Two books by high-profile political commentators, a Trump critic on the left and one on the right, preview this standoff. Individually, they read like standard Trump-era books emanating from the #resistance and #NeverTrump worlds: Both are passionate, well-intentioned and certain to draw approving nods from their respective audiences. Read together, however, they reveal that the divisions after President Trump — not just between critics and supporters but within the wide range of the opposition — will multiply. The path from “where do we stand” to “what do we do” is arduous; it’s the difference between words and work, between being righteous and being right.
The dispute begins with interpretations of Trump’s election. (Yes, still.) Don’t believe the “gauzy fiction” of hard-luck heartlanders beset by economic anxiety, writes MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid in “The Man Who Sold America.” No, it was partisanship, race-baiting, and animosity against immigrants and Muslims — along with “aggressive, full-throttled voter suppression” and an attack on U.S. democracy by a foreign power — that propelled Trump to power. The candidate himself was largely artificial, “a product that was packaged, marketed, and sold to America,” Reid writes, yet one savvy enough to stoke the base while implementing a conventionally plutocratic agenda. “Trump channeled ethno-populist rage as naturally and charismatically as George Wallace had during the 1960s, while seating a billionaire cabinet.”
Reid, whom the New York Times has labeled a “heroine of the resistance,” regards America’s divides as vast and nearly irreconcilable. In an increasingly secular and pluralistic nation, “Trumpists want a return to a white, Christian America.” Her vision for a path beyond Trumpism is broad and bold but fuzzy. She stresses that “white America and the institutions that wield political and economic power” must engage in the effort to ease racial divisions, but she doesn’t explain what shape such engagement would take.
And despite her early skepticism about the economic rationale of Trump voters, by the end of her book Reid is emphasizing the challenge of income inequality and its impact on working-class politics. “The reversion of American society to a nation of the superrich and the rest . . . is straining the country in ways that go way beyond economics,” she writes, citing the hollowing-out of Midwestern manufacturing centers and the automation of industries that once employed millions of workers lacking college degrees. Reid listens sympathetically to experts who argue that voters’ anger is indeed rooted in economic inequality, and she highlights popular support for a wealth tax along the lines of what Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed in her presidential campaign.
Such apparent inconsistency may simply be Reid’s acknowledgment that transforming cultural attitudes is hard. When considering the racial strife, hyperpartisanship and sexism that permeated the 2016 campaign, she asks, “Who, if anyone, had the moral authority to walk the 30 to 40 percent of Americans who were vulnerable to that kind of messaging back from the edge?”
Peter Wehner, a former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, offers a contrasting interpretation of Trump’s appeal in “The Death of Politics,” a compact and philosophically inclined book. He acknowledges both the “cultural anxiety” of many Trump voters — “mostly male, white, and Christian,” he notes — and the “creeping hopelessness” of lesser-educated rural dwellers. But he largely blames political elites, whose failures from Vietnam and Watergate to Iraq and the Great Recession have fostered widespread contempt for politics across regions and classes, and the “near-total collapse of trust in the governing class and political establishment.” For a disaffected and disappointed public, Trump became a convenient wrecking ball that would take it all down.
For Wehner, broken politics reflects a broken country; we are all to blame. For Reid, one side of the divide is at far greater fault.
Wehner hopes Americans will come to respect politics once again. He admits that it now seems “dirty” and “undignified” and “corrupt” and “unprincipled” (check, check, check and check), but he insists that politics remains a noble calling and a necessary one. Drawing on Aristotle, Locke and Lincoln, Wehner urges a restoration of moderation, compromise and civility. He doesn’t mind if such political values seem old-fashioned — just don’t call them weak.
Moderation implies prudence, humility to recognize limits, and an aversion to fanaticism and utopian visions. “Its antithesis is not conviction but intemperance,” Wehner writes. Compromise is moderation’s practical side; only the paranoid, Wehner charges, would call it treason. And civility is central to citizenship: “When civility is stripped away, everything in life becomes a battlefield.” Here the author channels Abraham Lincoln, who was “willing to concede that his side was not perfect and the other side was not unmitigated evil.” It’s a good sentiment for this moment — and for the next one, too.
The reaffirmation of such values is the strength of his book, but even Wehner is pessimistic that the theme will resonate. “The great challenge for a book like this is that its greatest reach may be with people who least need to hear its message,” he admits. “The political entrepreneurs and social provocateurs who win profit and promotion by demeaning politics and coarsening discourse are not going to be swayed.”
But Wehner is in the swaying business; at the very least, he wants us to try. “The challenge of our time is to rediscover our best ends and noblest purposes,” he asserts. Well, sure, but how exactly? “If each of us inspires or moves one or two or three other people to give politics — real politics, not just political theater — a second chance . . . then there will be millions among us.” It’s a little too Hallmark for comfort. In practical terms, Wehner calls for regulation of social media platforms and a focus on civic literacy and American history in schools, because in tribal times, “a greater knowledge of history will revive our identity as Americans.” He also supports reforms that would restore Congress’s pride of place as the first branch of government, such as breaking the budget process into smaller parts, giving committees more control of floor time, and expanding congressional oversight of the executive branch as well as — you knew it was coming! — campaign finance.
Wehner is skeptical of broad, structural and national reforms propelled by activist government bent on social transformation. If moderation, compromise and civility are Wehner’s political values, modesty, empiricism and competence are his governing ones. “We don’t need to transform everyone’s behavior or temperament (something no conservative would ever want to attempt, by the way),” he writes.
Both Reid and Wehner look explicitly to life after Trump. “Can America undo the damage he has done?” Reid asks. She hopes that new national leadership can attempt to mend the country. “Are we ready to do the hard work of repairing these fissures?” Wehner asks. He prefers that Americans change one another through individual suasion and the force of personal example.
There are areas where they come together. They agree that American evangelicals have betrayed their beliefs for political power, for instance. (Wehner publicly broke with the evangelical movement in late 2017, citing its support for Trump and Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama.) They both decry Trump’s assault on truth. They highlight how his presidency has prompted a surge of political activism among ordinary citizens. (That’s a standard applause line in just about every book critical of the Trump presidency, though it’s strange solace to cheer how Trump has made even apolitical Americans desperate enough to engage.)
And both authors, like so many others, call for a renewal of the American story. Yes, of course. But pining for a new narrative can only be our narrative for so long.
Reid and Wehner often agree on where they stand on the president, but far less so on what to do about it. Policy elites are incompetent — or they should attempt big changes. Trump voters are racists — or they’re just really, really disappointed. The country is divided into “two starkly different and disunited Americas,” as Reid puts it, or it is suffering “a crisis of confidence” in its ability to navigate its differences, as Wehner concludes.
Perhaps the 2020 election will settle things. But don’t count on it. After all, we’re still fighting over what 2016 meant.