Of the many rallying cries of the Trump era, “this is not normal” was perhaps the most salient. Donald Trump’s political career began with the sense that a number of unsavory characters had breached the system: grifters, con men, racists, creeps. It ended with many of those same abnormal people attempting to literally breach it, scaling the walls of the U.S. Capitol and breaking down its doors in an attempt to overturn a legitimate election.
“This is not normal” was also, broadly speaking, the thematic center of the onslaught of books that tried to grapple with Trump and his administration. The majority of these were accounts of manic disorder, constitutional crises and general incompetence — of the center not holding — though conservative publishers dutifully produced a raft of volumes arguing that all of that was good, actually. Most of those books were eminently forgettable — I reviewed dozens of them at the time and can remember almost nothing from them today — but they sold like hot cakes because everyone was desperately trying to understand what was really going on. More than two years after Trump left office, we may not be any closer to figuring that out.
Ben Terris’s new book, “The Big Break: The Gamblers, Party Animals and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind,” is in some ways more modest than much of the political literature we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years. The characters Terris follows are, for the most part, Beltway newcomers and bit players who have come to D.C. seeking to rise and prosper — or, in some cases, merely survive — amid the chaotic aftermath of the Trump era. And yet, despite the relative absence of star power and sweeping theses, it is more relevant than most of its neighbors on the Current Events shelf: It provides a compelling portrait of how Washington works right now.
None of the primary figures in “The Big Break” are household names. There’s pollster and think tanker Sean McElwee, who has just completed a transition from mainstreaming radical ideas such as “abolish ICE” for the left to pushing the Biden administration’s more moderate approach; Ian Walters, who finds himself souring on his decades spent working for the influential and increasingly unhinged Conservative Political Action Conference; heiress Leah Hunt-Hendrix, granddaughter of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, who wants to spend millions pushing the Democratic Party to the left; lobbyist Robert Stryk, who’s trying to turn the prominence he gained during the Trump years into money by representing despicable foreign leaders; and Jamarcus Purley, a former staffer for Dianne Feinstein who has lost faith in the ability to enact change — and who thinks his ex-boss might be senile.
Some of Terris’s characters, such as Walters and Purley, are questioning their place in a political order that’s gone berserk. But most see the chaos as an opportunity. “Disruption” is perhaps the most overused word of the 21st century, but Terris is particularly adept at depicting the sense of permeability — and the resulting opportunity to rapidly gain prominence and wealth — that has followed from both the rise of social media and the rise of Trump. McElwee and Stryk, in particular, are new versions of classic D.C. types: operators and unscrupulous characters. McElwee gambles compulsively on political races for which his own think tank conducts polling. Stryk cozies up to heinous dictators who see this turbulent political moment as a chance to rise up the ranks.
Terris, a reporter for The Washington Post’s Style section who focuses on national politics, describes himself as a “sideshow guy,” drawn to interesting, often weird, sometimes unsavory figures on the outskirts of the political system. But, he writes, it was “quickly becoming clear” that “the sideshow was moving to the main stage.” Terris’s Washington is one in flux, and still shellshocked, from the Trump years. There is a general sense that the old rules — and old norms, to use one of that period’s most regurgitated words — have expired. But no one quite knows what the new ones are.
This is where much of the tension in “The Big Break” comes from: Terris’s characters are testing the limits of what they can get away with. But for all of Trump’s talk of draining the swamp, the biggest takeaway from this book might be that things haven’t changed that much. Many of those making their way in the new Washington are coarser and some are seedier, but for the most part the political establishment has adapted surprisingly nimbly to the barbarians’ onslaught. Many of the newcomers are hardly storming the walls; they just want a seat at the table. And if some of them are more brazen than others, Washington has always been beset with more than its fair share of grifters and opportunists.
The story of post-Trump Washington has been one more of assimilation than revolution. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden adopted many of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s policy ideas but has increasingly governed from the center, thanks to a mix of divided government and personnel changes. On the right, there are certainly apostates who have been cast out for criticizing Trump, but most of the old political establishment has easily adapted to the new order, even if they might grumble about it occasionally. Still, the rise of Trump — and, to a lesser extent, Sanders — has shown that system to be far more malleable than previously thought, a shift that Terris captures perfectly.
“The Big Break” suffers to an extent from its limited time frame — nearly its entire narrative takes place in 2022 — and from Terris’s largely commendable commitment to showing and not telling. He trusts readers to draw their own (mostly negative) conclusions about his cast; similarly, the book resists grandiloquent statements about the nation’s capital, but it fails to live up to its title. There is no sense of a true fracturing, or an equally powerful and coherent counter-establishment.
What Terris does provide is an intimate, entertaining and damning portrait of the way Washington works, not just now but maybe always. His focus on marginal figures also means many of his sources — though often unreliable — are far less buttoned-up than you get in most political books. Terris is also a rarity among political reporters: He’s funny. While he typically sits back and lets his characters damn themselves, as a narrator he has a light and witty touch. The best parts of “The Big Break” feel as if you’re at a D.C. bar with the reporter and his sources, Terris whispering a funny comment in your ear as they bloviate about their own importance.
The underlying culture of Washington is remarkably resilient, and the people who continually arrive are remarkably similar: some with a sense of purpose and idealism; at least as many with a determination to rise as quickly as possible, at whatever cost. “The Big Break” works best as a snapshot of the city at an uncertain time — it is a worthy, if more limited, successor to Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” The most chaotic fog of the Trump era has dissipated, but a sense of flux and uneasiness remains. “The Big Break” is a reminder that a lot of this really is normal. Even if it shouldn’t be.
Alex Shephard is a staff writer at the New Republic, where he has covered politics and culture since 2015. His work has also appeared in New York, GQ, the Atlantic, the Nation and other publications.
The Big Break
The Gamblers, Party Animals and True Believers Trying to Win in Washington While America Loses Its Mind
By Ben Terris
Twelve. 335 pp. $30
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