Review: What I learned about America by reading

Political books are everywhere a year after the election. I read 15 of them to understand how Americans are still processing the results.

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It didn’t work out too well for Lot’s wife, fleeing the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or for Orpheus, trying to fetch his beloved Eurydice from Hades. But with the 2016 presidential election in the rear-view mirror for a year, reporters, pundits, politicians and, yes, even psychiatrists are daring to turn around and look back.

They’ve produced a spate of books on our politics, our democracy and our leaders – some coolly analytical; others angry, humorous or even inspiring. The latest -- Donna Brazile’s Hacks -- already has prompted factional sniping among Democrats for its shots at Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Still more newsy books loom on the horizon, making it hard for political obsessives to keep up. To give you a head start, I alternately devoured, perused and slogged through fifteen of the early arrivals.

A couple of these books – speechwriter David Litt’s wryly self-deprecating memoir Thanks, Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power – transport us back to the Obama years. Dan Rather’s essay collection, What Unites Us, co-written with Elliot Kirschner, stirringly melds memoir with a meditation on American values, including patriotism, inclusion and dissent.

Kurt Andersen’s ambitious Fantasyland presents an idiosyncratic 500-year survey of “how America went haywire” in its predilection for the mythic and fanciful – in religion, history, medicine, lifestyle, entertainment, economics and, finally, politics. The unmooring of our politics from facts is also a theme of MSNBC anchor Katy Tur’s memoir Unbelievable, on the highs and lows of covering Trump -- and the steely ambition that helped her survive the ordeal. While traversing the emotional spectrum from rage to acceptance, Clinton’s What Happened conveys a similar incredulity.

Ivana Trump’s self-congratulatory Raising Trump buffs the legend of the hardworking Trump progeny, describes her early life and losses, and stresses her ongoing friendship with ex-husband Donald Trump. She supplies little insight into the man himself, but two other books deal explicitly with the President’s mental health. Keith Olbermann’s Trump is F∗cking Crazy collects the veteran broadcaster’s rants from his GQ magazine Web series, from both before and after the election -- powered by anger, brilliant in spots, but hard to digest en masse. A more sober compilation, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, edited by Bandy X. Lee, offers a smorgasbord of tentative psychiatric diagnoses of the President, from sociopathy to dementia, as well as arguments about whether such diagnoses are legitimate.

Wisconsin radio host turned television pundit Charles J. Sykes picks up on the insanity theme from another angle: His book, How the Right Lost its Mind, is a thoughtful, readable history of how conservatism splintered, gave way to unsavory extremism, and ultimately produced Trumpism. By contrast, Laura Ingraham’s Billionaire at the Barricades celebrates what she sees as conservative populism, eschewing nuance in favor of ideological stridency.

Overall, this readers’ bounty encapsulates how Americans all along the political spectrum are still processing and parsing the 2016 presidential election and the opening phase of the Trump presidency. Many of these first-draft-of-history books grapple with how Clinton’s seemingly sure shot turned into a Trump triumph. Here are a few of the competing, sometimes overlapping, explanations:

--The Clinton campaign’s destructive infighting, overreliance on data and lack of an overarching vision (Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes’s Shattered).

--The evil genius of Steve Bannon and his populist ideology (Joshua Green’s smartly written and reported Devil’s Bargain).

--The brilliant political and policy instincts of Trump and Clinton’s insulting reference to his “basket of deplorables” (Ingraham’s Billionaire at the Barricades).

--The complex interplay of Rust Belt economic pain and white working-class cultural resentment, along with institutional impediments to democracy (One Nation After Trump, by E.J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann).

--“Whitelash” against the Obama era, liberal cultural elitism, and the Clinton campaign’s refusal to heed grassroots advice (CNN political commentator Van Jones’s Beyond the Messy Truth).

-- A resurgence of the unvarnished racism that has haunted American history (Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power).

--The failure of Republicans to disassociate themselves from such bigotry and their tolerance of an alternative media universe unconstrained by facts (Sykes’s How the Right Lost its Mind).

--The country’s persistent historical disconnect from reality (Andersen’s Fantasyland).

--A pernicious hybrid of former FBI director James Comey’s October surprise, Russian election meddling, sexism and misogyny, and the media’s obsessive focus on Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state (Clinton’s What Happened).

Published in April, Shattered, a tick-tock of the Clinton campaign, helped set the terms of the debate. Anonymously sourced and ploddingly written, the book by two past Clinton biographers is tough on both the candidate and her team -- and crammed with just enough juicy and damaging details to keep the Inside-the-Beltway crowd riveted.

