The Hill to Die On: The Battle for Congress and the Future of Trump's America
by Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer
Crown Publishing Group, 2019
The insatiable news-junkie (feverishly taking periodicals to the nearest motel to be devoured in the light of a television playing cable news in the wee small hours) and dutiful citizen striving to stay informed face the same problem: sieving through the muck of ghost written hack jobs, charlatans, and demagogues. Sieve no further! Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer have written The Hill to Die On: The Battle for Congress and the Future of Trump's America, a book about Capitol Hill and its major personalities in the first two years of Donald Trump’s administration.
Sherman and Palmer are senior writers for Politico as well as coauthors of Politico Playbook. As they note, the “book is the product of roughly twenty-six months of reporting on Congress in the era of Trump,” and they spent much of their time in the Capitol observing Congress and interacting with officials. In short, they were in an excellent position to write this book, and it shows.
The Hill To Die On has two great virtues. The first is that our authors are neither imposing nor entirely absent. That is, they let the facts and (political) figures speak for themselves when those are sufficient. Yet, the idiosyncratic interactions of personalities with each other and their effect on our institutions seldom pass without comment.
The second virtue of the book comes out of the first: the authors don’t lie to you. That is, although they don’t color the book red or blue with their point of view, they also don’t tell you Donald Trump had the largest inauguration and they don’t tell you he is a great deal maker skillfully negotiating behind the scenes. Strange as it is to write, telling the truth in a succinct and often entertaining way greatly enhances the quality of the reading experience. The truth is free for anyone to see, assuming they wish to.
These virtues are captured by the interactions between congressional leadership (Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell), factions (the Freedom Caucus), and the bureaucracy itself. But they are most clearly on display when the complex and often sluggish nature of law making on Capitol Hill frustrated the clueless and fitful head of state:
Trump did not understand, or care for the official Washington that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell operated in. He was the embodiment of the electorate’s frustration with Washington dysfunction, and his prescription for relief was all stick and no carrot. . .His governing philosophy was simple: muscle and mouth. He tried to will his legislation through Congress. When that didn’t work, he mouthed off using Twitter, his favored form of communication. First he tweeted about the Freedom Caucus. . .Then he tweeted to McConnell.
In Washington, this was mostly met with snickers by party leaders. Dealing with Trump meant listening to what he said, guessing what he meant, and proceeding with caution toward an uncertain end.
That “Trump appeared to struggle reconciling smart congressional politics and his own whims” isn’t exactly surprising. But there are aspects to the book that might leave some readers nonplussed and others relieved. For example, in the beginning of the book the authors explain how “money is the lubricant that keeps the town [Washington] running.” For example, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) are Hill committees that work to elect members of congress through recruitment, fundraising, and sometimes by organizing races. And although “In theory government business and outward politicking are supposed to be kept separate ... in reality they are inextricable and completely intertwined.” This is because these committees base their dues structure on what committees members of Congress sit on. The more important the committee, or if you’re in the leadership, the higher the dues. In short, “next time a politician says that money doesn’t play a role in politics, you should be skeptical.”
This can be discouraging, especially when you learn just how effective some members (Nancy Pelosi) of Congress are at raising money. And yet, by the end of the book, still knowing how important money is, you just might walk away with the sense that, yes: Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer really are Democrats; Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell really are Republicans. To put it another way, despite a generally feckless and obsequious Congress, even the cynical reader can take from this book the sense that those with the greatest power in Congress still have a coherent set of values. In the age of Trump, that can alleviate some disquietude. However, the fact that Congressional leadership comes out in better shape than Congress as a body may be due to the fact that it is obvious they were heavily utilized as sources. Nonetheless, another book about the final two years of Donald Trump’s first term will be a welcome follow up to this effective and even-handed text.
—David Murphy is obtaining a Masters of Finance at the University of Minnesota.