Christopher Buckley is not angry about Donald Trump. He sounds instead as delighted as a fly discovering the world’s largest pile of manure. The comic genius behind such classics as “Thank You for Smoking” has given us an outrageously funny novel equal to the absurdity roiling Washington. The explosion of topical gags in “Make Russia Great Again” will — one hopes — someday require a host of footnotes to explain, but let the future worry about that. Typically, comedy is tragedy plus time. For now, we’ll have to make do with tragedy plus Buckley.
A brief Author’s Note states, “Any person finding any resemblance between themselves and persons depicted herein should probably be ashamed.” There is no index to “Make Russia Great Again,” so power players in D.C. will have to direct their secretaries to scan the pages to see whether they’ve been cursed with a cameo. Some characters appear under slight corruptions of their real names, like Ivunka and Jored, who “looked like his own Madame Tussauds waxwork.” Others are thinly disguised, such as Trump’s “vice prevaricator” Katie Borgia-O’Reilly, whose husband is constantly disparaging the president, or Trump’s chief speechwriter, Stefan Nacht von Nebel, author of the “thought-provoking essay, ‘The Final Solution to the Mexican Problem.’ ” And still others get deliciously Dickensian names, like the beloved Fox commentator Mr. Corky Fartmartin and Trump’s most obsequious supporter, South Carolina Sen. Squigg Lee Biskitt, whose “ability to adapt was beyond even Darwin’s imagination.”
Our narrator through this thicket of zaniness is Herb Nutterman, Donald Trump’s “favorite Jew.” At the start of the story, Herb is comfortably retired after working 27 years in hospitality for Trump resorts. Then he gets a phone call: The Very Stable Genius wants him to come back and be his White House chief of staff. Loyal but not political, Herb is the perfect wide-eyed guide over the next several months of international intrigue and bonkers incompetence. The work is exhausting but exhilarating. “I was at ground zero,” Herb tells us from prison where he’s composing this memoir, like so many other members of the Trump White House Alumni Felon Association.
The madcap plot reads like Nancy Pelosi’s birthday wish. U.S. Cyber Command discovers that one of its artificial intelligence programs called Placid Reflux has gone rogue. Noticing that the United States never responded to Russian interference in our 2016 election, Placid Reflux secretly retaliates by interfering in the Russian election. The U.S. intelligence community is terrified that Trump will find out and shut them down, or that Putin will find out and reveal what he has on Trump. (Spoiler alert: The “grabbing” was videotaped. Eighteen times.)
As the president’s most dedicated servant, Herb is charged with placating Putin by secretly negotiating with Oleg Pishinsky, a Russian oligarch who dispatches his enemies with a nerve agent the CIA calls “Oil of Oleg.” Herb has little training in high-level espionage, but his years in the hospitality field have prepared him to deal courteously with murderous personalities.
There’s much to choose from here, but perhaps the funniest aspect of “Make Russia Great Again” is how calmly Herb conveys the craziness of the Trump administration. With the unruffled decorum of a five-star resort manager, he describes all the complicated maneuvers needed to entertain a president who does not read, who cannot concentrate for more than a few minutes and who will not listen to anything but soliloquies comparing him to “Napoleon, or God.” The big rally that Trump wants in Testicle, Ohio, may strain the staff’s organizational expertise, but Herb is never anything less than brightly complimentary as he watches his boss strong-arm Sen. Biskitt into attending. “I marveled at the president’s powers of persuasion,” he says. “Come with me to Testicle, Squiggly, is up there with ‘I have seen the promised land.’ I got goose bumps.”
“Make Russia Great Again” usually stays cloistered within the padded cell that has become our executive branch, but periodically Buckley peers out at the red-capped zealots cheering on the president across the country. Herb notes that “the Ever Trumpers started showing up on Fifth Avenue with their bull’s-eye shirts saying, ‘Shoot me, Mr. Trump!’ . . . Politics is supposed to be a cynical business, but it warmed my heart to see such devotion.”
There’s a Twain-like quality to this loyal naif who skewers without intending to. While “Make Russia Great Again” rushes along from one folly to the next, Herb’s increasingly pained efforts to see only the bright side of Trump’s reign is the joke that keeps on winning. Amid the twin economic and health catastrophes of our era, Buckley has done the impossible: Made Politics Funny Again. Laughter may not be the best medicine for covid-19, but it’s a heck of a lot better than bleach.