Over the last few weeks I have had one of the most electrifying and harrowing reading experiences of my life. I have read a handful of books back to back and I want very much to tell you about them. No, I am not oddly obsessed (well, okay, maybe a little) but I feel strongly that I am trying to live into one of my life verses, 1 Chronicles 12:23, that the Lord gave to me in 1978. You’ve heard of it, I’m sure; it’s the one that mentions the “sons of Issachar” who “understood the times and knew what God’s people should do.” Our bookstore was designed and we continue to curate it, we sometimes say, to help cultivate wise sons and daughters of Issachar.
And so, I invite you to read my reflections on five books about the former President Trump’s campaign to stop the counting of proper votes in that dramatic 2020 election and his intention to overturn the certification of them in that fateful electoral college procedure on January 6th, 2021.
(As always, you can order them at our discounted prices by clicking on the link at the very end of this long BookNotes column.)
That Mr. Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign started even before he was elected in 2016 when he warned, wrongly, that American elections are fraudulent, is well known. The spectacular hold the vast pattern of often egregious lies, QAnon nonsense, and conspiracy theories that went from wacky to weird to truly absurd, has had on his MAGA followers has been truly something to ponder. That some otherwise smart people have gotten caught up in this cult-like devotion (despite no evidence proving any of his election allegations) is both heartbreaking and mind-numbingly maddening. That otherwise fine Christian folks would fall for the exceptionally strange ideas proposed by outrageous oddballs like Sidney Powell and Mike Flynn and evil-doers like Roger Stone and Alex Jones is absolutely beyond me. How can Christian people live with themselves aligning themselves with such stuff?
That it all gave rise to bloody and murderous hand-to-hand combat — outnumbered police were stabbed with flags used as spears; one poor cop had his gas masked ripped off of him while held down and was sprayed mercilessly with bear spray — as a traitorous Republican mob stormed their way into the Capitol, some intending to prevent the peaceful transfer of power (and others, it seems, intending to kill Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi) is a stain on the Trump movement that we must never forget.
These five books are reputable and moving. I found them difficult to put down; if it wasn’t so very recent and true and consequential I’d say they were entertaining in a spy and mystery-thriller kind of way. They are excellently documented and offer horrific detail and new insights into what went on leading up to the uprising, perhaps the most momentous civic event of our lifetime.
That the Republic Party has increasingly been taken captive by a new generation of extremist Trumpians is certainly one of the most significant developments in our contemporary political landscape. How Mr. Trump’s flamboyant dishonesty about “the steal” captured the imaginations of so many remains inexplicable. These books do not answer this question although they are stand-outs among a cascade of new titles (with more to come) trying to figure out what the heck has happened to us as a nation, and, at least, what we should do about the riotous mob who attacked the Capitol to do political damage if not to stage an actual coup.
Behind much of it looms the question of what we should make of the fact that many of our fellow citizens either deny or minimize the violent realities of the January 6th take-over of the Capitol and who continue to believe, against all evidence, that the vote counting of the 2020 election was dishonest.
(That some who are most vocal about the outlandish and unproven allegation of a “Steal” are running for office — like in our own state with the religiously unusual candidate Mastriano [don’t get me started about his refusal to disavow the Rod of Iron cult] and how he targets fellow citizens for future injustice — should alarm any normal citizen, and certainly Biblically-informed Christians who should surely know better. But he praises the Lord and plays Steven Curtis Chapman songs at his rallies. Heaven help us.)
This is serious stuff, my friends, and we at Hearts & Minds take seriously our Issacharian role to alert you to these sorts of books. As always here at BookNotes, they are 20% off. Order some today by clicking on the link at the very end.
TWO MORE QUICK INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS: Because this terrible assault on truth and facts and law and order and the duly elected winner of the 2020 election has been conducted by those on the far-right side of the political spectrum and given how the mainstream GOP was largely complicit and implicated in this, these books will seem quite partisan. I am sorry. One does not need to be a loyalist to the Democratic Party or its policies (I am not) to believe that the Republicans have lost their moral center by refusing to distance themselves from the racist alt-right and failing to extricate themselves from the dishonesty of the Trumpian MAGA movement.
I often call for followers of Christ to be less politically partisan and to stand with the poor and oppressed and for righteous ways regardless of party affiliation. “Principles, not parties” is how one good Christian civic organization puts it. We must critique the philosophical ideologies of both major parties and I often cite the heavy but important book by David Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP; $35.00 – OUR SALE PRICE = $28.00.) My dear and late friend Ron Sider was impeccable in this as can be seen in his manifesto about how to “think Christianly” about political policy, seen most thoroughly in his Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Brazos Press; $24.00 – OUR SALE PRICE = $19.20.) There are plenty of other great books on nurturing a truly Christian sense of citizenship and political life but I mention these to remind us that we are not trying to be partisan. That isn’t the point.
In any case, of these five riveting reads, two were written by Republicans, one by a Democratic Congressman, and two by reporters whose affiliations I do not know. All are fair about the seriously unethical ways Mr. Trump comported himself and the incredibly odd situation with so many insisting, without any evidence, that the election was stolen. Each remind us that all of this is worse than most of us realize and that it is a cultural matter that we must more deeply understand.
