The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tions

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These Truths:

A His­tory of the United States by Jill Le­pore.

Nor­ton, 932 pp., $39.95

Jill Le­pore has achieved sin­gu­lar promi­nence as an Amer­i­can his­to­rian. The David Woods Kem­per ’41 Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can His­tory at Har­vard, she has writ­ten eleven books over the last twenty years, among them a Ban­croft Prize win­ner and fi­nal­ists for the Pulitzer Prize and the Na­tional Book Award. Since 2005, she has reg­u­larly con­trib­uted es­says and re­views to The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer. More suc­cess­fully than any other Amer­i­can his­to­rian of her gen­er­a­tion, she has gained a wide gen­eral read­er­ship with­out com­pro­mis­ing her aca­demic stand­ing.

Le­pore’s work for The New Yorker has al­lowed her to de­velop an en­gag­ing nar­ra­tive style that re­lies heav­ily on ex­act de­tail and clever metaphors. Her tal­ents as a sto­ry­teller have been best suited to a small can­vas, to the un­cov­er­ing of hith­erto ob­scure and mar­ginal lives and the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of par­tic­u­lar episodes and ar­rest­ing char­ac­ters, es­pe­cially if they stand at a re­move from the main fig­ures and events of Amer­i­can his­tory—not the Rev­o­lu­tion, for ex­am­ple, but a ru­mored slave up­ris­ing in New York al­most three decades ear­lier; not Ben­jamin Franklin but his ut­terly for­got­ten and much dis­tressed sis­ter Jane; not any con­se­quen­tial modern bo­hemian writer but the Green­wich Vil­lage ex­hi­bi­tion­ist and sponger Joe Gould, who just may have ac­tu­ally writ­ten (or so Le­pore hints) his no­to­ri­ous, mon­u­men­tal “Oral His­tory of Our Time.”1 If, fi­nally, much re­mains ei­ther in­signif­i­cant or un­know­able, she leaves her read­ers im­pressed with her pow­ers of de­tec­tion and her em­pathic imag­i­na­tion.

Le­pore has now writ­ten her most am­bi­tious book to date: These Truths, a one-vol­ume na­tional po­lit­i­cal his­tory of the US. In 2010, shocked at the ris­ing Tea Party move­ment’s grotesque abuse of the his­tory of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, she con­trib­uted an ele­gant cor­rec­tive, The Whites of Their Eyes. The book pre­sented the his­to­rian’s craft as es­sen­tial to ex­pos­ing facile, plau­si­ble, but fi­nally false analo­gies be­tween the past and the present.

Yet the book also al­leged that pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans had failed in re­cent decades to of­fer the gen­eral pub­lic “sweep­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions both of the past and of [their] own time,” an ab­di­ca­tion that made them com­plicit in the fla­grant de­base­ment of the past in con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics.2 These Truths 1In writ­ing on Gould, Le­pore suc­ceeded her leg­endary pre­de­ces­sor at The New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell, noted for his pro­files of Gould from 1942 and 1964 that were later col­lected as Joe Gould’s Se­cret (Vik­ing, 1965).

2The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Rev­o­lu­tion and the Bat­tle Over Amer­i­can His­tory (Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2010). An out­stand­ing ex­cep­tion, the rad­i­cal his­to­rian Howard Zinn’s enor­mously suc­cess­ful A may well have started out as an ef­fort to help fill that sup­posed void. But if so, while she was writ­ing the book, the as­cen­dancy of Don­ald Trump turned the void into some­thing re­sem­bling a cy­clone.

