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Writing bigly

Jordan Peterson’s trouble with his publisher will look mild when compared with Donald Trump’s impending book

Artillery Row

It is an acknowledged legacy of any president’s career that, once they leave office, they will seek to make a lot of money from a book deal. In the case of most incumbents of the White House, the subsequent memoir will be well-written (often with the aid of a handsomely remunerated ghostwriter), insightful (insofar as classified details can be revealed in the lifetimes of participants) and front-loaded in terms of sales. It is hard to imagine that many people today will be rushing to purchase Jimmy Carter’s Keeping Faith, or even George W Bush’s Decision Points.

Yet, in the case of the Oval Office’s most notorious recent occupant, there is already controversy on a hitherto unimagined scale. Donald Trump has announced, in his usual quiet, low-key way, that he is working on a memoir of his time as President. In a statement last week, he claimed that “I’m writing like crazy, and when the time comes, you’ll see the book of all books.” He also stated that he had already turned down two lucrative deals “from the most unlikely of publishers”, but did not name who they were, only stating that “I do not want to do such a deal right now”.

Publishers believe it’s worth braving protests from their staff to publish accounts of the Trump administration 

The initial response to Trump’s claims was a mixture of scepticism and horror. It is likely that any book published under his name would perpetuate a series of conspiracy theories and rabble-rousing ideas, not least that his rightful role as President was stolen from him by a Joe Biden-led conspiracy. No doubt it would also offer trenchant views on the covid outbreak, American diplomacy throughout the world, Black Lives Matter and many other tense social and political issues that could only be exacerbated by a 75-year old man with questionable hair publishing an incendiary autobiography. The chances of such a book coming out under the auspices of a major American publisher — one of the so-called “big five” — are just about nil, despite Trump’s grandiose claims. As one insider remarked, “He’s screwed over so many publishers that before he ran for president, none of the big five would work with him anymore.” 

His former vice-president Mike Pence has run into similar controversy with the impending publication of his own memoir. Pence signed a substantial seven-figure deal with Simon & Schuster in the United States, thought to be worth as much as $4 million, for two books. This was greeted with dismay by many of the publishers’ employees, who circulated an open letter accusing S & S of having “chosen complicity in perpetuating white supremacy by publishing Pence.” The letter stated “By choosing to publish Mike Pence, Simon & Schuster is generating wealth for a central figure of a presidency that unequivocally advocated for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, islamophobia, antisemitism, and violence.” It concluded “This is not a difference of opinions; this is legitimising bigotry.” 

Jonathan Karp, president at Simon & Schuster, disagreed. He announced that “we come to work each day to publish, not cancel, which is the most extreme decision a publisher can make, and one that runs counter to the very core of our mission to publish a diversity of voices and perspectives. We will, therefore, proceed in our publishing agreement with vice-president Mike Pence.” Whatever one thinks of Pence, this seems an even-handed and nuanced view of the publishing process, and stands at odds with kneejerk decisions made by other publishers for moral or other reasons. And with the impending arrival of a memoir by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, published by HarperCollins’ conservative imprint Broadside Books, it is clear that mainstream organisations believe that accounts of the Trump administration have a commercial future and are worth braving outraged open letters and protests from their staff in order to publish. 

No memoir written by Donald Trump is likely to be a good book by the usual definition of the term

This does not go for Trump himself, however. As one anonymous executive informed Politico, “It would be too hard to get a book that was factually accurate, actually. That would be the problem. If he can’t even admit that he lost the election, then how do you publish that?” Attempting to fact-check a Trump memoir would be almost impossible. And then the reaction by a publisher’s staff to the existence of such a book would make controversies relating to the likes of Pence, Jordan Peterson and Woody Allen look mild in comparison. It is easy to imagine everyone from editors to sales staff to typesetters refusing to work on it and offering their resignations should they be assigned to it, giving the book the status of a modern-day Mein Kampf. 

Yet it seems impossible that Trump, a man whose lust for self-promotion and publicity is virtually unparalleled, will meekly sit back and allow his book to gather dust on a shelf somewhere. Instead, it is likely that a new or emergent alt-right publishing company will seek to establish themselves with an aggressive acquisition and equally aggressive marketing campaign for the book — presumably timed to coincide with Biden facing mid-term primaries in November 2022 — which would then lead Trump to attempt to fight the next election in 2024. Or, of course, that the former President simply self-publishes the book, without even the most cursory editorial scrutiny, and urges his loyal supporters to buy it in enormous quantities. 

No memoir written by Donald Trump is likely to be a good book by the usual definition of the term. At best, it will be a revealing insight into the mind of a wildly controversial and divisive figure, and fascinating on a psychological level. At worst, it will be indifferently ghost-written bluster designed to do little more than rally his partisan base in time for another bid at the White House. But it should be allowed space on the shelf next to Pence and Kushner’s books, and judged accordingly, rather than pre-emptively censored and given far more credence than it otherwise would deserve. And, personally, I can’t wait for its publication, if only because the inevitable Craig Brown parody will be a thing of joy and wonder. Two things, I suspect, that will be sorely lacking both from Trump’s book and the confected outrage around its very existence. 

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