A probable fiction
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.