A prob­a­ble fic­tion

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Nick Co­hen

To Kill the Pres­i­dent by Sam Bourne HarperCollins, 416pp

In nor­mal cir­cum­stances, To Kill the Pres­i­dent would be just an­other thriller. “Sam Bourne” is the pseu­do­nym of Jonathan Freed­land, a se­nior fig­ure on the Guardian. Freed­land is al­ways worth read­ing, of course. But a book that be­gan with US of­fi­cials scram­bling to stop their pres­i­dent re­ply­ing with a nu­clear strike to mock­ery of his man­hood from North Korea would have seemed ridicu­lous only a year ago. Ev­ery­one knows the North Kore­ans would re­tal­i­ate by re­duc­ing Seoul to rub­ble.

Now that the world’s most pow­er­ful man lives in the grey area be­tween the so­cio­pathic and the psy­cho­pathic, no fan­tasy seems too far-fetched. Trump never for­gets an in­sult.

Freed­land does not need to ex­ag­ger­ate for ef­fect. He has his Trump tweet­ing a girl on a ta­lent con­test: “That skirt is far too short for a teenager on prime time tele­vi­sion. Still, if she wants to per­form a pri­vate show for me @white­house the an­swer is yes!” He grabs the crotch of a fe­male aide and hisses: “Don’t think any­thing. I’m the brains around here.” To put it at its mildest, you can­not say that these are in­ven­tions that stretch the reader’s credulity. But like mur­der in Greek tragedy, Freed­land keeps Trump off stage. His hero­ine must deal with a barely dis­guised Steve Ban­non in­stead.

Freed­land’s Ban­non de­lights in lolling around the White House. He poses as “a mid­dle-aged rock star on a nos­tal­gia tour”. When the hero­ine tries to cor­rect him, he sneers about “prissy lit­tle missies” who treat red-blooded white males as crim­i­nals. They don’t get the joke, or why folks “elected the big guy”.

Read­ing Freed­land, you can see how the “big guy” may save a genre that looked ex­hausted. Real in­tel­li­gence agen­cies fight Is­lamist ex­trem­ism, Rus­sia and China. But for the ma­jor­ity of thriller writ­ers the only ac­cept­able vil­lain is a western vil­lain. Com­mer­cial im­per­a­tives drive the plot­lines. Hol­ly­wood wants a global au­di­ence, and a thriller with the Chi­nese state as the enemy, for in­stance, would never be screened in the vast Chi­nese mar­ket. Lib­eral writ­ers, mean­while, are wary of the dan­ger of con­don­ing racism in gen­eral and anti-Mus­lim big­otry in par­tic­u­lar.

For years, you have only needed to glimpse a politi­cian or CEO to sus­pect that by the fi­nal scene he will be un­masked as the or­gan­iser of a plot of su­per­nat­u­ral in­iq­uity. In the west, we ex­pect our lead­ers to be crim­i­nals. It is eas­ier to blame our prob­lems on wicked men and women than ac­cept that they may be in­sol­u­ble. But rep­e­ti­tion had made even the best thriller writ­ers sound tired.

He may achieve noth­ing else, but Trump has saved the thriller. What once was para­noid now reads as re­al­is­tic. As Freed­land’s plot grows more vi­o­lent, and Trump and Ban­non’s am­bi­tions be­come more dic­ta­to­rial, you can never quite dis­miss his story as fan­tasy. Trump may be a dis­as­ter for the world, but he is a gift wrapped in stiff, shiny pa­per for every writer who tack­les him.

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