Why Did I Choose to Read These Books? The election of Donald J. Trump as president has led to a number of new books. Every American presidency spawns considerable literature. Normally this is in the form of a tell all, I was his pencil box and have the inside story sort of drama, which is usually panned by critics. Or it is told from the outsider expert’s perspective, usually critical in tone but sometimes a triumphal declaration of what a great man he was when in office.
In current times, however, members of academia, the press, and other distinguished professions have authored a series of books more or less in reaction to Trump as president.
I have been called a 19th century man by someone half my age. I tend to think that all that came before has some value that should not be discarded merely because of age. Thus, I am generally conservative, as I find the progressive agenda often adopted in haste, without regard to follow-on consequences.
Yet I did not vote for Mr. Trump. I could see the man lacked the fundamental character necessary for the job, and his opponent Hillary Clinton had a better resume. Frankly, I thought she should have been the Democratic nominee for President in 2008 and might have voted for her then. Instead we got the junior Senator from Illinois whose policies I generally disagree with but at least I can say he had character.
I review five of the more recent books here. These books are interconnected as they reflect on the past with the one common intersection of the presidency from different angles.
I am compelled to read these books to process the uneasy feeling there is something terribly wrong with the choice the electorate has made in 2016. These texts provide a coherent voice to this time, a step back from incessant tweets, “breaking news,” television crawler lines and talking heads which leave the public with no time for calm reflection on what the conduct of the President means. These authors provide a breathing space, an apology, a rational voice to help a loyal American make sense of it all.
I am drawn to texts about the better angels who have served the country in the past, the pitfalls of following the strong ego who speaks to the lesser angels in our souls, and the clear and present danger to our republic.
Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (September 18, 2018). This book is one of those the author says she started five years prior to its September 2018 publication, which happened to fall during the Presidency of Donald Trump. Kearns Goodwin worked for Lyndon Banes Johnson in his White House. During this read I never got over the feeling she truly admired the man and the admiration colored her work..
Comparison is often the greatest accolade. Hence Kearns Goodwin compares and contrasts her President Johnson with Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Perhaps the best quote from the book is this:
Among the many variants of leadership, scholars have sought to identify two seemingly antithetical types— transactional, by far the more common, and transformational. Transactional leaders operate pragmatically. They appeal to the self-interest of their followers, using quid pro quos, bargains, trades, and rewards to solicit support and influence the behavior of their followers. Transformational leaders inspire followers to identify with something larger than themselves—the organization, the community, the region, the country—and finally, to the more abstract identification with the ideals of that country. Such leaders call for sacrifice in the pursuit of moral principles and higher goals, validating such altruism by looking beyond the present moment to frame a future worth striving for.
I sense this paragraph was written well into the current administration and serves as a marker to define our present leadership as transactional, not transformative. In the wake of the Kennedy assassination, Johnson found the courage and legislative competence to see passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Great Society programs that transformed America. And as reflected in this review, it was the press and free speech that drew his presidency to a close when, after watching the Walter Cronkite report on the war in Vietnam in early 1967, he turned to his staff and said, “Well, if I have lost Walter Cronkite, I have lost the war.” Five weeks later he declared he would not seek nor accept the nomination of his party for re-election.
Fascism: A Warning, by Madeline Albright (April 10, 2018) This Clinton-era Secretary of State brings credibility to her comments upon the current presidency that many others do not have: her family fled Czechoslovakia in the wake the invasion of her country by a fascist Germany.
The purpose of Albright’s book is not name-calling, but instead an examination of the various acts of fascists in the 20th century and beyond, comparing them with the conduct of Mr. Trump. Trump tries to control information by declaring the press to be the “enemy of the people” and often lying about events. He identifies an enemy to focus upon, the immigrant. He appears to lack a moral compass that might direct him to some other concept than self, and encourages others to abandon any values other than those he endorses. Empathy is considered a weakness. A brittle ego controls his actions. He tweets he is “a very stable genius.”
