'Make Russia Great Again' Is Christopher Buckley's Latest Great Feat à Clef

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Make Russia Great Again, Christopher Buckley's funny and often hilarious new novel, is how normal—old normal, not new normal—and relatively subdued things seem in this fictional White House, at least compared with real life.

To regular viewers of the all-breaking-news-all-the-time networks, Make Russia Great Again reads like a whispered procedural of everyday life in the 2020 White House. Herb Nutterman—a former hospitality executive at a Trump property with no previous political experience—has been named the seventh White House chief of staff for a fictional president named Donald Trump. Nutterman's sole qualification for this job is that he was a former hospitality executive at a Trump property with no previous political experience. Fans of Buckley will see in Nutterman a strong resemblance to Nick Naylor, Thank You for Smoking's lobbyist for the tobacco industry. Both have powers of rationalization and cognitive dissonance far beyond those of mortal men.

Trump and Putin
Donald Trump looks on Vladimir Putin in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 30, 2018. Fictional characters bearing a strong resemblance to these two people are at the heart of Christopher Buckley's biting new satire, "Make Russia Great Again." Mikhail Svetlov/Getty

Nutterman is writing his memoirs from Wingdale, a federal prison; this is his letter from Camp Cupcake as it were. It was Nutterman's unfortunate circumstance to become chief of staff in an election year—in Russia. For some reason the intelligence community came up with the theory that the 2016 U.S. presidential elections were meddled with by Russia and so a system, Placid Reflux, was set up to prevent and counter any attempts to meddle in the 2020 U.S. elections.

All is alt-right with the world until Placid Reflux decides to return the favor and interfere in Russia's election, and a very fictional Vladimir Putin loses to a very surprised Communist. Well mayhem ensues, as Trump does his best to make Russia great again and ensure that Putin, who in Buckley's book is actually seen as an ally of Trump, stays in power.

At this point Buckley takes us on a fictional roller-coaster ride of blackmail, intrigue, more blackmail and way more intrigue that rivals reality, well almost, at least at press time. And this was written before the pandemic and before the George Floyd Black Lives Matter protests. There are no masks, no marches, no TikTok-inflated rallies, [no fill-in-the-blank insanities that were not known at press time]. Their absence actually gives Make Russia Great Again an almost nostalgic appeal.

But plenty of meat is left on the carcass of the Executive Branch for Buckley to feast on. While the plot plays out—and really saying anything more about that would be gilding the lily, sorry, painting the lily—he gives some of the most brilliantly funny characterizations. In a few words he can size up, cut down and serve up slightly roasted thumbnail descriptions of people who may or may not represent purveyors of the White House Kool-Aid.

To wit: Beulah Puckle-Peters is a the former press secretary whose default expression is a scowl. She looks like a chief matron in a women's prison who has discovered that one of the women in block six is keeping a pet mouse. There is also son-in-law Jored, who looks like a "prince minus the codpiece." And Katie Borgia O'Reilly, a "meth-lab Lauren Bacall" who is not so much a spin doctor but a "centrifuge," a whirling dervish of alternative facts, conspiracy theories and full-court trash talk.

Buckley, a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush, knows this world inside out—which is perhaps the only way to truly know it—and it shows in every sentence. He describes the grotesqueness of day-to-day life inside the Beltway with the matter-of-fact casualness of a baseball writer covering a Yankees-Nationals game in June—when there were baseball games in June. He uses few if any exclamation points and none of the unbelievable exaggerations you might see on the nightly news. Real incidents that have happened during the real Trump presidency are interwoven with fictitious ones with such ease that I occasionally found myself wondering which were real and which were Buckley.

For a few years, Buckley took a break from writing political satire. He had long targeted targets on all specks of the political spectrum. No one was safe; even heroes and icons had feet of clay, and God knows what their hair and makeup were made of. But then, he claimed, real life had moved beyond satire and Donald Trump was beyond real life.

Buckley didn't entirely give up on the technique. His two books written over the past four years, The Relic Master and The Judge Hunter, are sharp satires, but they avoid any overt mention of modern-day politics. Buckley's return to tarnishing the shine on the buckle of the Beltway is long overdue, but his hiatus has not dulled his dry, cutting wit at all. His subtlety is a more than welcome antidote to the bold-faced, all-caps exclamations that define the Twitterverse, 24-hour news cycle and their No. 1 subject, one who does not usually invite subtlety.

People working from home are in luck: While reading this, they can laugh out loud freely and not fear the strange looks of fellow commuters or diners. Then, too, all readers are in luck anyway, because Make Russia Great Again gives them a reason to laugh out loud again.

Make Russia Great Again is published by Simon & Schuster, and it is available online and wherever you can find an open bookstore.

Make Russia Great Again
The cover of "Make Russia Great Again," designed by Richard Ljoenes for Christopher Buckley's latest novel set in the mythical place called Washington.