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Jonathan Freedland Talks Trump and Saving America from the President

Posted on 21st August 2017 by Martha Greengrass

"When you’ve got someone who is prepared to absolutely, egregiously lie, it really exposes the fragility of the truth. That indifference to whether a thing is true or not feels new."

A page-turner with its finger precariously poised over the nuclear button, To Kill The President is a book that changes the way you look at the world. The sixth novel by author Jonathan Freedland, writing under the pseudonym of Sam Bourne, it offers a frightening glimpse into a world in peril and the dangers of blurring the edges between entertainment and politics. An award-winning journalist and weekly columnist for the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland has had a ring-side seat as America’s politics has undergone a radical shift. In an exclusive interview, we talk to the author about creating a new kind of political thriller, his views on the current American administration and the risk to the world as we know it.

Author Image: Jonathan Freedland by Philippa Gedge (2015)

Writing recently in the Guardian on the current American nuclear threat, Jonathan Freedland commented: “This – precisely this – was what alarmed us most about the prospect of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States. Not that he would hire useless people or that he would tweet all day or use high office to enrich himself and his family or that he’d be cruel, bigoted and divisive… that he was sufficiently reckless, impulsive and stupid enough to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.” 

Freedland must increasingly be pinching himself; so closely does life resemble fiction these days. Most specifically, the fictional world created by Freedland’s pseudonymous alter-ego Sam Bourne in his latest thriller, the explosively titled To Kill the President. Indeed, there can be fewer summer reads that feel so perfectly, so terrifyingly, of their moment.  

Set in a fictional White House, this is a government peopled by machismo-fuelled right wingers and led by a capricious, demagogical president and his ruthless snake-charmer chief strategist Crawford ‘Mac’ MacNamarra. After a nuclear attack on North Korea is only narrowly averted, key figures must decide whether one man’s life is worth sacrificing for the future safety of the world. 

If you’re already feeling an uncomfortable twinge of déjà vu, this is only the beginning. Cleverly poised on a near-permanent knife-edge, To Kill the President rewrites the rules of political thriller writing. That Freedland wrote the novel almost entirely before Trump had taken office only makes this novel all-the-more eerily prescient. 

When Freedland and I speak, the media are still reeling from Anthony Scaramucci’s incendiary statement that, “there are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president”. I begin by asking Freedland about the experience of watching so much of his fiction play out in real life.

“I could not believe it when I saw that,” Freedland marvels, “That particular sentiment about saving America from the president is exactly the driving threat in the book, so the idea that Scaramucci actually would put it in those terms is amazing to me.”

The novel’s nail-bitingly tense opening scenes are a frightening window into a sitting president’s autonomy as nuclear monarch and for all that this is fiction, readers might be forgiven for sleeping a little less easily in their beds long after laying this book down.  “When we think of power,” Freedland comments, “we think of that image of the finger over the button and that is absolutely the way I’ve depicted it. That power is absolute. It was deliberately designed that way because in the Cold War the notion was that the President would need to respond extremely quickly and just wouldn’t have the time to go through a whole chain of command. So they streamlined the process under Truman and it kept on getting streamlined so in the end, it really is just in his hands, it’s all down to him.”

Sifting through this mire of dishonesty and double-dealing is the novel’s courageous and savvy protagonist, Washington stalwart Maggie Costello who acts as something of a moral compass for a world that seems in thrall to its celebrity president. Reviewed as a ‘thriller for the post-truth age’, for all that this novel is entertaining (and it most certainly is) it also reflects seriously upon what happens when politics bleeds into show business and the dangers of that for an audience fed on popcorn rather than protest.

“It goes to that idea that we do view everything as entertainment.” Freedland says. “One of the things I try to bring out in the book is this notion of opponents, in this case of this unknown fictional president, responding always with humour and irony and wit. This has been perplexing me for a while. Something about the medium of social media lends itself to this world-weary, ironic shrug and it’s a problem when you’re confronted with a threat that is also, on some level, entertaining and compelling. In real life, there’s certainly something quite enthralling about this Trump show, you find yourself tuning in for the next instalment, but that can actually dull your ability or even determination to oppose it. In a way, a novel that addresses some of these things is sort of coming clean about the idea that it is entertainment. But the point is that you can take fiction as entertainment, in the real world you need to have a different response."