Le­pore be­gins not with a grand ex­plana­tory the­ory of Amer­i­can his­tory but with a ques­tion, around which she Peo­ple’s His­tory of the United States, first pub­lished in 1980, of­fers a sim­plis­tic nar­ra­tive that has made it, Le­pore once archly ob­served, the equiv­a­lent of The Catcher in the Rye for the bud­ding high school his­to­rian—sub­ver­sive, in­spir­ing, but soon enough a book to out­grow. See “Zinn’s His­tory,” Page-Turner (blog), The New Yorker, Fe­bru­ary 3, 2010. Le­pore’s com­plaint, how­ever, ig­nores other, far stronger works such as Eric Foner’s The Story of Amer­i­can Free­dom (Nor­ton, 1998). de­vel­ops var­i­ous themes. She posits that the na­tion was built on three prin­ci­ples or truths: po­lit­i­cal equal­ity, nat­u­ral rights, and pop­u­lar sovereignty. Armed with those con­cepts, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary gen­er­a­tion wa­gered that hu­man­ity could, as Alexan­der Hamil­ton wrote in Fed­er­al­ist 1, es­tab­lish “good gov­ern­ment from re­flec­tion and choice,” in­stead of be­ing “for­ever des­tined to de­pend for their po­lit­i­cal con­sti­tu­tions on ac­ci­dent and force.” For Le­pore, re­lat­ing the na­tion’s his­tory comes down to a test: Has the wa­ger suc­ceeded? In ar­riv­ing at a ver­dict, she tells a story of tor­ment and be­trayal off­set by de­cency and in­no­va­tion, of a na­tion that has re­peat­edly de­parted from its found­ing truths but al­ways, even in the worst of times, re­turned to them.

Well be­fore the na­tion’s found­ing, slav­ery called into ques­tion the con­sis­tency and even the sin­cer­ity of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies’ prin­ci­ples, and Le­pore places it at the cen­ter of These Truths from the very first pages. Her un­con­ven­tional take on the most dif­fi­cult sub­ject in our his­tory is her book’s most im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion. One well-es­tab­lished line of ar­gu­ment holds that the Rev­o­lu­tion un­leashed what Bernard Bai­lyn once called a “con­ta­gion of lib­erty” that even­tu­ally chal­lenged the enor­mity of slav­ery. An­other line is tougher on the Rev­o­lu­tion’s hypocrisy, echo­ing Sa­muel John­son’s fa­mous jibe about hear­ing “the loud­est yelps for lib­erty among the driv­ers of Ne­groes.” A still­darker ar­gu­ment as­serts that slav­ery was a corner­stone of the Rev­o­lu­tion’s repub­li­can­ism—that slave­hold­ing aris­to­cratic rebels like Wash­ing­ton, Jef­fer­son, and Madi­son could, as Ed­mund Mor­gan wrote, “more safely preach equal­ity in a slave so­ci­ety than in a free one,” and that they ac­cord­ingly pro­moted a racist repub­li­can­ism that kept poorer whites con­tented by the fact that they were not black and not en­slaved. Le­pore, how­ever, ad­vances an emerg­ing view among his­to­ri­ans that there were two eigh­teenth-cen­tury rev­o­lu­tions in Amer­ica, not one: the fa­mil­iar suc­cess­ful re­bel­lion against monar­chi­cal rule and a less re­mem­bered one to abol­ish slav­ery that would not suc­ceed un­til 1865. In Notes of a Na­tive Son, James Bald­win ob­served that “the es­tab­lish­ment of democ­racy...was scarcely as rad­i­cal a break with the past as was the ne­ces­sity, which Amer­i­cans faced, of broad­en­ing this con­cept to in­clude black men.” Le­pore would agree that the erad­i­ca­tion of slav­ery—an in­sti­tu­tion that dated back to an­tiq­uity in West­ern cul­ture—and the ex­ten­sion of equal­ity to the for­merly en­slaved and their descen­dants, an ex­ten­sion still starkly in­com­plete, has been as pro­found a rev­o­lu­tion as any in modern his­tory. The roots of the Amer­i­can an­ti­slav­ery rev­o­lu­tion, in the re­vi­sion­ist telling, are in the re­bel­lions and po­lit­i­cal strug­gles of slaves and free blacks. Sup­ported by some prom­i­nent whites, in­clud­ing John Jay and Gou­verneur Mor­ris, the an­ti­slav­ery strug­gle be­came en­twined with the truths of the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and the Con­sti­tu­tion; slave­hold­ers and their sup­port­ers, mean­while, cited those same truths in de­fense of their sup­posed nat­u­ral right to own hu­man be­ings as prop­erty. From the na­tion’s found­ing un­til the Civil War, Amer­i­can pol­i­tics came to turn on which ver­sion of the Rev­o­lu­tion’s prin­ci­ples would pre­vail. It was a strug­gle that would only be set­tled in blood.

