How Russia’s campaign to undermine democracies threatens the European Union and the United States.
In a hard-hitting analysis of current events, Snyder (History/Yale Univ.; On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 2017, etc.) argues persuasively that Russia under Putin is aggressively working to destabilize Western nations and export “massive inequality” and “the displacement of policy by propaganda.” Beginning with the strenuous revival of totalitarian thought in 2011, Russia has widened its efforts to attack the EU and to infiltrate American politics by masterminding the election of Donald Trump. For Russia, the EU, which requires that its member countries are democratic and promote human rights, exists as an affront to its “native kleptocracy.” Because “Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe and America,” writes the author, it sought to gain “relative power” by weakening other nations. Using targeted Twitter campaigns, trolls, and bots, Russia manipulated a “leave” vote in the Brexit referendum and later directed its attention to working against Emmanuel Macron in France and Angela Merkel in Germany. Snyder chronicles Putin’s successful influence in Trump’s nomination and election: “a cyberwar to destroy the United States of America.” Russian connections to Trump began in the 1990s, when Russian gangsters laundered money by buying and selling apartments in Trump Tower. Trump, who at the time was bankrupt and owed about $4 billion to more than 70 banks, welcomed funds from Russian oligarchs, who bought his properties through shell companies. The author expertly details Russian involvement in the 2016 election by Paul Manafort, who “had experience getting Russia’s preferred candidates elected president”; Trump’s foreign policy adviser, pro-Putin Carter Page, who became a lobbyist for Russian gas companies; and Michael Flynn. Russian use of Twitter, Facebook, and other internet sources “exploited American gullibility” and cynicism. Freedom, Snyder writes, “depends upon citizens who are able to make a distinction between what is true and what they want to hear.”
A highly distressing, urgent alarm to awaken Americans to the peril of authoritarianism.
A philosopher considers Trumpism through the lens of history, classical thought, and a bit of Hamilton.
Like any clearheaded thinker, Nussbaum (Law and Ethics/Univ. of Chicago; Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, 2016, etc.) was unsettled by Trump’s election, but she’s troubled also by the way people of all political persuasions have succumbed to fear and mindless fear-slinging. She tries to keep Trump at arm's length and focus instead on what philosophers and psychologists going back to antiquity have had to say about fear (“genetically first among the emotions”), its role in stoking anger, disgust, and envy, and how those emotions in turn perpetuate divisive politics (sexism and misogyny especially). That approach gives this important book both up-to-the-moment relevance and long-view gravitas. Athenian debates over wiping out enemies, for instance, reveal the enduring ways that “fear can be manipulated by true and false information.” For centuries, irrational fear about others being unclean and untouchable has been shaped into discriminatory policy and violence. Envy has long provoked attitudes of one-upmanship that support systemic oppression or foolish practices like dueling—Nussbaum writes at length about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical in this context, focusing on Aaron Burr’s and Alexander Hamilton’s competitive natures. But while the author generally takes the long view on these conflagrations, she also wrestles with contemporary rhetoric and social media. Unlike the Stoics and Cynics of the past (or her more emotionally cool contemporaries), she’s more willing to subscribe to hope and faith as solutions, using Martin Luther King Jr. as a key exemplar. Her main prescription for fixing a fear-struck America is straightforward: effectively making AmeriCorps mandatory, an act that “would put young citizens into close contact with people different in age, ethnicity, and economic level.” Nothing would do more to eradicate fear of the other, she argues, though she acknowledges that America at the moment would be too scared to pull it off.
An engaging and inviting study of humanity’s long-standing fear of the other.
A stirring defense of “identity politics” and the need to reclaim narratives as well as a powerful account of the transformation of a journalist into an activist.
