The Hellfire Club: 10 things we learned about Jake Tapper's politically fuelled new novel
In his fascinating q interview, Tapper talks about everything from McCarthyism to his Canadian roots
By Jennifer Van Evra
Nearly every day, award-winning journalist Jake Tapper is leading viewers through the whiplash-inducing U.S. news cycle, covering everything from politics to mass shootings to natural disasters. But somehow over the last several years, the anchor of The Lead with Jake Tapper and State of the Union also found time to escape the news, and to write fiction.
However his new novel, The Hellfire Club, isn't all imagined characters and landscapes: rather, Tapper leads readers back in time to 1950s politics, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading a witch hunt for alleged communists. In the process, Tapper explores politics, corruption, and the Washington "swamp" — and how even morally upstanding people with the greatest intentions can get sucked in.
Tapper spoke with Tom Power about The Hellfire Club, and you can listen to the full interview above. Here are 10 things we learned:
1. The book was not inspired by Donald Trump's presidency
Long before the U.S. news cycle was consumed by Donald Trump's administration, and with it questions about corruption, ethics, and the reaches of political power, Tapper was thinking about writing this book. "I've actually been thinking about this book for about a decade — when I first read about the actual Hellfire Club, which is a factor in the novel, and then the last three or four years I've been working on it. So even though you and your listeners just heard about it, it's not like I just produced it over the weekend. It's been a long time coming."
2. Tapper found writing the book relaxing
The Hellfire Club is a fast-paced political thriller packed with tension and intrigue, but for Tapper, the process of writing it was anything but. "It actually was very relaxing because it was an escape," he says. "It was allowing myself into a world of my imagination — although obviously there were a lot of real people and real events in the book."
3. It was also liberating
In his day-to-day work, Tapper is tightly bound to reporting the facts; with The Hellfire Club, he was able to bend them to suit the story. "There is that freeing aspect of it that was very different from the restraints of non-fiction and reporting what actually happened and making sure that you know all sides are represented in a story," he says.
4. He also liked knowing how it would end
And unlike in the hurricane of daily news, he knew how the story would end — not only for the main characters Charlie and Margaret, but also for the book's real-life historical characters, among them McCarthy, Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.
"There was something freeing about that, about being able to make the characters do what I wanted them to do, about knowing how it was all going to end, as opposed to the non-fiction world that is normally my preoccupation — and occupation — in terms of having no idea how this is going to end, having no idea how anybody is going to behave on any given day, and really being much less the master and more a slave to the events and the news cycle, which is just crazy."
5. It's fiction, but it includes a list of factual sources
Plenty of novels have lists of characters or maps of locations, but you won't find many with lists of sources. For Tapper, however, the decision to include real-world sources wasn't only the result of journalistic diligence; rather, he figured that readers of historical fiction might be interested in digging deeper. "I thought that a lot of people would be interested. If you're reading a historical novel, you might be the kind of person who's interested in what's real and what's not," he says.
6. Some of the dialogue is borrowed from history
Tapper also included sources to show which areas of the book are borrowed from history. In fact, when a director friend of Tapper's complimented the author on a speech by Henry Cabot Lodge, saying it perfectly echoed today's political climate, Tapper confessed it was not his own. "I said, 'I'm sorry. That's his actual speech. He really said that, I didn't. I didn't write that at all. I'd love to take credit for it, but that's what Lodge actually said. I read that in a newspaper story and you can see the end notes have sources,'" recounts Tapper with a laugh. "He said, 'The best historical fiction is when you believe the things that didn't happen and don't believe the things that did.'"
7. It also mirrors what's happening today
Tapper recognizes that the book echoes elements of what is happening in U.S. politics today — but that link, he argues, is not of his making. "I didn't invent the people who are noting that the qualities Joe McCarthy had are ones shared by President Trump, and there is this connective tissue," he says. "Joe McCarthy's protégé was Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn's protégé was Donald Trump. I mean, I didn't make that up. That's real."
"There are other parts of the book in which McCarthy's charisma is praised. Charlie meets him and is surprised by how likable he is, how much he wants McCarthy to like him, how much he wants to please McCarthy," says Tapper. "Those are also qualities of Donald Trump."
8. Even Trump supporters might appreciate it
One of Trump's most repeated campaign promises was to "drain the swamp" in Washington. And while that particular phrase may be new, the underlying sentiment is not — and it's something that The Hellfire Club also delves into.
"I don't know who said it but, 'History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes,'" quoted Tapper. "There's a lot of rhyming of that era to today — and not just the McCarthy-Trump comparison in terms of their personalities and their styles, but also the swamp that Trump rails against. This book is a dive into that swamp. So a Trump supporter could even find things in there that resonate to them today in terms of a secret society that is plotting against people regardless of who is president."
9. Tapper has deep family roots in Canada, and for a time — a very, very short time — one of his relatives was mayor of Winnipeg
Tapper grew up in the U.S., but it turns out his Canadian roots run deep — and come with some politics of their own. "My mom is from Canada. Both my grandparents were from Canada. I lost a great uncle in World War II who was with the Royal Canadian Air Force," explains Tapper. "The only politician in my family was my grandfather's grandfather, who was the mayor of Winnipeg from Jan. 1, 1917, until Jan. 5, 1917, because he lost the recount. So he was mayor of Winnipeg for four days."
10. Tapper thinks everyone should try working in government
Before going into journalism, Tapper worked as congressional press secretary to Democratic congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, and also worked for Powell Tate, a Washington PR firm — and he says that first-hand Washington experience was life-changing in terms of understanding how politics work.
"Everybody should work in their nation's capitol and see how politics actually work because it was the most eye opening experience of my life," he says, adding that much of The Hellfire Club is about people with good intentions who arrive in Washington with noble aims, only to find themselves in compromising positions.
"Charlie is a World War II veteran and he wants to make sure that this company that made shoddy gas masks never gets a dime of federal money. That's what motivates him to begin with. And then what he's willing to do in order to achieve that becomes these small compromises, little by little, until all of a sudden he is way over his head and has completely given up control and power over what he wanted to do and wanted it to be," he says. "And I see that all the time in Washington."