I know I talked about him last time, but it’s real now. He’s here. I’ve been a bookworm for over two decades, and I chose to spend four years (literally – it cost me many thousands of pounds) poring over the history of the world. Head-in-sand and armchairish it may be, but this is the only way I know how to process humanity’s capacity for abhorrent behaviour – to try and understand it by reading. And recent literary news proves that I’m not the only one: 69 years after it was first published, as we enter the ‘post-truth’ presidency, George Orwell’s 1984 has returned to the charts. At the time of writing, it is the number one – NUMBER ONE – bestseller on Amazon.com. Do you know how many books are on Amazon?!
So here’s what I’ve got. The books I have to offer aren’t actually about Trump, you’ll be relieved to know. They just might help us work through the uncomfortable, almost unthinkable questions of how we got here, and how things may look in the coming years as we suffer the consequences. Even if you read one of them and feel no more intellectually enlightened or emotionally prepared, at least all three are a jolly good read, and you’ll have had that distraction to comfort you for a week or two.
You Don’t Have To Live Like This – Benjamin Markovits
Where did Trump come from? As a phenomenon, he has multiple geographical and sociocultural origins, and the finger-pointing began pretty much as soon as the result was declared. All right, the Internet seemed to say, who’s been voting against their interests again, hashtag Brexit? Or which one of you groups that should have voted for Hillary failed to get out of bed yesterday morning? Somehow, this seemed almost more important to some people than why anyone might have voted for Trump, or even had the chance to do so – what kind of lives they and other Americans have been living. Though published before Trump was even nominated, Benjamin Markovits’ haunting novel is a nuanced antidote to such knee-jerking. It remains urgently relevant.
Marny, the narrator of You Don’t Have To Live Like This, is a member of the American ‘coastal elite’ we’ve heard so much about this winter: a Yale graduate riding on the tailcoats of an outrageously wealthy former classmate who has conceived a maverick social project: to repopulate Detroit, the globally notorious flagship city of the post-industrial Midwest wasteland, by helping such elites to buy and move into the empty houses, and build communities.
The racial and class tensions surrounding this scheme are obvious from the outset, but there’s nothing conventional about Marny’s navigation of them – with unexpected friends on both sides of the ‘war’, he is caught in the crosshairs. His internal and external debates about this are neither safe nor predictable: is Marny a racist? Or simply an asshole? If he’s a racist, does he have any choice about that, as a white settler in a black area and a white American more generally? Markovits asks the hard questions, and his daring pays off: his novel is a profound and vivid portrait of a horribly fragile and complex settlement, as dependent on the neuroses of individuals living together as on the great weight of America’s shameful racial history. It cuts to the heart of the sentiments and, frankly, dire civilisational mess behind Trump’s rise.
There’s also a valid Great Gatsby comparison here. You Don’t Have to Live Like This starts as a meandering, melancholic exploration of a privileged man’s chance encounters, with all the self-indulgent reflection they produce. Many books hailed as ‘Great American Novels’ never move past this point (cf Jonathan Franzen), and to be honest, I find them tiresome. But here, the narrative turns on itself, more than once, to become a dramatic clash with the highest stakes and, ultimately, an indictment of a way of living. As with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, we turn the final page with the jury still out. When Marny’s story begins, he thinks he’s a good guy, because he means no harm – but in a world where black people are shot for their skin colour (or, indeed, a bigot is in the White House), circumstances and people in your life force you to reassess whether meaning no harm is good enough. Over the next four years, we’ll be needing more novels like this: complex and thought-provoking, unaggressive yet unflinching.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible – Peter Pomerantsev
So much for those who paved the way for a Trump presidency – what about that presidency itself? To understand the nature of the Trump administration, it clearly helps if you understand the nature of Russia. It’s hard to know what’s more frightening: foreign interference in a sovereign nation’s democratic elections, or the fact that its beneficiary both refuses to believe it happened and openly looks up to the man responsible.
Maybe even more worryingly, there are obvious parallels between the Kremlin’s regime of ‘unreality’ and the ‘post-truth’ culture fomented and basked in by Trump & co, which disputes not the accuracy, but the importance of facts. Peter Pomerantsev, an Anglo-Russian TV producer, moved to Moscow at the turn of the century to go after his slice of the post-Communist cake. But he soon discovered that federal Russia was gripped by a different kind of ‘possibility’: one where truth is a borderline theatrical construct controlled by those at the top, and ordinary people can do nothing but try to act out parts they scarcely know they’re playing. Alternative facts are fed down so comprehensively that people don’t have the energy or capacity even to perceive ‘the truth’ as relevant to their wellbeing. (If you haven’t already, set aside an evening for Adam Curtis’ beautifully understated capture of this world in his BBC iPlayer film Hypernormalisation.)
