Monday 20 April 2020

Book review: Trail Fever, Michael Lewis (1997)

I read a few chapters of this book and put it aside, but came back to it after reflecting, at leisure, upon how entertained I had been by some of the early chapters. So, I happily finished this fascinating though ancient work of literary journalism. Its subtitle is also ludicrous (‘Spin doctors, rented strangers, thumb wrestlers, toe suckers, grizzly bears, and other creatures on the road to the White House’), evoking within the reader’s mind – and adding a poignant dash of camp that reinforces the notion that Lewis was more a part of the mainstream than his predecessor was – Hunter Thompson’s chaotic 1973 work: ‘Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72.’

Thompson was, unlike Lewis, self-educated. But both journalists display a politically progressive approach to the world, and both are also enormously funny, though in different ways. Lewis grew up in Louisiana and Thompson grew up in Kentucky, but the differences separating the two books come down to matters of style rather than substance. In the intervening years, Thompson suicided (2005) while Lewis wrote and published a number of books on money and sport. The younger man also edited other books.

In ‘Trail Fever’ Lewis chronicles, in sometimes absurd and often hilariously funny ways, the 1996 presidential race, starting with the Republican primaries at the beginning of the year. What is so striking about it is how it shows how the seeds that bore fruit with the election, in 2016, of Donald Trump existed well before Bill Clinton (in the year 2000) opened the way for China to sell its goods in the US market by granting it “most-favoured nation” status.  In the failed ‘96 Republican presidential candidates Pat Buchanan (who supported protectionism) and Morry Taylor (who wanted to reduce taxes) you see the seeds that would grow and, 20 years later, flower in the Midwest.
Buchanan and Taylor also anticipate with their ideas Trump’s dictum “drain the swamp” and had libertarian ideas that reflected a distrust of insiders and what Lewis terms “rented strangers”: the faceless men and women who gravitate toward politics in the hope of securing a well-paid job providing advice or some other form of service to a candidate or member of Congress. Lewis writes:
The Outsiders – the agitators, the troublemakers, the champions of lost causes – are temperamentally unsuited to treating politics as if it were a rigged fight. The Outsider is by nature indiscreet, unstable, and risk loving and as a result will rarely land himself a seat in power Alley. (Pat Buchanan’s drift from Insider to Outsider mirrors the drift in American politics away from large-bore crisis management and toward small-bore career management.) Occasionally the Outsider may call himself a Democrat or a Republican, but he can’t be contained by either party, because his enemy is not the other party but the entire system. He has a taste for the structural issues: campaign finance reform, global trade. The current crop of Outsiders – Buchanan on the right, Perot in the center, Jesse Jackson on the left – stood together against the North American Free Trade Agreement, for instance, and for campaign finance reform. Each in his own way speaks to the dissatisfaction with politics that 70 percent of Americans claim to feel. Each in his own way is guided by some mythic view of the past. And each in his own way addresses the central problem of politics: that an awful lot lies beyond its reach. To succeed, an Outsider must grab for what he knows he cannot have. He’ll probably never get it, but he might knock it loose so that someone else will, one day.
Now we know who that someone is. Tyre manufacturer Morry Taylor produced a manuscript – which remained unpublished at the time Lewis’ book went to print – titled ‘Kill All the Lawyers and Other Ways to Fix Washington’. Lewis spent a lot of time with Taylor, even after Taylor was eliminated from the race to secure the Republican nomination. On Taylor’s relations with most of the media:
Morry can be persuasive when he wants to be. For instance, he is normally withering on the subject of journalism; asked to define “journalist” he will say, “People who can’t add.” Now he tells me that I’m different from other journalists because “unlike those other guys you’re not inserting your private opinion. You just listen and tell people the truth.” I nod to myself: How true. 
The smile behind that last sentence is wide, however, because Lewis is just as acerbic and opinionated when writing about Taylor as he is when writing about, say, Buchanan. The book has 25 chapters (including a prelude and an epilogue) and at the end there is a humorous vignette where Lewis gets caught up in the conspiracies surrounding Clinton that, as the days ticked away toward the beginning of November and became colder and colder, took on a life of their own and accelerated. But it’s a storm in a teacup. These passages are especially funny because, in this case, it’s Lewis’ own reputation that is at stake, rather than a politician’s. He has spent the better part of 300 pages beaming a spotlight on the personalities, the characters, and the words of a set of men and women involved in politics, and now when he becomes a central player he has to be as honest as he was then. It’s truly hilarious. 

This book is a gem not just because it is funny but also because of the insights it contains about America’s democratic deficit. For example, on Jesse Jackson:
The Jacksons and the Buchanans have been folded into their respective tents. You can see that Jackson is struggling: because their concerns are not explicitly addressed, the poor don’t vote; because they don’t vote, their concerns are even less likely to be explicitly addressed. How this resolves itself, God only knows.
The thing to keep in mind if you are a progressive in the US, however, is that Buchanan’s and Taylor’s ideas remained current in the hearts and minds of a significant slice of the demographic, emerging finally in 2016 in Trump’s campaign speeches. (For the book, Lewis made a visit to the border and interviewed a Mexican who was trying to get over the fence into the US.) Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic nomination but, in the future, Lewis’ book suggests, someone with similar ideas is going to come along and successfully steal his thunder. 

In a sense this book was waiting for me (it had, of course, sat unread in my library for years, but that’s not what I mean here). A couple of years ago I wrote a post about the future of US politics, musing on the likelihood of something worse than Trump emerging on the Right. This book buttresses that notion. Just as the Democratic primaries held today will probably presage the emergence of a candidate with similar views a generation hence, the same thing can happen on the conservative side of the political spectrum. We’ll have to see what form such a persona might take.

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