Just as Trump’s election shocked the country’s political establishment, it jolted America’s intellectual class. Writers, thinkers, activists, academics and journalists have responded as they know best: with lots and lots of books. One of the ironies of our time is that a man who rarely reads has inspired an onslaught of book-length writing about his presidency.
These works have succeeded as a publishing phenomenon, dominating bestseller lists. As an intellectual project, they’ve been decidedly less impressive. Too many of the books of the Trump era are more knee-jerk than incisive, more posing than probing, more righteous than right, more fixated on detailing or calling out the daily transgressions of the man in the Oval Office — This is not normal! He is unfit! — than on understanding their origins or assessing their impact. The works are illuminating in part because they reflect some of the same blind spots and failures of imagination that gave us the Trump presidency — and that will almost certainly outlast it.
America’s intellectuals have done what many of us do in times of crisis and disorientation: They have retrenched to their comfort zones, finding solace in old arguments, familiar enemies, instinctive outbursts and easy certainties. Individually, the books of the Trump era try to show a way forward; collectively, they reveal how we are stuck.
Trump may not read many books (“Actually, I’m looking at a book, I’m reading a book, I’m trying to get started,” he replied when Tucker Carlson inquired about his reading habits in 2017), but he understands their allure. He has authored more than a dozen of them, and he launched his campaign declaring that “we need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ” That book, the essential document of Trump Studies, experienced a renaissance in 2016, with reporters mining it for insights on the candidate. In his books, Trump previewed the qualities we’ve come to know so well: the vengefulness and narcissism, the mistrust of the press and the unceasing quest for its approval, the insecurity and mendacity, the willingness to insult and to project his worst faults onto others.
The Trump era always shocks. But if you’d read his books, it wouldn’t really surprise.
As Trump began winning primaries, attention moved from his own story to those of his supporters, and writers descended upon America’s heartland to examine the politics of White grievance, visiting every chrome-counter diner and crumbling factory town on the map. One question came to dominate these travels: Were Trump’s working-class voters driven mainly by their economic struggles or — in the politest euphemism of our age — their cultural anxieties? The answers often reflect the authors’ biases as much as those of their subjects.
Some writers see the question through personal experience. In his eternally best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy,” published in 2016 and written before Trump’s political ascent, J.D. Vance blames the struggles of his communities in Kentucky and Ohio largely on a poor work ethic and an ingrained sense of helplessness. By contrast, in her affecting memoir of Kansas farm life, “Heartland,” Sarah Smarsh says her family’s efforts rarely earned enough to purchase respect. “Being as we got up before dawn to do chores and didn’t quit until after dark,” she notes, “it was plain that the problem with our outcomes wasn’t lack of hard work.” The gap between Vance and Smarsh is more than personal, more than the difference between mountains and plains. It is an ideological divide.
But too many writers foist preconceived stories onto unsuspecting characters. In “Strangers in Their Own Land,” sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild prepares for her interviews with conservatives in southwestern Louisiana by reading Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” because she figures they’re into that. She imagines they’ll be “selfish, tough, cold people” and is surprised to find them kind and charitable. Even so, she methodically caricatures them, dividing them into contrived categories to resolve their Great Paradox and unearth their Deep Story. And two 2018 books — “The Great Revolt” by Salena Zito and Brad Todd and “The Forgotten” by Ben Bradlee Jr. — profile the same Pennsylvania Trump voter, a longtime Democrat who made the switch. In the first book, he is mainly worried about trade deals and mistrusts political dynasties; in the latter work, he is a full-on culture warrior, a 9/11 truther who listens to Alex Jones, rails against transgender bathrooms and believes that George Soros secretly funds Black Lives Matter protesters. Salt of the earth in one book, scorched earth in the next.
The contrasting qualities these authors emphasize conveniently dovetail with their respective interpretations of why Trump won the presidency: economic populism for Zito and Todd, cultural prejudices for Bradlee. Forget understanding the heartland as a whole; even a single voter can be politicized, reduced to a symbol.
To Ed Harry of Luzerne County, Pa., our apologies.
In the early days after Trump’s election, George Orwell’s “1984” displaced Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” atop Amazon’s bestseller list, meaning Americans were suddenly less concerned with how we got here than with where we were going. Dystopian classics boomed, with Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood scaling bestseller rankings. Fears of homegrown authoritarianism brought Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” back into circulation, while Omar El Akkad’s 2017 novel, “American War,” imagines a second U.S. civil war in a red vs. blue nation remade by climate change, militias and radicalized youth — a work made all the more unnerving by its flashes of plausibility.
But dystopian fiction is less necessary when you think you’re facing the real thing. The anti-Trump resistance literature soon emerged. Essay anthologies sprouted, with novelists, activists and politicians wallowing in their election night sorrow and rejecting the new order. Titles like “Radical Hope,” “What We Do Now” and “How Do I Explain This to My Kids?” underscore the despair and fury of this early response.