In contrast to 2008, internecine battling within the 2016 Clinton campaign mostly stayed out of the press. But this account suggests that campaign manager Robby Mook and campaign chairman John Podesta were bitterly at odds. Channeling the views of two speechwriters, Allen and Parnes write: “The campaign was an unholy mess, fraught with tangled lines of authority, petty jealousies, distorted priorities, and no sense of greater purpose. No one was in charge, and no one had figured out how to make the campaign about something bigger than Hillary.”

To some extent, Clinton’s What Happened is a rebuttal to Shattered – an attempt both to work through her admittedly “devastating” loss and to place the blame, or much of it, elsewhere. “I’ve made mistakes, been defensive about them, stubbornly resisted apologizing,” she writes. But so too, she insists, have most men in politics, not least our current president.

“I totally reject the notion that it was an unusually flawed or dysfunctional campaign,” she writes. She denies having relied too much on what she pointedly calls “Obama-style big data” at the expense of “good-old fashioned political instinct.” And she heaps praise on her staff -- from “the highly disciplined and levelheaded” Mook to her “trusted and valued advisor” Huma Abedin, whose husband Anthony Weiner’s sexting escapades indirectly spurred the renewal of the FBI’s damaging investigation into Clinton’s email habits.

Whatever signals the campaign missed about Trump’s surging strength in the campaign’s final days also were missed by nearly everyone else, she says. And while she concedes that she was “not the most natural politician,” she insists that she was “a lot better than I’m usually given credit for.”

Clinton is also at pains to defend her complicated marriage and political partnership with Bill Clinton. While she devotes only a handful of (extremely tactful) pages specifically to their union (“I still think he’s one of the most handsome men I’ve ever known”), the former president surfaces throughout the book as a loving, supportive presence – leaving her sweet notes and holding her hand in defeat.

By contrast, Clinton’s book radiates contempt for the man who beat her. Trump is “an unqualified bully” who “seems to relish humiliating people around him” and who projects his failings onto others. “He had no ideological core,” she writes, “apart from his towering self-regard, which blotted out all hope of learning or growing.”

She directs considerable wrath at Comey, who she believes “shivved” her by announcing the reopening of the investigation into her past use of a private email server just days before the election. Assessing allegations of Russian electoral interference, she suggests that perhaps “the Russians had gotten help from someone with experience in American politics.” She also unloads about the electorate’s presumed misogyny, sexism and bigotry; voter suppression; unfair and unbalanced media coverage; Bernie Sanders’ image-shaping attacks on her as corrupt during the primary; the presence of third-party candidates, and the increasingly undemocratic Electoral College.

With the help of friends, family, Broadway theater, philosophical reading, escapist television (The Good Wife, Madame Secretary, Downton Abbey), walks in the woods, yoga and a gradual return to political activism, Clinton says she is healing. But her understandable bitterness seeps through.

In a more impersonal way, One Nation After Trump by Dionne, Ornstein and Mann, looks at similar institutional factors -- including the Electoral College, voter suppression, and the role of the media. The authors share Clinton’s view that intertwined cultural, racial and economic anxieties within the white working class helped power the Trump vote. It is “impossible,” they say in their excellent chapter “Race, Immigration, Culture, or Economics?,” “to separate entirely the upsurge of economic discontent from the rise of racism and nativism.”

The book is centrist in its politics, yet alarmist about the impact of the Trump victory on American democracy. Trumpism, Dionne and his co-authors say, needs to be understood as “a protest movement among a minority of Americans to long-term changes in the country’s social, economic, religious and political life.” But they suggest, optimistically, that “the popular mobilization and national soul-searching he has aroused could be the occasion for an era of democratic renewal.” Among the nostrums they endorse are such neo-liberal standbys as public-private partnerships, a national service program, corporate and tax reform, and the revitalization of civil society.

Writing from the right, the Dartmouth-educated, former Supreme Court clerk Laura Ingraham trashes “GOP elites” and makes common cause with the “working Americans” who regarded Trump as a savior. While her account of the populist strain in Republican politics is useful, her credibility is undermined by ideological sniping, including her dismissal of Obama as “the most far-left radical ever to step foot in the Oval Office.”

Sykes, a different sort of conservative, accepts a measure of personal blame for Trumpism. In How the Right Lost its Mind, he worries that he may have contributed to “an alternative reality bubble” in which “ideas of freedom, limited government, and constitutionalism” have been replaced by “a crude populist nativism that fed into the Right’s media zeitgeist.” While the Democrats need to conduct an autopsy, Republicans, he writes, “need an exorcism.”

