A "carnival ride, jerking this way and that," is how the authors of I Alone Can Fix It characterize the early years of the Trump presidency in their Prologue to this sequel to their previous book about Trump, A Very Stable Genius. That "carnival ride" was then followed by Trump's "catastrophic fourth and final year," which Carol Lenning and Philip Rucker describe in detail in I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year (NY: Penguin Press, 2021).
Sold as yet another book about Trump, Alone Can Fix It is as much a book about the pandemic and its tragic impact upon American society - and about the catastrophic failures of the Trump Administration's response to the pandemic, particularly at the beginning but throughout the year. What one of the coronavirus task force's members later recalled about one particular Trump-inflicted disaster could, one could conclude after reading this book, be applied to the entire experience of the Trump Administration's response to the pandemic: "It was just one of those completely disastrous moments that you could hardly believe you were a part of."
The authors' focus on the pandemic provides not only a coherent narrative but also fills the reader in on what was happening back in January and February of 2020, when most of us weren't yet paying attention. At the time, the political news I recall paying most attention to was the Democratic primaries. While the authors do discuss such non-pandemic events that were also taking place during those early months, such as the Soleimani assassination and Trump's first impeachment trial, they virtually ignore that stage of the campaign. While it is true that Biden's unexpected victory in the primaries effectively made much of what had preceded irrelevant, my guess is that President Trump must have taken some interest in what was going on at that time; and it would certainly be interesting to learn more about how he was processing all of that.
That said, the pandemic rightly takes center stage in the account of those early months because Trump's early failures to respond rightly really did set the stage for the rest of the year - both in terms of the health crisis it created and has perpetuated and in terms of Trump's failure to secure reelection. An interpretive key to what happened is provided by the account of Trump's conversation with Chris Christie on March 19.
"There is a way to handle a crisis where you meet people's expectations regardless of how the crisis is playing out," Christie reportedly told the president that day. In response to Trump's claim to be trying to reassure people, Christie said, "you can only reassure them with the truth, not with the stuff that they know from a common-sense-perspective can't be true." Christie's key point and waring was, "if you go further out there, extend yourself in terms of your level of concern, your level of preparedness for what the worst-case scenario is, you can always bring it back. If you go short of the mark in the beginning, you can't ever extend it" (emphasis mine).
That, to me, seems to sum up both the story of Trump's failure with the pandemic and the story of his larger failures as president.
The authors effectively take us through the relatively familiar ground of the overall dysfunctionality of Trump's White House and the destructive interpersonal climate Trump created among his staff and government officials. And, of course there is the President's perennial problem of talking too much. As Atlanta's Mayor was quoted as saying during the crisis that followed George Floyd's murder: "He speaks, and he makes it worse. There are times when you should just be quiet. And I wish he would just be quiet." One gets the impression, Trump's staffers and allies must have felt similar sentiments on many occasions during the year covered by this book.
The book has rightly received much attention for the way it takes the reader through the episode of Trump's own illness and for its revelations about General Mark Milley's personal evolution and his concerns about the threats Trump posed for democracy and constitutional government.
All of which brings us to the catastrophic climax of the Trump presidency in his attempt to undermine the election and its results, a dangerously heightened expression of all the dysfunctions already described. Trump's horrifying post-election behavior represented another instance of his inability to alter a disastrous course once embraced: If you go short of the mark in the beginning, you can't ever extend it.
In recounting the frightening story of Trump's attempt to undermine and undo the 2020 election, the authors highlight the harm he was doing - "For most of the year, the nation had been a tinderbox, and Trump was splashing around kerosene with each false claim of a rigged election" and the bizarrely cultish character of his support. Speaking of the December 12 "Jericho March" rally in Washington, they describe how the rally's opening "felt like a cacophonic religious revival for Trump worshippers."
Leonning and Rucker offer yet another, quite riveting account of the terrible events of January 6 and the anticlimactic final two weeks of the Trump presidency. This section would seem especially relevant reading at this time when so many Republicans are contradicting the reality of what happened on January 6 and even mocking those who were actually attacked on that day.
To this, the authors append a unique Epilogue, in which they recount their strange, two and one-half hour, in-person interview with the former President at Mar-a-Lago on March 31 2021. At Mar-a-Lago, "Trump still rules, surrounded day and night by applauding fans, obsequious courtiers, and dutiful servants." There, "none fo the disgrace that marked the end of his presidency pierces Trump's reality." There, "the gospel according to Trump" is maintained "with the most important revelations being that Donald Trump was the greatest president of all time and was unjustly denied a second term."
That Trump in fact invited this interview (having previously declined to be interviewed for A Very Stable Genius and having then attacked the book and its authors) speaks volumes. It was obviously intended to highlight his unprecedented post-presidency as the undisputed ruler of the Republican world. In that world, the pre-pandemic part of his reign was an unqualified success (although, as the authors point out, his approval rating never rose above 46% in that period). Trump seems simultaneously to believe that the second part of his presidency, the pandemic, "killed his chances," and "that he actually had won, and handily."
Likewise, he simultaneously trashes people like Mike Pence, Bill Barr, Mitch McConnell, the Justices he put on the Supreme Court, and many others for failing him, while bragging about the loyalty and intensity of his base. For Leonning and Rucker, Trump's "extraordinary capacity to say things that were not true" was fully on display. This trait "had led Trump to the White House" and seems to be the basis for his quasi-cultic power even now.
It is that quasi-cultic power that gives books like this their importance. What would otherwise be but another account of human perfidy dressed up in classic political gossip gives us an insight into the dangerous forces that have been let loose in our land and in their ongoing, continued, and possibly increasing threat to whatever hopes one may have for a better American future.