The explosion of popular protests throughout the Trump presidency — including marches in support of women’s rights and scientific inquiry, and widespread demonstrations against police brutality — prompted an odd self-validation among the resistance authors. “If Trump is a threat to our democracy . . . the citizen activism he has inspired is the antidote,” E.J. Dionne, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann write in “One Nation After Trump.” Former congressional staffers Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin, authors of “We Are Indivisible,” exult that “it’s been decades since the country has seen this sort of wide-scale, locally led, nationally networked civic engagement.”
But the impassioned calls for unity found in resistance books have aimed primarily at those already inclined to agree. The only resistance they deem acceptable is one that embraces a fully progressive worldview; there is little room for political moderates, let alone traditional conservatives, who may also find Trump reprehensible. Much of the resistance writing stresses who can rightfully claim the label — who counts and who doesn’t. It speaks of community but breeds exclusion. There is a difference, it turns out, between resisting and Resistance.
The political model for Greenberg and Levin’s Indivisible Guide, the online precursor to their book, is revealing. The writers look back with envy on how the tea party movement stalled the Obama agenda and decide that what the left needs now is “some sort of guide to replicating the Tea Party” — not its extremism or hypocrisy, they assure, but its advocacy prowess and organizational skills. (To imagine you can adopt ruthless tactics yet stop short of pursuing them to your own political endgame is to have great confidence in your self-control.) Similarly, in “The Democracy Fix,” Caroline Fredrickson, former president of the American Constitution Society, offers a plan for the defense and renewal of democracy, but one that solely serves progressive visions of government. “We’ve been screwed for too long,” she laments. “It’s time to grab the pen and write our own rules.” Rewriting the rules of democracy to benefit our side, whatever that side may be, does not sound quite like a democratic fix.
There is a sense of certitude permeating the resistance literature. “We will join together to become this nation’s unshakable moral compass,” writes Linda Sarsour, who co-chaired the Women’s March, in her 2020 book, “We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders: A Memoir of Love and Resistance.” She is describing a coalition of marginalized communities massing to resist the Trump agenda. It is an inspiring vision. But just because Trump’s moral compass is broken does not mean yours unerringly points north. The resistance authors call for conversations but limit the speakers; they claim moral leadership but to uncertain ends; they worry endlessly about Trump’s America but betray contempt for Trump’s Americans.
Throughout Trump’s campaign and presidency, some conservative commentators and thinkers imagined that he would change, that the gravity of the office would mold him into something other than what he was. But there was no pivot — except among conservatives themselves, who, as reflected in their books, have split into three camps in the Trump era.
First are the sycophants, who through a lack of options or shame have embraced the new order and relentlessly justified it. They ignore the president’s most sordid tendencies or, worse yet, revel in them. Newt Gingrich has written four obsequious books on his new political patron, praising his lack of preparation and indifference to the details of governing. In the sycophants’ eyes, ignorance is smart and laziness is savvy. In “The Fourth Way,” published early in the Trump presidency, conservative radio host (and Washington Post contributing op/ed columnist) Hugh Hewitt imagines Trump governing “inclusively, energetically, joyously,” and ushering in a “booming, generous, open-handed Republic of Virtue.” Such devotion has found a safe space on Capitol Hill as well.
The Never Trump conservatives, for their part, stuck to principle despite the conservative movement’s dwindling adherents and their party’s embrace of a president with little allegiance to conservative ideals. Their books — including Charles Sykes’s “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” Rick Wilson’s “Everything Trump Touches Dies,” Post columnist Max Boot’s “The Corrosion of Conservatism” and Jeff Flake’s “Conscience of a Conservative” — read like breakup letters to their old comrades. Yet such authors struggle to fess up to their own roles in enabling or simply ignoring the forces that allowed Trump to overpower their movement: the disregard for truth, the latent nativism and xenophobia, the hypocrisy of power for its own sake. They urge a restoration of the conservative mind and call for a renewed conservatism of “high ideals, goodwill, and even better arguments,” in Flake’s words, but show no path to getting there. Indeed, it took Trump’s rise for these big thinkers to even admit they had a problem.
Finally there are the pro-Trump intellectuals, those seeking to retrofit an ideological framework onto the whims of one man, as long as those whims produce the tax reforms, immigration restrictions or judicial appointments they prefer. Rather than stand athwart history yelling “Stop,” they trail behind Trumpism asking, “Why not?” Works such as “The Case for Trump” by historian Victor Davis Hanson minimize Trump’s transgressions — the president was merely “sloppy” in his submission to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018 and “sloppy” in the detention of undocumented immigrants — and focus on flogging the president’s purported enemies. In “The Case for Nationalism,” Rich Lowry embraces Trump’s nationalist siren and looks the other way at the president’s divisiveness, unwilling to recognize that Trump cares little for the nation as a whole, that he governs for his interests and those of his base. In such books, the affirmative argument for Trump amounts to little more than calling out the real and imagined misdeeds of his opponents.
