Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The arrival of Barack Obama’s memoir (part of a $65 million book deal with Michelle Obama) and President Donald Trump’s looming unemployment have stirred understandable speculation about a potential Trump memoir. These books have long been a way for former presidents to share their experiences, explain their thinking, and shape their legacies.
For President Trump, who has provided a nonstop string of commentary on his presidency from Day One, a presidential memoir could represent something different: a chance to give his insults and untruths an appearance of sanction and formality that they have never had.
A Trump memoir could make the President tens of millions of dollars, the kind of deal he needs to begin servicing $400 million in loans that are about to come due. For publishing houses, the benefits are less clear cut: if they publish Trump’s memoir, they’ll likely make a substantial profit, but they’ll also face tremendous public opposition. As conservative publisher Adam Bellow told Publishers Weekly, “They will have a very difficult needle to thread, because there is the threat of attacks from without and rebellion from within.”
In recent days, both Publishers Weekly and The New York Times have asked whether publishers will buy a Trump memoir. But the more important question is not will they buy it, but should they? And the answer to that is a resounding no. Not because refusing to publish will silence Trump – it won’t – and not because publishing houses should avoid controversy – they shouldn’t. Rather, publishers should pass because they have a role to play in defending liberal democracy.
There is no doubt that a Trump memoir would be rife with lies and conspiracies, as those have been the backbone of the Trump presidency. Nor would it be easy for a publishing house to counter that with fact-checking. It is unlikely Trump would consent to being fact-checked, a practice that many conservatives have come to view as an extension of liberal media bias rather than a safeguard against error. And publishing houses don’t have a tradition of fact-checking books, relying instead on a set of norms: authors generally fact-check their own work (or hire someone to do it) in order to avoid the reputational harm of getting things wrong.
But what happens when getting things wrong – or worse, willfully lying – no longer comes with reputational harm? The old guardrails no longer work, and no new system has arisen to replace them.
While at any other point in US history the decision to publish a presidential memoir would have been a no-brainer – publishing a president meant both prestige and profits – Trump has altered that equation. To publish his memoir would fill a publishing house’s larder at the expense of its reputation. Not only because the house would be aligned with a would-be authoritarian, but because it would be rewarding his attacks on democracy and enabling his ongoing misinformation campaign about the 2020 election.
Should Trump receive a huge payday at the end of his presidency, it could provide clear incentives for continued attacks on democracy (which, notably, have been part of a fundraising scheme themselves, efforts to retire his campaign debt and create a political slush fund to finance his post presidency). After all the country has endured on his watch – attempting to ban citizens from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the country, ripping immigrant children from their parents’ arms in the name of “deterrence,” stripping health care protections from trans people, attacking the electoral process, spreading misinformation about a pandemic that will likely have killed 300,000 people in the US by the end of the year according to Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the FDA – if the end result is a financial reward for the President in the form of a book deal, every person who buys it will be eroding democracy a tiny bit further with each purchase.
Publishing houses have hastened this erosion as they have expanded their conservative publishing arms. Though major US houses have long published a broad range of political ideas, right-wing books that struggled to break through in the 1940s and 1950s found a home in conservative publishing houses like Regnery. The offerings ranged from works of political philosophy by authors like Russell Kirk as well as more conspiratorial polemics, including two books by Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society.
This world of conservative publishing was mostly a self-contained enterprise until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan’s presidency spurred new interest in conservative books by writers like George Will and Robert Bork. But it was the rise of conservative entertainment, starting with Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s, that blew the right-wing publishing market open. The meteoric success of Limbaugh’s two books, “The Way Things Ought to Be” and “See? I Told You So!” – both published by Pocket Books – convinced the major publishing houses that there was a huge untapped market in conservative books, and by the early 2000s most houses had launched imprints that focused on right-wing books.
Some of these books wrestled with serious political ideas, some were light entertainment, some were caustic attacks. Though hardly comparable to one another, all gained a gloss of respectability from their publication by major houses and made those houses significant profits, with relatively little protest from the public.
That has changed as the right has more openly embraced illiberalism. And the end of the Trump administration and the possibility of a Trump memoir is hastening the reckoning to come for houses that have not yet decided where they land on the question of promoting illiberal ideas and propping up authoritarian actors.
Of course, publishing houses are not alone in this dilemma. As the Trump administration ends, the people who made the Trump administration possible will be looking not only to cash in but to clean up, to take their place in a social and political order that confers legitimacy on people for the positions they’ve held and the connections they’ve forged. “Senior adviser to the president” is a title that opens a lot of doors; “President of the United States” opens even more.
So, what do institutions foundational to liberal democracy do with people like Stephen Miller, architect of the Muslim ban and family separation? With Kellyanne Conway and Kayleigh McEnany, who have sat atop the administration’s misinformation machine? With Bill Barr, who has corrupted the Justice Department to protect the President’s pecuniary and political interests? How much reputation-laundering will universities and think tanks and news outlets do for these people, even as they continue to attack everything from the rule of law to fact-based reality, eroding the basis of liberal society?
Donald Trump crystallizes that dilemma for publishing houses. But the reckoning should not begin and end with a refusal to publish Trump’s memoir. Illiberalism and conspiracism will continue to flourish on the right, embraced not just by the soon to be former President but by senators, party leaders, and media personalities, and publishing houses will need to decide how much oxygen and funding to give to those as well.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Nor are publishers the only ones facing a reckoning. Even if the major publishing houses pass on a Trump memoir, right-wing publishers will happily snap it up. How the rest of us treat that eventual book – the readers who buy it, the reviewers who treat it as a forthright account, the networks who plumb its pages for juicy gossip and amplify its content – reflects our values, too.
Rebuilding a commitment to liberal democracy does not happen solely, or even principally, at the ballot box. It happens in our universities, our newspapers, our bookstores and our communities, and the coming months and years are going to require each of us to keep that commitment central to our cultural consumption as well our political activism.