Make Russia Great Again by Christopher Buckley

The bad news is I am back from vacation in Michigan and no longer have access to a lake simply by stepping out of my tent and choosing the form of my water transportation (pontoon boat, row boat, or kayak). The good news is I read another political satire and am here to report back.

First, the basics:

Make Russia Great Again Book Cover
Make Russia Great Again Fiction Simon & Schuster Kindle 288 NetGalley

The award-winning and bestselling author of Thank You for Smoking delivers a hilarious and whipsmart fake memoir by Herb Nutterman—Donald Trump’s seventh chief of staff—who has written the ultimate tell-all about Trump and Russia. Herb Nutterman never intended to become Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff. Herb served the Trump Organization for twenty-seven years, holding jobs in everything from a food and beverage manager at the Trump Magnifica to being the first general manager of the Trump Bloody Run Golf Course. And when his old boss asks “his favorite Jew” to take on the daunting role of chief of staff, Herb, spurred on by loyalty, agrees. But being the chief of staff is a lot different from being a former hospitality expert. Soon, Herb finds himself deeply involved in Russian intrigue, deflecting rumors about Mike Pence’s high school involvement in a Satanic cult, and leading President Trump’s reelection campaign. What Nutterman experiences is outrageous, outlandish, and otherwise unbelievable—therefore making it a deadly accurate account of being the chief of staff during the Trump administration. With hilarious jabs at the biggest world leaders and Washington politics overall, Make Russia Great Again is a timely political satire from “one of the funniest writers in the English language” (Tom Wolfe).

Of the recent political satire books I have read Make Russia Great Again was by far the best.

Christopher Buckley makes the White House activity all too believable and doesn’t go so far over the top as to spoil the humor. The dry humor works with just enough absurdity to add spice. Sure, it is at times sophomoric and crude, but given the subject matter what do you expect?

Why the three stars? I guess there is a fine line between humor that is funny and that which is depressing. So even as I smiled wryly at the humor, I was shaking my head at the reality that makes satire of the Trump era so difficult.

And this is where judging this book becomes difficult. If you WANT to laugh at/with Trump World, Buckley provides the opportunity. But in some ways it seems to normalize the absurdities involved. Ironically, the humor works in important ways because Buckley gets at the absurdity that lies close to any form of politics and celebrity culture and plays it straight. And he highlights how Trump turns this all up to 11. There isn’t a seething anger or a bitterness either.

But there is a sense in which serious satire tells us something important about the subject, culture and times being satirized and I am not sure Buckley accomplishes that.

Two reviews that highlight this. Ron Charles is a fan:

Until now, Donald Trump has avoided being fully captured by novelists simply by behaving worse than any of them could fathom. But the great fiction writers who stormed the White House over the past few years share some of the blame, too. Howard Jacobson, Salman Rushdie and Dave Eggers all took steady aim at the bloated target, but in their satirical novels, anger curdled their humor and ultimately blunted their barbs.

Christopher Buckley is not angry about Donald Trump. He sounds instead as delighted as a fly discovering the world’s largest pile of manure. The comic genius behind such classics as “Thank You for Smoking” has given us an outrageously funny novel equal to the absurdity roiling Washington. The explosion of topical gags in “Make Russia Great Again” will — one hopes — someday require a host of footnotes to explain, but let the future worry about that. Typically, comedy is tragedy plus time. For now, we’ll have to make do with tragedy plus Buckley.

Christopher Buckley’s ‘Make Russia Great Again’ is the Trump satire we’ve been waiting for

Charles gets at what turned me off about previous satires (see here and here) when he writes “all took steady aim at the bloated target, but in their satirical novels, anger curdled their humor and ultimately blunted their barbs.”

But Glenn C. Altschuler makes a valid point on the novels flaw(s):

And yet, Mr. Buckley’s claim that politics has become self-satirizing has never been more true than it is now. “Make Russia Great Again” relies all too often on references (like Rudy Giuliani’s “butt-dialing) lifted from the headlines, well-known character flaws, and stereotypes […] Satire, of course, is not always subtle. But as Christopher Buckley preaches to the choir, “Make Russia Great Again” may leave readers laughing self-righteously but not better informed, enlightened, or challenged. And a fair number of Never Trumpers may apply the motto Mr. Buckley invents for the Democrats as their campaign theme to his book: “Come On…We Are So Much Better Than This!”

Make American novels about politics funny again!

I don’t want to say that you can’t enjoy a well done satire about serious events. Or that Buckley’s satire somehow excuses the outrageous events and character flaws of its subjects. But there is a sense that 1) Buckley makes it seem normal and some readers will be uncomfortable with that and 2) the all-too-serious events unfolding everyday took some of the fun out of it for me.

Kirkus is close to my view:

Buckley, a former White House speechwriter, adds comic spin to recent events, providing a plausible view of the crude, jury-rigged, stopgap daily carnival that is No. 45 at work. The author can be witty and clever but also sophomoric and sexist … Buckley is a smart, entertaining observer, but the weak spots in his humor can leave a reader wincing.

Kirkus Review

While Joe Westerfield at Newsweek is in the Ron Charles grouping:

Buckley’s return to tarnishing the shine on the buckle of the Beltway is long overdue, but his hiatus has not dulled his dry, cutting wit at all. His subtlety is a more than welcome antidote to the bold-faced, all-caps exclamations that define the Twitterverse, 24-hour news cycle and their No. 1 subject, one who does not usually invite subtlety.

People working from home are in luck: While reading this, they can laugh out loud freely and not fear the strange looks of fellow commuters or diners. Then, too, all readers are in luck anyway, because Make Russia Great Again gives them a reason to laugh out loud again.

‘Make Russia Great Again’ Is Christopher Buckley’s Latest Great Feat à Clef

So whether you enjoy Make Russia Great Again will depend on your appetite for satire at the moment, your views on the threat Trump represents, and your tolerance for sophomoric and crude humor. But if you are looking for political satire, Christopher Buckley is one of the best.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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