Selling Their Stories

This is the way democracy ends, not with a bang, but with a book deal.

Nikki Haley, John Bolton, Donald Trump Jr., John Kelly, James Mattis, and a question mark.
Nikki Haley, John Bolton, Donald Trump Jr., John Kelly, James Mattis, and the anonymous figure. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images, Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images, Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, and Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images.

Books! What a democracy-enhancing concept! In one sense, committing one’s ideas to tangible print is a delightfully 18th-century means of bringing about social change. But in another, it might just be the most self-enriching, self-absorbed, and ephemeral play of the Trump era. This week alone, Nikki Haley has a new book out, and Donald Trump Jr. also has a new book out. An anonymous Trump official has a book due out Nov. 19. And John Bolton has a new book deal. Book is the new black. How very, very Thomas Paine of everyone—if Thomas Paine had been looking for a branding opportunity and a cool million.

These books are not necessarily about saving the country. Take, for example, Bolton, Trump’s hawkish former national security adviser, who reportedly just reached a $2 million deal with Simon & Schuster for a book to come out next year. Now, Bolton could certainly serve his nation right now by confirming what Fiona Hill has testified to regarding the effort to extort Ukrainian assistance in cooking up oppo research for Trump in advance of the 2020 election. Hill has said that when the plot unwound around Bolton, he told her, “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” and asked her to convey that to a White House lawyer. Bolton could surely testify to these and other facts as part of a time-sensitive impeachment inquiry that starts this week. Bolton’s lawyer said in a letter to House Democrats Friday that Bolton “was personally involved in many of the events, meetings, and conversations about which you have already received testimony, as well as many relevant meetings and conversations that have not yet been discussed in the testimonies thus far.” Which sounds like an elevator pitch for an awesome book-to-movie deal. But it’s also a reason he should appear before Congress. Except he has declined to testify, and presumably will not until a federal judge reaches a decision compelling him to do so, a decision that will be appealed and then appealed again and may come long after the impeachment trial has wrapped. For Bolton, the constitutional imperative lies in locking down the book deal.

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis also wrote a tell-all book, published earlier this year, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. But, as Mattis later told Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of the Atlantic, it was really more of a tell-some: He didn’t actually tell everything because “If you leave an administration, you owe some silence,” so that those entrusted to keep us secure can “carry out their duties without me adding my criticism to the cacophony that is right now so poisonous.” As my colleague Fred Kaplan points out, “Mattis’ strategic straddling raises serious questions about the dual obligations of those who leave office over not only disagreements about the president’s policies but also deep concerns about the direction in which he’s taking the country.” But not to worry, America! On his book tour, Mattis promised CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that he would someday break his silence for reals. “There will come a time when I speak out on strategic issues, policy issues―that I do not have a question about,” he said in an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But I need to give some period of time to those who have to carry out the responsibility to protect this county in a very, very difficult age.” He coyly suggests that as to timing, “I’ll know it when I see it.” In other words, stay tuned for Mattis’ next book, tentatively entitled, I Knew It When I Saw It: Sorry I Waited So Long.

Indeed Mattis’ former chief speechwriter, Guy Snodgrass, also has a new book out. He’s the author of Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, which he describes as a “firsthand account of what it was really like behind the scenes and what it was really like to serve alongside Secretary Mattis.” Maybe eventually, Snodgrass’ driver’s nanny’s book will contain yet more real details of what happened behind the scenes during the halcyon days of Trump.

Now John Kelly has not gotten a book deal yet, but he reportedly uses the threat of his future book deal to ensure that Donald Trump doesn’t go after him personally. Apparently the former chief of staff assured his boss that while he would eventually write a book about his time in the White House, he’d wait until Trump was out of office. So long as Trump doesn’t denigrate him first. Some use books to ease the conscience. Others use them to keep Trump at bay. You know, party before Country. Brand above All.

To be sure, some of the recent intramural Trump shitshow tell-all’s have been of great social utility. Omarosa Manigault Newman, Sean Spicer, and Cliff Sims (remember him? Me neither) have all provided layer upon layer of details about the incompetence and grift at the beating heart of Trump administration, each doing so with their own trademark incompetence and grift. Nikki Haley has used her forthcoming memoir to sell sell out John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, which is really just an effort to position herself for a future presidential run, delicately threading the needle between perfect fealty to the cult of Donald Trump and to her own personal brand. And Anonymous has shown all the moral courage of the other anonymous “resisters” who still think there is some merit to serving as the “adults in the room.” But as the accumulation of tell-alls reflect, being an adult in Trump’s room simply means attempting to nudge him toward broadly defined legality so he can keep wreaking havoc on the world. It’s a branding win-win when you can position yourself on the right side of history while also pocketing the attendant cash. A cover-your-ass memo with residuals and a visit with Seth Meyers.

None of this should surprise us. Pocketing cash to build brand identity is, of course, the raison d’être of this entire presidency. Ivanka is hawking kitten heels in the guise of “female empowerment,” Don Jr. is peddling white resentment in the guise of a paean to free speech. Their father violates federal ethics rules to move their product. Everyone stays at a Trump property! But as Junior perhaps best illustrates, a book is also the sole remaining way to perform a mass monologue, while pretending to be in conversation, all while still making money. That is all, at bottom, a sad commentary on the state of the current media. Even the most powerful brands on Twitter and television are reduced to moving dusty old book units in order to turn a profit in 2019. If you want to monetize your name, the good old-fashioned book deal is still the gold standard. But there’s the rub: In spite of all of this, “books” have somehow retained their vestigial illusion of seriousness and sobriety and adherence to truth and higher values. But these books aren’t penned to make us a better polity, to bring us face to face with our better angels, or to illuminate and elucidate democratic values. They’re branding opportunities for an age of media personalities. This is George Orwell, if Orwell had slowly built an international luxury bedding empire, with 1984 as just one rung on the ladder.

As we wait with bated breath for the next tell-all or tell-some, for the attendant TED Talks and audiobooks and late-night television rounds, for the exclusive deals and complicated embargoes that serve to bury the very news the books themselves are breaking, it’s useful to note that there is an actual public, historic impeachment process afoot, at which only a handful of truly heroic foreign service officials have so far been willing to testify in a timely fashion.

Meanwhile, the elaborate business calculations of the global publishing industry will determine which pub date next October can maximize sales—not necessarily the best way to calculate when constitutionally urgent truth should come out. Day after day I find myself wondering whether Watergate would even have been unearthed had Woodward and Bernstein held out for a book deal. It’s a quaint and sad irony that an American political experiment, born of radical and courageous revolutionary tracts, pamphlets, papers, and books, is now drowning under a multimillion-dollar tsunami of self-absorbed self-promotion.

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