No doubt, dozens of campaign 2016 book deals are being inked right now, with political journalists and campaign insiders promising to deliver the inside story of this extraordinary presidential race. I hope they do deliver it, and I will read as many of those books as I can stand. In the meantime, though, there are several works — some published this year, others long ago — that tell us much about the presidential race, about the candidates and their parties, and, above all, about the world that gave them to us. As a book critic, new American citizen and first-time voter this Nov. 8, I’ve spent the past year reading books that I hoped would illuminate this moment, and I found plenty. Here are my 16 book recommendations as Election Day approaches:
As the Trump campaign grew in both success and darkness, I relied on two dystopian novels of homegrown totalitarianism to help imagine the worst-case scenarios. I fully expect “It Can’t Happen Here” (1935) by Sinclair Lewis and “The Plot Against America” (2004) by Philip Roth to shoot to the top of the Amazon sales rankings if we awake on Nov. 9 to President-elect Donald J. Trump. But the most useful work to comprehend Trump’s appeal is “What Is Populism?” (2016) by Princeton University political scientist Jan-Werner Müller. In this essential book, Müller defines populism’s most salient characteristics — anti-elitism, anti-pluralism, exclusivity — and explains Trump and other populists through that framework. It is a quick read, and worth every page.
Of course, 2016 has been the year that the white working class was rediscovered as an object of journalistic fascination and electoral strategizing, and books such as the poignant but preachy “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance and the acclaimed but condescending “Strangers in Their Own Land” by Arlie Russell Hochschild have gotten plenty of attention. Yet, I found “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg to be most instructive in detailing the origins of the long-held class resentments that this campaign has surfaced. Jeff Chang’s “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation” captures the fights over diversity and representation that Trump skillfully deploys to rally his base, while Sarah Jaffe’s “Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt” surveys the activist movements on the left — from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street — that helped shape the Democratic primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and that have provided a whole new vocabulary of radicalism and protest, one that has permeated the discourse of the Democratic Party.
As with Trump, Hillary Clinton’s memoirs show us how she wishes to stage-manage her reputation. If you want to read one of them, it’s not a hard choice — read “Living History” (2003). Though still guarded, it provides a much clearer sense of Clinton as a person, not just a policy automaton. That said, if you’re looking for a real Clinton political manifesto, or the closest thing to it, you still can’t do better than “It Takes a Village” (1996). Largely panned when it came out, it nonetheless showcases a mix of Clinton’s values — including a surprising streak of social conservatism — and her eternal struggle to define herself. This is a book that gets better with age.
The 2014 Clinton memoir “Hard Choices” ostensibly details the candidate’s experiences and triumphs as secretary of state, but too often lapses into trip reports and foreign-policy buzzwords. Skip it. A deeper dive into Clinton’s record as America’s top diplomat is available in “Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle for American Power” by Mark Landler, which purports to reveal a clash of worldviews between the former rivals turned partners, but instead merely delivers a terrific survey of American foreign policy in the Obama years, replete with pivots, rests and Clintonian credit-mongering.
The universe of conspiratorial anti-Hillary literature is vast and constantly expanding, and 2016 saw several additions to the canon. In particular, Dinesh D’Souza’s “Hillary’s America” is an intricate reinterpretation of American history in which the Democratic Party, and Clinton as its “dark id,” are the purveyors of all evil for all time in America. It is easy to see how, if you bring yourself to believe what is in these pages, it becomes nearly impossible to vote for Clinton, no matter your reservations about her opponent. And ironically, the campaign book by Hillary Clinton and Tom Kaine, “Stronger Together,” makes a case for the ticket’s ready-on-day-one expertise, but does so in such a lazy, repetitive and unreadable manner that it undercuts that very premise.
Finally, several works offer insight into the evolution and challenges of the two major parties. Thomas Frank’s “Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?” (2016) is a classic disaffected liberal’s case — and a persuasive one — against what the Democratic Party has become under the Clintons; that is, in Frank’s telling, a party more concerned with the creative class than the working class. Yuval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism” (2016) shows how misplaced nostalgia permeates modern politics, and offers a road map for the Republican Party after the wreckage of the 2016 campaign. (Hint: It starts with humility.)
And lest you think this race is unprecedented and unique in its vitriol and lunacy, here’s a bonus pick: Read the splendid “American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division” by Michael A. Cohen, and find how, in some ways, we have seen this before. Though I suppose it is no consolation to realize that the 2016 race is not just depressing, but generic, too.
Read more from Book Party, including: