Book review of The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

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No president has ever been obsessed with the media like Donald Trump. His biggest Twitter insult was “fake news,” which he never tired of directing to the “failing New York Times.” He was so consumed by his hatred of the Washington Post and its owner, Jeff Bezos, that he tried to deny Amazon federal contracts and access to the US Postal Service. Trump tried for months to prevent a merger involving another hated media company, CNN, and even encouraged Rupert Murdoch to buy CNN’s parent company (at the sell-off price his efforts had produced).

The obsession was mutual — and highly profitable for the goals of Trump’s wrath and admiration alike. Trump berated the mainstream media, but readers, subscribers, viewers, and advertisers threw dollars at them all. During Trump’s presidency, the Times and Post’s digital subscriptions skyrocketed. CNN, MSNBC and Fox combined viewership more than doubled between 2015 and 2020. The biggest beneficiary, of course, was Murdoch’s conservative media empire. While the deepest earners of the right-wing media feast on the garbage, Fox News was the closest thing to state television the United States has ever had. In a single year, Trump tweeted 657 times about stories on his shows.

This final gem is from The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser (he from the Times, she from the New Yorker). Given Trump’s decision to stuff his post-presidency residence with classified documents, not to mention the potential for a run in 2024, the book is exquisitely timed. The Divider is a fast-paced and beautifully written narrative that showcases the best of big resource journalism in the Trump era. But it also highlights some of the industry’s flaws, which Trump has consistently exploited.

A new Trump book is only worth reading if his reasoning or his revelations are breaking new ground. The thesis of Baker and Glasser’s book is unoriginal, if accurate: Trump posed a unique threat to American democracy. The threat was met by his incompetence, the incompetence of many on whom he could depend, and the opposition of many others – some principled, some partisan, some self-sustaining – toned down. But the threat was compounded by the GOP’s anti-democratic momentum he exploited, the creaks of constitutional order he challenged, and his increasing mastery of loyalty-test politics at which he excelled.

Trump’s assault on American democracy was, let’s face it, supported by the American media as well – and not just by the right-wing sources who glorified his presidency and radicalized his constituents. Trump would not have gotten into the White House at all if mainstream media routines had not made secret messages on Hillary Clinton’s private email server the campaign’s biggest character problem. (The irony is too thick to cut.)

Even after Trump took power, journalists struggled to quell old instincts: to spread every tweet, to focus on political ramblings rather than political content, to give “both sides” an equal say. It was only with time and an increasing understanding of Trump’s intentions that we saw more informed investigations into his finances, politics and manipulations and how they were supported by his increasingly cultish party. Baker and Glasser compare Trump to the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, who gradually figure out how to corner their new human prey (the prey in this case is American democracy). The metaphor is also suitable for journalists. Amid unprecedented attacks, those covering for Trump had to learn while hunting.

The Divider is in many ways a sign of how much journalism has adapted. It shows some of the old instincts: Despite its more than 650 pages of text, it has little to say about the policies of Trump and his fellow Republicans, or about the political organizations that supported or opposed his party or supported Washington during his presidency (The National Rifle Association, for example, is not mentioned once). Many anecdotes and backstories seem to be there only because Baker and Glasser know about them. Still, the book is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the Trump presidency yet published, and it would not have been possible, as Baker and Glasser write in their acknowledgments, without the diligence and steadfastness of their press corps colleagues, “who worked have to cover for the Trump administration while they are vilified as ‘enemies of the people.’

To this rich factual context, Baker and Glasser add fresh and often alarming stories, based in part on more than 300 interviews they conducted. When her argument treads familiar ground from the Trump book, The Divider provides plenty of new revelations. The largest of the shovels feature vibrant new detailing throughout Trump’s increasingly dictatorial behavior. In a chapter entitled “My Generals,” Baker and Glasser describe how Trump was so frustrated with his military commanders for refusing his various authority that he asked Chief of Staff (and retired General) John Kelly why his generals didn’t could be more like Adolf Hitler in World War II. When Kelly countered that these generals tried to kill Hitler, Trump replied, “No, no, no, they were absolutely loyal to him” — as if that’s what the Nazi regime should be remembered for.

As explosive as this new quote is, we’ve known for a long time how Trump feels about Hitler-like power. Yet Baker and Glasser uncover many other episodes that make clear — well before January 6, 2021 — how shockingly far he was willing to go to stay in office. The authors reveal a series of exchanges between Trump and Attorney General William Barr that suggest the President was genuinely serious about his tweet threats to jail electoral rival Joe Biden. “That pissed me off,” Barr tells the writers, which is a bit like finally getting upset about your juvenile delinquent child when he disables the brakes in his teacher’s car.

Another telling story involves Trump’s grueling attempts to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a coronavirus vaccine ahead of Election Day. The scale of the “bombing” was unprecedented — meetings with and repeated phone calls from the President and his subordinates, who accused the independent agency of “sabotaging electoral efforts.” Trump failed, of course, but not without damaging public confidence in the vaccine. If not, he might still be President.

The fact that Trump lost in the end makes it easy to look back with confidence that everything went as it should have. But, as Baker and Glasser say, reusing a quote Kelly used about Waterloo, “It was a close call.”

Reading that line, one can’t help but wonder if it would have been less close if Baker and Glasser shared every troubling fact they knew ahead of the 2020 election. When an article based on “My Generals” ran in the New Yorker in mid-August, there was criticism that the writers had kept some of the most explosive revelations under wraps to make “The Divider” more newsworthy and potentially more lucrative.

It is difficult to evaluate this allegation because Baker and Glasser rarely cite their own interviews and never say when any of them were conducted. So it’s not clear what information they could have released before November 2020. But the concern is certainly justified. Journalism is a business and journalists have to make a living from it. But they also have a responsibility to inform citizens before those citizens enter the voting booth, and it is deeply troubling when they appear to be doing so Withholding relevant information for commercial reasons.

Good journalism is essential in a democracy and needs to be defended now more than ever. The Divider shows why with its devastating portrayal of a demagogue who still dominates his party. It also suggests that journalism needs to have a serious conversation about its role and responsibilities in today’s tense politics. At this moment, when all hands are on deck, we need journalists who can focus on the horizon and roar quickly and clearly over icebergs ahead.

Jacob S. Hacker is Professor of Political Science at Yale University and co-author (with Paul Pierson) of “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality.”

Trump in the White House, 2017-2021

By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

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