A Long ago, in 1883, a future president (Woodrow Wilson, a theme of this year accounts) studied political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in a classroom inscribed with the motto “History is past politics, politics is present history“Attributed to Sir John Seeley, Professor at Cambridge.
That was before the era of the campaign book.
The policy books in this election year fell into three broad categories. The ordinary, ranging from “encounters and stories” to biographies of campaigns that outlived their relevance. The interesting ones, those that made tentative beginnings in history or contained some important revelations. And the significant, those few whose value should exceed this year because they really changed the narrative, or they are just good or important reads.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the books also fell into descending categories numerically. Carlos Lozada The Washington Post read 150 books on Donald Trump and the Trump era for his own book, What were we thinking?. However, virtually all readers will be content with simply a “non-zero” number, to subpoena a Trump campaign attorney.
First, the ephemerality and the expected offers of any election year. Scandals inside and outside the government; tales of the extended Trump family; Attempts in self-justification; books, some entertaining, of correspondents; practical policy guides intended to be read and applied before November.
The permutations and penumbras of the 2016 campaign continued to produce new books: Peter Strozk is engaged is the origin story of the investigation into the Trump campaign from the perspective of an FBI agent, forceful and persuasive, although omitting facts that are inconvenient to him. Rick Gates’ evil game It contains some new scoops, but the real stuff presumably went to the Mueller investigation that Strzok was briefly a part of. Liberal privilege of Donald Trump Jr. It had a dual mission: to encourage votes for the father in 2020 and perhaps for the son in 2024. American Crisis, New York Governor Andrew CuomoThe first book on the coronavirus outbreak, it highlighted its programmatic vision rather than giddy prose, an appropriate choice for the year but quickly forgotten as the pandemic progresses.
Second, there are those books that made you sit down for a bit to pay attention: a new insight, important facts revealed; “Worth a detour”, in the language of the Michelin guides. Psychologist and Presidential Niece Mary Trump is too much and never enough He explained the pain of the Trump family for two generations and how that pain has influenced our national life for the worse. David frum he was one of the first to predict the authoritarian dangers of Trump. This year, Trumpocalpyse, well written and insightful as ever, focusing on attacks on the rule of law and “white ethnic chauvinism” as hallmarks of Trumpism, be it its poor or elite supporters. Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Pulitzer-winning Post reporters described Trump more deeply and successfully than most in A very stable genius. Trump’s anger at the book showed they hit the mark.
Stuart Stevens’ It was all a lie It takes Republican history back a few decades in a forceful mea culpa whose issues will be important in the debate about the future of the Republican Party. Among the Democrats, a rare good job from a politician, Stacey Abrams’ Our Time Is NowAs well as her triumph in political organization in Georgia, it marks her as a major force.
For the quality of financial journalism and the importance of its topic, especially for current and future investigations of Trump and the Trump Organization, Dark Towers by David Enrich on Deutsche Bank offers as comprehensive an analysis of the bank and its relationship with Trump as is likely to be public in the absence of a new court case in New York.
Andrew Weissmann, a lead prosecutor in the Mueller investigation, wrote Where the law ends– a heavily written account in which he regrets his boss did not move forward, particularly by failing to issue a subpoena to Trump and then failing to make a formal determination as to whether the president would be charged with obstruction of justice. Weissmann’s frustration is understandable, but readers can judge for themselves how fair or unfair he is to the formal pressures and restraints on Mueller himself.
Here’s a subcategory, from books on foreign and security policy. HR McMaster’s Battlegrounds he attempts to explain his working theories (“strategic empathy”) modified for current realities and arguing against American downsizing and isolation. In The room where it happened, former national security adviser John bolton he spoke of Trump asking for help from China and wrote that Trump was “unfit for office”; the story would have been better told to the House impeachment committee. David Rohde’s In Deep demolished the “deep state” theory. Barry gewen delivered a new biography of Henry Kissingerlife and work. Traitor, by David Rothkopf, sought to chronicle the Trump administration as it sought to reverse its effects and giving a history of the American traitors.
Finally, the significant: those few books that contributed significantly to the narrative of the year, or that deserve a read next year.
There was another Bob woodward book, Rage – with ribbons. The big news was that Trump was aware of the dangers of Covid-19 but chose not to publicize them and that Dan Coats, then director of national intelligence, thought Putin had something on Trump. Woodward got the stories others were after. By Michael Schmidt Donald Trump vs. America is another serious book, with a strong argument for how deeply the attacks on the rule of law by the Trump administration, particularly Trump himself, threaten democracy. Schmidt’s account of the efforts to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey are sobering, and his revelations about how the Mueller investigation was scaled down to focus on crime rather than Russian influence in 2016 form a useful corrective for Weissmann.
Politics meets history in a few volumes, particularly By Thomas Frank plea against populism, The people no, unfavorably contrasting Trump with FDR. Peter Baker and Susan Glasser teamed up for a masterpiece biography of former Secretary of State James Baker, The man who led WashingtonThat reminds us of what (and whom) the Republican Party used to call leadership. It’s a serious book that recalls that Baker, Gerald Ford’s 1976 campaign manager, didn’t question the election result because Ford lost the popular vote. It also shows the truth in Seeley’s aphorism on the relationship between politics and history, with many insights about one of the best practitioners of recent politics, fondly remembered for his political prowess at the end of the cold war.
Molly Ball’s well-researched and enjoyable biography of Nancy pelosi makes sense of the most powerful woman in American history. Thomas Rid Active Measures, On Disinformation and Political Warfare, Clausewitz for the Cyber Age, finds new urgency in light of recent revelations about major cyberattacks against the US government.
Two books deserve a final mention. As the Trump administration draws to a close, Ruth Ben-Ghiat He analyzed Trump’s actions and personality from the comparative perspective of fascist leaders since Mussolini and chillingly noted not only the actions that pointed to authoritarianism, but how deep the danger was in going down that path.
Strong man it is a vital book and a warning. Ben-Ghiat sees in Trump an “impulse to control and exploit everyone and everything for personal gain. The men, women, and children he rules have value in his eyes only to the extent that they fight his enemies and publicly flatter him. Propaganda allows you to monopolize the attention of the nation, and virility comes into play when you pose as the ideal man to take over. “Dehumanizing rhetoric and actions against immigrants (and even members of Congress) and the appointment of people whose motivation was loyalty rather than the law has a real cost to a political system whose fragility in some points is evident.Individual action and a courageous will are needed to preserve democracy.
On a happier note, Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith in After Trump offer a legal roadmap, sometimes quite technical, to reform many government regulations that have eroded. Some are obvious, some will be controversial, but let this urgent discussion begin with Congress and the Biden administration.
Of which, this year also saw the publication of A promised land, the first volume of memoirs of Barack Obama, to whom the new president served as vice president. Well written despite being a heavy policy, at times deeply moving, at other times not as detailed as many readers would like (despite its length), Obama reflects as much on the nature of power as on himself. Furthermore, his book serves once again to remind the world of the contrast between himself and his successor. He is rightfully proud to have written it, and to have handwritten it, to encourage his own deep thoughts on his presidency and the country that he was honored and sometimes concerned to lead.
For more information on the next president, Joe Biden from Evan Osnos: American Dreamer it’s a great place to start – your political skills, vital tragedies, and coexistence are here in equal measure. Osnos ends with a speech from Biden on dispelling America’s “dark season,” a fervent hope for the new year ahead.
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