The Right, he says, has long been “a mess – a contentious collection of disparate, often contradictory ideas and querulous and warring factions of libertarians, chamber of commerce types, traditionalists, and social conservatives.” Trump’s ascendance marked the end of an “essential” but uneasy equilibrium. Sykes, who has described himself as a “recovering liberal,” slashes at Democrats and the Left for their alleged intolerance of competing ideas. But his articulate, historically savvy critique of his own party and movement – particularly his account of the rise of “post-truth politics” – transcends typical partisan distinctions.

In her dispatches from what she similarly calls a “menacing, indecent, post-truth landscape,” Tur reports that she frequently felt under threat. She notes that the outcome of the election surprised her less than most, but she offers no global theories. Instead, she plunges us into the maelstrom of the campaign as she endures exhaustion, angry crowds, junk food, romantic disappointment, Trump’s untruths and inappropriateness, and sexual harassment by an unnamed Trump senior staffer. “This job is hell,” she complains at one point, but, in thrall to the demands of her profession, she has little desire to quit it. She offers this explanation for her adaptability to Trump coverage: “The people I love are all a little nuts.”

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump tackles the subject of Trump’s mental health. The so-called Goldwater rule of the American Psychiatric Association, promulgated in 1973, cautions psychiatrists against diagnosing people they haven’t personally evaluated. But Trump has seemed, to some, a special case. “By speaking out as mental health professionals, we lend support and dignity to our fellow citizens who are justifiably alarmed by the president’s furious tirades, conspiracy fantasies, aversion to facts, and attraction to violence,” Lee, assistant clinical professor in law and psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, and Judith Lewis Herman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, write in a prologue.

Many of the book’s contributors (most of whom are registered Democrats and supported Clinton, according to CNN research) stop short of making specific diagnoses. But they suggest, with varying degrees of certainty, that Trump may be a “pathological narcissist” (clinical psychologist Craig Malkin); a sociopath (according to Lance Dodes, a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School); “a profoundly evil man exhibiting malignant narcissism” (clinical psychologist John D. Gartner), or the victim of some form of degenerative cognitive decline (psychiatrist David M. Reiss). (In Trump is F*cking Crazy, Olbermann, unbound by rules or relevant academic degrees, unambiguously declares him a psychopath.)

Sometimes, it helps to get some distance. The most fiercely argued and finely written of these new books place the campaign in the context of American history. We Were Eight Years in Power, Coates’s follow-up to his National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, borrows its title from a post-Reconstruction statement by a black South Carolina congressman, trumpeting that era’s accomplishments.

Subtitled An American Tragedy, Coates’ book prefaces previously published essays for The Atlantic, one for each year of the Obama administration, with autobiographical musings about each piece. The best of the essays, combining reportage with polemics and analysis, are “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” which eloquently describe government-backed white profiteering and the fallout of unequal justice.

In “My President Was Black,” Coates assesses both Obama (who is too restrained on race to suit him) and his critics, and addresses the forces eventuating in Trump’s election. The GOP nominee’s campaign, writes Coates, trafficked in “misogyny, Islamophobia, and xenophobia” – slurs for which “an eight-year campaign of consistent and open racism aimed at the leader of the free world helped clear the way.” In his epilogue, “The First White President,” Coates argues that Trump’s whiteness, in fact, made him president. Far from having no ideology, Coates writes, “his ideology is white supremacy in all of its truculent and sanctimonious power.”

Finally, there is Andersen’s Fantasyland, a sprightly history of America through the lens of its seduction by a variety of fantasies, including millennialism, Hollywood movies, Disneyland and its progeny, the pastoral idyll of suburbanization, and conspiracy theories of every description. That America is unique is hard to prove – surely, as Andersen mentions in passing, Germany was caught up in mass delusion in the 1930s and ’40s. And Great Britain is the source of both the Harry Potter series and a fantastical obsession with royalty, past and present.

Andersen describes Trump in apolitical terms as “a high lord of Fantasyland” and “a pure Fantasyland being, its apotheosis,” as well as “first and foremost a creature of the fantasy-industrial complex.” If “his candidacy and presidency are its ultimate expression,” Andersen writes, with guarded optimism, “America may now be at peak Fantasyland,” and headed back toward sanity and rationality. The obvious question is whether Andersen’s hope is realistic – or yet another example of the magical thinking he decries.

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, Mother Jones, The Nation and many other publications. She was a finalist this year for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.

Illustrations by Drue Wagner

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