Which leads me to a final point in my preamble. How in the world did so many people fall for the Big Lie and how does propaganda and disinformation make its way into the common citizenry? I have previously recommended Bonnie Kristian’s excellent new book Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (Brazos Press; $24.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99.) It is a wonderful read, eloquent and moderate in tone. (Given how wildly dangerous the QAnon and Stop the Steal stuff has been, I’d have wished for a bit more zealous outcry from here but she is exceedingly calm and exceptionally balanced.) Her study of mass media and groupthink and the ethics of news consumption and what to do about what we know and what we don’t know, is a must-read these days. As Jeffrey Bilbro (the gentle Wendell Berry scholar who wrote the beautiful Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry Into the News) said of it, Untrustworthy “is never condescending and always sympathetic; it is never partisan and always incisive.” Kristian offers specific ways to take action to combat “the truth crisis” in our lives, families, and church communities, even offering a wonderfully clear proposal for “a practical epistemology.” Thank God.
Okay. Put on your seatbelts, friends. This is going to get bumpy. I hope you order several of these from us asap.
Here are the books I will be describing.
- Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show Jonathan Karl (Dutton) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
- The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It Mark Bowden & Matthew Teague (Atlantic Monthly Press) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
- The Breach: The Untold Story of the Investigation Into January 6th Denver Riggleman with Walker Hunter (Henry Holt & Company) $29.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $23.99
- Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell Tim Miller (Harper) $26.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.59
- Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy Jamie Raskin (Harper) $27.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.39
Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show Jonathan Karl (Dutton) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
Jonathan Karl is the Chief Washington correspondent for ABC News and the author of a previous work on the incessantly peculiar and often despicable behaviors of our 45th President, Front Row at the Trump Show. His crisp, informative reporting and essential fairness has been affirmed by many principled conservatives who endorsed his first book —Peggy Noonan (in the Wall Street Journal), the biographer of Ronald Reagan, Lou Cannon, the nearly impeccable George F. Will.
One significant critic said “we’ve read every book about the Trump presidency. This is the best.”
This new one picks up where the previous left off, but it is travelling very certain ground—“the explosive account of the downfall of the Tump president and the betrayal of American democracy.” Karl has known Donald Trump longer than any other White House correspondent (and had remarkable access to him, including after Biden’s inauguration; there is a spectacular chapter at the end of Karl being hosted by Trump at Mar-a-Lago.
This is a vivid account of the last months of the Trump campaign by a highly qualified journalist. I have postie-notes and book-markers throughout this book highlighting hundreds of the jaw-dropping episodes that Karl tell. Some are utterly bizarre, others politically unorthodox, many just rude (such as how the Trump family broke the age old tradition of inviting the next President and his wife to visit in the White House before the inauguration; even though Trump had spent endless time trying to prove that Obama wasn’t even a real American, then President Obama and his wife entertained the Trump’s twice prior to their own move in day.) More egregious dangerous things unfold, as we know, and Mr. Karl gives us a front row seat.
It starts with the little known episode of how Mr. Trump’s royal “body guy” (a security guard who had previously been fired) was given an unprecedented position of power whereby he could fire almost anyone in the White House; the chapter called “The Purge” tells of the work of no-nothing Johnny Mentee. I could hardly believe my eyes learning about that. Karl moves to stories of Covid (and how the President knowingly risked spreading it to others, including the famous episode when Chris Christie got it) and the strange press conference where the President rambled on about possibly injecting cleaners. Poor Dr. Birx, who was sitting right there with the under secretary of Homeland Security who was equally aghast. It goes from bizarre to despicable when, in the next chapter, there is a moment by moment exploration of the famous church photo-op. You know — the one with the unjust, violent removal of protesters and the take-over of a local church while holding a Bible in a rather awkward manner. Whew.
Betrayal brings us into the frantic days of the election and the effort to overturn election results. On and on it goes for 350 pages and I wanted more when it was over. There is so much included, and nicely written. Some have said it is the definitive account of the final months and no one reading it would deny that what happened at the end of 2020 was riveting to read about and enough to send shivers up the spine of most serious patriots.
Betrayal convincingly makes the case that the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day was even more precarious than we knew at the time. Karl isn’t a progressive pundit or a hyperbolic columnist. He is one of the most-respected correspondents in DC He and so many others are saying: America was on the precipice of a constitutional crisis. And we could wind up back there again soon. — Brian Stelter, CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter
The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It Mark Bowden & Matthew Teague (Atlantic Monthly Press) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
This is one of the most detailed studies of the Trump Big Lie that I have read and should sure convince anyone anywhere that his conspiratorial accusations are nonsensical, incoherent, and often laughably ridiculous. You have to read the accounts of this dramatic story yourself to learn it all, but the short version is that it tells in narrative fashion — written with such verve that you almost think your reading a Grisham novel or spy drama — of the accusations of election fraud and what did or didn’t happen in each account. It would take pages to even summarize the many points and counterpoints but Bowden & Teague deserve an award for investigative reporting for this patriotic truth-telling. This is very, very informative and offers crucial information. One reviewer called it “a marvel of reporting.” Indeed.
