Jeff Shesol is a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a founding partner at West Wing Writers. His most recent book is “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court.”
The president-elect doesn’t read many books. “I never have,” Donald Trump said last summer. “I’m always busy doing a lot.” But that doesn’t mean that you, America, have to give up the habit. Whether you’re never-Trump or pro-Trump, reading can help you understand what is happening and what might happen to your country during the next four years. While the nation, under Trump, is entering new territory, it is not entirely uncharted. As the following books make clear, the raw populism, nativism and conspiracism of Trump’s campaign — and of key members of the team he is assembling — have deep roots, both in the United States and abroad.
The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America (1978), by Lawrence Goodwyn
Echoes of the agrarian revolt of the 1890s — the great insurgency of the Gilded Age — can be heard today in our own populist moment. In this classic account, Lawrence Goodwyn describes how the movement flowed from a wellspring of grievances, principally the “plain people’s” feeling that the new industrial order was not working for them and that the rules of finance, including the monetary system of the United States, were rigged against rural America.
Yet Goodwyn makes clear that populism was not merely a platform; it was, at bottom, “an expression of self-respect” in the face of bewildering economic change. By the end of the century, the movement — rudderless, leaderless and, over time, coopted by the Democratic Party — had petered out. “The people” and their political allies found themselves unable to compete with a Republican Party that had aligned itself with big business, left the legacy of Lincoln behind and adopted what Goodwyn calls an “intensely nationalistic and racially exclusive” identity.
The World of the John Birch Society: Conspiracy, Conservatism, and the Cold War (2014), by D.J. Mulloy
The John Birch Society was founded in 1958 by industrialists and conspiracists who believed — in the words of their leader, Robert Welch — that government was “the greatest enemy of man.” That idea, commonplace on the right today, had few adherents in midcentury America. In “The World of the John Birch Society,” D.J. Mulloy tells the origin story of a political culture that is now, with Trump’s election, ascendant.
To the Birch Society, politics was a Manichean struggle between darkness and light, and America was on the edge of annihilation — if not by the H-bomb, then by the secret designs of a clique that Welch called “the insiders” or “the Liberal Establishment.” John Birchers saw conspiracies everywhere, including the Oval Office: Welch famously denounced President Dwight D. Eisenhower as “a dedicated, conscious agent” of communism.
A source of constant controversy and ridicule, the Birch Society seemed, by the mid-1960s, to have lost its battle to “awaken” America. Michigan Gov. George Romney, a Republican, spoke for most in his party when he attacked society members as “purveyors of hate.” But as Mulloy argues, the Birch Society — its worldview, its energy at the grass roots, its organizational skill — revived and, over time, reshaped the Republican Party.
The Dark Valley:
A Panorama of the 1930s (2000), by Piers Brendon
In this sweeping, cinematic account of the world’s descent into war, British historian Piers Brendon shows that fascism, during the 1930s, did not roll in on tanks and in grand processions; those came later. The near-collapse of capitalism during the Great Depression created, as Brendon puts it, a “crisis of confidence” among the world’s democracies and fed the rage and despair of the disempowered, who demanded a return to some lost (and mythological) ideal of national greatness.
Fascism also arrived in the form of apparent buffoons: Adolf Hitler, shabby and sullen, and Benito Mussolini, whose almost desperate displays of masculinity struck many non-Italians, including one foreign journalist, as “absurd attitudinizing.” Yet the clowns soon commanded a cult of personality, suppressing civil liberties and extinguishing any form of opposition. Beyond the jackboot, the truncheon and the gun, their chief weapon was the lie: “organized deception,” in Brendon’s words. New technology — and new methods of propaganda — gave dictators the ability to create and impose their own versions of reality.
The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (2015), by Steven Lee Myers
A clear-eyed and chilling portrait of authoritarianism in the 21st century, Steven Lee Myers’s biography of Vladimir Putin provides our best understanding yet of the only global leader for whom the president-elect has expressed consistent and unembarrassed admiration.
Putin won office in 2000 by making shrewd appeals to Russia’s wounded patriotism and by promising to reverse the country’s dramatic post-Cold War decline. As president, he moved steadily to assert personal control over the military and the media — along with much of the economy. Industries, monopolies and vast riches in natural resources were put in the hands (and lined the pockets) of acolytes. Russians began to call their government “Kremlin, Inc.” and Putin its CEO.
As he tightened his grip, the whole nation became “hostage to the psychosomatic quirks of its leader,” as the novelist Vladimir Sorokin wrote. “All his fears, passions, weaknesses, and complexes become state policy.” The book’s careful rendering of Putin’s hardness and shrewdness suggests that his American admirer is badly outmatched.
Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches (2003), edited by Josh Gottheimer
If there is a consensus view about anything in this country, in this moment, it is that the 2016 election was a debasing, dispiriting slog. Inspiration was in short supply. Yet it is present on nearly every page of “Ripples of Hope,” an anthology of civil rights speeches compiled by Josh Gottheimer, a newly elected Democratic congressman from New Jersey (and, full disclosure, a former Clinton White House colleague of mine). Here is the suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt, in 1917, acknowledging that “there are a few ‘women haters’ left . . . but the world does not wait for such as these”; here is Sen. Joseph Montoya (N.M.), in 1967, declaring that “the time is forever past” when Latinos were “content to stand silent at thousands of back doors. . . . Their eyes look up or forward, rather than down”; here is Martin Luther King Jr., telling an audience in Selma, Ala., in 1965: “Don’t despair. I must admit that there are some difficult days ahead. . . . But the psalmist is right. Weeping may tarry for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
As former president Bill Clinton wrote in the book’s foreword, these speeches summon hope from America’s past, but even more, “they are living reminders of the . . . work yet to be done.”
The Cycles of American
History (1986), by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
For those in need of further comfort, the title of this book might itself suffice. The late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. posited that through the 20th century, the U.S. electorate swung between support of “affirmative government” and “revulsion against it” at 30-year intervals — roughly the span of a single generation. Each new cohort aimed to correct (or overcorrect) the excesses and omissions of the one previous.
In 1999, in a new foreword, Schlesinger argued that the cycle had been disrupted, and the next progressive era forestalled, by the end of the Cold War and the rapid pace of the “Computer Revolution.” Yet he held fast to his faith in history — its continuities, its lessons. “History,” he wrote, “by putting crisis in perspective, supplies the antidote to every generation’s illusion that its own problems are uniquely oppressive.”
If history indeed moves in cycles, then this, too, shall pass.