There’s a famous aphorism often attributed to Miles Davis which says that the notes you don’t play in jazz are more important than the ones you do. Much the same can be said of political memoirs and, indeed, most books written by politicians or professional apparatchiks, particularly if published during an election year: being a genre largely concerned with PR and brand-building, they tend to be heavy on pablum and featherlight when it comes to substance; glorified press releases masquerading as earnest reflections or honest tales of personal triumph in the face of adversity. To any but the most credulous reviewer, they therefore present something of a dilemma. How exactly, after all, are you supposed to write about what isn’t there?
Apocryphal though they may be, this is where the words ascribed to America’s great jazz innovator really come in handy. In my experience as a regular (and almost always reluctant) appraiser of books and speeches by liberal and centrist politicians, identifying the blank space — the things left unsaid, the issues unaddressed, the possibilities elided, the questions unanswered, the past events ignored, the facts omitted, etc. — can often get you quite a long way.
David Plouffe’s A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump, for example, spends just over 250 pages telling readers to canvass, phone bank, and write approving social media posts about a generic and entirely hypothetical Democratic nominee. Tasked with reviewing it, I was initially stumped about what, if anything, to say — an ostensible handbook for fighting the Right with scant reference to ideology, program, or social vision not exactly offering up a lot of raw material with which to work. My writer’s block persisted until I realized that Plouffe’s omissions were precisely the point, his vision of liberalism being one that either treats most real political questions as settled or considers them none of the average person’s business (the permissible kind of rank-and-file activism in the modern Democratic Party being about deference to party elites and not much else).
Anyone attempting a critical reading of Barack Obama’s (admittedly far superior) A Promised Land must similarly spend hours navigating lush thickets of prose and literary adornment to discover what really is and, more importantly, isn’t there — the author’s style being so elegant and his perspective so ethereal that the conservatism of his worldview can easily escape notice. In stunningly brazen fashion, the paperback edition of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices — the memoir originally published in 2014 — scrubbed a section that effusively detailed her role in promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (just in time for the former secretary of state’s election season rebrand as a free-trade skeptic).
Finding the blank space in a mass-market political book or memoir is therefore a useful way of stripping off its artifice. And, since most entries into the genre by mainstream politicians feature far more artifice than they do genuine insight, whatever remains tends to be the key to understanding their authors’ actual beliefs, commitments, or intentions.
Which brings us to Pete Buttigieg and his recently published Trust: America’s Best Chance, released last fall just ahead of November’s presidential election. As an uninteresting book written by a ravenously ambitious and brand-conscious politician, plenty about Trust barely merits comment. Running less than two hundred pages if you don’t count its appendices (the first being an excerpt from a Pew Research study on the subject of, you guessed it, trust; the second a transcript of Buttigieg’s Sorkinesque 2020 campaign concession address), it is mostly just as you’d expect: a very quick read that is part politics and part autobiography — the sort of book that counts the likes of Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Hannah Arendt, Nate Silver, and David Axelrod among its citations. The sort to feature the word “trenchant” on its back cover.
As its title suggests, the content of Buttigieg’s Trust mostly riffs on the same simple and central conceit, and, here again, I think Miles Davis can be of some help. Davis’s 1959 masterwork Kind of Blue revolutionized jazz by replacing bebop’s emphasis on complex chord structures with modalities, permitting boundless melodic improvisation using only simple scales. In much the same way, Buttigieg’s book takes a very basic concept (that of trust, in case you’ve forgotten) and blows it up into one epic solo showcasing endless variations on a theme.
Though he’s certainly no Davis-esque pioneer (just as Kind of Blue influenced much of what came after it, almost every liberal politician since 2008 has in some way imitated Barack Obama, who remains the undisputed virtuoso of centrist storytelling) Buttigieg can reasonably claim to be a skilled practitioner of the genre. For what it’s worth, the average politician could not produce a half-decent sentence if their life depended on it and, on a basic technical level, Trust reads better than many of its obviously ghostwritten equivalents.
This isn’t to say that Buttigieg’s latest literary effort refrains from indulging in the extraneous. On the contrary, true to the basic form of a mass-market political memoir, there are more than a few passages of padding to be found throughout — the worst culprit probably being the author’s painstakingly detailed description of what it looked and sounded like when a modem connected to the internet:
After coming to rely on Internet connections at the university where they worked, my parents finally agreed we should get it at home, sometime in the mid-nineties, around when I was entering middle school. A miraculous modem appeared, wired into the phone jack next to the big gray Mac in the front room, with a sequence of about ten little LED lights from top to bottom. To dial up was like watching a rocket launch: first the top light was on, then the second . . . then came the sound of the modem talking to whatever it was talking to . . . sounding like an Atari game’s parody of birdsong or of a clarinet solo, pinging and ponging as more and more of the little lights came on, blinking and then steady, orange and then green . . . the sound building to a crescendo that recalled the noise of TV static, as machines confided who-knows-what secret binary handshakes between them while I listened. Then came a key change. Then the pitch of the static pulse tweaked, now higher, now lower, and then, gloriously, the final light went to green and I was online, in orbit: cyberspace.
