The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To understand the Trump era, a Post critic read 150 books

"What Were We Thinking" by Carlos Lozada. (Simon and Schuster)

Judging by its title, some readers might believe that Carlos Lozada’s “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era” is satire. It is anything but. Lozada, The Washington Post’s nonfiction book critic, has read some 150 works assessing Donald Trump and his presidency and has produced an immensely valuable book that, in his words, delves into the “debates of this moment — from the heartland to the border, from the resistance on the left to the civil war on the right, from the battles over truth to the fears about democracy.”

But Lozada sounds chagrined that the huge body of work that Trump has incited hasn’t added up to a richer intellectual portrait of his influence. “Too many books of the Trump era are more knee-jerk than incisive, more posing than probing, more righteous than right, more fixated on calling out the daily transgressions of the man in the Oval Office — this is not normal! — than on assessing their impact,” he writes. “Individually, these books try to show a way forward. Collectively, they reveal how we’re stuck.”

From his vast reading, Lozada, who won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, has concluded that “the most essential books of the Trump era are scarcely about Trump at all.” Rather than works that focus on White House intrigue, scandals and policy disputes, he believes that the most important books today place our nation’s conflicts within the larger context of our “endless fight to live up to our self-professed, self-evident truths.” Such books focus without dogma or simplification on the struggles of the White working class, protests, immigration, race, and the damage to the presidency and our system of government.

Lozada acknowledges that he can’t cover the entire Trump-era oeuvre, but in his selections his judgment is good and his survey illuminating. He is a thoughtful, clever and engaging tour guide. He argues persuasively that the most valuable recent books on American public life move beyond outrage to probe the reasons Trump was elected and the reasons his supporters have stuck by him. One slice of the Trump electorate is the White working class, a group that many authors have analyzed according to their own preconceived notions. “Yes, the white working class may have helped put Trump in the White House,” Lozada writes, “but it has also become a literary and sociological device advancing the political interpretations of the writers and intellectuals suddenly fixated on this demographic.”

After Trump’s victory, progressives inaugurated a new genre of books that Lozada organizes under the rubric “How Awful I Felt on Election Night.” Though some of these titles called for conversations between opposing groups, they often sounded more like monologues. The resistance literature that emerged in some cases attempted to fight Trump with a progressive extremism equal to his hard-right instincts. But, Lozada writes, even as some disgruntled progressives pushed radical ideas, some conservatives, ably personified by the radio host and Post contributing columnist Hugh Hewitt, turned sycophantic. These authors “lavish praise on Trump while fantasizing about his policies and euphemizing, or simply ignoring, his worst tendencies.” Such mythmaking is close to intellectual malfeasance. As Lozada puts it: “Trump the virtuous. Trump the inclusive. Trump the generous. A good way to defend this president is to imagine him to be someone other than himself.”

Lozada offers a brilliant, wrenching analysis of immigration in a chapter titled “Beyond the Wall.” He highlights the work of Erika Lee (“America for Americans: A History of xenophobia in the United States”) to underscore that anti-immigrant sentiment has been all but constant in our nation’s past. “Xenophobia is like a muscle,” Lozada writes, “that grows stronger with use, and the mistreatment of each new immigrant community becomes a baseline for the next.” He quotes Suketu Mehta (“This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto”) on the loved ones every immigrant leaves behind: grandparents laying out a meal, waiting for children to return; children waiting for their mothers to phone. Mehta explains that people don’t leave their homelands on a whim, or because they don’t like it there, or to strike it rich. Lozada observes that to Mehta immigration is reparations, “payback for colonialism, for the plunder of resources, for ecological and economic devastation” of the homeland.

Lozada’s treatment of identity and gender politics is especially valuable. He surveys the explosion of studies examining trends in Black and white-supremacist identities to deliver insights on their history and the current moment. Relying on journalist David Neiwe, Lozada traces the alt-right movement, with its elements of “paranoia, conspiracy, and white resentment,” back at least as far as the sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge in the 1990s. It becomes clear that it did not take the recent protests to ignite the country’s volatile blend of racism and misogyny.

For women, the Trump years have exacerbated a long history of misogyny and sexual harassment and have unleashed the #MeToo movement, spurring women to speak out and stand up against abuses. “Among the most lasting consequences of the #MeToo movement, even beyond the penalties paid by men, is the renewed ability of women to say it all out loud, to find and hear one another, to elevate their stories out of private anguish and into public memory,” Lozada writes. “The memoirs of the Me Too era are so piercing that, even if they do not bring systems crashing down, they reveal the rotting foundations.”

Tackling the biggest question of the Trump era — can democracy survive? — Lozada finds some of the intellectual assessments and remedies lacking. “The scholars and analysts writing such books are, so far, better at diagnosing ailments than proposing treatments. It is almost as if, daunted by the scale of the problem, they have downsized their designs, as though our democracy is now so weakened that even mild medicine might prove too taxing.” Although challenges to democracy are perennial, books connecting Trump to this long history “feel particularly essential now.”

He outlines the “warning signs of incipient authoritarian leaders” proposed by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (“How Democracies Die”): “They reject the democratic rules of the game, deny the legitimacy of rival politicians, tolerate or encourage political violence, and announce their willingness to limit the civil liberties of opponents, particularly the press.” Levitsky and Ziblatt stress that the absence of two democratic norms in particular raises alarms: mutual toleration, which means the acceptance of political opponents and rival parties as legitimate, and forbearance, which demands that political leaders show restraint in the use of their powers.

In the midst of such anguish, readers may be heartened by the words of Jon Meacham (“The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels”), who also offers a historical perspective. Meacham returns again and again to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, noting that “the most consequential of our past presidents have unified and inspired with conscious dignity and conscientious efficiency.” Lozada notes that “these qualities do not spring to mind when considering our forty-fifth commander in chief,” yet reminds us that, as Meacham points out, “All has seemed lost before, only to give way, after decades of gloom, to light.” In just a few weeks, U.S. voters will decide whether a new dawn will break.

What Were We Thinking

A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era

By Carlos Lozada

Simon & Schuster.

260 pp. $28