The publishing industry, knocked first by the loss of Oprah’s Book Club and then by Jon Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show, has found an unlikely savior: Donald Trump. The president’s tweets about sycophantic tomes that compare him to Churchill or attempt to retcon his obvious lack of Christian faith can juice sales, but his promotional talent is particularly apparent when it comes to books detailing his gross incompetence as president.
In a series of moves that suggest the Streisand effect—a phenomenon wherein attempts to suppress damaging information only end up bringing more attention to it—should be renamed, Trump’s tweets and lawsuits (or threats of lawsuits) about books like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury; Bob Woodward’s Fear; and, most recently, John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened, which was published last month after a lengthy legal battle, helped make them stratospheric bestsellers. Fire and Fury has sold more than four million copies; The Room Where It Happened had 780,000 in its first week after publication.
The latest example in the genre is a memoir, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, from the president’s niece, psychologist Mary Trump. Scheduled for release later this month, the book was first blocked in court and then allowed to go forward after Trump’s brother filed suit. The president, meanwhile, has been adamant. “She’s not allowed to write this book,” he told Axios, citing a nondisclosure agreement that was signed after a legal battle over the estate of family patriarch Fred Trump. As with previous bestsellers, this is likely to be a futile, even pathetic, lawsuit. It has only succeeded in bolstering the book’s popularity: When it is released, whether in July or later this year, it will undoubtedly be a bestseller.
It’s in these fights that Trump’s fundamental incompetence—and growing political impotence—is most obvious. They undercut the narrative that fueled his rise: that he is a once-in-a-generation political combatant. Instead, they reveal him as a Midas in reverse, a politician who can’t help but elevate and legitimize every criticism he receives, no matter how flawed.
As pundits struggled to account for Trump’s rise in 2015, many seized on a simple narrative: He was a preternaturally gifted brawler with a knack for schoolyard nicknames. In pro wrestling terms, he was the perfect heel, a villain the crowd could root for even as he attacked war heroes and suggested his interlocutors were on their period. Trump’s political rise, this line of thinking went, was a direct result of his pugilistic approach: He might be uncouth, but he knows how to spar. It’s proven to be a resilient argument. “If the lesson of Trump’s 2016 victory was that deeply personal attacks and factually inaccurate innuendo are a pathway to victory, his 2020 playbook appears to include more of the same,” wrote the Associated Press’s Julie Pace last year.
This narrative has also been deployed repeatedly as a shield by Trump’s defenders, particularly since he took office. When the president said something offensive, they would note that the president was simply doing what he does best. Asked why the president suggested at a 2019 political rally that recently deceased former Democratic Congressman John Dingell was in hell, then–White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham claimed Trump was a “counterpuncher” who was “under attack” from Dingell’s widow.
But Trump’s tool kit is even more limited than it appeared five years ago. Then, he was heralded for nicknames like “Crooked Hillary” and “Little Marco.” These not particularly clever jibes were presented as evidence that Trump was a master of political branding. But in 2020, Trump has lost even the modicum of cleverness he had five years ago. Unhappy with the “Sleepy Joe” moniker he came up with, Trump reportedly is workshopping alternative nicknames for Joe Biden—as if all that’s needed to reverse his cratering poll numbers is a snappier insult.
Trump has tried something similar with his response to tell-all accounts that paint him as incompetent. He has labeled the most critical of these, like Fire and Fury and The Room Where It Happened, “fake news.” His ardent supporters may thrill to this designation, but it does little to damage the credibility of the books themselves or their authors. Instead, Wolff, known for his gossipy and sometimes sloppy approach to journalism, and Bolton, a warmongering buffoon hated by many of the people who loathe Trump, are granted even more attention, notoriety, and wealth.
Trump’s eagerness to use lawsuits, a calling card throughout his existence as a public figure, is particularly telling. Wolff’s book was attacked for being libelous and malicious; Bolton’s for containing classified information. The lawsuit attempting to block Mary Trump’s memoir involves a creative interpretation of “prior restraint,” a legal concept typically invoked for explosive national security reasons—not because your niece says you’re a narcissist. While these lawsuits certainly show an eagerness for conflict, they don’t show anything approaching a talent for it. Instead, they prove that Trump’s entire political arsenal is the counterpunch: He only knows how to punch back and never thinks about the short- or long-term consequences of doing so.
Trump has always demonstrated a talent for attracting attention: It’s the only thing he’s actually good at. But his pre-political career is littered with instances of his P.R. instincts being anything but a sure thing—for instance, a laughable lawsuit over his obviously inflated net worth. His instinct is always to bully opponents, even if he has no chance of coming out on top.
“As has often been the case, a tactic he wielded effectively as a private citizen no longer works when he’s president of the United States, and he tangles with people who either have ample legal resources of their own or have become wise to his modus operandi,” writes Paul Waldman in The Washington Post. “When Trump sued some small business owner, he knew the person couldn’t afford the legal fight no matter the facts, so they’d probably settle. But that won’t work today.”
That’s a lesson Trump should have learned years ago. But he continuously makes the same mistakes again and again, amplifying devastating exposés of his administration and making millionaires out of his critics. It’s a talent that has been a godsend for a wheezing publishing industry. It also shows that Trump’s real gift isn’t for fighting others but punching himself in the face.