What Would Past Presidents Tell Trump? This New Book Imagines Just That

While there have been rumors and legends of ghost sightings and past presidents haunting the White House for years, presidents that have lived in the historic residence rarely count their predecessors among their critics. Author James Mikel Wilson's recently released book, though, Ghosts of Presidents Past: A Reckoning, imagines what past commanders-in-chief would tell the current president if they could have a Dickensian encounter with him.

In the allegorical novel, President Daniel Hands (nicknamed "Little Big Hands") serves as a stand-in for President Donald Trump, and while there are some differences between the character and his real-world counterpart, the comparisons and points of reference are likely familiar, even to those who haven't been totally tuned in the past four years.

Over the course of a few days, the president is visited by a series of 23 former presidents in ghostly forms, some long dead and others just recently out of office. Wilson covers a number of bases, exploring names that are staples to every history textbook (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln), some lesser known presidents (James Garfield), and others who are still with us (Barack Obama, George W. Bush). They compare and contrast their respective administrations with Hands', and offer grave warnings as to what the future may hold for him.

Ghosts of Presidents Past
The cover and back cover of "Ghosts of Presidents Past" by James Mikel Wilson, his new book, which depicts a Trump stand-in being visited by former presidents. Courtesy of Gatekeeper Press

Wilson told Newsweek that he had originally conceived of the idea by wondering what his own ancestors would think of the current administration. "I went from, 'What would my ancestors think?' to leap to 'What would past presidents think of him?'" the writer said in a phone call on Tuesday.

He began writing the novel in 2019, but the past seven months have given Wilson plenty of inspiration, and some recent events find their way into the story. "I was all set to publish this book in March," he said, but his editor advised him to wait. "I'm glad I did. I mean, that allowed me to capture COVID-19, but none of that was in the book in March... I'm just so sorry I missed the fact that Trump caught COVID-19."

Like Dickens did with A Christmas Carol, from which Ghosts of Presidents Past obviously borrows its visiting ghosts motif, Wilson aims "to try and make these issues a little more entertaining for the reader." With an election just under two weeks away, the novel is an often sobering look at the past four years and how they might fit into the larger American history.

Some of the ghosts and phantoms of past commanders-in-chief that visit the Trump stand-in in "Ghosts of Presidents Past" include some that are still alive, like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton. Getty/MANDEL NGAN/AFP

Can you tell me about some of the liberties you took with the Trump character?

I came up with Little Big Hands because, as you know, Trump was kidded about being big but having small hands. But some of the liberties I took really were making him short rather than tall. Having Belladona in Louisiana, rather than in Florida—the master estate. Back Swamp is actually a real town in North Carolina. I have him from Back Swamp, Louisiana, which doesn't exist. I want to be able to take the liberties with a fictional character that I couldn't take with with Donald Trump. And so I tried to make him as outrageous and despicable as I possibly could, but I'm not sure that I set the bar low enough.

You've released this incredibly close to an election. Do you worry that if Trump loses and Biden becomes president, your book becomes a relic almost immediately?

That's one possibility, and that's one of the reasons why I wanted to choose and have presidents make the [visits] because I wanted some aspects of historical fiction, and the events that I chose in the life of real-life presidents are not fiction, for the most part. So I thought anybody that wants a good recap of some of our American presidents' history and how they contrast, in terms of their integrity and leadership and character, against Trump... I guess the other thing I would say to you for some, it might be an affirmation that they voted Trump out of office.

The other thing that I hope happens but I don't have much control of is: Ronald Reagan, in his inaugural address back in 1967, he said, "Freedom is but one generation away from disappearing or being lost." He was talking about how easy it is to lose our freedom, and it doesn't take long when you have a despot like Trump or, as a side note, Hitler and Napoleon. Both were elected in what were called Republic Democracies, and they were able to end it right then and there.

[With] Trump, if this goes on, we're gonna lose our democracy, what our country has stood for, just like Reagan said so. I would hope that maybe somebody might come back 10 years from now, 15 years from now, and maybe stumble across this book and say—Shakespeare said that, "The past is prologue to the future"—and see the parallels of how the past gets repeated and how dangerous times can be if you don't pay attention to that.