Some of the accusations Trump’s people make (and continue to make) are just nutty and can be dismissed easily. There was a picture of somebody moving boxes and it was tweeted out with a caption insisting it showed shenanigans. On investigation it became obvious that the poll workers (under the constant gaze of bipartisan poll watchers) did this throughout their process, moving boxes from this location to that, counted and double-counted, moved from this space to that. There was absolutely nothing nefarious about the picture whatsoever.
In many of the cases — including some that the Trump team insisted was proof of fraud — Trump’s election count was actually in the lead. The claims of fake stuff happening was ludicrous, for starters, unkind to our many dedicated counters and poll workers who were doing their best and, frankly, foolish for Trump since he was winning in those very places he insisted stuff was fishy. How dumb.
The book goes into dramatic detail as it races across the country, follows the accusations and demands for recounts, the lawsuits (those thrown out and those that went to court where Trump’s team repeatedly lost. Lost, lost, lost. They had their day in court — sometimes tried by Trump-appointed judges! — and they lost. There is just no there, there. This book explains it all in dramatic storytelling, loaded with facts.
The Steal is powerful on several levels and is a must-read for anyone curious about the legitimacy of the claims of fraud, the steal, the accusations of corruption. It takes these claims seriously at times and goes to great lengths to study the back story, the politics, the facts on the ground about how votes are counted and recounted, and how it all ends up. There is nothing like it in print and deserves to be widely known as we will continue to have to clarify the true truth to people who — for reasons that are beyond me — continue to believe against the evidence that the election was stolen.
Some of the claims that come into play are technical in nature (that is, claiming that Dominion computers could be hacked.) Upon closer look the allegations were just weird — claims about Venezuelan Hugo Chavez (who is dead) having intercepted computers that count votes (a literal impossibility, by the way, since the voting isn’t “on line.”) Claims that somebody in Germany was playing footloose with the votes. (Again, this is simply impossible. High school computer science geeks could explain this.) Sidney Powell and Rudy Giulianii continued to make outrageous claims of this impossible sort and continued to make them even after they were proven to be false. They were often chastised by judges during their proverbial day in court (get that: they evidence was so non-existence, that even Trump appointed judges mocked them and threw out the claims, almost always.) Still, they continued to spread falsehoods about the so-called stolen election, flagrantly repeating episodes that had been shown to be false. It took way, way too long for President Trump to finally cut loose the delusional Powell, but she did her damage.
The Steal explores the drama of these characters and their wacky schemes, going into great detail about the allegations made by the disgraced Attorney Powell and the scary Michael Flynn, of the Pillow Guy Mike Lindell and Jenna Ellis and the religiously heterodox Pennsylvania Gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano. If this were a suspense thriller, a spy novel, we would say these characters are simply too outlandish to be true. But yet, here we are.
The book tells of the true believers — there is the confused Gary Phelman who demanded access to where other poll watchers already were because he has an unofficial “certificate” making him (as he put it, “the ears and eyes of the President of the United States” who was apparently sending out these unauthorized certificates) and the pushy Greg Stenstrom in Chester County who demanded to be allowed to go behind the scenes at a ballot counting spot (The Wharf, in Delco, PA) because he had an authorization to be a poll watcher in another part of the county. That was where that footage came from that went viral of a Republican poll watcher being excluded — there already were proper Republican poll watchers in place and Stenstrom simply wasn’t authorized to be in that location, so of course they didn’t admit him. But it sure looked bad on film and not only did it fire up the skeptical base about Democrat shenanigans, it so fired up Stenstrom that he brow beat a local judge to pass a ruling allowing him to delay the count and get himself in. (Where, importantly, there was no foul play.) Then there were the unscrupulous folks behind Project Veritas — and the over-reaction story about one poor postal worker in Erie, PA. You’ve got to read about him. Story after story, The Steal will keep you up at night, exploring fairly each allegation, state by state, to determine what really happened.
Over and over the stakes are high and these accusations were gaining momentum, passed around the internets among those expecting a steal — Mr Trump had said it would happen — reading trouble into all sorts of pretty normal stuff. The self fulfilling prophesies won the day, despite the facts of minimal election errors. Granted, the Covid pandemic and the necessary rules about social distancing didn’t help any; that differing states having different rules about mail-in ballots is discussed which gave rise to some understandable frustrations which were properly adjudicated in the courts. (Our own situation in Pennsylvania being one of the more sticky ones, actually.)
The final clause in the subtitle of The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It is important as the book looks at who the real heroes of our election were. It is, in the final analysis, a tribute to those who said “no” to the trouble-makers, who played by the rules and insisted others do, too. Some — like Brad Raffensperger, the Trump-supporting election guy (technically called the Secretary of State) in Georgia — famously stood their ground even when their preferred candidate lost the election. For bravely abiding by proper law and order with impeccable scruples they got death threats and vile phone messages, rape threats and hate mail and worse. Why the Trump-driven GOP didn’t “call out” those who are so vulgar and so unhinged is beyond me but I applaud this book for exposing the ugliness of some and the quiet heroism of others.
