Most American presidents have been serious readers, and attempting to gain an insight into their thinking by examining the books they cherish has become a common pastime, starting at the beginning of the country’s history. George Washington dutifully read Cato, copying hundreds of his rules of civility into notebooks, helping shape what he considered his code of conduct as a gentleman and a statesman.
After many hours of reading the law by firelight, Abraham Lincoln would turn to Shakespeare. His favourite play was Macbeth, and it seems fitting now, knowing how he was haunted by the ghosts of those he had consigned to death in the Civil War, as well as his beloved son, Willie, as evocatively explored in George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo.
In more recent times, Bill Clinton upped his coolness credentials by putting Walter Mosley’s novels, featuring African-American detective Easy Rawlins at the top of his reading list, coinciding with Toni Morrison famously calling him “America’s first black president”. And speculation about which bestsellers Barack Obama would take with him on his annual getaway to Martha’s Vineyard reached such a pitch that the president began regularly releasing lists of his nightstand reading to the press.
It is impossible to play such guessing games with Donald Trump, because the 45th president of the United States apparently does not read, either for edification or for pleasure.
During the presidential campaign, after being continually hit with the softball what-are-you-reading question, his staff released a list featuring books reflecting some of his obsessions: Hillary Clinton and China. The one literary title to appear was All Quiet on the Western Front. He has called it his favourite book.
All Quiet on the Western Front may be Trump’s book to serve as a coaster for his Diet Coke at Mar-a-Lago, but it is difficult to believe that he has actually read it. It strains credibility that someone who reveres Remarque’s deeply pacifist ruminations about the devastating effect of war on those asked to prosecute it could engage in his kneejerk sabre-rattling with North Korea.
So, Trump doesn’t have an affinity for literature. Nor apparently can he be expected to read much in the course of his job. Aides have been instructed to keep written briefings, on even the most complex of subjects, to a rudimentary few paragraphs, or risk losing his attention permanently. And they are advised to make liberal use of charts and graphics whenever possible, because visual images speak more clearly to Donald Trump.
In this way, Trump is ideally suited to govern in the twenty-first century. He is much more comfortable in the world of Instagram than the world of the printed page. And what he lacks in reading time, he more than makes up for with TV time, reportedly up to eight hours a day.
Trump’s reign as the first digital-era president is also illustrated by his facility with Twitter. The round-the-clock stream of tweets that started during the campaign was expected by many to cease once he assumed office, but his thumbs have shown no slowdown. Reporters were initially thrown by the pugnacious, garbled (remember “covfefe”?) tweets emanating from the White House. They recognised the playground insults emblematic of the campaign, but where were the official statements befitting a sitting president?
Then they realised that tweets can, and should be, considered as official statements of the Trump presidency. Policy prescriptions and overarching philosophical principles alike are doled out in 140-character missives. This is Donald Trump’s narrative, and it is overwhelmingly reactive, vitriolic and threatening to those who oppose him.
In future years, political biographers will mine these tweets to try to piece together their own narratives of the Trump presidency. Amidst the insults, the ad hominem attacks and the typos, will they be able to learn much about the motivation for decisions on critical issues?
In the past, writers have relied on private letters and the occasional diary to write the story of a president while in office, believing that such instruments offer a candid insight into the moral dimensions of leadership. But tweets are composed with the expectation of being publicised. Can they be said to reflect the same level of candour or introspection?
As much, and as often, as Trump comments on others, he remains slavishly attuned to what people are saying about him. Indeed, the truest manifestation of a consistent foreign policy coming out of the Trump White House appears to be support for world leaders Trump has identified as having “said nice things about me”.
On trips to Washington and during Trump’s first tour of Asia, leaders seemed ready to capitalise on his Nice Words Doctrine. Both Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Prayuth Chan-o-cha of Thailand have won Trump’s esteem through compliments that will probably ensure they will never have to endure a public drubbing regarding their human rights violations while he is in office.
But they should take heed, as Trump’s narrative is mutable, and he is able to disengage quickly from it when he deems it no longer serves him, and pivot to a new narrative with stunning alacrity. This can be bad news for those pledging the fealty he demands, but rarely reciprocates. In fact, many elected officials who risked political capital on early Trump endorsements have been later vilified and ostracised by him after daring to disagree on key issues.
Though Trump has little inclination for literature, it is tempting to think of literary novels that can serve as an illustration of his term thus far. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, with its dystopian examination of the ways in which the calculated onslaught of visual images can remold the human mind and spirit, might be a contender, as well as Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There, in which a man who lives in a world informed exclusively by TV is thrust into the public spotlight, where his meaningless and repetitive pronouncements are heralded as wisdom.
Those who are already angling for an ending might prefer Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as some might find parallels with Kurtz, the figure of an isolated leader run amok; or Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, whose tribal leader protagonist learns all too late that times have shifted and his people will no longer heed his cry to battle. But I am resigned to at least a full term, with no deus ex machina in sight, nor special prosecutor; so I will not speculate on any possible denouement to the Trump tale just yet.
Even if no single literary novel can accurately encompass the rollicking train wreck of Trump’s first year, I think that most English literature majors worth their salt could recognise that Trump is the embodiment of a particular literary device: the unreliable narrator. Between the characterisation of alternative facts and his penchant for outright lies, Trump’s narrative should be regarded as commentary at best, and always treated with appropriate scepticism. Whether the narrator actually believes his own delusional point of view, or is actively attempting to obfuscate the truth makes no difference in the end.
As with any novel in which the reader has determined, halfway into the book, that there is an unreliable narrator, it becomes incumbent to view the narrator as part of the story, but not the keeper of the story. At that point, one must become a more careful reader, looking for other threads and clues along the way.
By focusing too intently on Trump, we risk missing what is actually occurring in this administration. Trump, and the whirling spectacle he perpetuates, serves as a firestorm that sucks all the oxygen out of pertinent debate, allowing ideologically-driven manoeuvres to go unchecked in other areas. A case in point: most American reporters have focussed exhaustively on the epic sniping between Trump and Congress, and the stalled legislative agenda; but have virtually ignored the devastating progress made on rollback of Obama-era regulations which touch every area of Americans’ lives.
But the story is far from over.
Stunned and battered by the ugliness of the campaign and its eventual outcome, after last year’s election I headed to Southeast Asia, where I typically find the time and space to recharge. I returned the day after the inauguration, sobered by the spectre of the new administration, but heartened by the large women’s march and the portent of potential social change.
This new energy has only grown throughout the year. While elements of reaction against Trump are part of this movement, the demand for social change is larger than any one man, even if he is the President of the United States.
Perhaps, activists in Southeast Asia (and those who have not yet even realised that they are activists) can find inspiration in the example. Trump, like any national leader, will always be part of the story, but will never be the entire story. We must write our own narrative.