Regarding Martha Brockenbrough’s latest young adult (YA) book, Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump (ages 12–18, Feiwel and Friends, $19.95), we asked the Seattle journalist and author, “What are the two most interesting things you discovered about the president?”
“Trump’s love of crowds cheering for him started when he was just a boy—he even wrote a poem about how much he loved the sound.”
“Trump balked at naming his first-born son Donald. “What if he’s a loser?” he asked his then-wife Ivana.”
Our interview with Brockenbrough, who discusses her book 7 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the University Book Store, continues below:
SM: Why did you feel it was important to write a book America's 45th President?
MB: During the long 2016 election season, I was working on a biography of Alexander Hamilton (Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary/Feiwel & Friends). It was fascinating then to be immersed in the history of this nation and the life of one of its most dynamic and puzzling heroes when we were in the midst of an unfolding period of history when much of what the founders did felt under siege.
Trump struck me as exactly the demagogue Hamilton feared, and while Hamilton was no friend to the First Amendment, Trump’s behavior and statements on the stump put this and other elements of the Bill of Rights at risk.
Like many people, I did not think he would win. I’d followed his career to know that he was not a particularly good businessman (below average in his field, I have since learned). Like many, I was also astonished at his statements: the untrue ones, the racist ones, the misogynistic ones.
And I know it seems controversial to judge his words this way, but I do it intentionally. We are living in an age where reality is under assault, not just from Trump, although he is a chief example.
Scientists are certain that human activity is responsible at least in significant part for the climate change we can all observe with our own eyes. And yet there are some who would still say, “Oh, it’s fuzzy. It’s complicated.” Why do they say this? Because media have been careful to present “both sides,” elevating non-scientific views to the level of science.
Trump himself has called climate change a “hoax.”
It is not. And yet many people believe in this manufactured reality because we are trying to be responsible and air many viewpoints and allow for different interpretations.
When a person says, as Trump did, that an American-born judge with Mexican ancestry cannot do his job because of it, that is racism on its face. He is saying that a man’s race is preventing him from doing his job. And it is but one example.
When I watched the election results roll in, I was concerned to say the least. The next morning, I woke up and thought about the books children would read about the 45th president. And this is when I felt sick to my stomach.
How do you tell kids about this complicated man?
The book I wrote is categorized as YA. So it’s not a book for very young children, although I would love to write one of those too. And, like much of YA, it is something adults will also enjoy and relate to—there’s a lot to it, but it has a bit more context than a typical adult book would have. (Like, I briefly explain the nature of the conflict in Vietnam, something most adults know about, but teen readers might not yet have encountered.)
I wanted to tell readers the complicated truth, rather than write the typical celebratory book for young readers. It’s not that there’s nothing to celebrate about Trump. He is wildly successful at creating a brand for himself. He identified key issues that would resonate—rightly or wrongly—with a wide swath of voters. But I could not stomach the idea of him being portrayed in a purely heroic light.
This is a book that tells the complicated truth. Much of it is told in Trump’s own language—his tweets are an unprecedented look inside the mind of a president.
SM: Why do you feel it’s important to share these facts to readers? And how is your book different from other recent political books?
MB: The question of fairness is a vital one, and one I gave a great deal of thought to as I worked. How do you fairly portray a president? Trump himself has an idea of it. He and his surrogates have complained that 92 percent of his media coverage is negative. This implies that he thinks some efforts to be more positive should be made—perhaps to hit a 50/50 level.
Fairness is much more complicated than 50/50. What’s fair is: first, what is accurate; second, what is relevant; and third: what is representative of the larger whole.
Some people hold “objectivity” up as a standard. Objectivity demands we include a sample of everything without providing context. AI is pretty good at being objective, and if you’ve ever seen paint colors suggested by artificial intelligence, you will understand why this fails to convey the meaning that human beings expect. (I don’t think you’re doing to be painting your walls “Dondarf” any time soon.)
Objectivity also would demand we don’t assess whether someone is telling the truth or telling a lie. It would demand we include the lie. This is measurably destructive, even as it is well intended. A huge percentage of Republicans, for example, believe the lie that Obama was born outside of the United States. Trump advanced this conspiracy theory relentlessly for years, starting on it afte Obama’s birth certificate had been provided, and continuing it after a long-form version had been provided. It’s “objective” to cover the conspiracy theory as a he-said/she-said sort of thing. But it does not serve the truth.
In a biography like this, what is more important than any arbitrary ratios of good and bad are the patterns of behavior. The patterns reveal the heart of his life and choices, and once I understood this, it became clear to me what was essential for the narrative and what was not.
By going back to the immigration of Trump’s grandfather, I help the reader understand more the patterns of the Trump family and its values. Trump makes more sense in this context.
There are fantastic books that do this already, chief among them Gwenda Blair’s. Mine does it a bit more succinctly for obvious reasons, but anyone who’s interested will learn much about immigration and ways of doing business in turn-of-the-20th-century America.
My book goes all the way through the Helsinki press conference, where Trump blamed America for the state of American-Russian relations, and where Trump sided with Putin over the nation’s intelligence agencies. So it’s quite a lot of time.
More significantly, I put everything into chronological order. This is something the news media can’t do on a daily basis. The primary job of the media is to cover the news of the day, which means sometimes things that happened months ago finally come to light. This is no knock on journalists at all, but it sometimes means we don’t have a clear handle on everything that’s going on in the White House.
Again, this is no knock on the media at all. Many news sources have kept excellent timelines on certain subjects, like the Mueller investigation. Or on staff turnover in the West Wing, which is unprecedented. Or Trump’s tweets, many of which have become news stories by themselves.
My book combines these timelines and tells the story of his campaign and time in office as a chronological narrative, which gives the clearest view of this extraordinary period in history, and builds the best understanding I can possibly build of why we are in uncharted waters as a nation.
And it is sourced with more than 1,000 footnotes so readers can check for themselves (I don’t know the final count of footnotes. But there are a lot of them.)
SM: What else would you like readers to know about this book? What do you hope this book will accomplish?
MB: I want readers to know that—regardless of what they think they know about the president—this is a rigorously researched, thoughtfully produced account of his life and the first 500 or so days of his presidency. We are living in times of great historic import. Our identity as a nation is being redefined.
My intent is that, above all else, the young people inheriting the world will be informed with reliable information. The truth serves democracy. There is no democracy without it. That’s why I wrote this book. I love our nation. I believe in its highest ideals, and the darkest parts of our history are when we have failed to follow those.