If the stakes weren’t high—and rising—Katy Tur’s best-selling Unbelievable might be offered as a companion volume to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Just as in Waugh’s novel the Daily Beast dispatched its nature columnist, William Boot, to cover a looming war in a land called Ishmaelia because he happened to be available (and bore the same surname as another writer mentioned by the Beast’s owner), Tur was less than an obvious choice when her bosses at NBC sent her to New Hampshire in July 2015 to cover the promoter-showman Donald Trump. Attached then to the network’s London bureau, where she was often used on light features, she happened to be in New York briefly courtesy of the Make-a-Wish Foundation when the idea of assigning a reporter to Trump was broached at NBC headquarters. His three-week-old candidacy seemed absurd and doomed at the time but it was generating lots of attention. Although she had little or no experience of national politics (and her clothes were still in London), Tur got the nod and thus became the first television reporter for whom Trump was a full-time regular beat. “It will be six weeks, tops,” one of her bosses at 30 Rock told her.
An editor who can look ahead six weeks qualifies as a visionary, given the accelerating around-the-clock pressure of news, real or fake or, as in this case, an indecipherable blend of the two. Tur’s six weeks spun out to more than seventy. “Trump wasn’t part of anyone’s plan,” she writes. “For that matter, neither was I.”
On the basis of what we’ve come to know, there’s another way to put this: Trump was improvising his own plan, seemingly on a daily basis, keeping himself at the top of the news with a barrage of demagogic promises and insults that soon elevated him in polls of Republican primary voters, shaping and reshaping the campaign. Before he was leading in polls, he was leading in air time on cable news. The master builder of failed casinos had an instinct for recognizing how threadbare the restraints on ordinary political discourse actually were, how far he could go, and where to locate promising sore spots and resentments among those who felt grievously let down in what they experienced as lifetimes of stagnation and decline.
All of this could be easily fixed, the boastful, supposed billionaire promised, as if you needed to be reminded: a “beautiful” wall could be built on the southern border at Mexico’s expense, illegal immigrants expelled in the hundreds of thousands and eventually millions, Muslims banned, climate change exposed as a “hoax,” long-gone mining and factory jobs brought back, trade pacts and treaties shredded in the restoration of a halcyon age, and torture similarly restored and expanded as a counterterrorism tactic.…
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