Though Buttigieg inevitably spins the preceding into a series of observations about the ups and downs of living in an increasingly interconnected world, it seems to exist for no real reason other than to pad his word count and assure us he is a bona fide Millennial™ (Buttigieg’s generational affiliation having done noticeably little to win over young voters in last year’s Democratic primaries).
Still, the real issue with Trust stems from the broadness and therefore ultimate thinness of its central conceit. To be fair to Buttigieg, his stated aims for the book are fairly narrow. “Trust,” as he writes in its introduction, “is not a sweeping account of how we got here, or a full assessment of what it is to be alive and American in 2020 . . . Rather [it] is written in the spirit of what must come next.” The problem is that, in Buttigieg’s hands, the idea of “trust” comes to apply to so much that it works more like a crude framing device than a vehicle for genuine insight.
Trust, as we learn, is necessary for an army to work together effectively (something impressed upon the author during his brief tour in Afghanistan). A community relies on trust between its members to function. So does the economy. The US Constitution? That was also an act of trust. The delivery of vaccines during a pandemic, it turns out, similarly requires the ethereal presence of the t-word in question. Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s venerable and famously punctual geyser, too, embodies the concept (which, by its very nature, implies predictability). Elections, voting, and the daily functioning of American democracy? Folks . . .
Nuance, however, requires us to understand that trust, though generally laudable, isn’t always good. Donald Trump’s supporters often trusted him to their detriment, particularly when the coronavirus struck. A cruel huckster who once cheated a young Buttigieg out of some baseball cards was abusing a child’s trust in the goodness of adults.
Trust, it would seem, is ultimately a land of contrasts.
Which isn’t to say that Buttigieg’s various riffs on the concept are exactly incorrect. The issue is that when you cleave the fat off a medium-rare thesis like “democracy requires trust” or “a wide array of factors has reduced the overall level of trust in various institutions, imperiling the overall functioning of society,” very little meat remains, and most of what is left tends to be banal or anecdotal.
A handful of genuine propositions suggest themselves here and there, and most are perfectly fine. Buttigieg floats, for example, the idea of “moving beyond the electoral college” (he road tested the idea early in the Democratic primaries before growing rather quiet about it). He also suggests that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on America’s history of racial injustice might help repair its frayed social contract. Nordic levels of taxation and public spending also receive favorable mention, though feel more than a little disingenuous coming from a politician who spent his most recent campaign courting the nation’s billionaires and defending their right to pour money into elections. In the book’s introduction, the author even makes hopeful noises about the prospects for “a new American social democracy.” (Buttigieg can be accused of many things, but having actively helped to crush the single greatest hope for American social democracy in living memory no one can accuse him of lacking in chutzpah.)
The book’s most dishonest and cynical section concerns Buttigieg’s retelling of the events surrounding the 2020 Iowa caucuses and the ensuing criticisms directed at his campaign. Recounting his own, now-infamous declaration of victory before any results had actually been reported, the former mayor of South Bend offers a decidedly slippery account of what transpired. “Thrilled with our internal numbers and the fact that one way or another our placement in Iowa had been a spectacular triumph,” he writes:
. . . I stood in front of my supporters to thank them for their work and congratulate them . . . It felt good to join them and share the one thing we did know, by any reckoning of the results: “We are going to New Hampshire victorious!” That much was clearly true.
Ambiguous by design as this passage so clearly is, it nevertheless appears to suggest that Buttigieg’s declaration wasn’t meant to be taken literally (a creative interpretation that closely resembles the spin he attempted last year). The author might have found this a harder premise to sustain if he had included just a few more of his own words, an expanded version of the quotation in question reading as follows: “So we don’t know all the results, but we know by the time it’s all said and done . . . Iowa you have shocked the nation. Because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.” Viewed in its full context, the intended meaning of Buttigieg’s declaration remains as clear as it did the day he uttered it (if this sounds pedantic or nitpicky, revisit the clip and see for yourself).
