A president with the concentration span of a toddler and Britain divided
It’s worse than you imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns.” It says much for 2018 that those words could describe any number of political scenarios but they’re actually attributed to a leaked memo about Donald Trump, supposedly representing the views of his disillusioned then economic adviser Gary Cohn and quoted in Michael Wolff ’s bestselling book Fire and Fury (Little, Brown). The unfolding car crash inside the White House has proved fertile ground for publishing, if nothing else, with Wolff ’s partisan but highly readable account being followed this autumn by Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House (Simon & Schuster). The latter is so scrupulous about avoiding editorial judgments and letting the facts speak for themselves that it reads less like a book than like the notes for one, consisting of sequences of detailed reporting barely joined by a narrative. But both paint a similarly appalling picture of a dangerously thin-skinned man with the concentration span of a toddler, whose own aides – and in Wolff ’s reading particularly, own family – still can’t quite believe he managed to get elected.
On which note, I thought I’d waded through enough long reads on how Trump actually won to last a lifetime, but Ben Fountain’s elegiac Beautiful Country Burn Again (Canongate) might be an exception to the rule: pitched halfway in tone between political reportage and Great American Novel, it breathes literary life back into what has become a very familiar story. And if all this makes you weep with nostalgia for Barack Obama, try the one-time White House staffer Ben Rhodes’s fascinating, personal The World As It Is (Bodley Head), about his time as deputy national security adviser to the former president.
If all had gone to plan in the UK then the big political blockbuster filling bookshops this Christmas would have been David Cameron’s memoirs. Yet in this, as in so much else, it seems the former prime minister may have been over-optimistic about what he could deliver. So instead we have a slew of books on the dismal state of the political landscape he leaves behind, united by the broad theme that the people are not getting the politicians we would at least like to think we deserve.
Yet political autobiographies seem to be going out of fashion. Even the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson’s lively Yes She Can (Hodder & Stoughton), notable for its brave admissions about her past struggles with mental health, focuses on a revealing series of interviews with other women in public life while modestly paying less attention to her own story.
Westminster junkies would be happy if their stockings were filled with a copy of Tom Hamilton and Ayesha Hazarika’s Punch & Judy Politics (Biteback), a juicy insider account of what happens behind the scenes in prime minister’s questions. And the centrist dad in your life will enjoy the former Blair speechwriter turned journalist Philip Collins’s Start Again (4th Estate), a withering attack on the inadequacies of the two main parties. Never mind his draft manifesto for the politically homeless, feel the depth of the exasperation.
Corbynites of a certain vintage would probably rather find under the tree Francis Beckett and Mark Seddon’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England (Biteback). It’s more of a romp down memory lane than a true analysis of the left’s renaissance, since the authors are honest enough to admit that they were as surprised as anyone by Corbyn confounding electoral expectations (they were originally braced to write the story of another glorious failure, only to change tack after the election). A more detailed explanation of what went right for Corbyn can be found in Game Changer (Accent), the story of Labour’s 2017 election offensive as seen by Corbyn’s then deputy director of strategy and communications, Steve Howell. This is the most authoritative
The unfolding car crash inside the White House has proved fertile ground for publishing if nothing else