The old adage says that the personal is political (and vice versa), and it is the personal that elevates this above the typical activist broadside. Roychoudhuri combines the reporting chops of an experienced journalist with literary flair and a conversational, common-sense approach that seems far more heartfelt than dogmatic. “My primary identity is not as a first-generation Indian-American,” she writes, after recounting her frustrations with an agent interested in her fiction who suggested she make it more “Jhumpa Lahiri-sh.” “I identity more as an ambiguously brown American—one who decided to learn Spanish in part because so many people assume I’m Latina.” As such, the author establishes that she is emblematic of the “marginalized majority” in a country where appeals to reach the “average American” generally connote one who is white and male and where “working-class American” is similarly misrepresented given “the fact that the majority of the American working class is part of an ethnic or racial minority.” Throughout, Roychoudhuri gives voice to those whose voices are too little heard. She finds great hope in “solidarity and intersectionality in protests,” showing how #metoo, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and other movements of the supposedly marginalized have moved into the mainstream. “Marginalized Americans are at the heart of the movement,” she writes. “And they always have been.” Along the way, the author recounts her progression from a reporter more comfortable observing from the sidelines to an activist in the middle of the fray as she tackles myths of subjectivity and objectivity that can distort the reality.
There have been plenty of books covering similar territory—and there will be many more in the years to come—but rarely are they as persuasive and engaging as this one.
Journalist Smarsh explores socio-economic class and poverty through an account of her low-income, rural Kansas–based extended family.
In her first book, addressed to her imaginary daughter—the author, born in 1980, is childless by choice—the author emphasizes how those with solid financial situations often lack understanding about families such as hers. Smarsh, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, lived a nomadic life until becoming a first-generation college student. Smarsh vowed to herself and her imaginary daughter to escape the traps that enslaved her mother, grandmothers, female cousins, and others in her family. “So much of childhood amounts to being awake in a grown-up’s nightmare,” she writes. “Ours happened to be about poverty, which comes with not just psychological dangers but mortal ones, too.” Because the author does not proceed chronologically, the numerous strands of family history can be difficult to follow. However, Smarsh would almost surely contend that the specific family strands are less important for readers to grasp than the powerful message of class bias illustrated by those strands. As the author notes, given her ambition, autodidactic nature, and extraordinary beauty, her biological mother could have made more of herself in a different socio-economic situation. But the reality of becoming a teenage mother created hurdles that Smarsh’s mother could never overcome; her lack of money, despite steady employment, complicated every potential move upward. The author’s father, a skilled carpenter and overall handyman, was not a good provider or a dependable husband, but her love for him is fierce, as is her love for grandparents beset by multiple challenges. While she admits that some of those challenges were self-created, others were caused by significant systemic problems perpetuated by government at all levels. Later, when Smarsh finally reached college, she faced a new struggle: overcoming stereotypes about so-called “white trash.” Then, she writes, “I began to understand the depth of the rift that is economic inequality.”
A potent social and economic message embedded within an affecting memoir.
For those heartsick at Trumpism, essayist and Harper’s contributing editor Solnit (The Mother of All Questions, 2017, etc.) offers context and support. Optimism? You’re on your own.
As the author argues in this fiery clutch of essays, optimism isn’t a particularly helpful attitude anyway. Optimism—and its obverse, pessimism—are “false certainties” that “let us stay home and do nothing” in response to hard-line, bigoted conservatism. It is better, she argues, to cultivate hope, “an informed, astute open-mindedness.” That’s a thesis Solnit has explored often, particularly in her 2009 book on Hurricane Katrina and other tragedies, A Paradise Built in Hell, and she’s persuasive at marshaling a case for the long view while being cleareyed about the degradations of the moment. The 1916 Irish rebellion against the British, for instance, paved the way to independence two decades later, and years of steady pressure led to the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans in 2017. So don’t despair: “We don’t know what will happen next and have to live on principles, hunches, and lessons from history.” Which is why the author doesn’t mind the criticism that liberal pundits like her are preaching to the choir by reasserting principles and history lessons: The choir represents the “deeply committed” who need encouragement. Stoking that support in part demands attacking doublespeak that enables bigotry and unethical behavior from governments. She explores this most effectively in “Death by Gentrification,” an investigation of the shooting of a San Francisco man by police and the rhetorical pretzels police used to blame the victim. Telling the story wrong, with the wrong words and framing, threatens democracy, she exhorts journalism school graduates in one essay. Her own work is a model of doing it right.
