Recommended Readings, The Times We Live In, Weekly Reader
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The consequences of complicity in an “I don’t take responsibility” world

When a president who routinely claimed absolute authority over, well, everything, famously washed his hands of the mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, he said, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” Writer David Frum concluded that those words “are likely to be history’s epitaph on his presidency.”

“And an epitaph for those who nodded in assent”, adds Carlos Lozada.

Lozada’s 2020 book What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era (2020) is the Trump book you didn’t know you needed to read. As the nonfiction book critic of the Washington Post since 2015, Lozada read upwards of 150 works on “the Trump era” — a period “suffused with conflict, crudeness, and mistrust” — and then created this wide-ranging, sobering, at times funny, and always insightful work focused not so much on Donald J. Trump, but on how we see ourselves in this moment.

Yes, it is ironic that a man who never reads and who speaks at the level of a fourth grader has generated so many words and so many volumes that try to define, understand, and address the state in which we now find ourselves. Ironic, weird, and — to use a favorite word of the former president — sad.

Lozado first read the ghost-written Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987), which he calls the “foundational text” of Trump Studies. This and other “Trump-authored” books (fake news if ever there was such a thing) offered a preview of “a world where bragging is breathing and insulting is talking, where repetition and contradiction come standard, where vengefulness and insecurity erupt at random.” But Lozado is primarily interested in the works of journalists, government officials, authors, and scholars who take on the task of figuring out how we got here, and what thinking (or not) went into that journey.

He leads us on his literary journey through ten chapters, with titles such as Heartlandia, Resistible, True Enough, See Some I.D., The Chaos Chronicles, and Russian Lit. In each he considers 10-15 books that address a common theme. A couple of the works are silly; others come very early in, or even predate, the Trump era; most identify the challenges of our times without much thought on solutions. Lozado helpfully identifies books that “challenge entrenched assumptions and shift our vantage points, the books that best help us make sense of this era.”

The most important, often written by historians and scholars, “enable and ennoble a national reexamination … They are the books that show how our current conflicts fit into the nation’s story, that hold fast to the American tradition of always seeing ourselves anew.”

They are the volumes on democracy that identify today’s battles as part of that endless fight to live up to our self-professed, self-evident truths, and that show that striving, while failing, to reach them is not just a feature of our system but its definition.

Lozado tackles each of the key issues of the Trump era with care and thoughtfulness. It isn’t a perfect book, as he sometimes exhibits flashes of the cynicism of the Washington insider. He also tends to read a lot of books by establishment types (e.g., David Frum), although he does introduce us to less-well-known authors as well. Corporations, oligarchs, and their impact in destroying democracy are generally missing in his review (perhaps because Lozado felt the need to thank Jeff Bezos in the acknowledgements for “keeping the lights on” at the Post). Nonetheless, it is book that moves beyond the soul-crushing daily headlines to take a longer look. With its publication coming just before the 2020 election, I quickly found myself hoping that Lozado is already at work on the second edition.


Understanding immigration and gender wars

There are several chapters that, to me, stood out above the others, beginning with Beyond the Wall on immigration. As an immigrant from Lima, Peru, Lozado brings personal insights into the discussion that strike this reader as especially useful. America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by award-winning historian Erika Lee comes in for special praise in showing us how primed the country is for Trump’s message. (It is included among the “twelve books he’ll return to” that Lozado cites at the end of What Were We Thinking.) He also speaks as to how family separation, recounted in countless memoirs, is “already intrinsic to the immigrant experience, occurring long before anyone reaches America’s borders.”

Him, Too — Lozado’s chapter on gender and the Me, Too, movement — begins with the laughable account, told in one of the many sequels to The Art of the Deal, of the time Donald Trump was groped at a dinner party. “(W)omen accosting him with pulp-fiction come-ons are a recurring problem. That’s just life as The Donald.” But the chapter quickly turns serious, and Lozado handles it with appropriate care, in part because he is not a woman and is surprised by what he reads. There is a passage from Soraya Chemaly‘s Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger that clearly hit Lozado as hard as it hit me in reading it. “I hadn’t fathomed quite how much time, money, and mental energy women spend avoiding and fearing rape,” Lozado notes. But Chemaly lays it out in a chilling two sentences.

Ask a man what his greatest fear is about serving jail time, and he will almost inevitably say he fears being raped. What can we deduce from the fact that jail is to men what life is to so many women?


Chaos becomes him

In the chapter entitled The Chaos Chronicles Lozado blames Michael Wolff and his early 2018 bestseller Fire and Fury for setting the tone that the chaos in the White House is the true story. As Lozado writes, the trouble with writing about the Trump White House, and reading about it, too, is that “the lunacy is appalling yet unsurprising, wholly unpresidential yet entirely on-brand.”

The larger story, which often gets missed, is what the chaos means and why it matters. I’ve written about The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, which comes in for special praise here (another of his 12 books), as a work that describes the true American carnage wrought by Trump and his White House, including “the decline of America’s preparedness for truly complex crises.” Lewis wrote his book prior to the pandemic but was prescient in foreshadowing its consequences.


