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The epistolary novel, a literary genre that has included, among its entries, works like Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” and Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” has recently welcomed a new classic to the category. The author of this chef-d’œuvre is none other than the former President Donald J. Trump, who has, in the past several months, been sending his supporters fund-raising missives over e-mail, multiple times a week, and, often, as if amid some kind of frenzy, multiple times a day.
Indeed, the e-mails arrive so frequently that it’s easy to grow numb to how bonkers they are. Alternating among alarming warnings, vaudevillian cracks, craven flattery, folksy insults, erratic typography and punctuation, and, of course, impassioned pleas for donations, all presented in a graphic-design language seemingly generated by MS Paint, they make for a rollicking and often frightening joyride. On February 2nd, for instance, Trump supporters around the world received an e-mail with the subject line “Sick F-Word.” (The preview text: “You won’t believe what Biden just called me.”) When they opened the e-mail, subscribers were greeted with an all-caps sentence, bolded and highlighted in yellow: “BIDEN JUST CALLED ME A SICK F-WORD!”
It might seem like a stretch to argue that this e-mail, along with the messages that preceded and followed it, amount to a novel, as opposed to a slew of worrying memoranda. But these dispatches, considered in toto, are a hectic, interwoven document that can take us, much like the best novels do, from tears to laughter and back in a single sitting. They can leave us feeling contemplative, wondering if there was ever such a thing as the American Dream. And they can also give us an opportunity to reflect on Trump’s state of mind in the run-up to the Republican nomination. The e-mails feel more diaristic than the former President’s tweets, which were written with a larger audience in mind (haters, the media). These pieces are more revealing of Trump’s inner, most unhinged self because, with them, he’s speaking directly to his adherents.
It bears acknowledging that political fund-raising e-mails are often touched by at least a tinge of hysteria. The desire to speak to the perceived supporter through her in-box—to grab her metaphorical lapels by any means necessary and tug extra hard on her heartstrings—is par for the course. After being a recipient of Nancy Pelosi’s e-mails for a while, I began to tire of the over-the-top language the Speaker tended to use in her missives, to convey the urgency of whatever matter she was writing about. (“This is absolutely critical, Naomi.” “This is your last chance.” “I can’t stop them alone, Naomi. . . . Will you chip in $19?”) “I love that every email from Nancy Pelosi begins with something like, ‘naomi, my heart is pounding and I can’t breathe,’ ” I tweeted, in 2022. “ ‘Can you pitch in.’ ” And yet Trump’s e-mails are still unique in this landscape, for their ability to offer a kind of D.J.T. greatest-hits package, wildly mixing and remixing favorite phrases and styles into a fevered Surrealist cut-up.
While campaigning for the Republican nomination, which he will most likely clinch, Trump is concurrently in deep legal shit, fighting accusations of fraud, hush money, sexual assault, and election subversion. There are so many lawsuits that, as one commentator recently wrote, “merely keeping track of the many cases against Donald Trump requires a law degree, a great deal of attention, or both.” Most recently, in late January, a Manhattan jury determined that Trump should pay the journalist E. Jean Carroll $83.3 million in damages for defaming her. Or, as my colleague Eric Lach put it, a jury told Trump “to shut up and pay up.” But Trump is hardly the type to shut up, and the e-mails have been one way for him to keep yapping. Invariably, they contain constant intimations of persecution (the term “witch hunt,” for instance, has appeared in campaign e-mails sent in January nearly ninety times), but also insistent professions of triumph, and the two often appear in quick succession. In an e-mail from January 9th—which begins, as do all of Trump’s e-mails, with the salutation “Patriot”—the ex-President writes:
They’ve wrongfully ARRESTED me four times, took a MUGSHOT of me, forced me off the campaign trail and into the courtroom for SHAM TRIALS, unlawfully REMOVED my name from the ballot, GAGGED and CENSORED me, are attempting to JAIL me for life as an innocent man, and are even seeking the ‘corporate death penalty’ against me and my family.
And despite all this, with YOU at my side, I’ve never been more confident that WE will prevail in our noble mission . . . just as we always have.