This line of ar­gu­ment helps make sense of how a new na­tion de­signed in part to pro­tect slav­ery could also gen­er­ate a mass po­lit­i­cal move­ment that pushed for slav­ery’s con­tain­ment and ul­ti­mate ex­tinc­tion.3 Le­pore suc­cess­fully links the story of slav­ery and an­ti­slav­ery with that of the widen­ing of democ­racy for white men through the 1830s and 1840s, aware of how the ex­pan­sion of pop­u­lar pol­i­tics at once hin­dered and ad­vanced the ris­ing an­ti­slav­ery cause. She skill­fully weaves in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ences into the va­garies

3See James Oakes, The Scor­pion’s St­ing: An­ti­slav­ery and the Com­ing of the Civil War (Nor­ton, 2014).

of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal change, mem­o­rably the life of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s slave Harry Wash­ing­ton, who es­caped Mount Ver­non in 1776, fought with the Bri­tish army, ar­rived with other Loy­al­ists af­ter the Rev­o­lu­tion in Nova Sco­tia, and ended up in Sierra Leone, where he helped lead an un­suc­cess­ful rev­o­lu­tion of blacks against the colo­nial Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties. Le­pore also re­mains a de­mon for de­tail, right down to de­scrib­ing the gold-em­broi­dered cuffs and wing-like epaulets of a Mex­i­can am­bas­sador who sur­vived a fate­ful ship­board ex­plo­sion on the Po­tomac that nearly killed Pres­i­dent John Tyler in 1844.

Like any am­bi­tious book cov­er­ing sev­eral cen­turies, These Truths con­tains triv­ial slips that can be eas­ily cor­rected in the next print­ing: the oc­ca­sional mis­spelling of a name or the mis­dat­ing of a sig­nif­i­cant event. But es­pe­cially in light of the book’s themes and Le­pore’s pre­ci­sion else­where, it’s per­plex­ing to read, for ex­am­ple, the am­bigu­ous state­ment that the Con­sti­tu­tion’s three-fifths clause, by sub­stan­tially en­larg­ing slave­hold­ing states’ al­lot­ment in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, granted those states “far greater rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Congress than free states,” an as­ser­tion that, if taken to mean pro­por­tions in the House, would be in­ac­cu­rate.4 The framers did not

4Even with the three-fifths clause, the Fed­eral Con­ven­tion al­lot­ted thirty-five seats in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the north­ern states that had abol­ished or were in the process of abol- re­solve their larger im­passe over rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the House and Se­nate by pass­ing the North­west Or­di­nance— Le­pore seems un­aware that the Con­fed­er­a­tion Congress, and not the Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion, ap­proved the mea­sure—nor did the or­di­nance de­cree that states south of the Ohio River would con­tinue slav­ery. If any of these as­ser­tions were ac­cu­rate, the pol­i­tics of slav­ery and an­ti­slav­ery over the fol­low­ing decades would have been markedly dif­fer­ent, so the fum­bles are not in­con­se­quen­tial.

Some shak­i­ness about ele­men­tary facts, es­pe­cially on pol­i­tics, re­curs in later chap­ters. Fed­er­al­ists and Jef­fer­so­nian Repub­li­cans did not, as the book as­serts, align as, re­spec­tively, an­ti­slav­ery and proslav­ery par­ties prior to the mo­men­tous cri­sis over the ad­mis­sion of Mis­souri as a slave state in 1819 and 1820; most con­gress­men in what John Quincy Adams called the “free party” were in fact north­ern Repub­li­cans. Adams, who was by then a Repub­li­can him­self, did be­come in­creas­ingly op­posed to slav­ery over the fol­low­ing decades, as Le­pore re­lates, but partly on that ac­count, he never “steered the er­ratic course of the Whig Party,” as the book con­tends. If he had, some­thing like Lin­coln’s Repub­li­can Party ish­ing slav­ery and thirty seats to the slave­hold­ing states. Con­trary to the ex­pec­ta­tions of many, the free-state ma­jor­ity in­creased dra­mat­i­cally over the com­ing decades, mean­ing that slave­hold­ers al­ways needed the sup­port of sym­pa­thetic north­ern­ers, a cru­cial fac­tor in na­tional pol­i­tics. might have arisen two decades ear­lier than it did.

