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An Attempt to Understand President Trump, One Book at a Time


If you have been following current events in the U.S., our President's rise to power may seem like the plot to a Black Mirror episode. Writers have plenty of topics to tackle from the last two years: the longest government shutdown in history, the inane insistence on a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, the mishandling of virtually every government department, the withdrawal of troops from Syria.

In an attempt to understand the current state of U.S. politics, what brought us to this moment, and how to view events as they unfold with perspective, I've compiled a list of books to help.

The Trump Presidency

Our list kicks off with a 2018 release from Bob Woodward, a journalist renowned for his reporting on eight presidencies. Fear: Trump in the White House delves into the details of Trump's White House—chaos included—and how he ended up with the most powerful job on the planet.

Examples illustrating Trump's lack of executive ability and unwillingness to learn about his new position abound. Simply open the book at random to find one. Perhaps most perplexing is Trump's inability to understand the economic underpinnings of our nation. He is afterall, a business person, so this is especially perplexing. Woodward describes Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs and Trump’s former economic advisor, in his attempts to explain our economy to Trump. He brings extensive data and reports, which Trump refuses to read. He makes presentations and writes briefings, which Trump also ignores. The crux of the issue is twofold: First, Trump believes that trade agreements are bad for the economy because we’re losing manufacturing jobs, despite the fact that over 80% of our jobs are not in manufacturing. Second, he believes that the trade deficit is ruining our economy. However, the trade deficit is not bad, as it allows U.S. citizens to spend more money on what they’re spending it on anyway (services). Depsite Cohn's efforts, Trumps remains resolute.

Several times Cohn asked, “Why do you have these views?”

“I just do,” Trump replied. “I’ve had these views for 30 years.”

“That doesn’t mean they’re right,” Cohn said. “I had the view for 15 years I could play professional football. It doesn’t mean I was right.” (138)

Pages and pages flew by as I read this page-turner, but I kept waiting for the bombshell. Upon reflection, I eventually understood Woodward's point: there may never be a revelation about Trump's Russia dealings, but the situation is dire in a different way. Our President is ill-equipped for his position and listens only to the staff who agree with him. Perhaps most important, Trump is a liar and, for some reason, that doesn't matter anymore.

If one book about Trump's presidency is not enough to sate your appetite, two others just might be. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolfe reads like the more gossipy version of Fear: Trump in the White House. Filled with tales of backstabbing and leaking insider details to the press, it's not the measured story we get from Woodward. That said, it is far more entertaining for the casual political reader.

For a more balanced, scholarly version of Trump's first year in office, I suggest Trump's First Year by Michael Nelson. Nelson's objective timeline of events brings us a full year of the Trump presidency from a more academic perspective. I do not recommend this tome for the casual political reader, as this detailed account reads more like a textbook than novel.

But What Are the Ramifications of a Trump Presidency?

Two books by New York Times best-selling author and journalist Michael Lewis shed light on some of the ramifications of Trump's presidency.

The first is his concise, well-researched The Coming Storm. Published as an Audible Original and the perfect length for plane ride, Lewis takes us on a journey through the inner workings of the National Weather Service. This may not seem like an interesting topic at first—oh, but it is! Where does your weather data come from? How are tsunamis, tornados, earthquakes, and other weather events predicted? What would happen if a for-profit company became the holder of this data? While at a high level, the current administration's handling of bureaucracy won't surprise you, but how these small details affect the lives of everyday Americans just might.

Michael Lewis's The Fifth Risk continues where The Coming Storm leaves off to try to answer the question, "What are the consequences if the people given control over our government have no idea how it works?" Lewis interviews public servants in the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy. He takes us back to Trump's election victory and the briefings department staff wrote that went unread. His appointees remain willfully ignorant of the broad strokes of their new departments, not mention the nuances. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy lacks enough inspectors to keep track of uranium supplies, making it easier for nuclear material to enter the black market. School lunch budgets are slashed. Our electric grid is increasingly unprotected from cyberterrorism (called out just this week by the nation's top intelligence chiefs in their briefing to Congress).

Where Do We Go From Here?

These books are not for the faint of heart—learning about the problems facing us is more difficult than remaining ignorant to them. Unfortunately for the American people, the Trump administration's mismangement of our bureaucracy will have long-term negative effects on the economy and, likely, the safety of our nation and world. While I do not have any grand recommendation as to what can be done (besides continuing to vote his supporters out of office and keeping the pressure on our elected officials to mitigate the damage), staying as informed as possible may perhaps bring us other, more useful ideas.

Besides the above books, I recommend "The Daily" podcast from The New York Times. The 20-minute episodes each cover one topic and often include in-depth interviews with journalists breaking major stories and witnesses of key events. While not as comprehensive in coverage of current events as the BBC's Global News podcast, for example, it delves into topics relatively objectively and with far greater richness.

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