Solnit is careful with her words (she always is) but never so much that she mutes the infuriated spirit that drives these essays.
Lewis (The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, 2016, etc.) turns timely political reporting he published in Vanity Fair into a book about federal government bureaucracies during the first year of the Donald Trump presidency.
At first, the author’s curiosity about the relationship between individual citizens and massive federal agencies supported by taxpayer dollars did not lead him to believe the book would become a searing indictment of Trump. However, Lewis wisely allowed the evidence to dictate the narrative, resulting in a book-length indictment of Trump’s disastrous administration. The leading charge of the indictment is what Lewis terms “willful ignorance.” Neither Trump nor his appointees to head government agencies have demonstrated even the slightest curiosity about how those agencies actually function. After Trump’s election in November 2016, nobody from his soon-to-be-inaugurated administration visited federal agencies despite thorough preparation within those agencies to assist in a traditionally nonpartisan transition. Lewis primarily focuses on the Energy Department, the Agriculture Department, and the Commerce Department. To provide context, he contrasts the competent transition teams assembled after the previous elections of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Displaying his usual meticulous research and fluid prose, the author makes the federal bureaucracy come alive by focusing on a few individuals within each agency with fascinating—and sometimes heartwarming—backstories. In addition, Lewis explains why each of those individuals is important to the citizenry due to their sometimes-arcane but always crucial roles within the government. Throughout the book, unforgettable tidbits emerge, such as the disclosure by a Forbes magazine compiler of the world’s wealthiest individuals list that only three tycoons have intentionally misled the list’s compilers—one of the three is Trump, and another is Wilbur Ross, appointed by Trump as Commerce Secretary.
As with nearly all of Lewis’ books, this one succeeds on so many levels, including as a well-written primer on how the government serves citizens in underappreciated ways.
A dish-filled tiptoe through the current White House in the company of an all-knowing tour guide, legendary Washington Post investigative reporter and definitive insider Woodward (The Last of the President’s Men, 2015, etc.).
“He’s always looking for adult supervision.” So says big-money donor Rebekah Mercer to alt-right mastermind Steve Bannon of Donald Trump early on in Woodward’s book, setting a theme that will be sounded throughout the narrative. By the author’s account, Trump, sensitive and insensitive, out of his element and constantly enraged, cannot be trusted to act on his own instincts while anywhere near the Oval Office. Indeed, the earliest and instantly newsworthy moment of the book comes when economic adviser Gary Cohn spirits away a letter from Trump’s desk that would have broken the U.S. alliance with South Korea. Trump demanded the letter but then, it seems, forgot about it in its absence. “It was no less than an administrative coup d’état,” writes Woodward, “an undermining of the will of the president of the United States and its constitutional authority.” It’s not the sole instance, either, as the author steadily recounts. Drawing on deep background, meaning that sources cannot be identified—the reasons are immediately evident—Woodward ticks down a long list of insiders and their various ways of adapting to the mercurial president, sometimes successfully but more often not. One figure who can be seen constantly walking that line is South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, whom former staffer Reince Priebus sold on Trump by saying, “you’re a lot of fun. He needs fun people around him.” Trump emerges as anything but fun—but also rather easily managed by those around him, so long as he is able to sign documents (“Trump liked signing. It meant he was doing things, and he had an up-and-down penmanship that looked authoritative in black Magic Marker”) and otherwise look presidential.
Woodward’s book will shock only those who haven’t been paying attention. For those who have, it reinforces a strongly emerging narrative that there’s a serious need for grown-ups on Pennsylvania Avenue—grown-ups who have read the Constitution.