Photograph courtesy of CNN
On the night of the 2016 presidential election, Thomas Lake was in CNN’s studio in Washington, D.C., watching Wolf Blitzer, Jake Tapper, and the rest of the network’s politics team narrate the craziest story in modern American electoral history. As Tuesday turned into Wednesday, and as it became undeniable that Donald Trump had done the unimaginable, Lake knew he had a few more days of work ahead of him. For the past 18 months, he’d been working on a book about the election—a book that audaciously (or insanely, depending on your perspective) was designed to be released just a week after the election. Yes, a week.
The idea for the book had come two years earlier from Ed O’Keefe, a senior vice president for CNN’s digital operations. Inspired in part by Theodore H. White’s classic The Making of the President series of books that covered four consecutive elections starting in 1960, O’Keefe, as Lake explained it, wanted CNN to put out its own book about the 2016 election.
Lake was not an obvious choice to be the project’s lead author. In the spring of 2015, he’d recently been laid off by Sports Illustrated, where he’d worked for just over four years since leaving Atlanta magazine in 2010, where I had come to know him, first as his co-worker and then as his editor. He is one of the most brilliant and lyrical writers I know, but politics was never something that appeared to interest him as a writer. He was moved more by stories with tangibly visceral stakes—stories about crime and punishment, about fame and failure, about life and death, about tragedy and redemption. The closest I ever saw him come to politics was a profile of Mayor Kasim Reed, but that story was less about politics than it was about the intersection of personality and ambition.
Lake’s pitch to the CNN bigwigs was simple: My inexperience in politics is precisely what will allow me to see the campaign from a fresh perspective. He was hired, and over the next year and a half alternated between spending a few days following the candidates on the hustings and a few days back home in Decatur, writing in the office above his garage.
It’s simpler to describe Unprecedented, which is available online now and in hardcover on December 6, by what it is not. It’s not, for example, a post-mortem on the campaign. Nor is it a tick-tock—although reading it reminded me of how much of the campaign I had simply forgotten, or perhaps repressed. Nor is it political analysis, in the traditional sense. Nor is it an account chock full of revelations, though there are a few of those (including an acknowledgment by Trump to then-rival Chris Christie in the fall of 2015 that he fully expected to lose).
At its core, Unprecedented is impressionistic, a contemplation of a country at an inflection point, when the paths before it—embodied by two profoundly flawed candidates—could not have appeared more divergent. In its bolder moments, the book aspires to the tone and sweep of a historical novel, and Lake’s accomplishments feel that much more impressive when you consider it was written not with the luxury and clarity of hindsight, but very much in the middle of the storm. Here’s an example, from the penultimate chapter, set during October.
It is worth mentioning that the sun rose and set as usual that fall, and stars remained visible when the night was clear. You could say a kind word to someone and you might get one back. Dogs were still loyal, cats unknowable, and children eventually fell asleep. The morning felt good with a light jacket. Five o’clock still rolled around every Friday, and a good beverage was easy to find. In short, the presidential race was a distortion of American life, and the wholesome parts largely forgotten and the salacious ones blasting at full volume.
Below, my conversation with Lake, edited for length and clarity.
Your first reporting for the book took place in July 2015 at a Trump rally at Sun City Hilton Head in South Carolina.
That’s right, so I had no frame of reference, really, for what a normal political event was supposed to be like. People were all fired up. The first clue I got that something very strange was afoot was when I showed up there well before the rally, ready to ask these retirees what they thought about Trump’s comment on John McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured.” I go in thinking I’m going to find [veterans] showing up to protest Trump, to heckle him. Well, this was one of the many, many times I was wrong—and especially wrong about Trump and his appeal to voters.
For the next 16 months, I proceeded to be wrong again and again and again about Trump’s relationship with the American public and the voters. Those people at Sun City, many of them had served in the military. Many of them didn’t seem to mind what he had said about McCain. They were upset at McCain about immigration, for being too moderate, and it apparently no longer mattered that he was a war hero. Trump was someone who had gotten a deferment and didn’t serve. Trump was saying what I thought were terribly offensive things about McCain. They were going to still take Trump’s side. This was astonishing at the time and a sign of many things to come.
What books about campaigns did you consult, just to get an idea as to the form yours could take?
I started reading What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, about the 1988 election. I did not finish it, and I think one of the reasons was it was just so daunting. He didn’t publish that book until the following election [in 1992]. He spent close to six years on the book, so I knew that couldn’t be a model for what I was doing. It was an impossibly high standard, so every page just sort of put me into deeper depression, and I decided to do myself a favor and stop reading that. I looked at other books, though. A lot of them, such as Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, which I found to be really tremendous. Game Change was an amazing feat of political reporting. They had very good access to inside sources. And McKay Coppins’ book The Wilderness, about the Republicans—he’s a fantastic writer.
