The Spy Novel That Predicted the Rise Of Trump & "Russiagate"
A 1980 Cold War Thriller Anticipated Trump & the 2016 Election
A businessman turned politician wins the Republican nomination for President of the United States. He defeats his Democratic challenger and looks set to go into the White House, preaching policies favorable to Russia. Yet a British intelligence operative uncovers proof linking the campaign to the Russians, forcing an investigation that eventually leads not just to major campaign officials but to the President-Elect himself.
One might be forgiven for thinking about the 2016 election and the ongoing investigation that it's spawned. Yet it's equally applicable to a novel written and published more than thirty-five years before the most contentious Presidential election in recent American history. Written by the late best-selling author Ted Allbeury, The Twentieth Day Of January is an intriguing blast from the past from the Cold War era.
It's worth remembering that the novel was first published in 1980, firmly putting it into the Cold War era when the Watergate scandal that toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon was still fresh in readers' minds. The novel follows two spies, the British agent John MacKay and CIA agent Peter Nolan, on a journey that starts not long after the election of John Logan, an unlikely Presidential candidate. It is MacKay who sets the ball rolling and from there, the novel never really sets down as the pair work their way through the history of Logan's brief political career, his chief of staff, and a trail that leads across the United States and back to Europe.
There isn't much in terms of shoot 'em up action in the novel. Instead, Allbeury relies upon a formula similar to that John le Carré used in his masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Nolan and MacKay work their way through people and evidence from the past and present, uncovering individuals who hold pieces of the puzzle. What Allbeury does differently here is that he also shows us parts of the Russian side of the equation as well, showing some of their efforts to thwart the CIA's investigation.
Allbeury isn't le Carré, it must be said, though that isn't necessarily a bad thing either. The novel lacks the more cerebral edge of le Carré or indeed some of the moral ambiguities to the world of intelligence work. There's a more streamlined style to his prose, often relying heavily on dialogue to move the plot along which can lead to what feels like pages at a time of nothing but short sentences. There's also a slightly more stable image to his spooks with Nolan having both what seems to be a steady home life while also being the sort of man that multiple women in the novel all but throw themselves at. The latter is something which helps to date the novel but all things considered, The Twentieth Day Of January holds up better than many works of its age.
Indeed, the reason it has gone back into print is due to its plot. Allbeury lays out a convincing set of events that would allow Logan to fall under Soviet sway thanks to his campaign team and the dealings of one member in particular. It's hard not to find pre-echoes of events well into the future after the Cold War ended, even down to a new First Family not living together. The novel also looks at the potential fallout from such a revelation to the public, its effect not just on the American public but the very psyche of the country and the democratic West in general. One might wonder what Allbeury makes of recent events but that would be impossible to know since he passed away in 2005, but it's hard to believe he saw so much of what might happen so clearly.
For those who are fans of the spy genre and political thrillers, The Twentieth Day Of January makes for interesting reading. Even though it's a Cold War thriller rather than something "ripped from the headlines," the novel is an interesting and quick read though not a classic of its genre. Perhaps more than anything else, with more than three decades of hindsight behind it, it's a cautionary tale that has perhaps caught up with us.