WHAT WERE WE THINKING
A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era
By Carlos Lozada
TRUMP ON TRIAL
The Investigation, Impeachment, Acquittal and Aftermath
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
In 2015, Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic, took on a harrowing task: He read eight books “written” by Donald Trump. Soon, he expanded the mandate, reading everything he could about Trump and the Trump era — 150 books in all. It was an act of transcendent masochism, but we should be grateful he did it because “What Were We Thinking” looks past the obvious and perverse — that is, past Trump himself — to the troublesome questions raised by the elevation of a soulless carnival barker to the nation’s highest office. “The books that matter most right now are not necessarily those revealing White House intrigue … or official scandals,” he writes. “They are, instead, the books that enable and ennoble a national re-examination.” And this, he believes, is a crucial moment for that re-examination. We have become a society “that has forgotten its civics lessons or, remembering them still, has decided they don’t matter.”
“What Were We Thinking” is crisp, engaging and very smart. Lozada can be lacerating. The former F.B.I. director James Comey “doesn’t just quote Shakespeare but quotes himself quoting Shakespeare.” Robin DiAngelo’s best seller, “White Fragility,” reads like “a pharmaceutical ad for treating whiteness.” Beyond the snark, though, there is a simple, piercing clarity to many of Lozada’s observations. The Mexican border wall “is like Trump: big and bombastic, more artifice than utility, a blunt solution to a complex and ill-defined problem. … You are on one side or the other, you are with him or against him.”
And that, he argues, is also the problem with most of the literature about the Trump presidency. There is nonstop righteousness in the “resistance” books of the left, which call for a national conversation “but restrict … the speakers” and exclude “anyone who fails to espouse the full worldview that the writers and activists champion.” The conservatives writing about Trump are all “in denial,” even the Never Trumpers with their agonized mea culpas (which he calls meh culpas). “The Never Trumpers are engaged in a worthy exercise — yet it took the … presidency of Donald Trump to make it happen. In a sense, the Never Trumpers are also the Only Trumpers. Only with the rise of Trump did they think to interrogate the conservative dogma they’d long defended.”
The writers Lozada admires, left and right, step beyond the usual polemics about “fake news” and “identity politics” and the #MeToo movement. The enduring irony of the Trump presidency may be that it brought national attention to, and action against, the systemic racism and casual misogyny that have crippled our society. Of the #MeToo canon, he writes, “I found so much that I had not bothered to know” about the brutality of male dominance. As a Peruvian immigrant, Lozada writes with great sensitivity about the sense of loss — of home, of culture — that accompanies the thrill of American opportunity for new arrivals. This leads him to favor identity politics as a transitional state, a way of finding “individuality, through community.” But, in a rare lapse, he fails to consider the insidious effects of writing racial advantage into law through programs like affirmative action and the creation of majority-minority electoral districts. Worthy as they may be, they’ve given ballast to white working-class tribalism.
More often, though, Lozada finds subtleties in areas we’ve assumed clear-cut. Take the president’s mind-numbing spew of lies. Lozada praises the former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani for lambasting “lefty academics who … argued that truth is not universal but malleable, a reflection of economic, political and cultural forces.” Or, as the philosopher Lee McIntyre put it, postmodernism is “the godfather of post-truth.”
And here Lozada comes close to the core of the matter: Messing around with the notion of truth is a luxury that comes with affluence. We have spent the past 50 years undermining the basic institutions of society — not just our sense of common purpose and identity, but also normative values like truth and duty and expertise. The politics of consumerism — and grievance — have overwhelmed the politics of unity and responsibility. Among Lozada’s favorite books is the conservative thinker Yuval Levin’s “A Time to Build”: “Popular culture compels us to ask: ‘What do I want?’ Institutions urge a different query, Levin explains: ‘Given my role here, how should I act?’ It is a relevant question — perhaps the most relevant — for this time and for this presidency.”
It is the question at the heart of “Trump on Trial,” another book from The Washington Post about a topic you’re probably sick of: the impeachment of Donald Trump. Lozada would doubtless categorize “Trump on Trial” as a “Chaos Chronicle.” It is a day-by-day compendium of The Post’s reporting on the Trump impeachment, written by the husband-and-wife team of Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan, and there aren’t many “reveals” in it, unless you count the revelation that Representative Adam Schiff had a toothache when he read the articles of impeachment to the Senate. And yet, “Trump on Trial” doesn’t plod; it is well written and the reporting is panoramic. Its theme insinuates itself gradually: The impeachment proceedings were a clear contest between those who believed in institutions — like truth, expertise, the State Department, congressional budget power — and those who wanted to tear them down.