To­gether, these lapses make the found­ing gen­er­a­tion ap­pear more proslav­ery and the later Fed­er­al­ist and Whig par­ties more an­ti­slav­ery than they ac­tu­ally were, but they can be ad­justed with­out weak­en­ing Le­pore’s gen­eral ar­gu­ment. Her han­dling of the Jack­so­nian Democrats is a lit­tle more trou­bling. Although she is more even­handed than many his­to­ri­ans—she avoids mak­ing the mis­take oth­ers on the left have made re­cently of echo­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s spu­ri­ous claims to Jack­son’s le­gacy—she does la­bel the Jack­so­ni­ans’ demo­cratic con­cep­tion of pop­u­lar sovereignty a species of “pop­ulism,” thereby mak­ing Jack­son the chief fore­run­ner of what the book will go on to de­scribe as a thor­oughly ran­cid strain in Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal his­tory. This loose con­cep­tion of pop­ulism, as Man­isha Sinha has ob­served, ten­den­tiously con­flates “an­tidemo­cratic forces of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury” with Jack­son’s white man’s democ­racy and later nine­teenth-cen­tury demo­cratic move­ments.5 Here it sig­nals Le­pore’s in­ter­est in show­ing how some of Trump­ism’s ori­gins emerged long be­fore Trump’s pres­i­dency, a course she pur­sues with un­even suc­cess. 5Man­isha Sinha, “Mak­ing An­drew Jack­son Great Again?,” His­tory News Net­work, Jan­uary 7, 2018. See also Daniel Howe, “The Nine­teenth-Cen­tury Trump,” NYR Daily, June 27, 2017; and An­drew Burstein and Nancy Isen­berg, “The Demo­cratic Au­to­crat,” Democ­racy, Fall 2017. These

Truths di­vides the na­tion’s his­tory af­ter the Civil War into two parts, break­ing at 1945, and of­fers two con­trast­ing arcs. Af­ter the over­throw of Re­con­struc­tion and with the com­ing of the Gilded Age, the prin­ci­ples of equal­ity, nat­u­ral rights, and pop­u­lar rule rapidly re­ceded, sup­planted by a new in­dus­trial plu­toc­racy and ac­com­pa­nied by vi­cious white supremacy. Pro­gres­sive re­form­ers for a time curbed the ex­cesses, but the old or­der per­sisted un­til it col­lapsed in the Great De­pres­sion, clear­ing the way for FDR’s New Deal, fol­lowed by Amer­ica’s emer­gence af­ter World War II as the in­dis­pens­able na­tion in the cre­ation of a new lib­er­aldemo­cratic world or­der.

There­after plu­toc­racy abated, as lib­er­al­ism fi­nally ad­dressed the most egre­gious sys­tems of racial op­pres­sion and per­sis­tent eco­nomic in­equal­ity—only to see a fierce con­ser­va­tive re­ac­tion led by Ron­ald Rea­gan swamp a shaken and feck­less Demo­cratic op­po­si­tion and usher in a sec­ond Gilded Age, with Repub­li­cans and Democrats alike poi­son­ing pol­i­tics. “The na­tion had lost its way in the pol­i­tics of mu­tu­ally as­sured epis­te­mo­log­i­cal de­struc­tion,” Le­pore as­serts. “There was no truth, only in­nu­endo, ru­mor, and bias. There was no rea­son­able ex­pla­na­tion; there was only con­spir­acy”—that is her de­scrip­tion of the 1990s. If Trump­ism’s ad­vent in 2016 was not in­evitable, the po­lit­i­cal crack-up that pro­duced it be­gan decades ear­lier, un­til the sys­tem, un­der Bill Clin­ton, be­gan fall­ing into what Le­pore calls an “abyss.” Le­pore’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion fo­cuses on the in­ter­sec­tion of cul­ture and pol­i­tics, but over­all, while

per­sua­sive on cul­ture, it is much less so on pol­i­tics.