Trump’s pitch worked well on the campaign trail. “You have been disrespected by everyone, sold out to foreign peoples and foreign policies.” Also, “I am the only one you can trust” is his message, declaring the courts biased and the FBI corrupt, that the press lies and elections are rigged.
Albright argues that Trump’s conduct and comments have retarded the spread of what we have come to understand as liberal democracy, instead encouraging strongmen across the globe. Defense of human rights were a signature foreign policy of the United States, until now. Our allies are shaken, and now the European Union lists the United States among its dangers in the same league as Russia, China and terrorism.
Domestically, our values and institutions are threatened by those who look to Trump’s rhetoric for leadership. Albright is probably right when she says there are two kinds of fascists, those who give orders and those who take them. She writes, “What makes a movement Fascist is not ideology but the willingness to do whatever is necessary – including the use of force and trampling on the rights of others – to achieve victory and command obedience.”
Albright’s warning is that fascism tends to creep up on a country, a concern which is echoed in Enemy of the People by Marvin Kalb (discussed below). Each small step is either seen as inconsequential, or so well-explained that no member of the country would find it out of character to ignore or endorse. Then one day it is too late. “I believe that fascism and fascist policies pose a more virulent threat to international freedom, prosperity, and peace than any time since World War II,” Albright concludes, adding that her consistent belief, in her 80 years of life, that America could be counted on to put obstacles in the way of such a movement is now shaken.
Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, by Francis Fukuyama (September 11, 2018) This author was made famous by an earlier book, The End of History and The Last Man, written in 1992 at the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union fell along with the Berlin wall. Then, it seemed, liberal democracy had “won” and peace and prosperity would forever govern the earth.
Among the developments that have scuttled his thesis is the rise of identity politics, defined primarily as a turn away from the sense of a country or the world being an “us” and instead finding a “them” to attack. The change revolves around weaponizing one’s individual racial, gender, geographic, cultural, religious or other characteristic, fragmenting the body politic into competing factions.
What has developed is a sense that society’s demand for some conformity is considered an imposition on the individual’s right to self-expression without regard to any boundary. The substance of what Fukuyama says is that our deepest longings have been tapped into by this populist movement. How we feel is no longer personal, it’s political. We should recognize that this is a calculated effort by a politician or party to harness a mood to gain power. Fukuyama asks us to consider that our sense of victimization may be addressed in more constructive means than those our current president has employed.
Fukuyama begins by admitting his astonishment at the election of Mr. Trump, declaring that the book was written because he was so troubled by the implications of the election. While the author recognizes that American institutions were decaying as politicians were captured by powerful interest groups, and has written about that, he argues that Trump’s election was founded on the notion he could break the legislative log jams in Washington DC, a claim that distracts from his lack of fitness and the likely disasters of his polices. Fukuyama writes, “With regard to character, it is hard to imagine an individual less suited to be President of the United States.”
“An individual less suited to be the president” is a phrase we see with regularity in Trump-era books.
Fukuyama goes deep into the past for the origins of how we describe how we feel about ourselves. He starts with the earliest concepts of the individual as contemplated in ancient Greece- that each person possesses a soul that wants to be recognized – and follows this thread to the present day. When the perception becomes there’s no recognition at hand, or the majority has trampled on individual rights as perceived in the postmodern world, the resentment felt is palpable. Opportunity to redress this humiliation finds purchase in the political campaign.
An earlier generation would have accepted this as just the way things are. But in this time of the self, one’s sense being imposed upon or discriminated against easily translates to a quest for redress. The candidate who captures this mood finds a more powerful and persuasive message than any economic advantages he or she may promise. If anything about Mr. Trump is transformative, it is that he touched a present-day longing among some to feel proud again. Make America Great Again.
Fukuyama also describes the loss of a once-shared moral horizon. At some point, organized religion gave way to a disorganized individual personal concept of happiness or care for one’s soul. In a rights-based culture, it is easy to see how this individual declares his identity is a right we all need to recognize. Splintered like this, without a common moral compass, the demands we place on our leaders reference self-interest without regard to any standing we may have as a collective people. We look like hell, both in our appearance as well as our conduct, but apparently, we have a “right” to do so and should not expect any sort of consequences for our action. We are “free.”
