Do 1,200 books about the Trump era really help us understand anything?
Once we looked to newspapers to be the first draft of history. With the onslaught of 24/7, always-on cable news and social media, all that has changed. Now books, which were once considered to offer more reflective, historical views, have become political first responders.
Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book critic, Carlos Lozada, notes that there were some 400 “Obama books” written during his presidency, and — to date — there are over 1,200 “Trump books.”
Lozada hasn’t read all 1,200, but he did look into more than 150 for his own book What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.
Talking to Lozada about what he learned is like reliving the past five years. He points out the short shelf life of so many of these books, given the speed with which events move, and how many of the more sensationalistic efforts fade just as soon as the handful of exploitative nuggets are revealed.
One of the ironies of all of this is that, despite being the subject of so many books, Trump himself, in Lozada’s opinion, is not that complicated or interesting.
Yet he has undeniably unlocked something in the body politic and in our culture — something that’s been lurking in America’s DNA. We see from Lozada’s analysis of all of these books that the Trump era has been like an earthquake, revealing pressures that have been building a long time. While we can learn from this revelation, we will also have to deal with the massive destruction it leaves in its wake.
Still, Lozada reminds us that there will be more books to come, even ones he would actually look forward to reading. Top of his wish list would be memoirs by Anthony Fauci and Kirstjen Nielsen, as well as an in-depth look at Jared Kushner. There really are subjects, he says, that have not yet been covered.
Click HERE to Download Mp3
Full Text Transcript:
As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to time constraints, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like. Should you spot any errors, we’d be grateful if you would notify us.
|Jeff Schechtman:||Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.
The notion of a book of books has a kind of religious connotation. The word biblia from the Greek means a collection of books, the Bible being the ultimate example. It was after all a canon to understand the religious world. But such a book can really be about anything. It can even be a way to understand our current political, social, and cultural moment. It’s often said that life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backwards. In a large context, that’s of course, the job of historians, but today as events happen at warp speed, the first draft of that history is all around us. Not just in newspapers, and radio, and 24/7 always-on cable television, but in social media and in books written with greater and greater speed. It’s fair to say, it’s hard to keep up.
|Jeff Schechtman:||And since many of us may not be around when the grand sweeping history of this moment is written, in say 50 years from now, we need to pull as much as we can from the work that’s around us today. Literally, hundreds of books have been written about this moment, about Trump himself, Trump in the current moment, Trump and race, Trump and immigration, Trump and white working-class America. All of it, not because Trump himself is all that complex or even interesting, but because he has somehow unlocked something in the body politic and in the culture, something that’s long been lurking and a part of America’s DNA from the beginning.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The Trump era has been a little like an earthquake that may relieve pressure in the earth that’s been building for a long time, but it leaves massive destruction in its wake. My guest, Washington Post non-fiction book critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, Carlos Lozada, has written the book of books for our time, a kind of Rosetta Stone for the current era. Having read hundreds of Trump books, he has distilled that canon into his debut work, What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. It is my pleasure to welcome Carlos Lozada to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Carlos, thanks so much for joining us.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Thank you for having me today. I appreciate it.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||It used to be that we look to just newspapers as kind of the first draft of history. Now, so much of it is written in so many books that come out during almost contemporaneous times. Talk a little bit about that first.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Yeah, that’s a little unusual. I remember back in the nineties, when George Stephanopoulos published a memoir about his time in the Clinton White House, it was almost scandalous that it came so quickly and so soon, as if history needed more time to settle before we could do something like that. Now, the books come fast and furious. And even the sort of work that before you’d think might be the province of long magazine pieces or even ongoing newspaper series, now are quickly put into book form. It creates a sort of sense of permanence about them, except that these books are constantly competing with each other to offer alternate narratives of what’s happening in the moment. During the Trump year so far, one estimate has it that there’s been about 1,200 books trying to understand this period compared to about 400 in a similar period during Obama’s tenure.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the things that’s so remarkable in trying to understand this period and, certainly, Trump and his actions are at the center of all this, and yet, as you point out, particularly with respect to some of the specific Trump books, he’s not all that interesting and not all that complicated. It all is swirling around in other ways.|
