Jonathan Freedland is one of Britain’s foremost political journalists, and arguably its most prominent Jewish one. Writing under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, he continues in the British tradition (Chesterton, le Carré) of using genre fiction, especially the conventions of the mystery or spy thriller, with their murders and betrayals and deceit, to meditate on the nature of society, humanity and morality. The result here is To Kill the President, which deftly uses the thriller genre to critique a volatile, likely unhinged, president who remains unnamed throughout. It’s a trope that works to good effect in what is an exceptionally good novel. Naming this man—who comes complete with a “personal bankruptcy lawyer,” is given to fervid tweeting in the middle of the night, is busy rolling out a “registry of Muslim citizens,” and has, by the first few pages of the book, groped a White House cleaner and kissed the Dutch ambassador inappropriately—would be an act of redundancy.
So, let us just say it: This book is about Donald Trump. As such, it becomes a text that works on two levels: as a highly intelligent political thriller and as a novel of the Zeitgeist.
Speaking to the 51-year-old Freedland over Skype, I asked him why he decided to write the book. After all, as a commentator for The Guardian with a monthly column in The Jewish Chronicle as well as writing essays in The New York Review of Books, he has an ample platform on which to write about contemporary politics. Coyly, he said the book is not about Trump, (though the reader draws her own conclusions). Instead, the impulse for To Kill the President came when he read about the genesis of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America. When Roth learned that the GOP had considered choosing the Nazi-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh as its candidate in the 1940 election, he scribbled in marginalia, “What if they had?”
Freedland’s political “what if” came in an altered though not entirely dissimilar form in 2016. What if, he wondered, a decent Republican or two (he mentions Colin Powell-type figures) agreed to serve an unstable and dangerous president purely for reasons of party loyalty and a sense of national duty. And then, what if something happened to convince them that this president was a mortal threat to the world and that they had to remove him? How desperate would they feel? What trials would they go through?
“And I found myself thinking,” Freedland told me, “that they would reach a point where it was not something they believed they could do but something they ought to do—as their patriotic duty.”
This is where the book’s action begins, with a near hysterical president ordering a nuclear strike on Pyongyang (and, astonishingly, China), not because of an imminent attack but because of something the North Koreans have said. Thanks to the quick thinking of an underling who claims, with seconds to go, that North Korea has apologized, thus temporarily assuaging this man-child president’s wounded ego, the strike is averted. But it is enough to convince White House Chief of Staff Robert Kassian and Secretary of Defense Jim Bruton that the president must go: For the sake of the country, and indeed the world—and by any means necessary.
One of the book’s strengths is its prescience. Freedland delivered his manuscript just before Trump took office—he had no idea its publication would coincide with a public and dangerous dispute between Washington and Pyongyang. “Everything I plotted in the book was how I thought someone like this unnamed president would act,” he said. His thoughts have turned out to be almost prophetic—even down to tiny details. At one point, a letter written to the president by an apparently psychopathic man spells “real” as “reel”—just as Trump has been widely mocked for a tweet that spelled “heal” as “heel,” capturing the smallest verbal and written tics perennially magnified by the digital age.
The book’s protagonist is Maggie Costello, a veteran of some of Freedland’s previous thrillers. A White House staffer and leftover from the previous administration, she has stayed on to try to do some good in a dire situation. Her gradual discovery of a plot to kill the president places her in a moral quandary that lies at the heart of the book. Should she expose the plot and save the life of a man who may bring global destruction or keep quiet, and in so doing subvert the democratic process that saw him legitimately elected?
Was choosing her again—a female protagonist—a conscious response to the book’s president? I ask Freedland. “Yes, that is right,” he replied. “With two exceptions all the Sam Bourne novels have had female protagonists. It’s easier for me to write as a woman because that’s the best way to ensure that your central character is not you. But it also felt that having a woman deliver poetic justice to a misogynistic president of the type I envisaged struck the right note.”
And it’s not just a woman. Two Latino characters and an African-American mother-and-son partnership play vital roles as well, as does Maggie’s mentor Stuart Goldstein, who plays a complex role in the plot. Such is Goldstein’s wisdom (at times bordering on near omniscience) that he reminded me of a more benign and less potent Sidonia—the all-powerful Jew of Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Coningsby, whose near supernatural abilities would later become, almost to the letter, the Nazi caricature of the perfidious Jew.
This diverse group then becomes, for the reader, the ultimate rebuttal to the Trump presidency and the alt-right figures who orbit it. But Goldstein has the greatest impact on Maggie—and here one senses the Jewish nature of Freedland’s writing. His first three thrillers, The Righteous Men (steeped in the Kabbalah), The Last Testament (set amidst the Middle East peace process), and The Final Reckoning (which tells the story of the Holocaust survivors who took revenge against their Nazi tormentors) all have explicitly Jewish themes. Here, the theme is broader, but the Jewish influence is palpable nonetheless. One of the most powerful scenes in the book takes place when Maggie attends a shiva, which convinces her that a conspiracy to harm the president has begun. Has, I asked Freedland, the Jewish impulse remained?