You remember the story: Donald Trump tried to withhold military aid from Ukraine to force “investigations” of Hunter Biden’s smarmy payday as a director of a Ukrainian energy company — and also, of a cockamamie conspiracy theory about a Ukrainian oligarch harboring the Democratic Party’s computer server. You may remember the players, especially the disciplined and eloquent representatives of the State Department and the National Security Council. “Trump on Trial” burrows into the so-called deep state, down to bureaucrats like the Pentagon’s acting comptroller Elaine McCusker, “a career civil servant” who knew that the Ukraine military aid had to be spent by Sept. 30, 2019, or it would be voided, and “wanted to make sure 100 percent that the law was followed.” That is, she created institutional pressure to overturn Trump’s suspension of the aid. (McCusker was forced out for doing her job.)
People like McCusker, Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and the N.S.C. expert Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman are the sort of civil servants Michael Lewis celebrated in his book about Trump’s assault on the bureaucracy, “The Fifth Risk,” another of Lozada’s favorites. They do due diligence, they adhere to protocol. Their truth is not postmodern. They do their jobs without fanfare; they do not turn their work into self-aggrandizing performance art. Their rigor is what makes our federal government legitimate and credible, despite its flaws.
Impeachment was a hard case. Trump’s shenanigans were illegal, and definitely unseemly, but they didn’t rise to the level of bipartisan horror necessary for a successful conviction. In the end, the Democrats probably did themselves more harm than good. But what “Trump on Trial” makes clear is that the Republican response was an all-out assault on regular order, expertise, law, diplomacy and the quotidian chores of holding a democracy together. I had forgotten how blatant it was. “Elements of the Civil Service have decided that they, not the president, are really in charge,” said Devin Nunes, the California Republican. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican, paraphrased what he thought was the Democrats’ message: “We the elite, we the permanent Washington, we the smart folks, have decided that … this is not acceptable conduct.” Or, as Trump told one of his rallies, “We’re dealing with people that don’t respect you.” The Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin, a former intelligence analyst and senior Defense Department official, saw herself in civil servants like Yovanovitch and Vindman: “Their life was her life. … It was an ethos shared by her friends, especially the ones who had sworn an oath in the military.” Slotkin went back to the nation’s founding documents: “The framers had warned against the danger of America’s leaders soliciting foreign interference in the country’s internal affairs. Hadn’t this president admitted to doing exactly that?”
There could not be a more obvious example of Yuval Levin’s dialectic. The Republicans were all about “What do I want?” The Democrats worried, “How should I act?” The parties had traded their traditional places. “The counterculture never died,” Lozada writes of the alt-right movement, summarizing the views of the journalist Angela Nagle. “It just switched sides. Transgression now lives on the right, dogmatism on the left.” The Democrats have become traditionalists. The Republicans, a most illiberal group of libertarians, tear down the pillars of the temple. The former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s nihilism is the spiritual heir to Abbie Hoffman’s jolly anarchy in the 1960s. What “losers” and “suckers” the traditionalists were! To read “Trump on Trial” in the context of “What Were We Thinking” is to be scalded. The pain is excruciating.
Carlos Lozada is a book critic, not a policy wonk. He doesn’t propose specific solutions to our current state of disgrace, but he does offer a vision of American stability being eviscerated by the public’s need to be entertained. This reminded me of the dichotomy that Machiavelli posited in “The Discourses”: the contest between virtù and ozio. Virtù is the quality that keeps a republic strong: It is rigor and responsibility and intellectual achievement, albeit with a distressing tinge of militarism. Ozio is indolence; it is the laziness that overtakes a republic when it is not at war or in crisis. In America, we experienced 70 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity, without a perceived existential threat, from 1946 to 2016, a bacchanal of ozio. In the process, far too many of us lost the habits of citizenship. Truth became malleable. Morality became relative. Achievement became pass-fail — and, more recently, just showing up. Rigor was for chumps. You didn’t have to do anything to become famous, except be an “influencer.” And to be an influencer, you didn’t need to train or study, although plastic surgery — branding — certainly helped. You didn’t have to serve or sacrifice; that was for chumps, too. This was the America that elected Donald Trump president. What were we thinking? We weren’t. Critical thinking was just too hard — and another episode of “Duck Dynasty” or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” always beckoned.
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