Culture War

'No Book Deals for Traitors'

Publishing in the post-Trump era is going to involve a lot of score-settling.


President Donald Trump has left the building, and President Joe Biden is calling for unity, but not everyone is ready to kiss and make up. In some left-leaning spaces, resentment at having been subjected to four years of a Trump presidency is still running high, as is a desire to ensure that his cronies and enablers are hit with a karmic boomerang for their misdeeds. 

In media and publishing, this quest to hold members of the Trump administration accountable has resulted in a remarkable document that takes aim at Trump loyalists who might now seek to pivot away (or, God forbid, profit) from this period in their lives by writing a book. Organized by author Barry Lyga, who is best known for the young adult thriller series I Hunt Killers as well as several comic book novels featuring DC Comics character The Flash, the document opens with a confessional tone: "We all love book publishing, but we have to be honest—our country is where it is in part because publishing has chased the money and notoriety of some pretty sketchy people, and has granted those same people both the imprimatur of respectability and a lot of money through sweetheart book deals."

These book deals, the letter argues, should not be granted to any "participant in an administration that caged children, performed involuntary surgeries on captive women, and scoffed at science as millions were infected with a deadly virus," nor to those who supported the January 6 riot at the Capitol. To allow Trump's people to disseminate their ideas "through our beloved publishing houses" would be an affront; a comparison is even drawn to the "Son of Sam" laws that bar convicted felons from profiting off their crimes.

The letter originally had an amazing title, "No Book Deals for Traitors," which someone apparently thought better of in the days since it started garnering more mainstream attention (hosted on Lyga's website, its headline now reads, "THIS IS A LETTER OF INTENT FROM PUBLISHING PROFESSIONALS OF THE UNITED STATES.") But the McCarthy-esque sentiment invoked by the original title is apt: In substance, the letter is not unlike the famous 1947 Waldorf Statement by Hollywood executives promising not to employ communists or anyone who intended to overthrow the government. As of this writing, the letter has been signed by 547 people, although it's worth noting that they are mostly authors and publishing professionals in non-managerial roles; in other words, it's like the Waldorf Statement, only without any of the top-level institutional clout or government support. 

Either way, it's a fascinating document that raises many questions about the state of free expression both legally and culturally. One practical question is whether Trump's associates should be seen as traitors in not just a spiritual sense but a criminal one, such that it actually makes sense to invoke the Son of Sam laws in this conversation. (Incidentally, these laws have been frequently challenged on First Amendment grounds and were already overturned in New York in 1991, after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared them unconstitutional.) 

Trump was a distasteful president who flouted the norms of both the presidency and common decency, and who riled up his supporters to do the same—but distasteful and criminal are two different things. It would be very hard to prove that even the president's most aggressive rhetoric leading up to January 6 ran afoul of protected speech, let alone criminalize the politicians who nodded along with it. And with the exception of the rioters who stormed the Capitol (and who are currently being identified and arrested en masse), virtually everyone on Trump's side has stayed well within the bounds of what is not just legal, but normal—for politics, anyway. 

Contentious and contested elections are an unfortunate but not uncommon part of our political process; this wasn't the first time legislators questioned the validity of an election or even voted against certification. Even if we stipulate that it was ridiculous for them to do so this time around, it's hard to square the notion that this action, which was not a particularly big deal in 2005, 2009, and 2017, suddenly catapulted to the status of treason in 2021. 

More important is the cultural question—and the increasingly pervasive notion that book deals are a sort of reward for good citizenship, one that should therefore be withheld as punishment for bad behavior. The argument of "No Book Deals for Traitors" is the same one that plays out every time a writer or artist suffers professional consequences for personal misdeeds, as people invariably point out the accused is "not entitled to" whatever has been taken away. At its root is the idea that certain kinds of work are a privilege, not a livelihood, and that one's ability to write, think, or perform is less relevant than whether or not one deserves to do these things. 

The converse is also true: Consider the thoughtless assertion that the men who lost careers amid #MeToo should be shunted into menial jobs as ditch diggers or trash collectors. That sanitation is a profession requiring its own strengths and skills doesn't seem to matter; neither does the fact that the average garbage hauler gets better pay, benefits, and job security than many professionals in, say, publishing. Nobody talks about the need to keep loathsome people out of "our beloved waste treatment plants." But writing a book grants prestige to the author, and prestige, in this framework, is a privilege for the morally pure.

People in publishing will almost certainly pretend they never saw or signed on to the "No Book Deals for Traitors" letter the next time a profitable tell-all is on the table. Despite the provocative language about the danger to democracy posed by seditionists who put kids in cages (a standard which would ensnare Obama administration alumni as well), the main character in this case was still the elected president up until all of five minutes ago, and his various cabinet members were gainful employees of the U.S. government, most of them in positions with no influence at all over immigration policy or public health. 

Do all participants in Trump's administration—from Barron's tutors and Melania's hairstylist on up—deserve to be held accountable for their failings? What about the ones who explicitly took these jobs to try to mitigate the damage caused by Trump's bad judgment? If Anthony Fauci wanted to write a book about his experiences inside the White House, would the letter's signatories really agree that he should be blacklisted from publishing? 

What the letter does do, however, is send a message to everyone else about whose side holds the cultural power: Throw in your lot with the wrong guy, and you'll suffer the consequences. And what's genuinely dangerous, or at least foolish, is the notion that the former members of a loathed but legitimate presidential administration have nothing to say that might be worth disseminating in print—and that those who never want to see another Trump in the White House have nothing to learn from the people who tried, and failed, to make it work the first time.