Hence the title of Pomerantsev’s prize-winning little collection of sketches and anecdotes – some hilarious, some heart-breaking and some downright terrifying. I’d thought that the book would be a linear, cause-and-effect narrative exposing the workings of the Kremlin’s reality system. Instead, it was a highly impressionistic piece of writing, sometimes drifting listlessly and sometimes lurching violently between scenes, from chance encounter to researched scandal. In places, Pomerantsev’s observations are striking and poignant; in others, you may not be sure for several pages where he is going. The whole thing is utterly absorbing, a whirlwind page-turner of heady disconnection that was over before I’d quite processed it – rather like the daily life of Muscovites.
This book is not a portrait of the US in 2020. True, Trump’s campaign was led by entirely false stories widely treated as fact, simply because they fit unproblematically into people’s existing sense of the world. And this excellent NYRB article lays out better than I can the obvious parallels between Trump’s and Putin’s leadership styles. But this dreamlike account of a slippery world has left me with at least one clear impression: that the US cannot become this within just four years. Pomerantsev knows what has gone wrong in Russia: most of its adult population grew up under a life system – Communism – that nobody still believed in, but that required everyone to play along with their whole being, until the very end. Once it collapsed, no ideology replaced it. All that was left was the muscle memory of that pretence, of a perpetual disassociation from reality. America’s current predicament, though dire in many ways, hardly seems comparable in scale.
This doesn’t diminish the significance of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible for our Trump study. Read this for [200 pages] of a perilously towering house of cards, to understand the impossibly high stakes Moscow is playing for in this not-remotely-a-game. Read it to contemplate the dangers Trump is wilfully courting, but also their limitations in an American context. Perspective has never been so valuable.
The Despot’s Accomplice – Brian Klaas
A disclaimer upfront: I edited this book. Never before on this blog have I touted my own work, but it would have been false not to recommend it here. As I stumbled bleary-eyed around the house clutching my phone on the dawn of Trump’s victory, I remember thinking to myself, “Brian’s book is more relevant now than ever.” The world seems to agree with me, since his expert opinion (already providing commentary in various media throughout the campaign) has been published all over the place since Trump took office.
Brian, an elections expert, travelled all over the world to write this book, a frequently amusing, often colourful and always surprising inquiry into the state of global democracy – and despotism. He asks the big questions: why has global democracy shrunk every year for the last decade? Is the West to blame? And how can we do better? His subtitle is provocative – “How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy” – but this isn’t a one-dimensional moral lecture for Bush, Blair and the gang. Klaas heartily opposes ‘democracy wars’ abroad, but not just because they kill people in places where we have no business being. They also don’t work. With a keen eye for the ironic or outright absurd, but also a thirst for rational policy and tangible results, The Despot’s Accomplice is a breath of a fresh air, an original handbook for Western governments and all those holding them accountable that makes no assumptions and questions everyone else’s.
What does this have to do with Trump? Well, two things. Firstly, one of Brian’s ten “golden rules” for Western democracy promotion is that we must look to our own house first. America can’t lead the charge for democracy abroad, he believes, when its own is in such dubious shape. Though it might destroy the world, Trump’s election has had at least one virtue: outraged members of the American electorate have begun learning and discussing words like “filibuster”, “gerrymandering” and, of course, “electoral college”. It has never been so popular or necessary to understand the American constitution and what it does and does not allow. The chapter on this in The Despot’s Accomplice was understated and concise.
But what really made me think of Brian on 9 November was the main subject of his book: the way Western democracies tolerate, or even pander to, countries with despotic tendencies because they think they need them for something. I knew that morning, with a depth of conviction I wouldn’t have possessed before reading The Despot’s Accomplice, that the world would not refuse to work with President Trump. Brian’s turn of phrase, the passion of his belief in democracy and his exasperation at the inept, self-defeating assumptions behind Western foreign policy are both unforgettable and important.
I am sorry that this has happened to us. But I wouldn’t be in publishing if I didn’t believe that the way to fight ignorance and narrow-mindedness is through opening and educating ourselves as much as we can. I regret, for instance, that the three books recommended here are written by white men, when they are the ones who will suffer least from Trump’s presidency. So my quest goes on, and it would be lovely if you’d join me.