From Arizona to Michigan to Pennsylvania to George the threat of violence against those following the rules was sickening. Your heart will go out to those (often Republican) local leaders who didn’t fall for the groupthink of Trump’s pressure campaign and simply followed the evidence and stuck to the facts. And paid a price to do so. This book needs to be read.
There is a lot of content in this page-turner of a book, lots of drama; it is almost mind-numbing to what lengths the Trump MAGA team would go to try to save the election from being stolen, even as it became evident that the votes were legit and even after lawsuit after lawsuit found nothing. is a book that you will never forget about a movement that, sadly, we may not be able to forget. This stuff is not going away. The Steal is a book that is must to have on your shelf for future reference.
There are, by the way, three appendices included. There is a list of House of Representatives members who objected to certifying the electoral college results. There is a list of Senators who refused to certify the electoral college results. And there is a listing and guide to the lawsuits filed to challenge the 2020 election results. This, truly, will bring you up to speed.
The Breach: The Untold Story of the Investigation Into January 6th Denver Riggleman with Walker Hunter (Henry Holt & Company) $29.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $23.99
Okay, if Bowden and Teague are investigate reporters trying to fairly tell about the effort to undo the elections and the arguments about what was fudged, what was sound, what the complaints were and why those accusations all fall flat — all by immersing us in the stories of those who resisted these fly-by-night accusers (those they call “the true patriots”) then this book is an insiders look on just what happened and how it all went south, especially with the uprising on January 6th. This is one insider’s view and, man, is it spicy. And informative. And real. Wow.
Denver Riggleman is quite a character. He served as a one-term GOP Representative in DC and because of his former career in the Air Force intelligence and experience with the NSA and expertise in the field of technical aspects of intelligence (tracking phone calls, just for instance) he served for a bit on The US House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. (It was not a Commission, a la the popular 9/11 Commission, by the way, as that was voted down, after seemingly being agreed upon by the House Republicans.) We learn a bit about Riggleman’s story and how he came to serve the Committee as a technical advisor and investigator. It is colorful, a bit raw — he is not a polished writer but a straight shooting military guy who is concerned about all the partisan nonsense.
This is the first book by a member of the House Select Committee to Investigate — my hunch is not all on the Committee are glad Riggleman has published his own telling of his work so soon; he does seem to be a bit of a fast-moving, get her done kind of guy, so it makes sense. I have to tell you a bit about who Riggleman is and what qualified him to serve the Commission and why it is, I’ve come to believe, exceedingly valuable to have his side of things in print. His personal story interspersed with the drama of his technical investigations sure makes for one heckuva read. Wow — what a glimpse into the real world of intelligence gathering.
Three things about Riggleman. He was raised Mormon but left that world with some degree of appreciation — he’s a good guy at heart, I’m sure — but with a lot of red flags about cults, groupthink, superstition, conspiracy theories, and the like. He sees that stuff a mile away and he does not suffer fools gladly, as they say. He doesn’t cross over any lines — it could have been studied more — but his wondering why so many people fall for what he calls the “bullshit” (that’s about the least colorful thing he calls it) of the Trump MAGA accusations about a stolen election is tremendously interesting. His background in cults makes it even more so. He has seen radicalization in Afghanistan and the Middle East and cut his military teeth in the awful horror of the Serbian/Croatian wars so he has some experience in sizing up how people become “true believers” in a cause that is not rooted in reality or truth or goodness. Anyway, his growing up rough, the conversion of his family to a religious faith and his determination that it was somewhat cult-like is helpful.
Secondly, as I’ve said, he’s a military guy with tons of experience in cracking codes, tracking down hidden information, doing bigger things than finding missing phone numbers. But that’s where his expertise came in handy as he set up what he had hoped would be a several million dollar research center to trace the network of call contacts in the phone given to the Committee by Mark Meadows, President Trump’s Chief of Staff. The thousands of texts, images, calls, and connections are at first not useful information — they’ve got millions of lines of numbers, but at first no names attached — but he created a huge graph connecting who called who. He hired some geeks in Greensburg PA with various interfacing software programs to get on all this, trying to find out which unsavory characters — The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, etc. — were most in touch with White House personnel leading up to the legal and bloody attack on the Capitol on January 6th. What he discovers will blow your mind.
As I have said before — and as I trust you surely know — everybody knew they were coming. The White House had contact with some who planned the insurrection, and it was well known that some who were coming were spreading the word to bring weapons. Anybody paying attention to Facebook and the web that week knew it was happening; those tuned to the deep web and the dark web (as Riggleman explains) would have known much more. The question is how connected the White House was, and did the White House’s connection with creeps like Roger Stone (and Bannon and the rest of the cast of violent and unsavory characters) indicate that they had hoped for a violent attack on the Capitol police and the congresspeople in the building? In any case, Riggleman has contacts in the spy biz and he routinely consults with police investigations and he tells some pretty cool stories about the gear and the people — he knows a guy, as they say — they recruited on a shoestring budget to suss out who was involved in this illegal uprising to storm the Capitol and attempt to murder elected officials like Mike Pence. At certain points I had to pinch myself to remember this wasn’t a fictional spy novel but something that actually happened in our own capitol just a year or so ago.
