Back during those heady days of 2016-2020, when all anybody could seem to think, talk, or fight about was Donald Trump, the nation’s best-seller lists were constantly deluged with book after book capitalizing on the End Times-style frenzy.
Melodramatic titles like House of Trump, House of Putin were instant best-sellers and received glowing testimonials from all the typical media venues. George W. Bush speechwriter-turned-conscience-of-US-liberalism David Frum churned out Trumpocracy (followed briskly by Trumpocalypse) to rave reviews and explosive sales. Polemical tracts like The Making of Donald Trump by David Cay Johnston — reputed to be the authoritative text that “connects the dots from Donald Trump's racist background to the Russian scandals” — sold boatloads, as evidenced by the swift commissioning of a sequel from Johnston titled It's Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America (also a NYT best-seller). Amazingly, Johnston has just put out yet another Trump book — that’s right, it came out November 2021 — presumably in hopes that there’s still some last drops of juice to be squeezed from the proverbial Orange.
It became a running joke that even books only peripherally related to Trump would nonetheless need his name somewhere in their titles or subtitles, otherwise you could kiss sales goodbye. People gobbled this stuff up with such reckless abandon that Trump single-handedly created an unprecedented boom for the industry. “There’s really no doubt that the strong feelings around the Trump administration have pushed book sales in a way we’ve never seen before in the political arena,” the head of a market research firm told the NYT last year. “The volume of best-selling titles is really remarkable,” she cheered. At one point a book version of the Mueller Report — which anyone could access online for free — was the top-selling title on both Amazon and the NYT. Just nutty stuff.
The public’s frantic book-buying habits during this period often lent nicely to gallows humor. In July 2020, the top book on the NYT list was The Room Where it Happened, a tome by fired National Security Advisor and uber-hawk John Bolton, who became a hellacious Trump antagonist on the basis of grievances like Trump’s insufficient willingness to bomb Iran. Coming in at Number Two on the list that month was White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi rounded out the top three. I mean, what can you even add to that? Book-reading liberals simply parody themselves without the need for further commentary.
Then there were the insane, epoch-defining mega-hits from the likes of Michael Wolff and Bob Woodward, whose sales during Trump Times may have surpassed the Bible, Koran, and Harry Potter combined. Both men sold millions and millions of copies of books that were dreadfully bad. (I had the misfortune of reading a few, for journalism, but I would estimate that at least 90% of the people who buy these things never go through the slog of actually reading them. Their purchase functioned more as a symbolic anti-Trump statement, as if one was Defending Democracy by pretending to read Bob Woodward’s latest establishment-flattering snoozefest.)
A slew of sycophantically pro-Trump books from right-wing pundits also sold unbelievably well. If you plastered the word “Trump” on the latest edition of “Green Eggs and Ham” sometime in 2019, you probably could’ve sold a few hundred thousand copies.
But in the words of George Harrison (yes, I just watched the new Beatles documentary), All Things Must Pass. In 2021, nobody’s gobbling up books about Joe Biden, because just there’s nothing titillating about the political existence of Biden. Pro or con, the current occupant of the White House does not rouse anything like the crazed, cross-society passions which flared so wildly during his predecessor’s term. Biden detractors may not favor the guy politically, but they’re also not desperate for vicious personal polemics against him in the same way they might’ve been for, say, Hillary Clinton — or in the way Resistance readers craved a constant serving of hairbrained screeds against Trump. Likewise, the concept of “Biden supporters” was never manufactured into the same kind of collectivizing identity trait that “Trump supporters” came to be; people who might’ve voted for Biden or basically support what he’s doing in office don’t have much reason to signal their fidelity to him through book purchases. After an extravagant five-year spending spree, in other words, the boom is now trending more toward bust.