endure pages of “believe me, I am the ultimate survivor”; “Kissinger said ‘I have great confidence in you’”; or “I had never met President Obama before and was struck by two things: how much thinner he appeared in person and his ability to focus.” At the centre of the memoir is the author. But these volumes ostensibly double as treatises on Trump—and fail on both counts. Their authors are uninterested in the self-confessional voice of the good memoir or the sobriety of good analysis—and too interested in the profitable caning of villainous colleagues from whom they have been finally forced to distance themselves.
As you’ve gathered, their prose is certain to coarsen the reader’s aesthetic sense, but it is also likely to dull his moral intuition. The anonymous clairvoyant of A Warning reveals that “he [Trump] might be in a meeting about missile defense, but inside he is probably thinking about his wall … about the Mexicans.” On Russian relations, he muses that “it’s almost as if Trump is the scrawny kid trying to suck up to the bully on the playground.” To choose to read these tired tropes repeatedly and with glee—you’ll find nearly identical ones in the dozen or so similar books written by outsiders like Michael Wolff and April Ryan—is to begin exercising deleterious habits like obsession and boorishness. To read them with glower: irascibility and resentment. These can evolve from ephemeral emotions to passions that stunt moral development and misshape one’s character, preventing one from living well. Given the reader’s finite appetite and inevitable exhaustion, bad writing will crowd out good literature and soulcraft.
If, however, you have navigated our literary landscape and visited all the greats, and have so far avoided contact with the prolific White House memoirists, and you now feel like accepting Milton’s sage advice in Areopagitica (the famous defence of free speech for which this magazine is named)—“read promiscuously”—to diversify your exposure, take some precautions. Examine these books, if you must, while holding them at a safe distance from your slightly lowered face; receive them with a squint, like a dispassionate student of history many generations removed. Treat them as character studies of the nonwriters who wrote them. For these and most other bureaucrats and political advisors, as with Enrique Vila-Matas’ subjects in Bartleby & Co., their greatest contribution to literature would have surely been to abstain from it.