|Carlos Lozada:||I think that’s true. Trump is many things, but complicated is not one of them. Trump is as he presents himself to be. In fact, if you go back and read his own books, his own memoirs, and his ghostwritten books, you see a lot of the qualities that we’ve come to know so well in this president. You see the sort of bouts of insecurity and fury at the media. You see his willingness to stretch the truth, his willingness to insult and denigrate opponents. It’s all in his own books. The Trump era feels constantly shocking, but I think if you’d read his works, it wouldn’t really be that surprising,|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Are you surprised that while there’s been so much nonfiction about this time and about Trump, and we’ll talk about more of those, that there hasn’t been as much fiction, as much art, as much television or movies that really work to capture the moment in a more artistic way?|
|Carlos Lozada:||I imagine that all of that is coming. In some ways, we relied on fiction early on to try to understand this. If you recall, when Trump was first elected four years ago, suddenly there was this boom in dystopian fiction. Everyone’s reading 1984, or It Can’t Happen Here, or Philip Roth, The Plot Against America, as people felt so disoriented by this reality, this unexpected triumph of Donald Trump. Frankly, not even his team really anticipated the victory, that folks began to rely on fiction in many ways. But I think you’re right. I think there’s been relatively… There’s been some satire, but there’s been relatively less straight-up fiction of the Trump era compared to just the glut of nonfiction books that have been coming. But I think that, in some ways, fiction will help us understand this period better, and maybe we just need to be a little bit more patient.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||One of the other themes that runs throughout so many of these books that you talk about is this obsession almost in trying to understand how we got here. Talk about that.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Yes, precisely because of that sense of disorientation, that sense of impossibility, people tried to understand that right away. And, for instance, they turned to writing about the white working-class. That became one of the big sub-genres early on to try to understand who the Trump voters were. And, of course, not that the Trump voter was limited to white working-class Americans in the rural heartland or the Rust Belt, but that became the sort of literary focus. And it quickly broke down into one of two explanations. Either you believed that Trump voters were animated by cultural prejudice and racism, or they were motivated by their economic anxieties and a candidate’s promise to solve them. And these became these two opposing interpretations that you had to be all in for one or the other. And, really, the books that I’ve found most interesting and persuasive were the ones that showed how those things can really be intermingled and often how, rather than pushing you to one candidate or another, these sorts of struggles left you thinking there was no room in the political system for you at all.|
|Carlos Lozada:||There’s a book called We’re Still Here by a sociologist named Jennifer Silva who spent time in mining communities in Pennsylvania in the years and months leading up to the election of 2016. And what struck me there is on election day Silva voted, and she shows up with her I Voted sticker to interview some of the people she’d been talking to for a long time, and they laughed at her. They mocked her for daring to believe that the political system would be responsive to her needs. And that moment really stayed with me, and I think that does a lot more to explain what happened in 2016 than a lot of these other explanations.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||You read 150 plus of these books, and there is a chronology to them in a certain respect. What did you see as the evolution of these books? How did these books evolve during the past four or five years?|
|Carlos Lozada:||That’s a great question. I think that you see that in a few ways. I wrote the book, my own book, in a bit of a straightforward chronology as well. First, I tackled all these white working-class books that emerged early on, then the resistance books that came later. But, over time, I started focusing on some of the big debates that the Trump era generated. So, it wasn’t so much just how we got here, but more really how we thought here, what we were fighting over. And so these are books on immigration, books on the nature of truth, which has become an enormous debate in this time, books on identity, and, finally, books on the practice of American democracy itself. And I think that’s the kind of questions we’re battling with right now in the aftermath of this latest election. So, you go from books that are sort of backward looking to books that are trying to grapple with the most important questions that we face right now, and that we’ve faced for a long time as a nation.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Do you sense that these books build on one another? I mean, is it a canon in that sense that as you continue on with these books, that they’re all, if not specifically for referential, at least in concept?|
