Review by Elizabeth Starkey
What Were We Thinking, from Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada, bears the subtitle A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, but could have just as accurately been called I Read 150 Not-Very-Good Books So You Didn’t Have To. Lozada, subconsciously keeping with his own observation that “[t]o make it into the anti-Trump canon, a hefty dose of personal attacks is required early on–just to make clear whose side you’re on,” demonstrates his disdain for Trump from the introduction–“of the many concerns I have about Trump, a thin TBR pile is not foremost among them. I’d settle for him reading his briefing materials. Or the Constitution.” In his reading, however, he finds just as little to like in books from the self-proclaimed resistance as from Trump apologists. There are wrong-headed zealots, to borrow a phrase, “on both sides.”
The first three chapters deal with books from three, depending on your political bent, villains or heroes from the Trump-era: working-class whites, the “resistance,” and conservatives. Surprisingly, in the opening chapter on the former group, he misses the chance to label a subsection of these books as “poverty porn,” a booming genre beyond the explicitly political (see Maid, Evicted, or basically anything on every liberal’s Goodreads page). Lozada is particularly skeptical about some of the run-away hits in this subgenre, not only of the authors’ diagnoses, but of the motivations of the reader; “[w]illingness to point the finger inwards [to the poor white community] helps explain the bipartisan appeal of Hillbilly Elegy.” This feels like an insult to our collective willingness to take responsibility for the rise of Trump, but still rings true.
From the beginning, it is clear that this is going to be a zinger-heavy book. “Alienated America reads like Bowling Alone II: The Revenge” elicited a chuckle, although some of the attempts at cleverness felt clunky–“Well in advance of social distancing, Americans had already grown far too distant from one another.” The broader purpose of these snappy criticisms centers around one theme throughout: nearly all attempts to capture a cause for the rise of Trump are partially right, which means they’re all partially wrong–or at least incomplete. In the first of several places where we see race as a key part of the narratives, Lozada recommends we opt for books that don’t see it as an either/or with class in explaining Trump’s appeal to poor whites, but as a mutually reinforcing factor. If writers didn’t find this was the case, they did a bad job. Witness his response when the authors of The Great Revolt note Trump voters rarely cited race as a factor in their votes: “I suppose waiting for interview subjects to forthrightly volunteer their racism is one way to find out.”
I asked myself throughout which of these types of books Lozada seemed to like the least. Resistance-lit is a top contender, a genre that kicked off with an essay by “Aaron Sorkin, one of the nation’s top renewable sources of sanctimony.” This snarkiness is on the first page of the chapter and sets the tone for the rest. That said, Lozada’s assessment of resistance-lit as completely uninterested in a dialogue is fair. These books are written for people that not only agree that Trump is wrong but that only a progressive agenda is right–if you’re not using the word “intersectional” on a regular basis, there’s no place for you here. He also correctly notes that these books are considerably more progressive than the average suburban “resister;” “[t]he intellectuals of the resistance seem to deliberately alienate prospective foot soldiers, prioritizing the purity of resistance over its expansion.” My email inbox with ads for dueling women’s marches in 2019 bears this out.
The final chapter on a group of people explores the variations in the current conservative movement, spanning sycophants, Never-Trumpers, and pro-Trump intellectuals. The criticism of each of these groups is fairly predictable, centering on their ends-justify-the-means attitudes and tendency to just ignore Trump when he’s being inconvenient. Lest the previous chapter make us think his animosity has been reserved for hyper-progressives, his takedown of Jeff Flake was the first of several places I wrote “burn” in the margin. However, there is a sense that some of these zingers were already written and just looking for a home–“meh culpa” could have been slotted in in any number of places.
The rest of the book looks at broader themes, with the most successful immigration books for Lozada not just addressing the Mexican border, but the wider story of both historical and current (“more Asian and more female than before”) immigration. His own argument that separating families isn’t a deterrent because immigration by its very nature separates families gave me pause, but as this is a book about other books, there is little room for further development. By contrast, he doesn’t find the books about Russia compelling as they’re constantly going out of date–he notes how many excitedly end with variations on “wait until the Mueller report drops!”–although he does suggest giving the report itself a read.
Things became much more esoteric in the chapter on the nature of truth, which I appreciated for introducing me to ideas from books I’m almost certainly not going to read. There are multiple tomes asking how much academic postmodernism is to blame for Trump, something I had no idea was a theme, with one of the Pizzagate conspiracy theorists apparently having told The New Yorker, “Look, I read postmodernist theory in college.” Lozada also makes a salient point about accurate journalism being important for the historical record, even if it doesn’t seem to hurt Trump much currently–see: the Senate on impeachment (as David McCraw observes in Truth in Our Times, “It doesn’t matter how much freedom journalists have if no one believes them.”). This chapter also highlights one of the core conflicts of this book for the reader: while some reviews are scathing, other books are summarized with no commentary. I was gleefully anticipating the criticism of The Death of Expertise, a book I’ve read and didn’t like, and only got a few lines of synopsis. Still, there is some consolation-meanness when he says that the follow-up questions suggested instead of solutions by two authors is “true to their calling as social scientists… So RANDy.”
My own mostly black and white (literally) social media feed had already introduced me to most of the books covered on identity politics, so it was helpful to get a look into lesser-known titles like Welsey Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk. Lozada makes several good points around how the danger of playing identity politics is that you’re just asking to privilege a different group and, much like the postmodernism of the previous chapter, it gets away from you–if you insist on identity, what’s to stop the other side from doing the same? Another question, he contends, the authors have largely failed to answer. Interestingly, it was around this point that I realized that although this book came out after newspapers’ editorial decision to start capitalizing Black and White in the summer of 2020, they remain lower case in this book. A refusal to bow to identity politics?
The books on the Me, Too movement cover the tensions within feminism (cross-reference: resistance: are you woke enough?), but what stood out for me here was my exasperation at his realization that to be a woman (of any political party) in America is a constant battle for safety. “I hadn’t fathomed quite how much time, money, and mental engergy women spend avoiding and fearing rape.” Tell me about it.
The reviews of the so-called chaos chronicles, epitomized by Michael Wolff’s “true enough” Fire and Fury, explore a theme found in many Trump books: Steven Bannon’s view point. I’ve often thought what he succinctly captures in the line “the book has a ‘by Steven Bannon as told to Michael Wolff’ vibe.” There’s a certain level of professional self-awareness in his observation that you can easily convince journalists you’re the go-to intellectual by carrying around large books. All the rest of the original administration gang can be found here, too: the Generals, Sean Spicer, and James Comey, “the kind of writer who doesn’t just quote Shakespeare but quotes himself quoting Shakespeare.” Again, we encounter a rare case where he actually seems to have enjoyed two books, Unmaking the Presidency by Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes and The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, both of which “get at the meaning and the consequences of the disorder the others detail.” The main takeaway is that if you focus too much on Trump, you lose track of some of the less in-your-face but serious problems of the administration, say “the astounding mix of arrogance and misjudgement displayed by Jared Kushner.”
In the final chapter, covering the (are we being melodramatic or too flippant?) death of democracy, we run into all of the issues we’ve seen before: problems but no solutions, complicit republicans, voters making bad choices, progressives alienating people, historians trying to make people take a broader view, and chaos. But if the overarching problem of almost everything he read was that there were no actionable lessons, is that not also the problem with this book? After all, it does bill itself as an “intellectual history,” just like many of the books he’s criticizing.
Ultimately, I asked myself the same question I do at the end of any book review: do I want to read these books now? Well, not really, so I can appreciate this book for saving me quite a lot of time. Apparently books on the Trump era are almost as bad as the Trump era itself.