This article is the first in a series by Ben Kopit entitled “Explaining Trump to Europeans,” in which he will plumb the shallows of American politics with an eye toward an exegesis of all this disarming oddness.
The 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign was long, exhausting, and ultimately heartbreaking. So it is only fitting that Fever Swamp, a collection of Richard North Patterson’s weekly Huffington Post columns, that reads like a thoughtful diary of the campaign, is similarly long, exhausting, and ultimately heartbreaking. This is not a criticism of his collection, which is often excellent, occasionally mediocre, and never poor (no mean feat for a run of 48 consecutive weeks). Rather, it is an acknowledgement that to relieve the countless vicissitudes of the 2016 campaign with the knowledge that it will end in the election of a 70-year-old child whose narcissistic insecurity manifests as a noxious mix of homophobia, misogyny, racism and fascism, infuses everything with a smattering of retroactive bleakness. (At this point, it might be worth noting that Patterson makes no effort in Fever Swamp to conceal his liberal bias, so this reviewer feels no compunction in doing similarly.) Yet, for those with the constitution to endure experiencing again this tragic year, there is a reward at the end in the form of a clarity that comes from reconstructing a detailed path for how we got here.
Patterson is a novelist who started his adulthood as a lawyer, so it is not surprising that he is at his best when discussing personality or the law. His entries on the courts are excellent, and he’s willing to psychoanalyze the candidates in a way someone with a more traditional journalism background might not. He is one of the early proponents of diagnosing Trump with narcissistic personality disorder. In his words, “[Trump] is afflicted with a comprehensive and profound character disorder that leaves no corner of his psyche whole. And this dictates—and explains—every aspect of his behavior.” Taking this approach comes with some risks, and Patterson sometimes falls prey to them, and sometimes doesn’t.
One risk is elevating character above issues. Patterson does fall into this trap, but he acknowledges it. Indeed, one of his best entries is on the topic of how this frequent problem has distorted coverage of the campaign. The column comes late in Fever Swamp, and in it he offers himself as a cautionary example. Patterson admits to being seduced by the metanarrative of Trump’s unfitness to serve, and consequently often chose topics to write about that fit this metanarrative. Of course, can one blame him? He’s a novelist, and wild, unhinged personality is so much more dramatic than boring policy analysis. Part of why Clinton couldn’t shift the conversation to substance was that substance is simply not theatrical (even if it was inspiring to those, including Patterson, who wanted a candidate who would talk about issues like a sober adult). One can understand a novelist turned columnist becoming sucked in to this metanarrative, but the news media at large should have done better.
Another risk in psychoanalyzing the candidates is that bias may lead one to see the flaws of one’s own candidate as humanizing, and the flaws of the other side’s as disqualifying. This is a particularly thorny pitfall to avoid because avoiding it one can veer toward the equally perilous chasm of false equivalency. Patterson never succumbs to false equivalency, but might not a novelist temper his scorn for Trump’s insecurity with a little bit of pity? Certainly, this is a difficult standard, and it might be unfair to hold anyone other than a novelist-turned-columnist to it. Patterson doesn’t pretend to be anything but a liberal, and his eviscerations of the Republican lot (Rubio’s hollowness, Cruz’s nastiness, Trump’s everything) feel thought out and accurate. Still, seen through a novelist’s eyes, doesn’t Rubio’s malleability deserve some sympathy? Surely, it must be hard on his self-esteem to be a public servant who’s never stuck to a tough stand in his career. Maybe this added exercise would be fruitless, or maybe it would help prevent the Pavlovian hate responses candidates come to engender that prevent voters from judging their fresh actions with fresh eyes.
None of this is to say that Patterson doesn’t criticize Clinton or Sanders. He does, even if he breathlessly labels Clinton the candidate for our time (with what, given the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, seems like wishful optimism). The difference is that, when he does talk about Clinton’s public inauthenticity, he thoughtfully diagnoses it as the natural human response to decades of unfair attacks. He doesn’t even attempt to find a root cause for Ted Cruz’s vindictiveness.
Possibly the best thing about this book is that Patterson uses the margins to talk about where and how he got things wrong. Patterson was not alone in assuming Clinton would win, at least until James Comey’s congressional letter changed things, and the columns take on a sort of panic. It’s impossible to read Fever Swamp without reliving your own errors in analysis or prediction, and it’s comforting and helpful to see Patterson relive his own mistakes along with you.
The margin notes make the experience of reading Fever Swamp less like reading someone else’s diary, and more like re-reading your own, a process both riveting and depressing. It’s riveting to relive the maelstrom of a Republican primary, watching the party establishment look on in horror as Cruz and Trump rise from the bubbling lava of their “electoral Frankenstein” monster. It’s depressing to watch, with renewed disbelief, all the moments that should have sunken the Trump campaign, as well as all the things Clinton did right (a flawless convention, three debate routs, a list of surrogates that read like a Washington Walk of Fame). With Patterson’s margin reflections to keep you company, it is crushing to wonder how Clinton’s historically strong debate performances could be undone by Comey’s empty suggestion of more emails. But, hey, that letter fed into the Clinton metanarrative.
Over the course of Patterson’s 48-column year, he naturally touches on a wide range of political topics. Unfortunately, his forays into areas unrelated to personality or the law are often less engaging (an exception is his joyful “Fun Questions for the Next GOP Debate”). On the whole, Fever Swamp is a worthwhile read, but it might be acceptable to skim some of the more bland entries. As illuminating and clarifying as it is to relive the 2016 presidential campaign with Patterson as your guide, reliving it in complete detail may be unnecessarily masochistic.