Editor’s note: This story includes graphic language.
In “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future,” New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns paint a vivid picture of a country confronting crisis after crisis.
Covering everything from President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud and efforts to overturn the election results, to President Joe Biden’s unwillingness to decide what kind of president he is going to be, this book shows the degree to which our institutions and political leaders are failing us, and the increasingly thin lines separating the country from even greater catastrophe.
The book is filled with those behind-the-scenes anecdotes and vivid retellings that are the bread and butter of the best campaign books, like John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s “Game Change,” about the 2008 presidential election, or Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ “Shattered” on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. All of it is deeply reported, drawing on hundreds of interviews and documents from the highest levels of government.
Split into three parts, the book covers the pre-election period starting in March 2020 that saw the coronavirus pandemic upend the country and the presidential campaigns, the election itself up to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the first year of Biden’s presidency.
The Republican and Democrat camps are kept separate for most of the book, except for in scenes where the two are in the same place, such as during the insurrection, which makes the ever widening gulfs between the two groups even more jarring to take in. One one side, you have Trump, tightening his grip on the Republican Party even after trying to overturn a free and fair election that he lost. On the other, you have Biden, unwilling to decide whether he wants to be a business-as-usual unifier or a FDR-like transformational figure, and upsetting almost everyone in his fragile coalition in the process.
The Trump-focused sections of the book do a great job painting vivid pictures of Republican leaders. The authors dive into the complete deterioration of the relationship between U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and Trump, who have not spoken since McConnell recognized Biden’s victory as legitimate. The authors report a hostile phone call between the two after that event where Trump raised his voice at McConnell.
The book also details McConnell’s shift from being ready for Trump to be purged from the Republican party in the immediate aftermath of Jan. 6 to realizing that the former president’s grip on his party would endure long after he left the Oval Office.
“The Democrats are going to take care of the son of a bitch for us,” McConnell said, referring to the second impeachment vote in the House over Trump’s incitement of the Jan. 6 riot. Soon though, the anger McConnell felt towards Trump took a backseat to the need to avoid inter-party conflict if Republicans were going to retake the Senate in 2022.
The book also details the wide gulf between the public and private attitudes towards Trump by prolific Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is portrayed as someone who hates his job but is also singularly focused on becoming speaker of the House. Despite audio recordings in which McCarrthy told Liz Cheney that he thought Trump should resign, he was soon again doing all he could to gain favor with a man who calls him a “pussy” with an “inferiority complex” behind his back.
On the Democratic side, the book details Biden’s failure to unify “a vast set of constituencies that shared a deep antipathy to Trump and little else.” The authors note the distinct possibility that Biden will be a one term president due to his age and his deep desire to have a transformational term that leaves a legacy that can compete with the accomplishments of the Obama Administration.
“I am confident that Barack is not happy with the coverage of this administration as more transformative than his,” Biden told one adviser.
The major question Martin and Burns examine in this account of “an existential battle for the survival of the democratic system” is whether or not our institutions can continue to function amidst these compounding crises. The answer they give early in the book is “a resounding: sort of.” As this is the work of reporters and not fortune tellers, I think that’s the best answer we’ve got right now.
Jonathan Martin is a featured panelist at the Mississippi Book Festival on Aug. 20.