Thirdly, Riggleman has been a life-long redneck conservative. He is proud that he lived in Appalachia for a while and he’s got this blue collar demeanor and perspective. He is outspoken and blunt, daring and right wing. At least he was. Like many people I know he overlooks the flaws of the likes of Ronald Reagan and George Bush and sees them and their time as an honorable era of positive, even Godly, Republicanism. He knows his Constitution and he loved his GOP. But with the Trump stuff, he grew sour and when he ran for office and ran afoul the party line — standing against racism, for instance — he grew bitter about much of the far right ideology and its tribe. His time in the Freedom Caucus (with central Pennsylvania’s own far right ideologue Congressman Scott Perry) has given him keen insight into human behavior, party loyalty, the idols of ideology, and why the “stolen election” nonsense has taken hold.
Riggleman is the guy for this book, exposing the stupidity of much of the Big Lie and yet showing compassion for the people — like his own mother! — who believe it. His blow by blow description of how they piece by piece figured out who was talking to who leading up to the riots makes the book move along with page-turning speed and gripping, no-nonsense prose. And there is the big question looming: who used that phone in the White House early afternoon June 6th to call somebody inside the Capitol, someone rioting that very moment? That seems to be Riggleman’s “white whale” and he is passionate about following the evidence, looking at the facts and seeing where that leads. He is less concerned about partisan points and more about the answers to his tech kinds of questions, especially questions about what he called “the Rosetta Stone for the January 6th investigation” — Meadow’s phone texts which, he says, provided “a staggering amount of information.”
I suppose you know that (as he puts it) “The White House is technically required to keep track of the commander in chief’s calls, thanks to the Presidential Records Acts, which was enacted in the wake of Watergate.” He notes that this sometimes leaves room for negligence, carelessness, and, sometimes deliberate misconduct.
And I suppose you also know that on January 6th the White House went dark for seven hours and thirty-seven minutes.
I didn’t know why the White House went dark and I didn’t really care. As an intelligence officer, you learn not to make assumptions. It might have been an innocent mistake; it could have been a cover-up. What mattered to me — as the senior technical advisor to the Committee and as an American — was why they stopped tracking the calls, and what happened next.
As the answers unfold and we learn the details (or at least those he in good conscience could share; he sometimes says he can’t say more) we also learn more about who is involved in this big network of neo-Nazi groups and Oath Keepers and right wing religionists and ordinary Republicans who believed Trump and his MAGA team. More interestingly, he wonders why people fall for this stuff.
Which leads him to QAnon. He is adept at cracking into the dark web and he knows some stuff — he can’t even say what all, I gather — about the espionage needed if we are going to figure out who is inspiring folks to do violence and things like the plan to prevent the election to go through. That there are these way-underground dark web groups with chat boards and such, shaping the fevered fears of many that then are picked up in more mainstream ways, is an immense problem. That huge networks like Fox picks up and repeat truly outlandish stuff from the dark webs is jaw-droppingly dangerous for our society and, frankly, our safety.
Denver Riggleman tells of some sick, nutty conspiracies that someone who is at least seemingly respectable reports in some relatively mainstream way. The fake stories (about election fraud, or worse) get on some far right network — Trump’s own alternative to twitter, say, or OAN network. Next it is picked up by the more popular Fox and soon the sketchy story has been seen by millions. And they almost all believe it is gospel. How does this happen? What are we to do?
Just when I thought The Breach had sort of peaked and had reached its dramatic climax, the next chapter (“The Traitor”) blew me away. Holy smokes — people actually believe that what was once a Benghazi conspiracy fringy story could morph into an accusation that Obama’s SEAL Team Six didn’t really kill Bin Laden (there was a body double) and Obama had one of the SEALs murdered. This harebrained QAnon stuff was retweeted by then President Trump!
Riggleman and his co-writer Walker Hunger tell of a press conference where Trump was directly asked about QAnon and he obviously lied about not knowing about who they are. The reporter played along, graciously explaining its theory about the Satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals that the Democrats were supporting. The NBC White House correspondent Shannon Pettypiece said to the President, “Does that sound like something you are behind?” The Breach tells what happened next and reflects on the story:
There it was. Trump was standing behind the White House podium. He hd the prefect opportunity to use the full force of his presidential platform to denounce the most unhinged and angry aspects of Canon. The chance to have a positive impact on the segment of his base that was going off the rails was all teed up for him. Trump didn’t take it. Nope. Rather than doing what any remotely decent person would have done, he actually doubled down and almost endorsed QAnon’s dark, apocalyptic vision of world affairs.
After quoting verbatim what the President said about QAnon, he observes,
The end-times death cult conspiracies were now coming from behind the White House podium.
This is not a curious digression but is deeply connected to the “Stop the Steal” marches, the wild stuff Ginny Thomas has said (about Democrats being captured and put on barges headed to GITMO) and more. How have things gotten this unhinged?