Although pol­i­tics re­mains at the core of her book, Le­pore is most at home dis­cussing cul­tural ar­ti­facts and trends, an­a­lyz­ing, for ex­am­ple, the 1957 Katharine Hep­burn–Spencer Tracy film Desk Set as a kind of man­i­festo “about mass democ­racy and the chaos of facts.” In­so­far as ra­dio, the movies, tele­vi­sion, and the In­ter­net have fun­da­men­tally changed pol­i­tics—with even greater volatil­ity than the mass-cir­cu­la­tion press in the 1830s and af­ter—me­dia de­servedly loom large, as does the his­tory of reg­u­la­tion. And in­so­far as move­ment con­ser­vatism af­ter the 1960s tri­umphed as a re­sult of the in­sti­ga­tion and ma­nip­u­la­tion of var­i­ous cul­ture wars (which Le­pore smartly ties to the ca­reer of the hard-right polemi­cist and or­ga­nizer Phyl­lis Sch­lafly), the en­twin­ing of cul­ture and pol­i­tics lies at the heart of re­cent his­tory. For Le­pore, the rise of pop­ulist pol­i­tics and the in­ven­tion of in­stru­ments of mass de­cep­tion are par­tic­u­larly notable—and with her in­vo­ca­tions of pop­ulist in­tol­er­ance, as well as of the early his­tory of “fake news” (a term, she shows, that dates back to the 1930s but rings more au­then­ti­cally in the orig­i­nal Ger­man), it’s not dif­fi­cult to see where her book is head­ing. “Pop­ulism,” Le­pore writes, “en­tered Amer­i­can pol­i­tics at the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury, and it never left.” Her ac­count of the rise of the Peo­ple’s Party (also known as the Pop­ulists) in 1891 is some­times heav­ily slanted to­ward the odi­ous or just be­wil­der­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Le­pore, the Pop­ulists’ re­sponse to eco­nomic in­jus­tice com­bined a con­spir­acy-minded ha­tred of the rich with a vi­cious racism and na­tivism, in­clud­ing anti-Semitism, that “rank among its long­est-last­ing lega­cies.” And while it pit­ted whites against non­whites, she writes, “pop­ulism also pit­ted the peo­ple against the state.” By these lights, what she calls pop­ulism’s en­dur­ing po­lit­i­cal le­gacy re­sides mainly in to­day’s Repub­li­can Party.

Le­pore’s ac­count re­vives the hos­tile in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Pop­ulists ad­vanced by Ed­ward Shils and Peter Viereck, and in a far more nu­anced way by Richard Hof­s­tadter, in the 1950s. That view, how­ever, has long since been re­futed by the re­search of sev­eral his­to­ri­ans who demon­strated that the Pop­ulists were no less tol­er­ant of im­mi­grants and blacks, and in some re­spects more so, than main­stream politi­cians and the well-born shapers of re­spectable opin­ion were.6 The Pop­ulists’ chief de­mands—for state reg­u­la­tion and even own­er­ship of rail­roads and tele­graph com­pa­nies, for in­fla­tion­ary mon­e­tary poli­cies, and for a grad­u­ated in­come tax—were hardly out­bursts of ei­ther an­t­i­cap­i­tal­ist para­noia or na­tivism and white supremacy. It is im­pos­si­ble, more­over, to square these pro­pos­als, which Le­pore at one point calls “col­lec­tivist,” with her con­tention that the Pop­ulists’ re­for­ma­tion en­tailed op­pos­ing the state.