You had to write a book whose ending you wouldn’t know. This defies one of the more conventional rules of writing, which is “Know your ending before you begin.” What was that like?
Terrifying. There were a lot of false starts. My editors [Jodi Enda and Rachel Smolkin] and I were learning as we went. There wasn’t a model for what we were doing. As I said, there have been tremendous books written about campaigns, but they all—most anyway—had months or years of time beyond the election to finish the reporting and writing. We knew we weren’t going to have that, and so we had to construct it based on not only our best interpretation as to what had just happened, but our best guess of what would happen next.
I think that’s part of the reason my first couple of attempts at Chapter One were failures and had to basically be thrown out because I didn’t understand yet what was important about what I had just seen. It was only really around April that the first chapter began to crystallize. Why? Because by then, the Republican primaries were over. Yes, Cruz still had a bit of a chance, but mostly Trump was in control, so at that point we could know, “Okay, Trump is the force here. He’s real. He’s in charge, and what I write needs to acknowledge the forces behind his ascent.”
Once we knew that, a lot of the other stuff—a lot of the other material I’d gotten from attending two dozen Ted Cruz rallies—sort of fell away. Rachel Smolkin had this idea to step back and think some big thoughts about America. Something that came to my mind was these chants of “U-S-A” at the Trump rallies. I wasn’t hearing those nearly to the same extent at anyone else’s events. There was clearly this militant patriotism that he had unleashed.
That just got me thinking about what that [chant] meant and how it had changed over the years. I kept going back to 9/11, the last time we were really united as a country. George W. Bush had lost the popular vote and won the election through the Supreme Court, so he didn’t appear to have much of a mandate at first. But in the days after 9/11, he really did look like the right man for the moment. He stood in the rubble of the Twin Towers with a bullhorn and addressed the firefighters who were digging their fallen comrades out of the wreckage. Someone said, “I can’t hear you,” and he said, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
It was very powerful, and the firefighters started to chant, “U-S-A, U-S-A,” and I thought, “Okay, that’s something I can work with.” Right then, you had a president who had an approval rating close to 90 percent, and he had a lot of people chanting, “U-S-A!” Flags were flying everywhere. There was just this explosion of patriotism, this sense that we were all in the right, and we were all on the right side. The changes since then, between 2001 and the Trump campaign of 2015, were massive and, in some ways, violent. Chanting “U-S-A” in 2015 did not mean the same thing it meant in 2001.
Something that’s crystallized in your book is this idea of divides—the gulf between rich and the poor, between Republicans and Democrats, between educated and uneducated, between urban and rural, between pragmatism and dogma. Whose America is this?
That is what we’re about to find out. The final chapter of the book talks a lot about that, about the battle between Trump’s America and Clinton’s America. Clinton’s America is this alliance of previously marginalized groups who have, over the last hundred years or so, all gained much more power. There are plenty of white men in that coalition, too. On Trump’s side, it is also a coalition of men and women and some minorities, but the energy of it has come a lot from white male grievance. That proved to be a more powerful thing than I think most of us thought it could be in 2016. Such a powerful force. Whose America is this? It’s nobody’s right now.
This is going to continue to be a bitterly divided country. We know that from the protests in the days after Trump’s election and from his various cabinet picks and staff picks that don’t at all seem designed to bring unity, but seem borne out of defiance. We’re in uncharted territory right now, and it would seem that there are opportunities on both sides. For Republicans, I guess the opportunity is to be better than the other guys think you are, now that you have power. So don’t overreach. Try to reach across the aisle a little bit. Clearly the Democrats have some work to do when it comes to their message, because that message did not resonate in rural America.
In the weeks and months leading up to the election, when polls indicated Trump would lose and lose badly, we read a lot about how his loss would cause serious reflection and self-examination within the Republican party. But now that he’s won, we’re hearing none of that.
I think all Trump’s victory has done has delayed that conversation, but you better believe that reckoning is still coming. Maybe in four years, eight years, I don’t know, but the coalition that lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College this time is not enough to keep [Republicans] in power. They won by going against all the lessons they were supposed to have learned by losing in 2008 and 2012. Trump totally ignored—totally rejected—the so-called “autopsy report” [the GOP study that examined why Mitt Romney lost in 2012]. They can enjoy the power they’ve got for the moment. They still need to be looking ahead toward how to appeal to more minorities or this will be a mere blip on the screen. It’ll be their last gasp of power.
