Bookworm: ‘Landslide’ offers insight into Trump’s final days in office

‘Battle for the Big Top’ uncovers every reader’s inner child

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency”

  • By Michael Wolff
  • c. 2021, Holt
  • $29.99, $39.99 Canada; 313 pages

“What the heck just happened here?” You ask yourself that a dozen times a day, none more so than the time between last October and this past January. What really happened in Washington during those weeks?

“Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency” by By Michael Wolff.

Author Michael Wolff says he knows and in “Landslide” he lays it all out. Let’s skip the preliminaries; there can't be many Americans left who don’t know how the 2020 election proceeded and ended. The date’s been in the news almost since Donald Trump became president in 2016, but Wolff – who wrote this book based on details supplied by the former president’s office and through interviews – says that Trump's frenzied efforts to stay in office seriously escalated, starting in early 2020, with the COVID-19 crisis.

To begin, Wolff chronicles weeks and weeks of chaos as Trump’s staff carefully placated Trump to avoid his notoriously short fuse, while others floated ideas that were impossible but that he embraced, much to the dismay of some of his advisers. There are few surprises in this; it’s rather familiar territory for most readers.

This changes in Wolff’s account leading up to Election Day 2020.

Yes, we know what happened in the end, but Wolff makes the timeline seem, curiously, like something out of a thriller, with a tense, almost minute-by-minute recreation of election night. Among other niggling insights, we also learn who had Trump’s ear at this point and who tried unsuccessfully to bring reality to the table. Adding to the chaos, the pandemic is a constant backdrop, as is a blithe lack of concern from the White House.

It wasn’t long after the election loss that Jan. 6 was floated as a chance to change the results, setting off what Wolff calls “an obsessional fixation” on Trump's part, leaving Mark Meadows to quietly, surreptitiously start the transition for the Biden team. Readers may have sensed as much but to wonder, in print, who was in charge, is unsettling. Throughout this book – but particularly here – words like “crazy,” and “loony” are found, giving it somewhat of a lighter tone, poking the ribs of Wolff’s most-likely audience before returning to thriller-mode as he focuses on mid-December, leading up to and including Jan. 6.

It’s hard, no matter who you voted for, to avoid being shocked here; in fact, don’t be surprised if you feel a need to squirm while reading this. Wolff conveys chaos well, and it’s easy to pick up on the feeling of distress that shapes these pages.

Long before he wraps up with a post-inauguration update and presents his interview with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, Wolff explains why White House aides stayed, though most of them indicated that their jobs were far from enjoyable. He tells readers who likely kept Trump in line between Jan. 6 and the inauguration. And he shares the saga that is Rudy Giuliani.

Left-minded readers will find entertainment in this book; right-standing readers, perhaps not. Nothing’s drastically new here except the angle but if you’ve got nagging questions, “Landslide” may help you understand what the heck happened here.

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“Battle for the Big Top: P.T, Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus” author Les Standiford.

“Battle for the Big Top: P.T, Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus”

  • By Les Standiford
  • c. 2021, PublicAffairs
  • $28, $35 Canada; 257 pages

The elephants were always your favorites. You'd practically grown up with pictures of them, but seeing them in person ... ? They were bigger than you thought they'd be. Enormous. Gigantic, and yet, so quietly distinguished. Your first circus experience was memorable because of them, and in “Battle for the Big Top” by Les Standiford, you'll see how pachyderms and others came to the tent.

“Battle for the Big Top: P.T, Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus” by Les Standiford.

While it’s true that the circus was big entertainment for Americans in past generations, the origins of the circus can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when “royals and wealthy nobles ... ” were fond of “keeping exotic beasts ... ”

In the early New World, though, just having a horse was “a luxury” and horsemanship was seen as a talent worthy of an audience. It was profitable, too; in 1793, George Washington's cousin constructed an eight-hundred-seat arena at his riding academy, in order to present a program that would later look like a twentieth-century circus.

In 1806, pachyderms were added to the regular circus line-up by an Italian troupe in New York. Canvas tents became the venue of choice for circuses of all sizes in 1825. Soon after, big cats were added to the circus's normal line-up, and a tank was invented that could haul a hippo. The first circus parade from railroad to field happened in May, 1837; by the mid-1800s, tightrope walkers and trapeze artists had joined the troupe, and an elliptical tent was invented that allowed for the famed three rings.

Though most of the circuses at that time were smaller, James Bailey, who had literally run away to join the circus as a boy, was busy building an empire. When his elephant gave birth, it caught the attention of P.T. Barnum, who was intrigued and impressed that Bailey turned down his offer to purchase the calf. Despite a longtime competitiveness, they combined their assets in 1881 to become a mega-circus, The Barnum & Bailey Circus.

And then there were the upstarts in Wisconsin, those wild Ringling boys ...

Though there are occasional pinpricks of omission and a few missed opportunities, "Battle for the Big Top" is quite the circus fan's dream.

Beginning with the final presentation of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” author Les Standiford takes readers back to the circus world's darkest day before launching into this history of what was one of early America's most exciting, best-loved entertainments. The evolution is well-presented, although some points are made too quickly, leaving a want for more information and no room for lingering.

Still, Standiford catches even the most jaded, 21st Century reader up in the danger and excitement under the Big Top. We've seen elephants. We've laughed at clowns. We know what happens if highwire acts fail, but there’s no denying that the circus is different. Standiford brings that to light, uncovering every reader’s inner child.

And if that's the kind of escape you need, this history will make you happier than a box of popcorn and a balloon. For you, “Battle of the Big Top” will be enormous fun.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.