The author cites the most-often quoted phrase of Justice Kennedy’s Supreme Court opinion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992), that Americans have “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life” as a literary sketch of our time. What bothers me personally about this approach is that too often this means abandonment of thousands of years of discernment, starting where Fukuyama did with Socrates, and instead encourages the individual to declare his own moral compass. But no one really has the time, talent or energy in a lifetime to reimagine a moral code that centuries of great thinkers have developed. Hence, the standards of conduct are determined only by the present-day criminal code. We are “free” to conduct ourselves at any point in the spectrum above this nadir.
From this point, then, the author postulates the individual is not “free” but instead insecure, not knowing really what the rules are and rushing toward some identity to find a foundation upon which to declare himself valid. Finding commonality with others of his race, gender, etc. provides the emotional health the general acceptance of religious faiths provided in an earlier time. Or, some double down on the faith of a previous time and begin to strictly adhere to, and in some cases misconstrue the teachings, leading to violence.
Crucially, this book on the era of Trump provides some insights as to where the populist movement may have come from: dislocation of peoples from what they have come to expect socially and economically, with a leader emerging, declaring he has the answers, and so the ballot is cast in his favor. This was the pattern in 1930’s Germany. The pattern is repeated across the globe today.
Fukuyama’s remedies have to do with returning to those structures which have tended to knit the country together as opposed to fragmenting it. Assimilation of diverse cultures and lifestyles into a single American culture, which has been the historical pattern, must return if we are to think in terms of us – Americans – as opposed to them, immigrants, genders, the elites. Fukuyama endorses a single language, English, as among the glues to hold us together, as well as constitutionalism and respect for the traditional values of liberal democracy. Civics, as a subject, should be part of the core curriculum in our schools. This is our common creed.
I wonder what a more robust civics class for American youth of the past 30 years would have produced. When I look at my father, who graduated from Hailey High School in 1950, he clearly had this foundation. Yet that was also the year of the rise of Joseph McCarthy, the junior Senator from Wisconsin.
Enemy of the People: Trump’s War on the Press, The New McCarthyism, and the Threat to American Democracy, by Marvin Kalb (September 25, 2018) To me, Marvin Kalb has always been one of the giants of American journalism alongside Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and of course Edward R. Morrow. So, it was with some degree of delight I saw he had written a book titled after a presidential tweet. I expected a calm review of the facts, as his profession and his history would predict. Was I ever mistaken.
Mr. Kalb, now in his late eighties, sheds the sober demeanor of the journalist to let Mr. Trump have it with both barrels. He has cause. For Kalb, this president’s efforts, as well as those of his advisors, to discredit the media strikes at nothing less than the heart of our democracy.
The First Amendment protects free speech, which Kalb says is what has kept the country from sliding into autocracy or oligarchy throughout its history. Yet it was that very right of free speech that lead to the result we have now, allowing foreign agents to work at swaying the election. The use of the media by candidate Trump to acquire free coverage and persuade voters he was their man seems to be a flaw within its design. Kalb recognizes the media’s hand in following the daily story Mr. Trump created for himself. The rubric that journalists have is to report that which is newsworthy. Mr. Trump provides that. The speed of the news cycle now is such there is no time for reporting the context or fact checking. No one will wait for those tidy details. Their advertising revenue depends on viewership, and all compete for eyeballs, and Mr. Trump happily provides the spectacle.
Kalb has historically worked as a journalist in far-off lands: the Soviet Union, Europe, and Latin America. His reference point for what sort of government any country has is how the newspapers appear when he enters the country. If they often feature the governing persons on the front page, or carry monikers that declare their authority- such as Pravda, which in Russian means “Truth” – it’s a repressive regime.
For our new president in February 2017 to tweet that the press was the enemy of the people, Kalb says, is to embrace the same slogans of fear and hate as Stalin, Hitler and Mao. Characterizing the press as the “Enemy of the People” can be traced to Stalin, according to his successor, Nikita Khrushchev.