“I think that’s right,” he replied. “Giving some of the best lines to a Jewish character was in a way a response to how gentile D.C. is. A character like Goldstein: a morbidly obese fast-talking Brooklyn Jew is always going to be an outsider in Washington, as is Maggie, a convent-educated Irish woman, and I liked that relationship. But I tend to reach for the Jewish stuff naturally.”
If the plot is pure political thriller, the texture is D.C. and Judaism. Those features seep through in the tiniest details, delivered with a literary novelist’s eye. When, for example, Maggie looks at photos in the study of the Jewish Dr. Frenkel, the president’s personal physician, she notes the images of his ancestors with their “immigrant pose of aspiring formality.”
Freedland was a Washington correspondent for The Guardian for nearly five years between 1992 and 1997, a stint that included a Stern Fellowship at The Washington Post. He described his time as a 25-30-year-old as “totally formative—the memory of D.C. is seared deep.”
The text duly picks up on the capital’s nuances and, more often, its inhabitants’ foibles. The hard-bodied men and women who start their days with a run before most of us have woken up. The standard D.C. greeting, “good to see you.” It’s all there in the “world capital of ass-covering,” as Freedland calls it in the book. Gore Vidal would have been proud.
As the book progresses, it morphs into a novel of the Zeitgeist. At the center of this transformation lie two things: the character of Crawford McNamara and the digital revolution. Freedland understands how Facebook, and especially Twitter, have come to dominate political discourse in the age of Trump. His ear here is exceptional, and several set pieces in the book read as near-perfect typologies of Twitter storms. The aftermath of Dr. Frenkel’s death is naturally played out on the medium. First come the conspiracy theorists: “What did @WhiteHouse Doc Geoffrey Frankel know and when did he know it” (complete with incorrect punctuation). Then comes the moralizing and grandstanding from the “mainstream”: “Can we please let the Frankel family grieve in peace?” It’s a template that we are seeing played out again and again.
And it is dangerous. As Maggie observes, the president could tweet “ ‘Listen up Latinos. Your all going to be deported on trains to Labor camps in the Alaskan wilderness. Round up begins at 6 am’—and the liberal chorus of reply would be instant: It’s *you’re*.” Freedland recognizes the dangers in these acts of #resistance: they display a great inuring. “I worry,” he told me, “about us liberals and the tone of ironic amusement and world-weariness we adopt. Nothing is too serious. When an actual fascist appears we won’t know it. Because Trump is amusing, so you don’t realize that a norm is being eroded. We think that the elitist put-down is sufficient. It isn’t.”
If the book’s president is able to harness technology’s latest tools for his own ends, his efforts are enhanced by the character of Crawford McNamara, who with his disheveled appearance and insistence on informality (“Call me Mac”) stalks the White House corridors, brimming with buoyant sexist and racist repartee. McNamara is, of course, modeled on Steve Bannon, Trump’s recently departed White House chief strategist, and as such is the embodiment of our post-truth age; the enabler of a climate in which demagogues flourish.
“These liberals soiling their Depends undergarments about truth. They never stop!” McNamara spits out contemptuously to Kassian and Bruton toward the end of the book. He gets the world we are living in. He understands that “the way you get power is the same as everyone else. Information. That’s the currency.” And when the currency of information is debased thus does it follow that power is debased. And this fact makes him just as dangerous, if not more so, than the president.
So it is fitting that the best section of the book comes from his lips as he blasts Kassian and Bruton (whose names echo Caesar’s assassins, Cassius and Brutus). It is a powerful set piece and one in which Freedland returns once again to Jewish inspiration. The section, he said, is based on the far right Israeli character “Z” in Amos Oz’s In the Land of Israel, in which Oz allows Z to monologue for pages—to great effect.
Freedland affords McNamara the same luxury as, wallowing in self-congratulation, he deconstructs the success of the novel’s president before the hapless Kassian and Bruton—and with it the impulses that are cleaving contemporary American politics:
Gentlemen don’t you see? He’s our national id, unbound and unleashed. He’s the toddler within every one of us, allowed to run free. ‘I want to eat that, I want to hit that, I want to fuck that, I want to own that. I want, I want, I want.’ Everything he wants, wants, wants, he gets, gets, gets. It’s beautiful.
So of course they voted for him. … He’s a dream come true. … It’s what boys like me were raised on when we went to the movies on Saturday mornings. Cowboys weren’t gay or ‘Latino’ or female or gender-fucking fluid. They were white and they were male and they were on top.
Through McNamara Freedland articulates one of the most intelligent descriptions of the Trump phenomenon yet written, and in so doing demonstrates his ability to transcend genre and write an important and simply stunning novel for our times.
And of the plot against the president? Well, I will leave it to the reader to discover whether it succeeds or not in a work that builds to a thrilling denouement. But the question that Freedland seems to ask is a more pertinent and worrying one: does it even matter, or has the damage already been done?
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