Riddleman — again, think of his background as a former Mormon which he now views as somewhat cult-like and his expertise on the psychology of radicalization from his work in counterterrorism doing Air Force intelligence in hot war zones overseas — is very, very concerned about the influence of conspiracy theories. In fact, before losing his last election, one of his heroic bipartisan efforts was to pass an anti-QAnon Resolution in the House.
This has led him also to take on the notorious election denier and Trump friend Alex Jones. If the Proud Boys engage in (among other awful stuff) holocaust denial, Alex Jones claimed that the Sandy Hook murders of children was a hoax. And these are the guys the beloved President befriended. Every time I see a Trump sign or yard side I think of this, wondering if my neighbors approve of such evil ideas? We simply must say it: Alex Jones is a dangerous and wicked man. Riddleman is a brave Republican, willing to speak out about this sickness in the party.
And then, in Chapter 10 — “The Byrne Identity” — the book reports even yet weirder stuff. Riddleman expose the war documents Trump’s people had and, indeed, the next chapter is called “Executive Disorder” which shows how many MAGA hard-liners wanted Trump to use EO 13848, stretching it’s meaning, enabling him to declare an emergency and send out the National Guard and take over voting machines. This stuff tending towards a coup (and more from the likes of madman Patrick Byrne spelled out in his unbelievable Deep Capture website) was in the air. Trump’s advisers were increasingly bizarre and unprofessional — from Powell to Giuliani to Jenna Ellis. As a military man and hyper patriot, Riddleman has no time for the scoundrels. Of former and onetime national security adviser and dangerously odd General Michael Flynn and his coup-plotting (on, for instance, a Newsman interview on December 17th 2020), Riddleman cannot restrain his disdain:
I think Flynn is a shameful and spineless disgrace. I also recognize him as a clear and present danger.
I could say more but you get the drift. This is a deep dive into the far fringe elements of Trumpworld. Oddly, these conspiracy-filed voices seem to be his most loyal fans and certainly were influential in the days leading up to the big plan to take over the Capitol if Mike Pence didn’t come through to overturn the election. Surely not everyone knows that so much of this is so far out or otherwise good citizens would be running for the hills (or sending Tump-mania packing.) This kind of stuff needs to be read, discussed, and we need to put books like this into the hands of those who favor election-denying candidates. This book has some colorful language. It’s quite a read. You should know it.
Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell Tim Miller (Harper) $26.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $21.59
I was not sure I wanted to review this book, as its subtitle is overly provocative and the writing laced with casual profanity. The young-ish, hip author has been the consummate Republican operative and is very well known within the higher-ups of the Grand Old Party. He did communication work for candidates, admittedly for short term gain (often doing negative ads.) He was not happy with himself. I am not alert enough to national politics to have know his name but those in the know in the Republican movement know him well. Since he early on realized Mr. Trump was not good for the country or the party Tim Miller has become anathema among his former friends and colleagues. He a self-confident worker and independent thinker so I have a hunch he doesn’t really care what they think of him. Except, well, he sort of undid a lifetime of professional friendships and, uh, his whole career. So there’s that.
I’ve got several good friends who are fond of the old political theory adage about how one may not want to see “how the sausage is made.” Well, this mea culpa gives us a very rare view into the back room deals and fund-raising plans and media appearances and campaign strategy meetings and red-eye private jet flights and all sorts of other gigs that make up typical big time American political efforts. Mr. Miller had never wanted to be an elected official so most don’t know his name. But he is known by those behind the scenes — and those who report on that stuff, such as pundit James Carville, who says, “Everyone should read this book, especially fellow Democrats who want to better understand our political foes.”
Here’s the short version of Miller’s fast-paced, snarky memoir: he rose to fame and influence in the RNC as one of the architects of its widely reported “autopsy” after the 2012 landslide for Obama. As a keen-eyed and principled strategist, he worked with other top-level leaders to forge a winning plan that would help Republicans appeal to more folks (women in the blue suburbs, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ persons) and help them stay true to conservative values in a changing postmodern culture. Quite a feat, but this guy knew his stuff and worked hard with all sorts of important (and in some cases famous) politicos.
Miller was the communication director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign and before that the chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential Campaign. He worked with McCain, even in Iowa. To say he’s been around is an understatement. (And, whew, the amount of late night drinking these guys do is truly remarkable.) There is candor and revelation (and, one has to wonder, maybe a hint of spiritual longing, with prayer even mentioned once or twice.) He did lots of interviews with old friends and co-workers asking how they (perhaps like himself) justified their work with candidates who they personally disapproved of. Naturally, many had jobs they needed and careers they wanted and, well, they were motivated often by just trying to stay afloat.
He actually has sort of a taxonomy of different ways different people could live with themselves working for stuff that was frankly wrong. These handful of chapters is very interesting and I think pretty insightful.
Interestingly he tells a lot of stories — once he was editing a fund raising newsletter that was targeting Republican senior citizens. It was laden with race-baiting and all sorts of alarmist scary stuff. He “red-lined” some of it but his bosses (and the candidate in question) told him that unless the press would write about this negative sort of fear-mongering stuff, he shouldn’t edit it. In retrospect he realized this was just wrong and he didn’t speak up.