|Carlos Lozada:||Yes. And that’s sort of a weird part of reading all these books that after a while they all kind of blend together in my head. I’m reading a book and then I pick up some anecdote and I think, “Wait, did I read that in A Very Stable Genius, or was that in Rage, or was that in the Mueller report?” And they all kind of speak to each other. And in fact, some of them seize on very similar moments and offer slightly different interpretations, and sources, and vantage points. So, it becomes this sort of task to keep it all straight in my head. But I do think that they build on each other and yet the speed of events is such that there’s a sense in which they almost are sort of dated on arrival because, well, this latest Trump Russia book didn’t contain this indictment, or this report, or a bunch of books focused on the Mueller investigation, but suddenly you have the Ukraine impeachment. And so I feel that, in a sense, I had to read them all together to try to get a more complete picture.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||I mean, there’s no better example of that than this character, Ed Harry, that shows up in two of the books.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Yes. At least two. I wonder if he’s lurking out there in more. So, this is how began my own book. The first chapter is about Ed Harry. So, I’ll tell the story of how I encountered him. In early 2018, maybe that spring, I was reading a book called The Great Revolt by a journalist named Salena Zito and a sort of consultant named Brad Todd, and they were trying to explain precisely this white working-class support for Donald Trump. And they profiled several voters, including Ed Harry who is from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and was a long-time Democrat, even was a delegate to the 1992 convention that nominated Bill Clinton, and a labor organizer who had switched to the Republican Party and Donald Trump in 2016. And in this book his motivations are pretty straight-up economic populist type arguments. He thought the Democrats had forgotten the working class.|
|Carlos Lozada:||He was mistrustful of trade deals and of dynasties like the Clintons and Bushes. So, that’s why he goes for Trump. So, fast forward a few months and several books later that I’d read on different subjects. And I’m reading another book about white working-class voters, and suddenly I encounter this guy, a former labor organizer in Missouri County, Pennsylvania, former delegate to the Clinton Convention in ’92. And I think, “Wait, I know this guy. How do I know this guy?” And then it hits me. It’s the same person.|
|Carlos Lozada:||And yet, in the second book, his motives were completely different. He was a hardcore cultural warrior. He was a 9/11 truther. He was worried about transgender bathrooms. He was worried about George Soros funding Black Lives Matter. I’m pretty sure Ed Harry’s the same guy, although maybe there are some ways in which he was radicalized over the course of the Trump years. But what really sticks out is that these different motivations dovetail nicely with how the writers themselves see the underlying causes of Trump’s victory. I don’t think they’re being overtly or purposely duplicitous or unfair. I think sometimes there’s a compulsion to see that which you want to see.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The other part of this is how short, and you touched on this, the shelf life is on some of these books, that events are happening so fast, and even the ones that try and capture what happened, quickly fade away. And certainly the big books, the ones that have lots of big events in them that become the story of the moment, once everybody knows that, the book fades away.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Yes. And I think that there’s a sense in which we, as readers, tend to focus sometimes on the most salacious, and explosive, and, oh my god, can you believe he said that kind of anecdotes in these books rather than some of the more substantive material that they offer. I think that in part is a legacy of Fire and Fury, which was sort of the first book to give you the inside view of the Trump White House. But I think that happens in lots of books. Rage by Bob Woodward, my colleague at the Washington Post, that book got a lot of attention because of these intense conversations between the reporter and Donald Trump that make up the second half of the book, and the bulk of the coverage was about that.|
|Carlos Lozada:||But, really, the first half of the book was a deeply recorded, deeply reported, excuse me, account of the early Trump administration through the eyes of tough national security officials, like James Mattis and Dan Coats, who were really worried about a conflict with North Korea. That, to me, felt more important. And yet, it’s the kind of thing that gets missed in the breathless coverage surrounding these books. And, as a result, you have books that really pop up and are a huge sensation for a few weeks but then kind of disappear. And that may render them exciting in the moment but not enormously lasting at times.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||What was missing from all of these books? What was the one or two things that you would have liked to have known, read, understood, that even the 150 books that you read for this, didn’t tell you?|