The heart of Kalb’s book compares Senator Joseph McCarthy to Donald Trump, tracing the rise of the senator and his fall, and pointing out the courageous few who stood against him, including the press in the person of Edward R. Murrow. Many political leaders, including President Eisenhauer and Senator John F. Kennedy, simply failed to rise to the occasion. Before Murrow, McCarthy was able to establish guilt of communist sympathy by association, false claims, and generating a climate of fear. It is perhaps serendipitous that one of the “tell all” books published in this Trump era has the title Fear.
It was the press, and in particular Edward R. Murrow, who had the courage to call on the public’s better angels to not feed on the conduct of the senator like the rest of his profession, much the same as we see today. Murrow’s definition of America is well taken: “The only thing that counts is the right to know, to speak, to think—that, and the sanctity of the courts. Otherwise, it’s not America.”
Kalb does not represent that the press gets it right every time. In fact, he admits they are often wrong, but the point of the book is that a free press is necessary for a democracy to survive. Several press organizations competing to “get it right” tends to lay credibility to the notion that the news is not “fake” but instead a result of efforts to report in an increasingly fast news cycle. We are driven by technology to produce reports quickly, which common sense tells us are going to sometimes be inaccurate. This provides Trump with just the enemy an authoritarian requires to advance himself, much the same as Senator McCarthy used communism until his tales caught up with him, due in no small measure to the efforts of the press.
One comes away from Enemy of the People sensing alarm. After a time, the credibility of the author and the heroes he cites in the press, including Walter Cronkite, just cannot be ignored. We have had people with outsized objectives in office before – Senator McCarthy, Richard Nixon. We have had problematic policies, like the war in Vietnam. These problems were dealt with by an electorate having access to information from a free press.
The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, by Jon Meacham (May 8, 2018). Much like Delores Kearns Goodwin, this author reaches back into our past to help us find the means to erect a better present. The work is written as the author recognizes we are in a period of extremism, nativism, racism and isolationism driven by economic and social stress. The pattern of such periods don’t yield the end times, the author argues, and now is not all that different than before. “One point of this book is to remind us that imperfection is the rule, not the exception,” he writes in the introduction.
Like with Kalb’s Enemy of the People, much of the book discusses events we would prefer to forget in American history; McCarthyism, for example, is discussed, how the junior senator from Wisconsin was able to rise on a tide of fear, and how he was ultimately taken down by “better angels.”
Meacham quotes Edward R. Murrow editorializing the conduct of Senator McCarthy, who “caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and gave considerable comfort to our enemies…. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it – and rather successfully. Cassius was right, the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Good night and good luck.” Meacham sees parallels in the strategies of McCarthy and Trump.
The author also describes the rise and fall of George Wallace, running on a third-party ticket in 1968 and winning five deep south states with 46 electoral votes. Wallace promised a wall and tariffs much the same as Mr. Trump. His slogan was not to Make America great gain, but his message inferred that these tools will bring back the America the voters thought they once had.
Meacham makes the point that humility tends to be the mark of our better leaders, that “compromise is the oxygen of democracy. And that we learn the most from those who came before not by gazing up at them uncritically or down on them condescendingly but by looking them in the eye and taking their true measure as human beings, not as gods.”
His warning is that of John Adams who said in 1808, “Commerce, luxury and avarice have destroyed every republican government. We mortals cannot work miracles; we struggle in vain against…the course of nature.” Meacham also recalls the words of Abraham Lincoln, remarking on the impulses of good and evil and how the “better angels of our nature” have prevailed just often enough to keep the national enterprise alive.
Conclusion: Speaking Truth to Power and Not Letting Fear Drive Policy
“Everyone prefers belief to the exercise of judgment.” –Seneca
There are many other books concerning this era published in the past two years, for example How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt or The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President by Brandy X. Lee, and others. I suspect they underscore and reiterate the views of these authors reviewed here.