Maybe you recall an old Sidney Lumet film called Power (with Richard Gere, Gene Hackman, Julie Christie, Denzel Washington) about the campaign consultants behind the scenes as they shape a candidate for public consumption and their own compromises with their own sense of ethics — it’s their job, after all. It’s a great movie about personal integrity and I kept thinking of it as I read this page-turning expose of how and why so many relatively normal, respectable, decent Republican players turned a blind eye to Trump’s corruption, narcissism, bad temper, crass materialism, no-nothing anti-intellectualism, routine dishonesty, and confusion about American politics and Republican principles. Why?
Why, indeed? We have heard that many Republicans privately despised the President (and many feared him as well, for understandable reasons.) Yet the question remains “How did this happen?”
Miller is angry and he is angry at himself. Yet he is not a jerk and this isn’t merely a hard critique, although it is that. He is understandably understanding. The jacket flap copy says he “cuts into all the hubris, ambition, idiocy, desperation, and self-deception for everyone to see” and he does. He names names, often, and describes long, heart-to-heart debates with key GOP operatives, pushing them to be honest with themselves, to speak out, to right the ship. It is bracingly honest, but while it promises to expose “the contortions of his former peers in the conservative establishment” he is not mean-spirited or ugly about it all. He is mostly heart-broken and alarmed. As he puts it, he “draws a straight line between the actions of the 2000s GOP and the Trumpian takeover of the Republican political class, including the horrors of January 6, 2021.”
That he tells of his coming out as a gay man (and the “mental gymnastics that enable him to justify becoming a hit man for homophobes”) reveals a lot. It is a gripping book, at times quite tender, and interesting in all sorts of ways. Beyond the political details, it is a profound study of what it means to be true to one’s values, to be authentic and honest, to have integrity. Wild as it is and as much cool, hipster lingo as there is, it is really worth reading. The author is earnest and it is to the point and is trying to cultivate a sense of honesty and integrity.
Consider this hefty endorsement:
When the history of this era is written, the dominant question will likely be, How did this happen? Tim Miller’s Why We Did It offers a crucial insider’s answer to that question. It’s a must-read report from the belly of the beast detailing how the unimaginable becomes inevitable. Looking back at a career in politics and being horrified at what you were part of is not the most fun exercise in life. Tim examines his role with clear honesty, sadness, and an amusing sense of the absurd. This is a big, important book. Read it. — Stuart Stevens, political consultant and co-founder of Strategic Partners & Media.
Or this, which captures much about Why We Did It:
Tim is a supremely gifted storyteller who writes with brutal honesty and stylish gallows humor about the GOP’s toxic mix of opportunists, joy riders, and grifters who enabled Donald Trump’s rise and guaranteed his enduring grip on the Republican Party. Tim takes a scalpel to the malignant tumor smothering American democracy by dissecting his own friends and onetime colleagues. The most valuable contribution of Tim’s book may be the anthropological examination of just how little separates a ‘normal’ Republican from an activist working to overthrow a free and fair presidential election. — Nicolle Wallace, Deadline: White House
Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy Jamie Raskin (Harper) $27.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.39
This is the book I wanted to introduce first, but felt like maybe the others fit better early on the list. They are clear-headed and honest and robust in their investigations of the often utterly bizarre accusations of the Big Lie that so many have fallen for. I listed those first, but this one — oh my. It blew me away and is one of the most moving and compelling and tender books I have read in years. I said to Beth the other day it may have to be added on to my ever-changing list of Best Books I’ve Ever Read. I think it is almost that good and surely is unforgettable.
As you may know, Congressman Jamie Raskin is a Democratic leader from Maryland who helped with the first impeachment hearings against Donald Trump (that was the whole Russian election scam.) Before his time running (with his kids helping with the campaign) for a seat in Annapolis in the State House he was a good natured law professor. (He is a Harvard Law grad and a constitutional law guy, actually.) That is he pretty far left — sort of a fun and smiling Bernie, maybe — makes him super interesting as well.
We learn a bit about his famous dad (who had worked in the Kennedy administration for a which) who was arrested for anti-draft protest in 1968 with Dr. Spock and Rev. William Sloan Coffin (for those old enough to remember that) and how his father helped start the Institute for Policy Studies with Richard Barnet. He learned his justice-seeking, civil rights values in this remarkable setting in a famously loving family; the civic pride he and his family takes in him being an elected official and public servant is palpable. He has good chums all over the country and is pals with folks from various poltical persuasions. His voice was immediately friendly and inspiring.
Perhaps you may also know that his beloved young adult son and best friend, Tommy, took his own life on December 31st 2019. The book opens with that unspeakable tragedy and while I have read other narratives of families bereaved by suicide, I have never read anything so heart-breaking and gripping. I knew this was part of the backstory of Jamie Raskin as he took up Nancy Pelosi’s call to become the lead manager of the second impeachment trail against Donald Trump for his dangerous role in inspiring and possibly planning the January 6th insurrection.