|Carlos Lozada:||Boy, it seems like it’s hard to find things that are missing, but you’re right. There are still more books that I want to read from this time, more stories, and perspectives that I want to learn about, and I hope I still will. I look forward to a memoir by Anthony Fauci. I hope that happens. And not just about his time battling COVID and trying to influence this administration, but just his career in Washington which I think has been fascinating. I want to read a memoir by Kirstjen Nielsen, who was the Secretary of Homeland Security during one of the most controversial periods of this administration, which was the policy about family separation at the border. That’s a story that we cannot forget and that I want to know more about. But I will say that more than wanting to know this or that detail about this meeting or that explosive debate, some of the best books of the Trump era are really not about Trump at all.|
|Carlos Lozada:||They’re about how all these fights we’ve been having during the Trump administration are ever-present in the American story and the sort of things that we’ve been litigating forever, including in books. A book like America for Americans, by the historian Erika Lee, is about how alongside the nation of immigrants tradition, we have just a strong a tradition of xenophobia and rejection of outsiders. A book like One Person, No Vote by Carol Anderson which shows us how voter suppression has evolved in really insidious ways over time to this day. Those are important things to remember. They make the Trump era not necessarily easier or simpler but, in some ways, a bit more understandable.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The other thing that comes across in so many of these books, and I think it’s something people forget, is that so much of the debate, the discussion, the change, the efforts to understand are really from the bottom up and not the top down. Talk about what you see in that regard.|
|Carlos Lozada:||I think that’s true. I think some of the most memorable and compelling books of this period are not by the insider official who spills all, or even necessarily by the experienced and talented Washington journalists who have been covering this period. But some of them are memoirs, for instance. One really gripping memoir of this time for me, even though it covers a period prior to this time, for instance, is a book called The Line Becomes a River by a young writer named Francisco Cantú, who was a border patrol agent in the late Obama administration, and tells you what that experience is like, and how that marks not just the people who are crossing the border, but those tasked with enforcing border policies, and how painful that was for him.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Some of the memoirs of identity of this period have been extremely powerful, and books that I think are going to stay with me more than some of the latest White House tell-alls. A book like When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, who’s one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, shows how this quest, this demand for group rights and group representation really comes from just an individual quest for dignity and respect. And I think those are some of the books that really, over time, will end up staying with me.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||The other thing that is striking, particularly in the memoirs and those writing about the white working-class, is taking similar things and really seeing it from two different points of view. I mean, the thing that the most striking maybe would be J.D. Vance on one side and Sarah Smarsh on the other.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Yes. That’s a really good point. J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, was… It wasn’t a Trump book to begin with. It doesn’t even mention Donald Trump. It was written before the sort of Trump phenomenon became a thing, yet it became a Trump book. It became a book that people across the political spectrum used to try to understand the Trump voter. Part of it was timing. It came out in the spring of 2016. And Vance is a conservative and tells his story from that perspective. It is very much a sort of bootstraps narrative. And the one thing that recurs is how he and his grandmother sort of look down on people who are too willing to blame others for their problems or who, in his mind, were gaming the system to obtain government benefits and the like. And you have a book like Heartland by Sarah Smarsh, which is about growing up poor and working class in sort of Kansas farm country.|
|Carlos Lozada:||And it’s too reductionist to say that it’s sort of a left answer to the more right-wing advanced perspective, but in some respects, it is. And you see there how she says that her family would have died of shame before accepting government benefits, and she sees that as tragic. This is more than the difference between the plains and the mountains. Right? J.D. Vance is from Kentucky and then Ohio. This is an ideological difference between these two writers, and that doesn’t make one of their accounts more right or true than another. These are just widely differing perspectives, and I think that’s enormously healthy. I think that it’s a problem when you take a single book or a single point of view and say, “Okay, now I get it. Now I understand this demographic or this story, or this moment.”|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Do you understand this moment better having read 150 of these books?|
