Is Trump Imitating Fiction? Or Is Fiction Imitating Trump?

Is Trump Imitating Fiction? Or Is Fiction Imitating Trump?


Yet for all of its spooky prescience at anticipating the headlines, critics — not least among them some of Mr. Trump’s supporters — have accused Mr. Freedland of writing a morally repugnant literary recipe book for murder.

“Anti-white journalist Jonathan Freedland has written a thinly veiled assassination fantasy targeting Donald Trump,” proclaimed an article on Altright.com, attacking Mr. Freedland for embracing, among other things, ethnic nationalism, multiculturalism and liberalism. “Its publication and promotion are symptoms of a sick and co-opted culture.”

Others have signaled the book to the United States Secret Service. “This seriously should put one on a foreign enemies list. Don’t ever let this guy into the U.S. Can you imagine if he wrote about Obama?” a man calling himself Steve the Dragon wrote on Twitter, adding: “@SecretService would like 2 know.”

The book appears to be part of a growing cultural current of imagined assassinations of the president by liberal artists, directors and writers, which Mr. Freedland argues is predicated on a need for “catharsis” and revolt against a world turned upside-down rather than any murderous intent.

The actor Johnny Depp recently drew condemnation from the White House after suggesting, however obliquely and in jest, the killing of President Trump, asking a crowd at the Glastonbury arts festival in southwest England, “When was the last time an actor assassinated a president?”

The comedian Kathy Griffin is still recovering from the outcry that followed her posing with the fake decapitated head of the president.

And this summer a Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar” in New York drew the opprobrium of Republicans for depicting a Caesar with overcoiffed strawberry blond hair who gets stabbed to death by a knife.

Perhaps wary of a backlash, 10 American publishers rejected Mr. Freedland’s book. Mr. Freedland’s literary agent, Jonny Geller, said that even efforts to sanitize the title by calling it “The Plot to Kill the President” failed to convince doubters.

American publishers, he noted, had also refused to publish the Trump-inspired novella “Pussy” by the Man Booker prizewinning writer Howard Jacobson, about an idle reality show-loving prince who dreams as a child of bedding prostitutes and becoming a Roman emperor.

“The commercial view among publishers seems to be that people are living it and haven’t got the head space for reading it,” Mr. Geller said. “It is a lack of courage and imagination.”

Mr. Freedland was at pains to emphasize that “To Kill the President” was a work of fiction. His intention, he stressed, was to raise the thorny moral questions facing senior administration officials when the top guy in the White House appears to be recklessly lurching toward global destruction. As alarm grows that the president, both the real one and the fictional one, may grab for the nuclear football in a moment of pique, the book grapples with the constitutional options available to unseat a president. Not content with the prospect of trying to prove the president mentally unfit or pressing for impeachment, the book’s fictional aides opt for another course of action: murder.

The moral conundrum of the book is expressed by its heroine, Maggie Costello, a legal counsel and liberal do-gooder from the previous administration, who discovers the assassination plot, and tries to piece the clues together to stop it, even as she grapples with how to be on the right side of history.

“No matter how much you hated this man and, my God, there was every reason to hate him, this, surely, was not the way to get rid of him,” she reflects. “You’d be destroying democracy in order to save it.”

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“To Kill the President” appears to be part of the resurgence of the political thriller in the age of Trump, a genre that, Mr. Freedland noted, has tended to flourish in times of deep national neuroses and uncertainty. It is a sign of the times that former President Bill Clinton has teamed up with the crime writer James Patterson to pen a White House thriller, while ABC’s “Designated Survivor,” about a low-level cabinet member who becomes president after the real president and much of the chain of command is killed during an attack on the Capitol, is attracting large audiences.

The genre also blossomed in the 1970s in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, Mr. Freedland observed, when trust in government fell sharply. Books like Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of The Jackal,” about an unnamed assassin hired to kill President Charles de Gaulle of France, found particular resonance, as did films like “Three Days of the Condor,” in which a bookish C.I.A. researcher finds all his co-workers mysteriously murdered and tries to uncover a conspiracy.

“Now as then, all the old verities seem shaken, and there’s a sense you can’t trust authority,” Mr. Freedland said. “People want a guide rail to hang onto, which fiction can provide.”

The book moves along quickly and Mr. Freedland, a former Washington correspondent who covered the Clinton White House and the 2016 election, has a visceral feel for the vanity, codes and preoccupations of the capital.

Aides shave their beards when they hear the new president doesn’t trust men with facial hair. Emails are carefully written to avoid later exposure. A White House official flicks a button that fogs up an office window in the situation room, a technical innovation of the real White House’s nerve center.

When the ending arrives, however, it does so with jarring implausibility while the story sometimes falls flat, underlining the challenge of satirizing a president whose daily outrages have made him immune to parody. A tweet from the fictional president suggesting a 16-year-old television contest winner should “perform a private show for me @WhiteHouse” doesn’t provide much of a jolt when the real one has boasted about grabbing women’s genitals.

Some may also ask whether fact is not only stranger than fiction but also more entertaining at a time of dizzying drama in the real White House when the Justice Department is investigating Russia’s attempts to disrupt last year’s election, senior aides are fired with a frequency worthy of “The Apprentice” and the threat of nuclear war is no longer the stuff of docudramas.

“Do yourself a favor and read The Washington Post instead,” wrote one reader of the book on Amazon. “In this case, reality is more exciting than fiction.” Observers of the Trump administration could hardly disagree.





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