This personal loss faced so bravely is part of what is so unthinkable, the double entrance of the title almost too painful to admit. This book is the first time the famous House leader discusses the “unimaginable convergence of personal and public trauma.” What a story. What a book. I am deeply grateful to the Congressman for doing the hard work of facing all this and telling us about it in this stunning book.
Although he is candid about the pain of losing his son (and how his wife and two daughters processed that as well and how so many good people rallied around them) the main story is about going back to work— the first time since the death of his son a week previous — on January 6th. His grown daughter and a son-in-law went along (to watch after him, actually, they admitted, in case he couldn’t emotionally sustain himself) and then the attack began. This insider’s account of the fear of an active shooter coming after them, the bloody combat, the stabbings and neo-Nazi stuff (you can imagine how Jewish people felt) and the toxic bear spray — the Trumpian MAGA team had come armed to the teeth. It is the most riveting account of the attack I have read and it is gruesome.
One story: some of the Democratic congressional leaders, flat on their bellies, crawled to the other side of the room to lie in place with Republicans thinking that if the mob broke through and started shooting, they would surely pick off the Democrats first. Can you imagine!
Another story: Jamie was honorably concerned about his friends and colleagues in the great hall at the time, but he was firstly alarmed for his daughter and his son-in-law who had been escorted out and were hiding under a Congress person’s desk. Cell phone was spotty as the surreal attack continued, hour after hour. He was understandably panicked as he had just lost one child and sure didn’t want to lose another — even as he blamed himself for allowing her to come along. What a nightmare.
On it went. He saw a police officer stabbed with a flagpole being used as a spear — this is no time for snarky comments about how unpatriotic that is. These rioters were inspired by a well-dressed US President but they were there in gear, prepared for battle; for many nothing was sacred.
Unthinkable is about trauma, not only his own private hell but the trauma elected officials felt that day (even though some, who were crying in fear and screaming in outrage soon minimized the damage in egregious turnabouts for obvious partisan optics.) And yes, the book moves not only through the horror of that day from an insider’s view but to the process of recovery from trauma that all good citizens had to begin. Somewhat like the attack on Pearl Harbor or the forever infamous 9-11 attacks, this murderous uprising must live in infamy. The casualties were obviously less (but more severe than most realize or dare to recall) but the fact that it came from our own — fellow citizens, driven on with complicity from the White House, later with elected officials implicated — it is a tragedy that simply must be faced. And this book helps us do that better than any I’ve read.
The vivid telling of the uprising to try to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after an obviously legitimate election — with chants of being willing to capture and perhaps even execute Mike Pence if necessary — is the first part of the book. If it were only that part it would be well worth reading (especially, again, as there are portions — not digressions! — writing seamlessly about his family, his son, how Covid prevented healthy and life-giving interaction for so many.) But the rest of the book picks up with Raskin’s courageous leadership in the second impeachment trail. How that developed, the round-the-clock research his team had to endure, the professionalism and patriotism of the crew, it is all very impressive.
I keep wondering, dear Hearts & Minds friends, how BookNotes readers who favored the Republican candidate will respond to my telling of how much I appreciated this important book. I know Raskin is not without faults. Still, I hope you are willing to engage, as they say, and take an open-minded look at the arguments for the second impeachment and the magnitude of the sheer dedication and tenacity that drove those committed to finding and exposing the truth of the President’s involvement in the traitorous uprising. Agree fully or not with all that Mr. Raskin believes (I surely do not) he is a good and caring public servant and I feel he has his shared some of his soul in this vulnerable, honest book. He gives me hope that some Congressional officials can embody a deep and caring sort of integrity, combing the personal and the poltical it ways that strike me as good.
Raskin is a moving writer. For instance:
This is not a book about Donald Trump. Quite the opposite. It is about the people whose dreams and actions have allowed us to survive Donald Trump…
Tyrants tell stories only about themselves because history for them begins and ends with their own insatiable appetites. But my own story of despair and survival depends entirely on other people, above all the good and compassionate people, the ones like my son, Tommy, the non-narcissists, the feisty, life-size human beings who hate bullying and fascism naturally — people just the right size for a democracy in which each person has one vote and one voice, where we are all ‘created equal’ and thus given an equal chance to lead a life of decency and integrity.
I have learned that trauma can steal everything from you that is most precious and rip joy right out of your life. But, paradoxically, it can also make your stronger and wiser and connect you more deeply to other people than you ever imagined by enabling you to touch their misfortunes and integrate their loses and pain with your own.
Yes, you will learn much of what you need to know about the nefarious alt-right groups that were inspired by the President and the vile uprising that tried to prevent the proper passing of the electoral college votes. Yes, you’ll learn about the President’s unseemly pressure upon (and then grotesque abandonment of) his Vice President. Yes, you will see how a few brave Republicans spoke out against the MAGA madness that had come to this. This is an excellent and informative book about all of that.
But, it is more. As David Remnick of The New Yorker has written about it,
Unthinkable is not a work of emotional austerity; rather, it is an unburdening, a howl, a devotional. The grief is nightmarish, but the love that suffuses the text is even more powerful—the love for family and a lost child, as well as a love for a fragile democracy. It takes its greatest inspiration from the idealism of Raskin’s son.
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