|Carlos Lozada:||I hope so. I hope that it has helped me make sense of this a little bit. I think sometimes it’s paralyzing because I have so many different perspectives kind of jostling for attention in my head, but I think it is one way. I think that there are many ways. There’s a writer named James Poniewozik who’s the television critic for the New York Times, and he’s tried to understand this period largely through TV, and I think that’s a valid perspective. There are many forms and many mediums that are being used now to try to understand this. My great ambition for this book is that, at some point in the future, intellectual historians trying to make sense of this time might rely on it to some degree as a bit of a guide to what some people were thinking.|
|Carlos Lozada:||But I think you could just as easily say, really, the way to understand this period years from now will be to scour private Facebook group archives and see what those debates were like and what people were discussing then. And, frankly, that could be just as valid. I’ve spent the last four or five years reading these books, in part because it’s my job at the Washington Post, and because it’s sort of a natural way for me to make sense of things. And so I hope that that experience can be useful to other readers, but I would never say that it’s the only way.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And, of course, the thing that we’re still missing in large measure is the long view, a sense of putting this into historical context.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Yes. And I think that is going to come with time. I mean, think about how we’re still reading Robert Caro’s LBJ biographies. Right? Think about all the history and all the work that remains to be done. There are books that are coming. I know there are books already planned for 2022 that are going to try to take a longer view on this period. And I think, in some respects, I hope that some of the breathlessness eases. My hope for future Trump books is that they be better, in the sense that they not obsess over just the day-to-day mayhem, and take that longer view. But also, in some respects, this may sound weird, I hope that, commercially, they do a little worse and that they don’t become instant bestsellers, and that would suggest that, to some degree, the temperature has eased a little bit on politics in America, which I think would be helpful.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||There is a tendency in all of this, and it’s probably a bad habit, and I’m curious whether you’ve succumbed to it as well, to wonder how writers that are no longer with us might have looked on this period, to wonder what Mailer would have written, or Hitchins would have written, or Hunter Thompson would have written. Talk about that.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Yes. You hear that a lot. That’s a constant conversation on Twitter. Oh, I hope Hitchens were still here, or I hope this person or that person were writing about this time. What would a Philip Roth Trump novel be like? And I mean, that’s fun, and I like that in the sense that I think it’s great when people read and miss writers of old. I think we have plenty of great writers trying to grapple with that today. I think, to get back to your first question, I think fiction and satire will be ways to interpret and absorb this period as well. Sometimes I wonder what Evelyn Waugh would have written about something like this. But, fortunately, I think we’re blessed with plenty of great writers who are here now and who are trying to do that.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||And are you continuing to read Trump books?|
|Carlos Lozada:||So, on Saturday, when the election was called, the first thing, my 10-year-old daughter said to me, is that, “Daddy, you don’t have to read any more Trump books ever.” And I don’t think that’s the case. I do intend to continue reading these books, in part because I think there’s going to be great ones to come, and that’s part of my job. I do hope that I’ll be able to mix it up perhaps a little bit more and that, in a sense, the books and the debates will get more interesting and harder in some ways. So much of the last four years have been about picking a side. You’re pro-Trump or you’re anti-Trump. And the world and America are more complicated than that. I think after January 20th, in a post-Trump presidency, even though Trump will remain an important presence, we’re going to find that some of the divisions and battles in this country are harder and more complex. And that will produce, I hope, good books.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Carlos Lozada, What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. Carlos, I thank you so much for spending time with us.|
|Carlos Lozada:||Thank you very much.|
|Jeff Schechtman:||Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.|
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from harry_nl / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).