Biography of Maggie Haberman Confidence Man: The Creation of Donald Trump and America’s Collapse has been one of the most anticipated accounts of the 45th president’s impact on American politics.
Robert Draper’s new book on the post-Trump state of Republican politics, Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind, did not receive as much attention.
But moving rapidly across time periods and landscapes, the two depict a political world few Americans could have foreseen less than a decade ago. They also hint at a future that many will fear.
Haberman has a subject, a singular actor who himself caused much of the change in the landscape. Draper works with a much less familiar cast of characters, but offers compelling insight into Trump’s surprising rise within the Republican Party. Together, they help us understand how Trump dominated this party even as his chaotic single term led to the loss of the House, Senate and White House – and how he maintained party dominance even after his attempt failed to overturn the 2020 election.
Tracing Trump’s Rise
Haberman first covered Trump as a young reporter for the New York PostThen for New York Daily News, Politics, and finally for the New York Times. His persistence and Trump’s own love-hate fixation on the Time have long provided him with unprecedented access to his moods and media manipulation. Trying to handle it all as even-handedly as possible has earned him both admiration and anger. Some have called her the “Trump Whisperer” and worse.
But Haberman deploys a deep sense of Trump’s origins and career, including his connections to New York City mayors and powerful Democratic neighborhood leaders such as Meade Esposito. Haberman helps us understand how his desire for fame drove him to run for president and how his credentials and unorthodox tactics helped him win. She has a witness’s eye for many of the things she recounts, such as when Trump first came to Washington to flirt with a presidential bid in 2011: “When he got on stage, with the Apprentice theme song “For the Love of Money” blaring overhead, the room was packed, a mix of religious activists, libertarian-minded college students and corporate lobbyists who don’t will probably never congregate anywhere else.”
In a gripping chapter titled “Rising on a Lie,” Haberman describes how Trump sorted out the themes and gimmicks he could use to bring down Obama. He came across a theory “that had been floating around in the right-wing news ecosystem before (Obama) was elected”, the idea that he was not born in the United States and was not therefore not constitutionally qualified to be president. The so-called “birth controversy” had played out in 2008 and died down. Trump said “I think that might work” and brought it back.
But having been around during the White House years, it also shows how ill-prepared the same life story had been for the office itself. He came to power still looking for his various Gotham gurus, mayors like Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani and big sports figures like George Steinbrenner. And always, as other Trump biographers have recounted, drawing on the teachings of Roy Cohn, the legendary senator and mobster lawyer who shaped Trump’s worldview.
Haberman begins her upload with a succinct prologue that outlines much of what she wants us to know. Five hundred pages later, in her epilogue, she writes “Trump had proven that the majority of Republicans in Washington who initially opposed him were just as cowards as he said they were, because he bent them to his will because they personally saw it as an opportunity or necessity to survive, even after the Capitol Riot.”
This is the nexus of the Trump-centric era depicted in Man of confidence to Draper’s even more ominous outlook Mass Illusion Weapons. Draper places Trump in the worst traditions of his party — or any political party anywhere. These include both the cynical politics of Machiavellian self-interest and the perpetuation of division within the body politic in the service of that self-interest.
The Draper Difference
Draper’s access is also key to his reporting, but he’s won an interview with both persistence and old-fashioned shoe leather. Draper, who writes for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, is well known for getting out of Washington and working the hustings. He travels to House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s home district of Bakersfield, California to interview people McCarthy knew from high school contacts. McCarthy figures prominently in Weaponsnot just because he could potentially become Speaker of the House (assuming a Republican majority from January), but because he personifies Trump’s transformation of the GOP.
We learn that McCarthy was a teenager when he was first drawn to that era’s version of Trump as a skyscraper builder and businessman with a golden touch. Now known for Trump’s nickname for him (“My Kevin”), McCarthy had a moment of rebellion on the night of Jan. 6, but Draper reveals he repented of that moment step by step until this let him be back on the Trump trail.
By contrast, Draper offers us generous portions of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney and Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republicans on the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. But these are gloomy and stormy sessions that underline the despair of those interviewed.
But while touching the big names as it should, Draper returns to the grain of the political trenches. His fascination is with the GOP fringe and its dramatic departures from mainstream politics. Her passion is fact-checking the fantasy that fuels these departures.
When Draper saw a campaign ad referring to illegal immigrants leaving “a thousand pounds of trash” on the streets of San Luis, Arizona, he himself traveled to the small border town and interviewed numerous officials. to check the ad (which turned out to be extremely misleading).
The politician behind the ad was Paul Gosar, a dentist and junior congressman from northern Arizona, far from the border but still obsessed with it. Gosar appears as the target of Draper’s first chapter and again and often at length in Weapons. Also recurring is Gosar’s chief of staff, Tom Van Flein, who previously worked for Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Gosar and Van Flein shared much of their time and worldview with Draper, opening him up to the depths of today’s conservative movement.
Gosar also provides a narrative link to former Congressman Steve King of Iowa, who was condemned by House Republicans for his comments on white supremacy and another link to Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. Georgian described as Gosar’s “mentee” in chapters with titles such as “Arc of Fools.”
Greene’s unwavering devotion to Trump and her relentless pursuit of social media fame have propelled her to a place rarely given to rookies. Giving him, or Gosar, that much space will cause disbelief.
Are these outliers really the harbingers of future Republicans? Draper clearly argues that they are.
A director begins a shot centered on a single character’s face, then “removes focus” to reveal a larger cast of characters and the ensemble that surrounds them all. Thus Haberman gave us a long and thorough exposition of Trump as the protagonist of our current politics, and Draper drew attention to the host of lesser suitors in his wake – and the elements of the nation that embraced them all.
An era that is ending?
Republicans are now expected this month to easily wipe out the five-seat majority that makes Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat, Speaker of the House. It’s also an even bet that Mitch McConnell will be back as Senate Majority Leader as that chamber breaks its 50-50 tie in favor of the GOP.
If either chamber goes Republican, one would expect Donald J. Trump, the former president, to declare himself vindicated. We will talk about his return to the White House, and he could take formal steps in this direction.
But reading these two volumes, it’s hard to escape the impression that Trump’s career has passed its peak. Just as President Biden is expected to give up seeking a second term, Trump is no longer the top candidate for the Trumpist party he created. An indictment, or more than one, is not the best launching pad for a third presidential campaign.
If that turns out to be the case, the omens from Draper’s reporting are most pressing for our present moment. This in no way detracts from the topicality, scope and richness of Haberman’s work. masterpiece. There is, after all, no guarantee that Trump will no longer be president. But right now, longtime Trump watchers may feel something like that feeling late in a long flight — the moment the jetliner slows down slightly as it’s about to begin to descend.