In the late spring of 2015, an NBC News correspondent living in Paris got a call from her bosses in New York: Can you come back to the states for a few weeks to cover a crazy circus-show presidential campaign? Donald Trump’s decided to run again.
Despite her lack of political reporting experience, Katy Tur agreed to check it out—and as Trump’s political profile grew, she became one of the most prominent journalistic voices on the election trail. At the same time, Tur became for Trump a sort of stand-in for everything he hated about the media: He singled her out for mockery as “Little Katy,” “incompetent,” “dishonest,” and a “third-rate reporter,” among other indignities. Thrust into the limelight this way, a less scrupulous reporter might have cashed in for a job offering wispy anti-Trump takes on #Resistance TV shows. To her credit, Tur wrote a book instead.
The book in question is Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, an autobiographical account of the Trump campaign that Tur says “roiled America and with it, my little life.” It’s the story of how journalistic outsider Tur got paired with political outsider Trump, and how they drove each other crazy. It’s an inside look at how the sausage of TV news and political news is made. And it’s an invaluable account of a liberal writer’s struggle to understand the middle Americans who supported the current president.
Any book about the 2016 election begs the question: Didn’t this just happen? Trump’s campaign didn’t exactly slip by America unnoticed; for two crazy years, we couldn’t tear our eyes away as the billionaire TV star rampaged his way through the political world—and he hasn’t stopped rampaging yet. We remember the boisterous debates, the cruel nicknames for opponents, the jaw-dropping controversies that couldn’t sink the unlikeliest candidate in American history. And we think: Who needs a refresher?
Nevertheless, there’s value to the kind of book Tur’s written. The daily political news cycle can give a person mental whiplash, especially in the age of Twitter. We snap from controversy to controversy at breakneck speed, scarcely having time to take our bearings or catch our breath. This goes double for the age of Trump. He breaks into the news cycle with some outrageous comment or other three times a week; it’s almost impossible to keep track with everything, let alone make sense of it.
As such, it’s hard even to remember the summer of 2015, when Donald Trump’s rambling stump speeches to crowds of a few hundred drew little more than laughter from the media; when, months later, the Republican hopefuls ignored him, focusing their fire on one another, expecting him to flame out of his own accord; and so on. It’s hard to remember just how farfetched it all seemed. Tur remembers, and Unbelievable reminds readers in vivid detail.
For the 2016 campaign, then, Unbelievable serves not only to refresh memories, but also to catalog them. The experience of reading Tur’s book is punctuated by moments you’d half-forgotten moving into their correct narrative place with a pleasurable snap. The whole heft of the campaign, from the moment Trump descended that golden escalator to the moment he ascended the stage to declare his electoral victory, is presented here in vibrant, if cursory, form.
‘No One Seems To Care’
But Unbelievable is not simply an early stab at writing the history of the 2016 presidential election. Unbelievable is less about Trump than it is about Tur herself—her daily routines, her friendships and rivalries with other reporters, her thoughts about the TV business, her restaurant recommendations. These digressions and indulgences make it clear that Tur’s writing for a contemporary audience; it’s hard to see a reader in the year 2500 finding such things noteworthy. But while some of these sections are simply bizarre—a page-long recital of an evening spent watching Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” is a headscratcher—others form the book’s strongest sections.
That’s because the chief question Tur struggles with throughout the book is not really about Trump at all. It’s about his supporters. She writes in the prologue:
You can’t tell a joke without worrying you’ll lose your job. Your twenty-something can’t find work. Your town is boarded up. Patriotism gets called racism…. On top of it all, no one seems to care. You feel like you’re screaming at the top of your lungs in a room full of people wearing earplugs. I get it. What I don’t get are the little old ladies in powder-pink MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hats calling me a liar. I don’t get the men in HILLARY SUCKS—BUT NOT LIKE MONICA T-shirts. I don’t get why protesting a broken political system also means you need to protest the very notion of objective truth.
This mystification is on vivid display in Tur’s accounts of Trump rallies, where she often feared for her safety. At one point, she remembers a woman Trump supporter who gave her a hand while she was curling her hair in a public bathroom—a regular behind-the-scenes indignity of TV life. “She was lovely in every sense of the word,” Tur writes. Later, she thinks of that woman when the crowd laughs at Trump’s jokes about killing journalists.
Sympathy for the Reporters
It’s scenes like this that make Tur’s book useful for right-leaning readers. Conservatives have long chafed against the left-wing bias of most mainstream news, and with good reason. But the 2016 election saw those resentments boil over into full-on rage and hatred against not just “the media” abstractly, but reporters such as Tur more specifically.
Unbelievable invites the reader to imagine and sympathize with the following scenario: You wake up at 4:30 a.m. in another strange hotel and immediately grab your phone to make sure nothing huge happened while you slept. You catch another cramped plane to another unknown city and head to another auditorium where your candidate’s speaking today. Once you get there, he treats you to a steady stream of pure malice, with everyone in the crowd egging him on. Back to another hotel to crash. Repeat.
Tur’s point seems to be: This is what we do in the pursuit of quality journalism. My takeaway was different: How on earth could a person hope to maintain her objectivity with that kind of a life?
Is she a Democrat? Undoubtedly. Is she an evil person? Not remotely. Should you read her book? Yes, you should.