Almost every president extolls his preferred scribes. John Adams adored Mary Wollstonecraft, Lincoln was a huge admirer of Shakespeare, and Jimmy Carter once wrote a fan letter to my mom.
But the Donald Trump Book Club is something else entirely, a bizarro world powered by resentment and hostility. In many cases, the president hasn’t so much as looked at the jacket copy of the titles he promotes. After all, the Trump presidential book club doesn’t pretend to be about content.
And, unlike Oprah, Donald’s club hasn’t done much to attract readers to his friends, even as his hate tweets have paid off handsomely for his enemies.
The Trump book club meets on Twitter, of course. Which is about as much as Trump ever reads, 280 characters at a time. This is hardly a controversial statement. The president himself has said as much, and Michael Wolff writes in Fire and Fury, “He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes, he was no more than semi-literate.”
It’s a lot like the rest of his administration that way—the president has tremendous power, but he can’t aim it correctly and often blows his own foot off instead.
Of course, encouraging great literature isn’t the point of the president’s book club. The man has no desire to be a Medici—the goal of the president’s book club is rewarding the loyal and punishing the obstinate, though it doesn’t always work that way. In fact, most of the time it has precisely the opposite effect—an angry Trump tweet ("A low-level staffer that I hardly knew named Cliff Sims wrote yet another boring book based on made up stories and fiction. He pretended to be an insider when, in fact, he was nothing more than a gofer.") moved Team of Vipers from 12 to 6 on the Amazon list.
But “A friend of mine and a man who has truly seen politics and life as few others ever will, Sean Spicer, has written a great new book, 'The Briefing: Politics, the Press and the President.' It is a story told with both heart and knowledge. Really good, go get it!" barely moved the needle for his hapless former press secretary Sean Spicer.
Some of the president’s book club picks are too preposterous to possibly sell no matter what the positive or negative spin of the tweet may be. For example, The Faith of Donald J. Trump is ranked at #99,655 on Amazon perhaps because its central tenet is so preposterous and of course the book includes this terrifying quote: “As president of the United States, Donald Trump has been put in a position of authority by Almighty God, which makes the narrative about his faith even more vital to understand the man who promises to ‘Make America Great Again.” Um, what? Even Trump had trouble mustering up excitement for the feckless yarn ,calling it “A very interesting read.” and exhorting readers to “Enjoy!” But judging by the reviews, readers did not in fact find it to be an “interesting read.”
On Tuesday, the president plugged the book of a Koch brothers guy: Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas). Cotton had suddenly endeared himself to the tariff man by going on CBS the previous day and defending Trump’s trade war by comparing farmers losing business to soldiers fighting in an actual war. While many many people found this to be a ridiculous comparison, it charmed the Teevee president, who saw it and liked what he saw. In exchange for completely screwing over his state’s suffering soybean farmers. Cotton got a favorable tweet for his book, which is now No. 8 on Amazon.
And then there’s Trump Book Club’s Man Booker Prize: the presidential pardon. On Wednesday Trump gave his friend Conrad Black, the author of Donald J. Trump, A President Like No Other (I’ll say), a pardon.
It’s possible that Trump is the first president to have never read a book. But being completely, pathetically, disgracefully ignorant about a topic has never stopped him from holding deep convictions about that topic. As Marc Fisher wrote in the Washington Post in 2016: “Trump has no shortage of strong opinions, even about books he has not read. He told The Washington Post that he has not read four biographies written about him, yet he called three of the authors of those books ‘lowlifes,’ and he sued one of them for libel.”
Why would a president who spends so little time reading be so interested in books? The “short-fingered vulgarian,” as Graydon Carter called him during the 1980s, is still very much a creature of his time, from his use of the catchphrase “central casting” to his obsession with the 1980-style “war on drugs”. President Boomer came of age in the world of the page and is still very stuck on the idea of books as prestigious emblems of intellectual seriousness.
Ultimately, the Trump presidential book club has nothing to do with books or literature. It has to do with the power of the president’s Twitter account, an imperfect instrument used largely for self-dealing—a brutal tool more like a sledgehammer than a scalpel, but often mercifully ineffective, like a tiny sledgehammer made for someone with very small hands. Perhaps the president's book club is an apt metaphor for his entire administration: an inability to use power effectively, an obsession with quid pro-quoism, and a proliferation of unintended consequences.