Writing

In ‘Make Russia Great Again,’ novelist Christopher Buckley skewers Trump hilariously – San Francisco Chronicle


Christopher Buckley, author of “Make Russia Great Again,” was a speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush in the 1980s. Photo: Katy Close

For a freewheeling and accomplished satiric novelist like Christopher Buckley, the election of a larger-than-life narcissist as president in 2016 might seem like a huge gift. Buckley, after all, is the undisputed American master of the British art of using slashing humor to cut bloated egos down to size, as his pile of bestselling books attests.

Actually, Donald Trump turned out to be a problematic figure to write about. How do you make someone look ridiculous in a fresh and clever way if that person had devoted himself for years to making himself look ridiculous? Buckley-style satiric fiction suddenly made less sense with Trump in the White House.

“I kind of gave it up,” Buckley told The Chronicle. “It seemed that American politics had become sufficiently self-satirizing. Why do you need me to write about Donald Trump? So I wrote historical fiction, which I loved doing. But I did not knock (author) Hilary Mantel off the mantelpiece. It’s not really what people want from me.”

Buckley was a speechwriter to Vice President George H.W. Bush in the 1980s. He parlayed that experience into a saucy and fearless send-up of a novel, “The White House Mess,” a fictional White House memoir published in 1986 that hit the bestseller lists. Buckley has been a fixture there ever since. No satirist working can match his unbridled glee in helping us laugh at powerful blowhards.

He eventually came around on Trump as a subject. Yes, it’s hard to parody parody. But others were doing great work in other media. He mentions Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah; Sarah Cooper, “this amazing new talent”; J-L Cauvin, whose videos doing Trump have been all over social media; and of course, Alec Baldwin doing Trump on “Saturday Night Live.”

“If they get to do it, I suppose I can,” Buckley finally decided.

The result was “Make Russia Great Again,” a novel that has arrived to a joyous reception, evoking the kind of half-mad grins you see on people finally released into the fresh air after hours stuck on the tarmac in a puddle-jumper plane with no air conditioning and flatulent neighbors who won’t shut up.

As Washington Post book critic Ron Charles said via email, after checking in with a deeply insightful review of the new Buckley, “It was such a relief to read something funny amid all this horribleness.”

“Typically, comedy is tragedy plus time,” Charles wrote in his Washington Post review. “For now, we’ll have to make do with tragedy plus Buckley.”

“Make Russia Great Again” is the fictional memoir of the hilariously well-meaning Herb Nutterman, writing in prison about his time as White House chief of staff to Donald Trump. Photo: Simon & Schuster

I’ll just add this: I read aloud the title of Buckley’s latest to four people, including one former Marine officer, one former assistant director of the FBI and my wife, who is German, and all four laughed out loud. I opened the book and started reading, having just thrown out my back, so it hurt to laugh, but laugh I did, again and again, from the opening author’s note: “This is a work of satirical fiction. … Any person finding any resemblance between themselves and persons depicted herein should probably be ashamed.”

Flipping open to a random page, I see: “The president’s orange complexion glowed like a food-warming lamp.”

One more: “Mr. Trump was a huge fan of the collagen-lipped, steatopygous-rumped Kim Kardashian. … He was always saying, ‘If she wasn’t married to Kanye, I’d be in there in a New York minute.’”

Buckley had gone through multiple drafts on his Trump novel when he shifted his approach based on a suggestion from his editor, Simon & Schuster CEO and Publisher Jonathan Karp, who seems to be emerging as the most dynamic and talented force in publishing. Maybe it helped that Karp and Buckley are longtime friends who make each other laugh.

“It was (Karp) who finally said, ‘Why don’t you do this as ‘The White House Mess?’” Buckley recalled. In other words: Do it as a fictional White House memoir.

“That’s a great editor,” Buckley said. “I probably should have figured this out for myself. There was a Zen brilliance to it. It unlocked it. It gave me the voice and the point of view, the guy who is watching someone else go nuts rather than just describe the guy who goes nuts.”

“Make Russia Great Again” is the fictional memoir of the hilariously well-meaning Herb Nutterman, writing in prison about his time as White House chief of staff to Donald Trump, or, as Buckley’s Trump calls Herb, “my favorite Jew.”

How’s this for a plot: Putin hacks the U.S. 2016 election to put the useful boob Trump into the White House (stop me if you’ve heard this before), and the U.S. government launches a secret “platform” to guard against future tipping of U.S. elections. The “platform” goes rogue and tips a Russian election Putin thinks he has fixed. Instead, the communist wins. Herb has to decide whether to tell his boss what happened, before or after the Trump character calls Putin to kiss his ass.

As for how the book ends, longtime Buckley readers may remember that in “The White House Mess,” the Ronald Reagan character refuses to leave the White House in January 1989.

“Reagan is still in his pajamas,” Buckley recalled, laughing. “He’s decided it’s cold outside and he just doesn’t feel like leaving.”

Reagan was far from offended by the portrayal. In fact, he sent Buckley a nice note. Suddenly, the scenario seems less far afield — and shows up late in the new book.

“Herb, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, is wondering about inauguration day 2021, and it’s giving him chest pains,” Buckley said. “He’s imagining a tank pointing at the White House, and some forlorn lieutenant sticking himself up through the turret with a megaphone and saying, ‘Mr. Trump? President Trump? A new president has been duly elected, sir? You must come out.’ … We’ll see.”

“Make Russia Great Again”
By Christopher Buckley
Simon & Schuster
(288 pages, $28)

  • Steve Kettmann

    Steve Kettmann Former Chronicle staff reporter Steve Kettmann, author of “One Day at Fenway” and “Baseball Maverick,” is co-director of the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods writers’ retreat center near Santa Cruz. Twitter: @stevekettmann