Which of the former presidents' messages do you feel would be most important for the real Trump to hear?

Some of the presidents, I struggled with to give them an important message. Like Ford, and I really had to stretch to write about him, but then there's that funny incident, where he's hitting golf balls in the White House the last night on the third floor, but it might really be Obama, who's not a ghost, but is a phantom, and he says to Trump—or to Little Big Hands—"You're really no different than Roy Cohn," who was the the sidekick for Joe McCarthy.

The more I thought about Roy Cohn's influence on Donald Trump, the more I thought that explains almost everything about his character and lack of civility, and what a crude, ruthless man with almost no principles.

I thought the chapter where Andrew Jackson visits the president was interesting. While I definitely understand the comparison, I was a little surprised to see that you kind of paint Jackson in a flattering light, where more recently, he's been a president people are more critical of. Why did you give Jackson a—for lack of a better term—redemption arc?

Right now, history probably views him as one of the 15 or 20 worst presidents. I don't think he's in the list of the first 10, but he's an interesting man. He's quite a character. What I particularly thought was [interesting was] the opportunity to talk about betrayal and relate that to Little Big Hands flirting with the Russians. We had a vice president who tried to sever the Louisiana Purchase from the United States. That was pure insurrection.

I really feel when Trump, during the 2015 campaign, invited the Russians in, that was treasonous. I'm not an extremist, but I really think that was treasonous. The Jackson episode gave me a really good opportunity to deal with that, but there's much that he did that's despicable, but he's a man of the times. You have to look at him as a man of the times, and he was a very popular president.

I think he lost an election due to the equivalent of gerrymandering, and at least he had the character to attend the inauguration of a man that beat him the first time around.

I think my favorite section was with FDR. Can you tell me about writing that one?

I was particularly intrigued that [FDR] had a top reporter invited in that evening after Pearl Harbor was bombed. I thought, I really want to use this as a metaphor for how past presidents have effectively used the press to their benefit, rather than abuse the press, and it became a perfect opportunity, I thought, to convey that other presidents have done a better job like FDR did with Edward R. Murrow.

So, I find Roosevelt a fascinating character. I think he's a tremendous contrast in terms of leadership. And although I didn't deep dive into that chapter, he was as well prepared to be a president as almost anybody else in history. He knew how to work the congress. He knew how to lead. He was a complex man. Sometimes he didn't know what the right hand was doing from the left. When it comes to contrast and character in leadership, I thought it was a good contrast.

Past Presidents
"Ghosts of Presidents Past" sees the current president being visited by the ghosts and phantoms of past commanders-in-chief from George Washington to Barack Obama. Getty/Chip Somodevilla

Who is this book aimed at: people who support Trump that might change their minds, or people who just want to see some sort of comeuppance for Trump?

I believe that most people have made up their mind who they're gonna vote for. Do I really think the book is going to sway anybody to vote differently? Probably not, but it is aimed at people in the middle to maybe think differently about what kind of man we have running the show. Primarily because it's so easy for us to lose our democracy, and I would like them to understand and think about character and civility.

I don't hit this head-on—I wish I hit a little harder in the epilogue—but I touched on it. There's a section in there about how the military is rethinking who they promote, and there are five or six things that they call out at the end of that epilogue that may become the standard of having influence and whether or not an officer gets promoted. I think that we don't have a job description for the U.S. president. We have a description of what he does, but we don't have a description of the attributes that make for good president. So, I was hinting at that at the end and that's what I'm aiming at, ultimately, is to think hard of the character that we select for office.

If someone picks up the book today, and they read it in time for election day and they're either undecided at this point in the election, or they're maybe an open-minded Trump supporter, how do you think that this would impact them?

I would hope that it would provoke them to think about—when they go to the ballot box—about character and civility, and what's at stake here for the future of our country and how Daniel "Little Big" Hands, has desecrated the office, and to vote for change. We certainly have the Lincoln Project. Those are probably all Republicans, some of them that probably never voted for a Democrat in their life, but they're gonna vote for a Democrat because they want change, and the Republican Party is riding the wrong horse.

This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of length and clarity.

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