Election Day is fast approaching, an October surprise was supposedly in the offing, and rhetorical flourishes and tempers are rising. What to do but—apart from voting, of course—read a good book to make sense of it all? We asked a few politically minded writers to recommend some of their favorite books, old and new, to this end.
This is an unusual choice, but I think that we would all do well to read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari because it’s a powerful reminder of our shared humanity. Too often, especially during a presidential campaign, we focus on what divides us, forgetting all that we have in common. I think it’s important to remember that, in the end, we’re all in this together. —Candice Millard, author of Hero of the Empire
Dan Carter, The Politics of Rage. It takes a really good look into the racialized populism that we saw in the 1960s and 1970s, which is certainly a part of what we’re seeing today. —Julian Zelizer, author of The Fierce Urgency of Now
Benjamin Frankin, The Autobiography. A charming memoir by the most approachable of the founders. It’s infused with the optimism that has long been at the heart of the American dream, and that is in short supply today. —H. W. Brands, author of The General vs. the President
Electoral politics are so dismal. I would go for Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. There must be a great book about how popular power pushed an issue through reluctant politicians, but I just can’t think of it. —Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me
Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer (1951) is an enduring and invaluable guide to what’s really happening at the rallies of Donald Trump and, for that matter, Bernie Sanders. “Mass movements,” Hoffer wrote, “breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance.” Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign of hope and change featured some of that attraction, but it lacked two essentials: the idea that some Other—usually a group of people unlike ourselves—is to blame for what has gone wrong, and a belief that some form of authoritarianism is the cure. Hoffer describes much of what we have seen over the past year. Comparisons of Trump to Hitler, so lightly bandied about by some, make little sense; Hoffer’s descriptions of true believers are the more useful constructs. —Marc Fisher, coauthor of Trump Revealed
A book I found awfully illuminating this year is Catherine E. Rymph, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right. It doesn’t explain this election, but it fills in a piece of 20th century political history without which this election cannot possibly be understood. —Jill Lepore, author of The Story of America
Have a look at David Cay Johnston’s The Making of Donald Trump. And Kael Weston’s The Mirror Test is the best thing I’ve seen on how George W. Bush screwed the world over, us included, with the Iraq War. So much of our current mess traces back to that. —Mort Rosenblum, author of Plato’s Cave
My first recommendation is American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A. Cohen, because history does repeat itself. So much of Trump’s playbook is lifted right out of the Richard Nixon and George Wallace’s “law and order,” anti-integration (immigration reform is the new desegregation) campaign platforms, and Bernie Sanders is in many ways shades of Eugene McCarthy. Also, Gail Collins’ When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present is an important reminder, as Hillary Clinton continues to make history, of how far women have come in a very short time. —Clara Bingham, author of Witness to the Revolution
Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. The only thing this election is about is whether we can keep our country or must turn ourselves into the arrival lounge at JFK International Airport. Apart from being our home, which is reason enough to keep it, Huntington’s book explains what American culture is, and how it came to be. Far from a “nation of immigrants,” our country is the distinct creation of British Protestants. Otherwise, we would not be America, we’d be Canada or Mexico. Contrary to our modern civic religion of “diversity is a strength!” the mass importation of backward cultures over the past few decades is a recent trend, and one that, if not stopped, will destroy the most successful country in history. —Ann Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.