Kearns Goodwin was prescient with the topic she wanted to explore when she began writing on leadership more than five years ago. Albright’s book brings into sharp focus definitions we must in this age recall and examine when weighing the conduct of those in power if we are to make intelligent choices in the next few years. Kalb underscores the point.
Much as Fukuyama has focused on the concept of the soul in individuals and relied on historical thought from prior centuries, Meacham proposes the country itself has a soul, an adherence to a larger good rather than a constant eye toward personal gain. This notion of an American Creed must and necessarily is dependent upon the collective choices of each American soul to live out the virtues of their better angels.
I have to say, I felt better about America after reading the Meacham book, to recognize that we have historically righted ourselves when we clearly have been in the wrong. That ultimately there is a culture here which we should respect dearly and not be seduced by the “right think” of an age which has become increasingly Orwellian both in terms of technology and political thought. Meacham encourages us to engage in the body politic, resist tribalism, respect facts and deploy reason, and find a critical balance, with history in mind.
In Enemy of the People, Kalb reflects on Meacham’s book as well: Like Roosevelt…, Meacham believed that the American people could accept just so much malarkey from a politician and then, at an often-unremarkable moment, they rebel. Though Meacham was analyzing McCarthy, he was really thinking about Donald Trump. His belief was that just as the public ultimately tired of McCarthy, they would soon tire of Trump.
Obviously, there is something deep in the American ethos that senses it has all gone wrong somehow, many choosing Trump as president to address our concerns, probably because he says things that no other politician will say. But Trump uses authoritarianism as a means to deal with perceived issues, a trait we don’t normally associate with American leaders. Whatever it is we think we need, we need to dig deeper to find a leader to bring us there. The times call for a transformative presidency, one that most Americans can identify with and follow.
We the People, the Americans, must reach a point where we decide we have had enough. Fukuyama’s book on identity is an important piece in understanding why we turned to a person so unsuited for office, how it was he somehow spoke to our deepest longings. His conduct while in office has shaken our most trusted institutions not because they are rotten, but because these democratic structures are central to the democracy, structures Trump is unaccustomed to managing given his background as a real estate tycoon. We need to start with a person of character, who understands the American traditions and values in governance.
Trump appeared on the scene telling a portion of America what they wanted to hear, that their problems were the result of others, that he could literally “make America great again” but apparently the price of his vision is the bedrock values of our society. Sadly, his conduct often distracts from what might otherwise be legitimate policy objectives his constituents and presumably the Republican party desire. Kalb argues Trump’s ego has “sucked all the oxygen” out of Washington D.C.
The phrase most often repeated in these books is Trump is simply “unsuited” for the position. The evidence is his ego gets in the way of considering what America really means to us as a whole. Taking the office of president appears to be the final act in his self-authored tale of perceived infallibility.
Taken as a whole, these books bring us full circle to the question posed by Abraham Lincoln during his Gettysburg address: whether, in this time of great conflict, we prove that a nation conceived under a written constitution can long endure, or, shall a government of the people, by the people and for the people, perish from the earth?
To say these things in print is to challenge and speak truth to power. Judging by how other authoritarians have dealt with dissent in the 20th century we have cause to be concerned that dissenting voices will be crushed today. The President has revoked press credentials for those who ask him hard questions. He has threatened to revoke broadcasting licenses for networks who report on his often-outrageous conduct and question the integrity of his election. How does this fit into the America we have cherished in the past?
I must end with a quote from Edward R. Murrow’s broadcast See It Now, a broadcast that laid out the shortcomings of Senator McCarthy and began the demise of McCarthyism. Murrow’s words peer into the soul of every American, helping us define who we are, and what we should do in times of threat to the American way:
We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
The books reviewed here and those like them fall into the wake of a robust exercise of the First Amendment which has kept us free. In this age it takes a measure of courage to write them. As Albright’s family found when fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1939 and Kalb found when placed on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, power can and will work to crush dissent. We have to be vigilant in the defense of freedom, which necessarily means allowing everyone a voice, lest the creep of authoritarianism overwhelm us and be recognized only too late.
To quote Murrow again, Good night, and good luck.