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The Washington Book review: Carlos Lozada on Trump and other targets

<span>A book on Donald Trump by New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman is displayed at a bookstore.</span><span>Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images</span>
A book on Donald Trump by New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman is displayed at a bookstore.Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In downtown Washington, at the house where Abraham Lincoln died, there is a three-storey tower of books. Thirty-four feet tall, 8ft round, it is made of 6,800 volumes about the 16th president. The cover of Carlos Lozada’s new book, a collection of the Pulitzer-winning critic’s work from the past 10 years or so, imagines something rather grander: a whole Washington Monument, all 555ft of it, made of books about DC.

Related: How to steal a US election: Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig on Trump’s new threat

It’s an apt image. The Washington Book, Lozada’s second (after What Were We Thinking?, his “Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era” from 2020) makes for a monumental read about a publishing glut. Books about American politics – pre-Trump, of Trump, not yet post-Trump – simply keep on coming.

Once of the Washington Post, now of the New York Times, Lozada is close to having read the lot – “So you don’t have to”, as he writes, in fact in a review of Donald Trump’s own book-length brags about his business affairs. Memoirs of the Bush administration, of Obama, reportage on Congress and the chaos of Trump, Trump tell-alls, examinations of Joe Biden’s first term or expressions of the existential dread a looming Trump v Biden rematch inspires. All are here. Throw in a meaty closing section on political philosophy that lands a little like Tolstoy’s second epilogue to War and Peace – I swear I read this one right through – and you have an authoritative overview of US political publishing in the last decade.

Many Lozada reviews can be read as primers: the sort of thing, concerning multiple books on similar subjects, he calls a “sampling of the sub-genre”. That line comes from The United Hates of America, an essay on “America’s descent into negative partisanship”, Lozada deftly distilling then advising which books to bother to read.

Telling judgments are passed. In The Premature Redemption of Mike Pence, Lozada anatomises the perma-pious, ever-obsequious former vice-president’s memoir, So Help Me God, but also the near-canonisation Pence received for (ultimately) refusing to go along with Trump and overturn an election. For simply doing his job, in short.

“It doesn’t take courage to break the law,” Pence records himself telling aides and family members as the Capitol comes under attack on January 6, the mob chanting for him to be hanged. “It takes courage to uphold the law.”

This “inspiring scene”, Lozada points out, is “marred only by Pence then asking his daughter to write down what he said”.

Lozada also makes a sharp point about a simple ellipsis in Pence’s recounting of what Trump said when he finally told the mob to go home, a quiet omission that fundamentally changes Trump’s words from dangerously recalcitrant to apparently semi-sincere. Nor is Lozada done with Pence: “You shouldn’t get glory for pulling democracy back from the brink if you helped carry it there in the first place.”

That wasn’t the only time in reading The Washington Book I found myself, like Woody Allen’s intellectual for hire, writing “Yes, very true” in the margin.

Lozada does not spare Democrats: there is a strong critique of The Truths We Hold, Kamala Harris’s 2020 campaign book, and Lozada is sharp on how Barack Obama personalised the presidency before the notion went nuclear with Trump. Happy to praise, Lozada charitably concedes that Josh Hawley, the far-right Republican from Missouri, is not wrong to detect a crisis among American men – it’s just that he could offer more sensible ideas on the page.

Trump and his supporters present inviting targets. In Three Ways to Write About Donald Trump, a review of books by Maggie Haberman, Robert Draper and Peter Baker and Susan Glasser – all bar Glasser employed by the Times too – Lozada makes a telling point: Trump’s chief political enemy is not Biden or any other Democrat. It is paper, from the constitution to notes of meetings, which he sees as a well of desperate peril. The grabby anecdote is Haberman’s, about Trump trying to lose notes down the toilet. The telling insight belongs to Lozada.

Pithy pay-offs abound. In Mueller, Ukraine and January 6, on official investigations and the reports they produce and publishers flog, Lozada writes: “Trump told America that he alone could fix it. The January 6 report tells us that he alone could break it.”

•••

One quibble. True to newspaper style guides, in the reviews that make up The Washington Book, bad language is obscured. Obscenities – and in a book in part about the cascading obscenities of the Trump years, there are bound to be more than a few – are not spelled out in full, even in quoted speech. Being British, and formed on Fleet Street sports desks at that, I find this odd in the furthest extreme.

A few such instances:

  • “We’re going to impeach the motherf–––er” – Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, about Trump (The Challenges of Impeachment)

  • “I don’t f–––ing care if they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the f–––ing mags away. Let my people in” – Trump, described by Cassidy Hutchinson (Mueller, Ukraine and January 6)

  • “What the f––– are you doing? Are you f––ing taking notes?” – Trump, described by Anonymous in A Warning (Profiles in Thinking About Courage)

Related: The Truce review: deep dive on Democrats’ dynamics and divisions

Wherever politics is practiced, it’s a dirty business. Among political cities, Washington is dirtier than most. Under Trump, or besieged by him, the blows go low, the fight is as fierce as the F-bombs. Members of Congress swear like troopers. Joe Biden does too. And yet the New York Times and the Washington Post, the paper of record and the paper of Watergate, shy from printing dirty words.

To write about such bare-knuckle battles as if chaperoned by a battalion of maiden aunts? Even while marveling, as Lozada rightly does, at linguistic timidities such as reporters’ reluctance to simply call a lie a lie? It’s little short of bizarre. Not least, in the case of Carlos Lozada, when the writer is so f–––ing good.