Huffing and puffing but no real storm in Luke Mogelson’s new book

In 2016, at the height of an already febrile American presidential election contest, Hilary Clinton gave a speech in New York and described supporters of Donald Trump as “deplorables”.

“You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables …. They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic ….”

The epithet stuck. Indeed, some Trump supporters of Donald Trump came to embrace the title; to have Clinton call you deplorable was a badge of honor.

Though he doesn’t deploy the term himself, Luke Mogelson’s new book is in part a field trip among the ultra-deplorables when the political and societal temperature was even higher than in 2016: from the original imposition of Covid restrictions in early 2020 through to the Biden-Trump election and the crescendo of rage that led to the events of January 6, 2021, in Washington.

This period also included the killing of George Floyd and ensuing protests, and Mogelson was on the ground in Minneapolis, with the sworn enemies of the deplorables; he was also present when Trump supporters breached the Capitol.

I had high hopes for The Storm is Here, of hearing, seeing and feeling from a cool, objective observer what it was like at ground level when said storm blew hardest. Mogelson, a war reporter for The New Yorker, seemed to have decent bona fides.

Unfortunately, confidence in him as a reliable narrator took a number of hits. Let’s take Mogelson’s account of Donald Trump’s 2020 Mount Rushmore speech, which misrepresents what Trump said so egregiously, it could stand as a text book example of what Trump would have gleefully called ‘fake news’.

The Storm is Here: America on the Brink by Luke Mogelson

Mogelson suggests the speech was white supremacist, a speech that lauded American greatness and included Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Jesse Owens, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Mohammad Ali, and (repeatedly) the “righteous” Martin Luther King, that celebrated Lincoln’s victory in the Civil War and Confederate battlefield defeats, and that was peppered with references to equality of the races, all delivered to loud cheers.

He says that Trump “labeled half the country irredeemably depraved”, a claim simply impossible to find evidence for anywhere in the text.

He implies Trump by July 2020 had already lost interest in Covid-19, even though one of the first things he does in his speech is to thank doctors, nurses, and scientists “working tirelessly to kill the virus”.

There were many ways in which Mogelson could have attacked that speech. He could have argued Trump was being purely cynical and didn’t mean half of what he said, or that it was ridiculously jingoistic or full of holes and distortions – but this would have required reporting accurately the content of the speech.

Trump even alluded to building his infamous border wall, but, mysteriously, Mogelson doesn’t mention this.

It is hard to shake off nagging doubts: is Mogelson hurrying us past certain things? Is he arranging some of the scenery himself? Is he simply, at times, misleading? For instance, he states repeatedly that Rosanne Boyland was trampled to death at the Capitol riots. She died of amphetamine intoxication.

All of this is a shame. His prose is crisp, vivid and meticulous prose and the book also contains elements carried over from his war reporting, with particularly revealing passages about Afghanistan.

By errors and omissions, though, Mogelson has undercut his chance to create a genuinely authoritative record of a tumultuous period in American politics and society and of the dangerous underbelly of the American right. A gripping but simultaneously very frustrating read.

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