Consequences of complicity

The Chaos Chronicles is the first of several chapters that demonstrate the tragedy and consequences that arise when the “adults in the room” are complicit with Trump’s inappropriate and illegal actions. As Lozado notes, “so much is happening in this administration that gets lost in the Trump glare.” In Russian Lit, he reviews Greg Miller‘s The Apprentice: Trump, Russia and the Subversion of American Democracy. Miller notes that because Trump appears “beyond shame” when it comes to sex or money, Putin’s leverage on Trump is probably not found in the infamous Steele dossier, but in the simple fact that Trump needs Russia to deny the reality of Russian interference in the 2016 election order to keep his “last hold on that lie. Trump, obsessed with safeguarding the legitimacy of his election and his office, needs that story to persist.” Lozado adds: “As always, the scandal with Trump happens out in the open.”

And the Republican Party is complicit in supporting that lie.

The press comes in for harsh criticism as well for — among many other things — their handling of the Clinton email hack by Russia. In her book Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President, journalism expert and scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson makes the forceful case that foreign interference was indeed a major factor during the 2016 election. “Too often,” she notes, “the press served as a conveyor belt of stolen content instead of a gatekeeper.”

In the chapter In Plain View, Lozado writes,

(T)he authors of the democracy volumes focus on a different group that could have reconsidered Trump long before his name appeared on a ballot. It is a group whose leaders, initially alarmed by a populist and nativist candidate, opted to collude with him rather than shun or restrain him.

That is the Republican Party.

The consequences of complicity are wide-ranging and potentially long-lasting, and they show up with regularity in our daily news reports.

  • When the press is complicit in dancing around the truth, we end up seeing that Trump’s lies were intentional, but we lack reporters who will press him to explain why he was lying.
  • When the country’s so-called leaders are complicit in the never-ending calls for violence, we end up with the cautionary tale of Ray Epps, targeted by the very hate cult he joined.
  • Complicity in not calling out uncivil discourse, the attacking of women, and climate denial can have international implications, as is the case with an acquaintance of mine — a farmer and a smart, passionate, effective environmental activist from Australia who posted a note about how a simple tweet she sent out last week had led to extensive online bullying, harassment, trolling, and cyber stalking. (Strong trigger warning: these images and words are disturbing.)
  • Finally, one reason for the complicity by the wealthy is to avoid paying taxes to support our government. The tale of billionaire Ken Griffin, owner of the hedge fund Citadel, is instructive. He is donating tens of millions of dollars for the midterms in 2022 to avoid taxes and regulations. But in 2008, when his fund had lost 55% of its value and was in danger of going under in the AIG scandal/collapse, Griffin was all too willing to take his part of the $182 billion taxpayer bailout. Corporate bailouts for the “worthy” but with no help for the truly needy are part of our lives, both before and during the Trump era.

Lozado turns to The Soul of America by historian Jon Meacham to make the point that what we are seeing is normal for America. We feel a daily and constant tension between the pull of “all men are created equal” and the push to restrict life and liberty from others who are deemed undeserving, untrustworthy, and unequal.

Slavery. The Klan. Jim Crow. The Klan again. The internment of Japanese Americans and the expulsion of Mexians and Mexican Americans. Gender discrimination and scientific racism. The Southern Strategy. Mass incarceration. All this leads to a president whom Meacham considers “an heir to the white populist tradition,” a president whose only abnormality is that he manages to embody so many recurring maladies of American public life (emphasis added).


Books to help make sense of our times

Of the 150 books Lozado read in five years, he chooses twelve for his final chapter that have helped him make sense of this time. I’ll provide you with five…and encourage you to buy the book and read the whole thing!

We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America, by Jennifer Silva. “This book expands my notion of who belongs to the heartland, and of the obstacles to belonging in our national politics.”

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder. “It draws on the author’s scholarship to warn of post-truth, heedless conformity, and institutional abdication.”

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele. “(This book) beautifully captures the tensions between individual and group identities, the power of marrying personal turmoil to collective struggle.”

Know My Name: A Memoir, by Chanel Miller. “Miller’s account of pain, law, and daily survival after a sexual assault outside a college dorm party in 2015 stands with the most unforgettable memoirs of trauma and loss.”

One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy, by Carol Anderson. “Anderson underscores the ‘feigned legal innocence’ that always accompanies voter suppression, as its architects cloak their designs in benign-sounding justifications, especially the always popular crusade to prevent alleged (and largely nonexistent) voter fraud.”


Leaving an abusive relationship

I’ll close with this incredibly prescient section from the end of the chapter entitled Him, Too:

“Nearly everything strange and disquieting about Trump — his punitive response to even mild criticism, his viscerally personal insults disguised as ‘jokes,’ his willingness to spread wild rumors about his targets in order to discredit or shame them, his inability to stop lashing out or degrading certain women years after they’d left his life — was also a commonly reported behavior of domestic abusers,” Sady Doyle writes in Nasty Women. The only difference, she explains, is that Trump deploys those tactics not to wield power over one single person but to manipulate the entire nation.

That’s worth remembering on the eve of the 2020 election. As (Brittney) Cooper writes in Eloquent Rage, “the deadliest time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she decides to leave.”

I cannot image a better, or more chilling description of what we’ve been through over the past six years, and the challenges we face in 2022. In light of that, we do well to remember the words of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

More to come…

DJB

Image of Pilate washing his hands by Hendrick ter Brugghen (credit Shipley Art Gallery via Wikimedia Commons). Politicians have “washed their hands” and blamed others since Jesus’s crucifixion.

by

I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

4 Comments

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