For a look at how Donald Trumpâ€™s tremendously abnormal Presidency might be normalized in the future, you could do worse than turning to educational childrenâ€™s books about him. These already existâ€”if you include the kidsâ€™ Presidential encyclopedias with a new Trump section tacked on, there are dozens available for purchase. And they model a set of euphemisms and exclusions that help transform the shocking into the ordinary. Sometimes, it turns out, all you need is a character limit.
Consider â€œPresident Donald Trump,â€ in Scholasticâ€™s Rookie Biographies series, which is aimed at first- and second-grade readers. It begins: â€œMeet Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a famous entrepreneur. He is also a television personality. In 2015, Trump surprised many people when he decided to run for president. In November 2016, he won the election. Donald Trump became the 45thÂ president of the United States.â€ There: the whole story, as easy as that. (If youâ€™d like it in poem form, the book provides one, titled, prosaically, â€œA Poem About Donald Trumpâ€: â€œHis buildings reached into the sky. / His businesses just grew and grew. / Then Trump became our presidentâ€” /people wanted something new.â€)
For an adult horrified by what Trump has wrought, â€œPresident Donald Trumpâ€ presents a chilling and comic reading experience. Each page features a few sentences of large print opposite a flashy color photograph, and the feats of compression are Olympic-calibre: â€œSome of his businesses were not successful. Many were.â€ In the section devoted to Trumpâ€™s Presidential run, the author, Joanne Mattern, writes, â€œOn June 16, 2016, Trump announced he was running for president. He was an unusual choice because he had no experience in politics . . . Trump ran against Hillary Clinton. She had a lot more experience in politics . . . The race was close, but Trump won. Many people were happy.â€ It is devastatingly impossible to argue with that story. Reading the bookâ€™s conclusion, I wondered if I was imagining the authorâ€™s gritted teeth: â€œDonald Trump inspired his supporters to try something new. He promised them a better future. Millions of Americans are counting on him to help improve their lives.â€
Another book, â€œDonald Trump,â€ from Abdo Publishingâ€™s series of fourth-grade-level Presidential biographies, highlights important vocabulary words and phrases. â€œReal estateâ€ is bolded throughout the book, as is â€œElectoral College.â€ So are â€œimmigrantsâ€ and â€œimmigration,â€ two words that author Jill C. Wheeler gets to use frequently, in references to two of Trumpâ€™s three wives, and his mother, and the people he would like to keep out of the United States. Wheeler notes that Trumpâ€™s campaign â€œmade many voters uneasyâ€ and was â€œfull of hostility. Clinton accused Trump of behaving inappropriately toward women. Trump said Clinton was rigging the election.â€ Wheeler writes that Hillary Clinton was experienced, favored to win, and in full possession of the support of her party. â€œBut in spite of these challenges, Trump closed the biggest deal of his career.â€ (In 2002, Wheeler wrote a childrenâ€™s book about Clinton for Abdoâ€™s â€œBreaking Barriersâ€ series, whose other subjects include Amelia Earhart, Jackie Robinson, and Oprah Winfrey.)
Compression doesnâ€™t always work in Trumpâ€™s favor. Shortly after the election,Â Harperâ€™sÂ noted his victory in its weekly review, which offers a terse roundup of recent events: â€œDonald Trump, a real estate developer endorsed by the KKK, was elected president of the United States . . . In Orlando, a bald eagle flew into a sewer and died.â€ But a joke like that requires its readers to fill in the blanks. Books for children canâ€™t take anything for granted, and ones intended for school use tend to be studiously nonpartisan. And so they offer an unnerving illustration of how Trump can actually benefit from doing and saying so much that is beyond the pale. The charges against him are so ugly that they donâ€™t fit very easily into polite conversation, let alone into a narrative about someone we have elected to lead the United States.
There are also simply too many of them. Between, say, the record of housing discrimination; the nearly two dozen accusations of sexual assault; the withholding of health insurance from his dead brotherâ€™s sick son; the mockery of a disabled reporter; the attempts to discredit John McCain, John Lewis, and the â€œMexicanâ€ judge Gonzalo Curiel; the habit of stiffing his workers and partners; the long con of Trump University: at a certain point it becomes functionally impossible in most venues to create a full picture of Trump, for children or otherwise. A story abridged for any reason does Trump a favor. And a childrenâ€™s book about Trump that included some of the most important details about his electionâ€”the birtherism, the pussy tapeâ€”would be brandished as an anti-Trump book, an angry curio for the liberal parent. (Those exist, too.) There is no space within the sunny conventions of a â€œMeet the President!â€-type publication to create a picture of Trump that corresponds with the truth.
Trump is not the only President whose story requires a certain degree of euphemism when compressed into a format meant to be digested by kids, of course. The â€œScholastic Book of Presidents,â€ written by George Sullivan, first published in 1984 and reissued every four years thereafter with an update, details each Presidentâ€™s life and career in three or four pages, going from George Washington to Donald Trump. Itâ€™s written at a middle-school reading level, and although Sullivan is clear enough about the contours of the most troubling and least successful Presidencies in history, the abridgement naturally works in their favor nonetheless.
â€œNo doubt about it, Andrew Jackson gave a new direction to the presidency,â€ Sullivan writes. He notes that Buchanan â€œrefused to take sidesâ€ after Dred Scott and during secession. Nixon, after Watergate, â€œresigned in disgrace.â€ Toward the end of his Presidency, George W. Bushâ€™s popularity â€œnosedived.â€ Itâ€™s a capsule reminder that many children grow up learning American history through a lens of stilted propriety that makes everything seem like a series of distant, compartmentalized ups and downs. There were great Presidents, and some not-so-great Presidents, and it seems somehow uncouth, and uncomfortably partisan, to vivify the lives lost and the rights denied during those not-so-great Presidencies over the folksy, catchy detailsâ€”the paper route, the family ranch.
I picked up a final book, â€œThe New Big Book of U.S. Presidents,â€ a large hardcover published by Running Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, its red-striped cover featuring a gold-framed photo of Trump, surrounded by smaller gold-framed photos of his peers: Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Barack Obama. The â€œBig Bookâ€ is written by Marc Frey and Todd Davis, for readers up to a seventh-grade reading level. Itâ€™s a sound and lively reference book, with enough space and clarity to cover the successes of the American government as well as its failures.
The last entry (â€œDonald J. Trump, Republican, 2017â€“â€) is open-ended and tentative. The authors note Trumpâ€™s comments on immigrants and Muslims, his â€œoutspokenness,â€ and the general fear that Trump â€œdoes not understand how to handle world issues.â€ Two one-star reviewers on Amazon have labelled the book â€œbiasedâ€ as a result, one of them noting that the passage about Trump and Muslims was â€œtotally wrong and unnecessary, distorted and misleading.â€ Their comments reminded me of the many people, across the political spectrum, who have advised, since the election, taking the long view. Trump is unorthodox, they say, even appalling, but weâ€™ve survived various configurations of appalling before. This may be a wise perspective with which to regard U.S. Presidenciesâ€”but not, I think, when it comes to one thatâ€™s hardly even begun.