David Drucker’s new book, In Trump's Shadow, represents a welcome departure in the genre of Trump literature. America has seen Trump books aplenty, reckoned more easily by the yard than by title or type for all their fungibility. These have been more or less dishy, more or less hysterical about the state of American democracy, and more or less hostile to the 45th president. But they have all had an odd, almost apolitical quality.
Focused on rivalries and personalities of the Trump administration, few have taken seriously the Republican electorate that chose Donald Trump in the hotly contested primary race of 2016, helped push him over the top by the narrowest of margins that autumn, which mobilized for him again in record numbers four years later, and with which the former president remains steadfastly popular. When addressed at all, Republican voters are cast as a braying mob in thrall to the personality cult of a reality TV star, conservative media, Facebook memes, malign foreign influence, or some combination thereof.
Drucker acknowledges the power of Trump’s celebrity status and palpable camera skills, but recognizes that, more important, Trump forced an ideological reconciliation between conservative elites and the Republican base, two groups grown estranged in the preceding decade. This is, in other words, a thoroughly political book. Thank goodness.
Helping still further, Drucker is extremely well-sourced and tends to let his interviewees do the talking, including the 45th president himself. In Trump’s Shadow is comparatively light on blind items and unnamed insiders, especially by the standards of the genre. And while Drucker clearly delights in describing prospective presidential candidates like so much political horseflesh, he brings their prospects back time and again to the base.
Drucker especially leans on these colorful personal descriptions when he confronts a cagey subject, sometimes at the expense of interrogating that individual’s motives. Does Larry Hogan really want to return to the days of Reagan? If we’re going to have an entire chapter on the NeverTrumpers, shouldn’t we ask why so many are on the payroll of the man who keeps the lights on at the Intercept? A bit more cui bono would enhance the book without moving it into the gossipy, apolitical parlor stenography of other Trump chroniclers.
Further, Drucker never pins down precisely why Trump’s message worked. Did Trump’s unexpected and unconventional victory mean Trump altered the laws of political gravity, or did he simply have a better sense of the GOP electorate than people who had ostensibly spent their careers in Republican politics?
Nobody wants to admit to being out of touch, and so the Trump-as-Revolutionary narrative serves a valuable function for those of us who were working in the GOP trenches before his trip down the escalator—this veteran of Jeb Bush’s unsuccessful effort included. And Trump uniquely dominated earned media and, with it, the primary conversation in 2016. Yet what if, deep down, his success is really a story not of radical change but of continuity?
Seen from a certain angle, Trump combined John McCain’s temperament with Mitt Romney’s résumé. He ran as a media-savvy, straight-talking, no-nonsense truth-teller openly hostile to the mandarins atop the GOP, whom he portrayed as disinterested and disingenuous. He also ran as a job-creating titan of business who wanted to crack down hard on illegal immigration, take the threat of China head-on, and bring the ruthless instrumentality of the board room to bear on the federal government. Finally, like both McCain and Romney, Trump pursued an explicitly transactional relationship with social conservatives, especially evangelical Christians, whose values he promised to promote even as he made no secret that he did not live them.
And what of the last Republican nominee steeped in evangelical politics? Running against egg-heady Clintonite foreign adventurism on the one hand, and Gingrich-tinged austerity on the other, George W. Bush’s dauphin-turned-cowboy strain of brash Texas populism drove off heritage Republican voters in New England even as he brought legions of working-class evangelicals into the party below the Mason-Dixon line. Pre-9/11, Bush cast himself as an insider/outsider, knowledgeable of but not beholden to the establishment, and capable of inspiring conniption fits in America’s culture factories, newsrooms, and faculty lounges.
Put differently, Trump used his unique personality and media skills to disguise a great deal of political continuity—continuity that voters saw and responded to, even as elites hyperventilated about Trump’s rise. Trump’s near-complete innocence of and indifference to the arcana that so preoccupied conservative intellectuals kept him out of the lexical games his opponents were playing with each other. His deep familiarity with the moral sentiments of Republican voters, honed through steady contact with conservative media during the Obama presidency, made him legible to GOP primary voters. Combined, he seemed new and exciting even as his broad themes fell well within the GOP mainstream.
So what, then, does Drucker think will happen to the GOP? Here, the book is arguably incomplete. Drucker never answers the lurking and interconnected questions behind the manuscript: Who would run against Trump in 2024, would that person win, and would the same person run and win if Trump retires?
Instead, we get a colorful interview at Mar-a-Lago and a final sense that the future of the GOP is largely what Trump wants it to be. Still, the manuscript is a commendable combination of inside baseball with an eye to the electorate. Whatever Trump decides to do in 2024, observers would do well to follow Drucker’s lead. Focus on the voters. After all, they decide.
In Trump's Shadow: The Battle for 2024 and the Future of the GOP
by David M. Drucker
Twelve, 288 pp., $29
Luke Thompson is a Republican political consultant based in Baltimore.
Published under: Book reviews