One of the things I found interesting about your approach was the way you interwove smaller anecdotes about everyday people within the larger campaign narrative. You referenced an old Army officer in Georgia who said he didn’t want to live to see the election, and who got his wish. Or the lady who drove her van all the way from California to the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, or the guy who was led the futile effort at the Republican nomination to deny Trump the nomination. I’m sure you must have talked to multitudes of other people who did not end up in the book. How did you decide who to include and who to leave behind?
If you look at the desk in my office, you will find this vast array of notebooks. There’s an incredible volume of material in those notebooks that did not get used in this book because so much of it was when I was still trying to figure out what was important and what wasn’t. The material from a Jeb Bush rally in New Hampshire in November of ’15? Sorry, that doesn’t really rank.
But you must have been feeling a little frantic at the time you were reporting it, not knowing what was going to happen. At one point there were something like 17 candidates for the Republican primaries. How did you determine where to devote your energies given the limited timetable?
Any decision to try to follow a candidate for more than one campaign stop at a time always created this thought in the back of my mind, “Well, why am I not going to this other one instead?” Some of it was just guesswork.
The fear of missing out.
Completely. But pretty early in the primaries, my best guess was that the three most important candidates in the race were Clinton, Trump, and [Bernie] Sanders. Ultimately, I think that turned out to be true. That was my best guess as of December of ’15, and that was borne out over the next seven months.
In any given notebook, you don’t remember all of what’s in it, but in a weird way, you remember the most important stuff. In that way, your memory is a guide. What stood out to you most? Maybe that’ll be what stands out to the reader the most.
When I was in Las Vegas for eight days in February, I spoke with a woman, Patricia Messinger, who was a Trump precinct captain for the Nevada caucuses. She told me this story about having lost her job at a restaurant to a young woman who she believes to be an undocumented immigrant. I interviewed dozens of people that week, and they’re all in the notebook, but there was something emblematic about that story. It was like there are probably a lot of Patricia Messingers out there, and they were all voting for Trump.
Andrew Lee, the “Never Trump” guy [who orchestrated the doomed attempt to wrest the nomination from Trump at the GOP convention], was a moment of just sadness. If I can take off the journalist hat and just be a person for a second, here’s a young African-American guy who saw the Republican party as a place that fit his worldview. The party needs a lot more people like that, and he went to Cleveland trying to stop Trump. It was a desperate last-minute effort not just to stop Trump from winning the nomination, but in a sense, to keep a place for himself in the party. He failed, but he could say that he had done all he could. That resonated a lot with me.
On top of everything else, your book is a reminder of all the crazy stuff that happened. Like when Senator Marco Rubio repeated the same canned line not once but four times at a debate in New Hampshire. I read your account and pulled it up on YouTube and thought, “Was he having some kind of medical event?”
I can’t blame you for forgetting because there were so many things. The normal person wouldn’t keep all those in their minds. It was up to me to sort of do the remembering for you, in a sense. One thing I tried to do was to step back and say, “Yes, we want to look at big themes. Yes, we want to say, ‘What does this mean for our country?’ But let’s not overthink it.” There are some places where simply saying what happened is enough. So much of it was incredible.
That’s true, but then I read a line like, “The more the race resembled entertainment, the more it favored the professional entertainer.” That’s a great line. A sentence like that, which appears effortless, is indirectly proportional to the effort that goes into it. To what degree did you sweat over a line like that?
I sweated this book so hard. This is by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever hard to write in 15 years as a journalist, and I’ve always been someone who’s gone through these manic-depressive cycles in writing. My wife can attest to that. These sort of, “Oh, well, it’s going great! It’s going terrible. It’s going great! It’s going terrible.” This was amplified for sure. There were moments of such desperation during this project. I’ve always been a praying person, but I prayed more in these last 12 months than I ever have in my life because I didn’t think I could do this, and I’m still a little surprised that it actually happened.
What caused that doubt? Was it the scale of what was before you?
The scale, the responsibility, the failing to get it right the first, second, or even third time. I was working with two editors and each of us had our own idea of what was going to be the right way to handle a particular chapter, and who’s to say who’s right or wrong? But we had to figure out a way to meld our three visions together into an unbelievable deadline pressure cooker, and say, “Okay, here’s how everyone’s going to get a little bit of what they want.” That pushed us all to the brink at one time or another.
You’re not a political neophyte anymore. How has your perception of the American electoral process changed compared to what it was two years ago?
Everything we thought we knew turned out to be wrong. Clearly, there were millions of people out there who didn’t tell anyone what they were doing, certainly didn’t tell pollsters what they were doing, and then just quietly went in and cast a vote for Trump. Maybe they even thought of it as socially unacceptable, but it was still something they wanted to do. We’re in a very, very strange place right now. This was supposed to be Jeb Bush against Hillary Clinton, and it turned into The Twilight Zone. We will be reckoning with this for decades to come.