Where does one even begin? I guess we might as well start with the e-mail’s inexplicable ransom-note-style font decisions. Why is YOU capped but not italicized, whereas WE is capped and italicized? Why is the first paragraph bolded (and in red type), whereas the second is not? Why is “corporate death penalty” both scare-quoted and italicized? The typographical chaos mimics the legal, political, and psychic chaos in which Trump operates; and yet his relentless energy seems to emerge from this very chaos, as he paranoically and insistently narrates his woes in a kind of stream of consciousness, by turns slinging mud at the so-called haters, proclaiming his perseverance, and flattering and wheedling his supporters. He is Jesus on the cross, but he will survive! The strength of the words, too, depends on their ability to capture the ex-President’s oratorical cadence. The all-caps, tabloidesque feel of ARRESTED, MUGSHOT, SHAM TRIALS, and so on mirrors the rhythmic ebb and flow of Trump’s speech, apparently so intoxicating to his followers.
As I was reading the e-mails, I was reminded of the dénouement of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” whose mobster protagonist, Henry Hill, haunted and coked-up and attempting to outrun the Feds on one frantic day’s journey into night, is certain that his every move is being surveilled by a helicopter. “No, I’m not nuts, this thing’s been following me all fucking morning, I’m telling you,” he says, sweaty and beleaguered. Why won’t they stop trying to take him down? During the scene, George Harrison’s “What Is Life” begins to play, and the lyrics of the song, too, are instructive. “Tell me, what is my life without your love? And tell me, who am I without you by my side?” Harrison sings. This, in fact, is the other half of the Trump formula. His enemies might try to muzzle him, but this means only that he needs to hold those who do support him even closer. An e-mail from January 23rd opens with these words:
This is President Trump, and I’ll never stop loving you.
Why? Because you’ve always loved me!
You stuck by me every single time the Radical Left tried to KICK ME DOWN.
Even when they took my mugshot at the Fulton County Jail.
I felt your love even when they RAIDED MY HOME.
Through all the HOAXES, WITCH HUNTS, and FAKE INDICTMENTS, you never left my side!
This is a bond that is based on persecution, and the harsher the torment the more ardently tender the bond becomes: it’s Romeo and Juliet, or even Bonnie and Clyde. (Speaking of this latter couple, though Trump purports to have done nothing wrong, he does seem to enjoy the whiff of lawlessness that has characterized his journey. The words “mugshot at the Fulton County Jail,” referring to Trump’s indictment in Atlanta for election interference, are noted with undeniable pride, as if the ex-President is Johnny Cash at Folsom.)
The photographs that accompany the e-mails also alternate between good-guy Trump and bad-guy Trump, and the opposition between the personae is as blatant as that between smiley and frowny emojis. In an e-mail from January 13th, Trump suggests that “Crooked Joe” (more than eighty mentions of the term, by the way, within a single month’s messages) “charged Hollywood celebrities nearly $1 million to meet him.” The former President, however, considers each and every “Patriot” he is addressing in his e-mails as “the real star of our country,” and is raffling off a V.I.P. visit to Mar-a-Lago among those who contribute just one dollar to the campaign. In the appended picture, a technicolor Trump with his thumb up, grinning strenuously as if laughing at a gag just beyond frame, is crudely photoshopped onto an aerial image of the country club and the blindingly turquoise ocean beyond it. Not only will the winner “get to take a special photo with yours truly so that you can remember this amazing night forever!,” Trump writes, but they’ll also “get to enjoy drinks and hors d’œuvres on me,” and receive “an autographed hat from your favorite President. Sounds like a much better deal to me!”
But this sort of lighthearted evening can be yours only if you keep heeding the former President’s continuous warnings. In an e-mail from January 9th, Trump accuses Fani Willis, “the Atlanta prosecutor behind my MUGSHOT,” of corruption. (Willis admitted on Friday to a “personal relationship” with the prosecutor she had hired, but said that shouldn’t disqualify her or the case against Trump.) “Crooked Joe’s rogue prosecutors don’t want to seek truth or justice,” he writes. These prosecutors “are merely here to assist him in JAILING his leading political opponent (me) for life like a Third World Marxist Dictatorship!” As a sign-off on the e-mail, Trump attaches—you guessed it—the very same MUG SHOT. In the portrait, set in noirish black-and-white, with the words “NEVER SURRENDER!” and “CONTRIBUTE NOW” emblazoned on it, Trump is glaring at the camera, the swoop of his hair paralleling his furrowed brow. Me, the picture seems to be saying. Me, me, me. Your favorite President might make you laugh, but don’t forget: he’s also deathly serious. ♦