Ross Douthat, "Books for the Trump Era," New York Times [original article contains links.] DEC. 21, 2016
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The Donald Trump presidency is not yet officially upon us, but the Trump era has
already been good for political reading lists. Book buyers baffled by Trumpism and
seeking understanding have turned to various sociologies of the ur-Trump voter,
making best sellers out of J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” Nancy Isenberg’s “White
Trash” and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land.”
Liberals looking to feed their sense of alarm have been steered toward Hannah
Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here”
and Philip Roth’s “Plot Against America.” “What Is Populism?” by the German
political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, has been widely recommended; so has Mark
Lilla’s anatomy of reactionary thought, “The Shipwrecked Mind”; so has Richard
Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country,” from back in 1998, mostly for a prescient few
paragraphs on “the nonsuburban electorate” and its potential affinity for strongmen.
The racial element in Trumpism has sent people back to W.E.B. Du Bois on “Black
Reconstruction” — once they’ve finished, of course, with the latest from TaNehisi
But for your last-minute Christmas shopping, I have some slightly different
recommendations to make. The Trump-era reading lists I’ve seen include many
worthy titles, but they also tend to focus heavily on the dark forces lurking out there,
somewhere outside enlightened circles — in the hills of Appalachia, in the
postindustrial heartland, in the souls of racists and chauvinists and crypto-fascists.
They are anthropologies of populism, cautionary tales from history, blueprints for
blunting revanchism’s appeal. But they do not generally subject Western liberalism
itself to rigorous critique.
And that might be what liberal readers needs right now: Not just portraits of the
Brexit and Trump-voting domestic Other, but a clearer sense of their own
worldview’s limits, blind spots, blunders and internal contradictions.
So my reading list starts with two of liberalism’s sharpest internal critics, both
deceased — a reactionary of the left, Christopher Lasch, and a conservative liberal,
Samuel P. Huntington. Their most-cited works, Lasch’s “Culture of Narcissism” and
Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” have
obvious applications for our culture and politics today. But the books I would
recommend are a little different.
For Lasch, it’s “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” (1995), a
polemic against the professional upper class’s withdrawal from the society it rules
and a critique of the ways in which multiculturalism and meritocracy erode
patriotism and democracy. For Huntington, it’s “Who Are We? The Challenges to
American National Identity” (2004), a book widely denounced as racist for arguing
that the recent wave of Latin-American immigration might not be easily assimilable
and might instead balkanize the country into identitarian redoubts.
Both books are imperfect: Lasch’s is too angry, Huntington’s too pessimistic (I
think). But in different ways they both offer, in Lasch’s words, a “revisionist
interpretation of American history, one that stresses the degree to which liberal
democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions
antedating the rise of liberalism.” And they illustrate how the Western elite has
burned the candle of solidarity at both ends — welcoming migration that transforms
society from below even as the upper class floats up into a post-national utopia,
which remains an undiscovered country for the people left behind.
My next recommendation is from across the Atlantic: “The Abolition of Britain”
(1999), by Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s right-wing brother. Writing early in the
Tony Blair era, Hitchens argued that Britain’s rulers had broken faith with the island
nation’s past, burying its history, customs and traditions, subjecting their people to a
misguided European pseudoempire, and tolerating social decay and disarray as the
price of tolerance and progress. Nearly 20 years on, you will not find a clearer case
against both Blair and David Cameron’s shared worldview, or a clearer explanation
for why so many Britons voted for Brexit.
Then I recommend widening your gaze to Europe as a whole, through
Christopher Caldwell’s “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” (2009), which
critiqued the Continent’s rulers for welcoming — out of idealism, economic
calculation and indifference — an unprecedented level of immigration from the
Islamic world that their societies lacked both the competence and the civilizational
confidence to assimilate.
When Caldwell’s book came out it seemed as if it described a slowburning,
hopefully manageable social and religious crisis. Today, in the wake of Angela
Merkel’s decision to hit the accelerator on demographic change, the book’s mordant
tone seems, if anything, too optimistic.
Which is why my next recommendations are a few shades darker: First
“Submission” (2015), Michel Houellebecq’s seemingly dystopian novel` about an
exhausted nearfuture France that ends up choosing between Islamism and fascism
(it picks the veil), and then one of Houellebecq’s earlier novels, “The Elementary
Particles,” whose portrait of a loveless, sex-fixated and disposable modern
masculinity reveals that its author believes the real dystopia is already here — that
the end of history is actually a materially comfortable desert, from which the
political and religious extremisms of “Submission” offer a welcome and
rehumanizing form of escape.
This is itself an extreme idea, of course, and so is the comparison offered in my
final recommendation, Ryszard Legutko’s “ Demon In Democracy” (2015), in which
the author, a Polish political philosopher, explicitly links the ideological conformism
and faith in capitalP Progress of contemporary liberalism to the oppressive
Communism of his youth.
Legutko is a member of Law and Justice, the right-wing party currently ruling
Poland, whose ascent has provoked the Western media to panic over its religious
nationalism and illiberal forays. Which is all the more reason to read him, and to see
through his eyes (and not only his) how the open society as envisioned by
contemporary progressives can seem to conservatives like a closed and stifling one —
closed to transcendence, closed to memory, closed to the preliberal traditions upon
which Legutko (and most of the writers I’ve just recommended) would argue the
liberal democratic order actually depends.
Liberal readers probably will not finish “Demon” ready to vote for Law and
Justice; Houellebecq probably won’t convince them that our civilization’s choice is
porn and cloning or the caliphate; Hitchens probably won’t persuade them to
But even for the unconvinced, reading these writers will go a long way toward
explaining the most unexpected thing about Western politics in the strange year of
2016 — the sheer number of people in our prosperous, at-peace societies who don’t
seem to want to live in liberalism’s end of history anymore.