For that very reason, plenty of perfectly justified questions emerged about the legitimacy of the caucus results and a mysterious app created by a company with ties to Buttigieg’s campaign — a development the author cynically dismisses as tinfoil hat conspiracism boosted by “Russia-linked accounts.” “With surprisingly little effort,” he writes, “conspiracists had convinced sixty percent of the population that it was at least possible that something had gone maliciously wrong in Iowa.” Gee, whatever could have given them that idea?
In a noticeable break from Buttigieg’s 2019 memoir Shortest Way Home, the author’s background in management consulting barely appears in Trust — his corporate alma mater McKinsey (which formed a major part of his political brand until it became inconvenient during last year’s primaries) is mentioned exactly once, and only in passing. In a review of that book soon after its publication, Nathan Robinson remarked on how readily Buttigieg seemed to adapt his branding and rhetoric to new circumstances:
In the last five minutes of his political life, Buttigieg has started making some radical noises, as is necessary to compete in a Sanders-dominated primary. Buttigieg is smart, and I think people should be warned: He’s probably going to say a lot of good stuff. He’s probably going to sign on to major left initiatives . . . But here’s a fact about Pete Buttigieg: He picks up languages quickly. He already speaks seven of them, and you can find stories online of him dazzling people by dropping some Arabic or Norwegian on them. The lingo of Millennial Leftism will be a cinch for Pete. He will begin to use all the correct phrases, with perfect grammar. The question you should ask is: What language has he been speaking up until now?
That question is very much worth posing in relation to Trust which, like any half-decent product relaunch, updates the Buttigieg brand to one more in keeping with the zeitgeist of early Biden era liberalism. Shortest Way Home found the author positively giddy about the prospect of turning Indiana into a “Silicon Prairie,” remaking South Bend into “College Town 2.0,” and filling the “once-moribund Studebaker corridor with data centers and start-ups.” Heavy on grating marketspeak as it was, the book was astonishingly light on discussions of poverty, the racial wealth divide, homelessness, mass evictions, or opioid overdoses — all of them serious problems in the city Buttigieg governed.
Trust, by contrast, sees him ditch the lingos of Silicon Valley and management consultancy for the liberal rhetoric of social justice. In the roughly twenty-one months separating its release and the February 2019 publication of Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg has clearly read his Robin DiAngelo. Unlike its predecessor, the book thus devotes more than a few pages to race and finds the author reflecting on his own whiteness. It even finds him adopting a pro-labor stance and criticizing the Reagan era offensive against unionization.
At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with either posture — the obvious, charitable interpretation being that Buttigieg’s outlook has simply evolved, albeit in an amazingly brief span of time. But, as with so much of what he writes and says, his newfound outlooks are difficult to square with previous, even very recent incarnations of his political brand. During his work for McKinsey in 2010, for example, Buttigieg belonged to a team of consultants that pushed cuts and privatization at the US Postal Service, recommending, among other things, the replacement of unionized workers with nonunionized retail staff. During the 2020 primaries, he was a vocal opponent of Medicare for All, despite having explicitly endorsed it in 2018 (the issue of health care, incidentally, is mostly absent from Trust apart from a single vague reference to “delivering health care for all Americans”). Trust finds the author endorsing social democracy, Nordic levels of taxation, and renewed public investment, none of which seemed to be at the front of his mind during his first run for public office just over a decade ago.
When a political figure appears to constantly reconfigure their rhetoric, posture, and public brand, it’s reasonable to wonder how seriously their words can be taken. Trust, as the author himself so ceaselessly reminds us, requires consistency by definition.
Which brings us back to the idea of blank space. The Democratic primaries yielded a greater than usual volume of flash-in-the-pan political personalities in the mold of Beto O’Rourke, whose Teflon brand ultimately had less cultural staying power than Netflix’s Tiger King. Buttigieg, to his credit, created one more durable than most and, unlike many of his rivals, has successfully parlayed it into a cabinet position (Buttigieg was sworn in as secretary for transportation earlier this month). What exactly that brand consists of has seemed to evolve with remarkable speed, Buttigieg having made the journey from progressive-minded outsider™ to sensible moderate™ and back again in less than two years (to say nothing of his various pre-2019 incarnations).
As a freestanding work, Trust is a par-for-the-course affair perhaps a notch or two above similar contributions to the genre: not particularly bad, but mostly uneventful; a series of technically proficient improvisations around a single, simple theme. Viewed in a wider context, it can be taken as the latest update to the constantly mutating Buttigieg discography: an already sweeping body of rhetorical modes to be riffed upon as the political zeitgeist demands. As a relatively short work, plenty of notes go unplayed. But, knowing the artist, it probably won’t be long before the next album drops, and we get to hear him solo in an entirely different register.