The most enduring case for Trump remains Michael Anton’s pseudonymous 2016 essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” in which he argued that voting for Trump was like charging the cockpit on Sept. 11, 2001 — you could die, but if you did nothing, then death (i.e., a Hillary Clinton presidency) was certain. In his 2019 book, “After the Flight 93 Election,” published after Anton served in the Trump White House, the author argues that America remains threatened, this time by the “revenge plot” of identity-politics leftists, who contribute to the sickness and despair pervading America and the West. This is the pitch that Trump is making for reelection, just subbing out Clinton for Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s as if we’re still aboard Flight 93, always imperiled, as though no one has noticed who seized the controls four years ago.
There is a compulsion among the Trump authors to see in the president the apotheosis of all their fears or the confirmation of all their past arguments. “Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination — the logical end point — of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a very long time,” Naomi Klein writes in “No Is Not Enough.” Those are stories she has long been exploring in works such as “No Logo,” on the rise of corporate super-brands, or “The Shock Doctrine,” on how governments and industries exploit crises to impose pro-corporate policies. New York Times critic James Poniewozik looks upon Trump and also sees validation. “Trump’s political rise, I came to see, was the result of changes that I had been writing about as a TV critic for twenty years,” he explains in the introduction to his darkly entertaining “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America.” It is comforting to gaze upon the unthinkable and say, I told you so.
It is also natural. Academics emerged in the Trump era to warn of the end of the American experiment, with the cause of death in each case neatly coinciding with each writer’s particular expertise. Political scientists warned of the demise of democracy. Philosophers lamented the erosion of truth. Economists feared the decline of trade and growth. National security professionals imagined the dissolution of international alliances and American hegemony. Historians, of course, shook their heads and noted that we’ve all been here before.
Yet perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the Trump-era books is that they almost always place Trump at the center of the story, which is precisely where he wants to be. Ever since Michael Wolff published his as-told-to-by-Steve-Bannon account of Year One of this administration, the books chronicling the chaos inside the White House all have seemed to compete for the most jaw-dropping anecdote, the most expletive-ridden quote or the most over-the-top metaphor about the man glowering from behind the Resolute Desk. Think of how many books of this era — “Fire and Fury,” “American Carnage,” “A Very Stable Genius,” “The Best People,” even “Fear” and “Rage” — feature his tweets and quotes in their very titles.
This literary fixation reminds me of a moment in Michael Cohen’s recent memoir, “Disloyal,” in which the former Trump lawyer/fixer recalls seeing his boss mobbed by tourists and autograph-seekers as the two men walked through the atrium of Trump Tower. Trump winked at his star-struck apprentice and whispered, “This is what Trump is all about.”
So is this.
I realize it is early to judge the books of the Trump era; almost certainly, the most illuminating works about this time have yet to be written. Future insider memoirs will offer more details (Don McGahn, Anthony Fauci, Kirstjen Nielsen and Robert Mueller rank highest on my wish list); further investigations will deepen the record; and works of sociology, political science, economics, public health and history will shed light on what happened and why. Regardless of the result in November’s election, the Trump library will continue expanding for decades.
But the books that matter most right now are not necessarily those revealing White House intrigue, scandal or policy battles, no matter how crucial those subjects. They are, instead, the books that enable and ennoble a national reexamination, the books that show how our current conflicts fit into the nation’s story, the books that hold fast to the American tradition of making ourselves anew.
They are the books on the rural working class, such as Jennifer Silva’s “We’re Still Here,” that rarely oversimplify its motives, that recognize the diversity of the heartland, and that realize that the true challenge for working-class Americans is the belief that no candidate or party or institution is responsive to their needs.
They are the resistance volumes like “Rules for Resistance,” edited by David Cole and Melanie Wachtell Stinnett, which understands that the greatest danger is less a particular change of policies than the erosion of the system that makes all resistance possible. They are the studies on presidential lying that remind how truth is not a righteous declaration but a painstaking process of discovery, a process that, as Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum contend in “A Lot of People Are Saying,” demands less certainty and more doubt.
They are the studies on immigration, such as Erika Lee’s “America for Americans,” that show how the nation’s tradition of openness has always coexisted with a powerful xenophobic strain. They are the works on race and identity, such as “The Lies That Bind” by Kwame Anthony Appiah and “When They Call You a Terrorist” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, that see the quest individual dignity behind every group struggle. They are the examinations of White House mayhem, such as Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes’s “Unmaking the Presidency,” that explain the origins of our governmental norms and the long-term risks of a leader who conflates himself with his office. And they are the volumes on democracy, such as Jill Lepore’s “These Truths,” that identify today’s battles as part of an endless fight to live up to America’s professed principles, and that show how striving — and often failing — to do so is not just a feature of our system but its definition.
Such books are not beholden to this moment, which is why they reveal so much about it. The most essential books of the Trump era are scarcely about Trump at all.