What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, by Carlos Lozada, Simon & Schuster, 260 pp, $28, ISBN: 978-1982145620
In the end the facts caught up with President Trump, a man who not only had one of the most toxic relationships with truth of any democratically elected political leader in living memory, bar perhaps his Brazilian counterpart, but who also tried to bend reality to his will and imagination. After one term and after having been impeached but not removed from office he was finally voted out. A true Schopenhauerian moment had come to an end, or so it seemed.
It is highly unlikely though that with the new Biden administration’s attempt to rebuild the ship at sea the story of MAGA (Make America Great Again) and the president who served “the movement” as its ginger lighthouse will just fizzle out. Some, albeit not all, of the conditions that led to Donald Trump’s election in the first place continue to exist: the support of the Republican party on whose ticket he ran; the unchecked social media which provided him with the necessary means almost to the last minute, until it dawned on its corporate leaders that perhaps more was a stake than just increased profit margins from algorithm and advertisement; the authoritarian dynamic of flag-waving supporters, including Pizzagate believers and QAnon fanatics; not to speak of the grande peur – the historian Richard Hofstadter called it the paranoid style – of the declining white middle and working classes; not to forget of course those educated people who were happy to disregard their liberal ivy league college education to join the Machiavellian effort.
While there is widespread relief that Trump’s one-term presidency has ended in electoral defeat – though he could not exit the stage without a last bang – we will need to reflect on what happened, what made it possible in the first place, how Trump could complete four full years despite his despicable behaviour and legal challenges, the ton of lies spun and the attempt to remove him from office, and what all this says about the state of the oldest new democracy and its intellectual viability and signalling power in the world. Last but not least we need to assess the situation in order to find out whether it will be possible to repair the damage done. But then, after all the recent drama which has depleted the energy of most observers, who would voluntarily sift through all the information and analyses of the past few years just to relive the Schopenhauerian moment all over again?
Enter Carlos Lozada, non-fiction (sic!) editor of The Washington Post, adjunct professor of journalism at Notre Dame University and former Pulitzer Prize winner. Ex officio, Lozada had to trawl through some 150 titles that ended up on his desk and whose subject was related to Number 45 in office. The result is a fine reduction of complexity that serves any interested reader as a compass, enabling them to navigate through the rough seas of recent American politics. The book contains ten chapters bracketed by an introduction and an epilogue in which the author manages to give some order to the sheer avalanche of books that have dealt with one or another aspect of Trump’s tenure. Sure, in the years and decades to come, Trump’s presidency will be the subject of many more studies, but for now it is good to have Lozada’s account: it provides some crucial orientation and even some takeaways as to where to go from here.
The books and studies in question are not reviewed in chronological order but organised and discussed by topic: “Heartlandia” takes a closer look at the Trump community and what it is made of socially, politically, and culturally; “Resistible” deals with the opposition, its genuine insights but also its obvious limitations and weaknesses; “Conservative Pivot” looks at what made Trump acceptable to conservatives; “Beyond the Wall” addresses the immigration question and the pluralist make-up of the United States; “True Enough” analyses Trump’s world-of-make-believe and the relativism of postmodern politics; “See Some I.D.” trawls through the literature on identity politics and the culture wars; “Him, Too” examines claims concerning the president’s misogyny; “The Chaos Chronicles” discusses whether there is actually any coherent ideology behind Trump and his circle; “Russian Lit” is dedicated to speculation about why Putin always came out well during Trump’s reign and what could possibly explain this bizarre occurrence despite the diplomatic “charm” offenses of Russia from the Krim to Syria; and finally, “In Plain View” in which the author speculates as to why all of this could happen in the United States, purportedly the beacon of Western democracy. At the end of each chapter a detailed reading list is provided and in an appendix the author lists his own favourites and gives reasons for his top recommendations.
This short overview of the book’s list of contents should not lead the reader to assume that “What Were We Thinking” is one mega-review made up of a sample of individual book reviews – it is not. The author notes that “if journalism is still history’s first draft, then books remain the first draft of how we think about that history, how we seek our place in it”. A few lines later he points out that “as both reader and citizen, I believe that the early intellectual response to the Trump presidency is of enormous consequence …” He concludes that those titles under review are “books that show how our current conflicts fit into the nation’s history”. That said, Lozada leaves enough room to develop his own interpretation of the intellectual history of the Trump era, just as the subtitle promises. Sure, he is aware that this is perhaps not a comprehensive account but it is a pretty good start for anybody who wants to make sense of those moments in which reality and politics were bent to suit the will and imagination of the president.
Seen this way, the strength of this book lies in the fact that it questions taken-for-granted assumptions and catch-all, simplistic conceptualisations such as “neoliberalism”, “populism” and even “fascism”. Instead the author reads between the lines. He detects not only some finer points that often get lost in the noise of all the scandals but also sees in the Trump administration a kind of dialectic between continuity and rupture. “Continuity” because there was nothing so outlandish that it could not be related to some precedent in American history; “rupture” in the sense that in the past all the bad moments and “qualities” rarely coincided and manifested themselves in such a brute manner in one powerful person who, against all decency and expected norms of behaviour, bragged about it in public to the fanatic applause of not just a few. Beyond that, and like anybody, Lozada can only speculate as to what is in store next. After all, and to allude to Sinclair Lewis’s famous dystopian novel about an authoritarian regime change in the US, it happened there: the American journey did take a leap into the dark.
The Machiavellian Moment, a term that intellectual historian John GA Pocock coined to denote the long transatlantic history of republicanism – note the small “r” – from oppositional Anglo-world undercurrent to the first formation of a legitimately and democratically elected government, might have no future. The decline and contrast with modern times is palpable – with Obama perhaps just being an intellectual aberration in that respect. Despite some reservations as to how successful that democratic process was, the history of America’s founding moments has provided generations of intellectual historians with stimulating intellectual ideas. Trump might have a similar effect on historians of ideas in the future – just not for the same reason. Trawling through his thousands of tweets will take time, and making sense of them in context will take even more time. It’s like peeling the onion to find a core: it smells and one can imagine the tears of the historian dropping on the empty pages.
Andreas Hess teaches sociology at University College Dublin. He is currently working on a book about the future of liberalism, Why virtues will no longer do.