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

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

The obsession was mutual – and highly profitable, for the targets of Trump’s anger and admiration. Trump hurled invective at the mainstream media, but readers, subscribers, viewers and advertisers all threw dollars at them. Digital subscriptions to The Times and Post skyrocketed during Trump’s presidency. The combined viewership of CNN, MSNBC and Fox more than doubled between 2015 and 2020. The biggest beneficiary, of course, has been Murdoch’s conservative media empire. As right-wing media bottom eaters feasted on the trash, Fox News has become the closest thing to state television the United States has ever had. In a single year, Trump tweeted stories about his shows 657 times.

This last pearl comes 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-presidential residency with classified documents, not to mention the potential for a 2024 race, the book is extremely timed. A well-paced and engagingly written narrative, “The Divider” shows the best of big-resource journalism in the Trump era. Yet it also highlights some of the industry shortcomings that Trump has repeatedly exploited.

A New Trump Book Is Only Worth Reading If its argumentation or its revelations are innovative. The thesis of Baker and Glasser’s book is not original, if correct: Trump posed a unique threat to American democracy. The threat was mitigated by his incompetence, the incompetence of many on whom he relied, and the resistance of many others – some principled, some partisan, some selfish. But the threat was amplified by the GOP’s undemocratic swing that he exploited, the creak of the constitutional order that he challenged and his growing mastery of loyalty-testing politics at which he excelled.

Trump’s assault on American democracy has also been aided, let’s be honest, by the American media — and not just by the right-wing sources that have glorified his presidency and radicalized his voters. Trump would not have entered the White House at all were it not for the mainstream media routines that have made classified messages on Hillary Clinton’s private email server the campaign’s biggest character issue. (The irony is too thick to cut.)

Even after Trump took office, journalists struggled to contain their old instincts: to broadcast every tweet, to focus on political polemics rather than political substance, to give “both sides” an equal voice. It is only with time and a better understanding of Trump’s intentions that we have seen deeper investigations into his finances, policies and manipulations, and how they were encouraged by his growing party. more sectarian. Baker and Glasser compare Trump to the velociraptors of “Jurassic Park” who are gradually discovering how to corner their new human prey (the prey in this case being American democracy). The metaphor also applies to journalists. Under an unprecedented attack, those covering for Trump had to learn by hunting.

The Divider” is, in many ways, a marker of the adaptation of journalism. It displays some of the old instincts: Despite its more than 650 pages of text, it has little to say about the policies pursued by Trump and his fellow Republicans, or the political organizations that supported or fought his party or lobbied Washington during his presidency. (the National Rifle Association, for example, is not mentioned once). Many anecdotes and stories seem to be there only because Baker and Glasser know about them. Yet the book is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the Trump presidency ever published, and it would not have been possible, as Baker and Glasser write in their acknowledgments, without the diligence and courage of their colleagues. of the press “who have worked to cover the Trump administration while being denigrated as ‘enemies of the people’.

To this rich factual background, Baker and Glasser add fresh and often alarming stories, based in part on the more than 300 interviews they conducted. If their argument treads on familiar ground from the Trump book, “The Divider” delivers plenty of new revelations. The biggest scoop provides startling new details about Trump’s increasingly dictatorial behavior. In a chapter titled “My Generals,” Baker and Glasser describe how Trump was so frustrated with his military commanders for refusing his various strong arm orders that he asked the Chief of Staff (and retired general) John Kelly why his generals couldn’t be more like Adolf Hitler in WWII. When Kelly retorted that those generals had tried to kill Hitler, Trump replied, “No, no, no, they were totally loyal to him” — as if that was the lesson of the Nazi regime.

As explosive as this new quote is, we’ve long known what Trump thinks of Hitler’s power. Yet Baker and Glasser uncover many more episodes that make it clear – long before January 6, 2021 – how outrageously he was willing to go to stay in power. 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 lock up campaign rival Joe Biden. “It pissed me off,” Barr told the authors, which is a bit like getting mad at your juvenile delinquent. child when he deactivates the brakes of his teacher’s car.

Another telling story concerns Trump’s strenuous attempts to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a coronavirus vaccine before Election Day. The scale of the “bombardment” was unprecedented – repeated meetings and phone calls from the president and his underlings, who accused the independent agency of “sabotaging the electoral effort”. Trump failed, of course, but not without damaging public confidence in the vaccine. If he hadn’t, he could still be president.

The fact that Trump ultimately lost makes it possible to look back with confidence that everything went as it should. But, as Baker and Glasser say, echoing a quote on Waterloo used by Kelly, “it was a short-term thing.”

Reading this line, one can’t help but wonder if it would have been any less tight if Baker and Glasser had shared all the disturbing facts they knew before the 2020 election. When a New Yorker article based on ” My Generals” aired in mid-August, with some criticizing the writers for keeping some of the more explosive revelations under wraps to make “The Divider” more newsworthy and potentially lucrative.

It is difficult to assess this accusation, as Baker and Glasser rarely cite their own interviews and never say when any of them were made. So it’s unclear what information they might have made public before November 2020. But the concern is certainly valid. Journalism is a business, and journalists have to make a living. But they also have a responsibility to inform citizens before they enter the voting booth, and it is deeply troubling when they appear to be Withhold relevant information for business reasons.

Good journalism is essential in a democracy, and it needs to be defended more than ever. “The Divider,” with its devastating portrayal of a demagogue who still dominates his party, shows why. It also suggests that journalism needs to have a serious conversation about its role and responsibilities in today’s tense politics. In this moment when everyone is on deck, we need journalists focused on the horizon and shouting quickly and clearly about the icebergs ahead.

Jacob S. Hacker is a professor of political science at Yale University and co-author (with Paul Pierson) of “Let Them Eat Tweets: How Good Rules in a Time of Extreme Inequality.”

Trump in the White House, 2017-2021

By Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

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