At one point, Freedland’s oleaginous circus-master McNamara argues that truth has lost its currency, claiming that the only markers of a story’s credibility are that it, ‘has to be on Facebook and they have to want to believe it’. It’s a view Freedland thinks is crucial to understanding America’s modern political climate.

“I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of post-truth and evidence is piling up to suggest that people’s belief is contingent on their feelings, emotions and desire to believe, as much as, if not more than, on facts. So the facts have begun to look sterile and dull and boring and instead the thing that is determinative of people’s willingness to give credence to things is their emotional response. The best example of this came long after I wrote the book and that’s the statistic that among Republicans, 45% say that they do not believe that Donald Trump Junior had a meeting with Russians. That’s after Trump Junior himself said “I had a meeting with Russians” and released the correspondence. 45% of Republicans think it’s all the liberal media. How do you even begin to deal with that?”

Freedland thinks that this represents a seismic change in people’s attitudes and behaviours: “When you’ve got someone who is prepared to absolutely, egregiously lie, it really exposes the fragility of the truth. That indifference to whether a thing is true or not feels new. A liar shows some respect for the truth, even though he’s not telling it. If you think about some of the most notorious liars in history, they partly lied because they’d tied themselves in huge knots trying to stay truthful; Trump isn’t trying to stay truthful. He’ll say that his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s, even though you can see with your own eyes that it was tiny by comparison. That wouldn’t have happened before and when you see that so many people are willing to believe it, you realise that truth was never really about the facts, it was about your willingness to believe. In Harry G. Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit, he says that ‘bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are’. It’s a much more insidious thing because it’s saying that truth is a category that cannot even exist and that, in the public realm at least, is dangerous.”

If this new political climate is a trial for politicians, it also offers real challenges to a writer of political thrillers, something Freedland acknowledges. Packed with more drama, intrigue and plot twists than an entire season of House of Cards, To Kill the President has come a long way from the clear-cut, truth-will-out ethos of novels such as The Day of the Jackal

“The plot for a political thriller” Freedland says, “rests on the idea that certain things are just taboo and would be terminal if they were discovered. Just as an example, you could have as a McGuffin in a political thriller of the discovery of a tape where a presidential candidate was bragging about sexually assaulting women and that tape would then be the key driver. The reader would accept that if that tape ever came out, it would be curtains for that particular character. And now, well, the tape did come out, and he won. So what do you do? That dramatically changes the ground-rules for thriller-writing, it means you have to think of something else that would be fatal.”

Read in the light of America’s very real and troubling growing divisions, To Kill the President is also a novel that reflects the issues of a nation still divided down old lines of race and gender and shadowed by the legacy of its painful and bloody history.

“I think America is still framed and defined by the Civil War”, Freedland confirms, “You have people whose grandparents had grandparents who fought in the American Civil War. Race is absolutely dead centre to that and it does remain a really defining fault line in American politics. Obviously, there will be exceptions and nuances within that, but there is still the sense that in some ways these are two countries: one that is inward looking and often isolationist and another that is outward looking and pluralistic. These two ideals have been struggling within the American soul for two centuries and they continue to do so. You do wonder, sometimes, how viable it is for these two countries to continue to coexist.”

In the light of this, does Freedland think America’s institutions strong enough to withstand a president of the kind depicted in his novel?

“That, to me, is a hypothesis that is being tested right now before our eyes. My view is that if Trump is allowed to serve his full term, it will mean that the US constitution itself has been found lacking. The question is what does it mean for the constitution when there is a dearth of people willing to uphold it? That’s the potential Achilles heel of the American administration. There are some grounds for optimism but it’s telling that the Republican Party were willing to impeach Clinton but aren’t prepared to impeach a man with a list as long as your arm of indictable offenses. So we just don’t know yet, it really does depend on how it plays out.”

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