Twen­ti­eth- and twenty-first-cen­tury erup­tions that Le­pore de­scribes as pop­ulist—in­clud­ing the anti–New Deal ful­mi­na­tions of the anti-Semitic dem­a­gogue priest Charles Cough­lin, the Tea Party, the alt-right, and, in a left-wing antigov­ern­ment vari­ant, Oc­cupy Wall Street—have had noth­ing to do with the pop­ulist tra­di­tion, which per­sisted dur­ing the 1920s and 1930s in po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions like the left­ist Non­par­ti­san League and the Farmer-La­bor Party move­ment. Above all, there is noth­ing of the pop­ulist le­gacy in the cal­cu­lated fake pop­ulism of the modern GOP, which rep­re­sents a gen­uine at­tack on the reg­u­la­tory state that dates from the big busi­ness re­ac­tionar­ies of the 1930s, makes lib­er­als, not plu­to­crats, into the op­pres­sive elite, and re­lies heav­ily on fla­grant ap­peals to white re­sent­ment. Le­pore gets back on track when she shifts to the his­tory of the mass me­dia and po­lit­i­cal polling, and their un­der­min­ing of de­lib­er­a­tive democ­racy. As early as the 1930s, tools of mass per­sua­sion were bear­ing out Wal­ter Lipp­mann’s ear­lier warn­ings about the elec­toral sys­tem’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity to the pur­pose­ful ob­fus­ca­tion of rea­son and facts. Draw­ing on re­search she pub­lished in The New Yorker dur­ing the 2012 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Le­pore fo­cuses on the pi­o­neer­ing pro-busi­ness con­sult­ing firm Cam­paigns, Inc., known by its crit­ics as the Lie Fac­tory, which started out by slan­der­ing Up­ton Sin­clair dur­ing his rad­i­cal gu­ber­na­to­rial race in Cal­i­for­nia in 1934 and went on to launch even more am­bi­tious pro­pa­ganda ef­forts for busi­ness in­ter­ests, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­can Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion’s scare cam­paign that de­feated Pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man’s at­tempt to pass na­tional health in­sur­ance at the end of the 1940s.

By the 1990s, both na­tional po­lit­i­cal par­ties as well as ad­vo­cacy groups across the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum were the cap­tives of a class of cyn­i­cal po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tants who pock­eted enor­mous sums—the price of do­ing busi­ness in a cor­po­ra­tized democ­racy. The tech­niques of ma­nip­u­la­tion and mis­in­for­ma­tion had be­come vastly more

so­phis­ti­cated, es­pe­cially af­ter the spread of tele­vi­sion. But the aw­ful pos­si­bil­i­ties of mass me­dia, Le­pore ob­serves, had been glimpsed long be­fore, when Or­son Welles’s Mer­cury Theatre broad­cast over the CBS ra­dio net­work its no­to­ri­ous, ter­ri­fy­ing drama­ti­za­tion of The War of the Worlds in 1938. Across the coun­try, she writes, com­men­ta­tors asked whether “the masses [had] grown too pas­sive, too ea­ger to re­ceive ready-made opin­ions.” These were, Welles later noted, ex­actly the ques­tions that the pro­gram had in­tended to pro­voke. But far worse would come, bat­ter­ing Alexan­der Hamil­ton’s orig­i­nal hopes for an Amer­i­can repub­lic gov­erned by rea­son and choice in­stead of ac­ci­dent and force.

Le­pore’s ac­count of the last quar­ter­century of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics in­evitably de­scribes the rav­ages of po­lar­iza­tion. One force­ful in­ter­pre­ta­tion of that his­tory has em­pha­sized how, in the post-Rea­gan era, be­gin­ning with the as­cent of Newt Gin­grich and later abet­ted by Fox News, the Repub­li­can Party de­lib­er­ately coars­ened po­lit­i­cal de­bate while mov­ing so far to the right that it be­came no party at all but, as the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Thomas E. Mann and Nor­man J. Orn­stein wrote in 2012, an ex­treme “in­sur­gent out­lier... scorn­ful of com­pro­mise; un­moved by con­ven­tional un­der­stand­ing of facts, ev­i­dence and science; and dis­mis­sive of the le­git­i­macy of its po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion.”7 Le­pore re­counts these trends but also en­er­get­i­cally be­rates the Demo­cratic Party, which in the 1980s and af­ter, she claims, re­pu­di­ated New Deal lib­er­al­ism, sub­sti­tuted the pol­i­tics of iden­tity for the pol­i­tics of equal­ity, and em­braced a tech­no­cratic elitism that “jet­ti­soned peo­ple with­out the means or in­ter­est in own­ing their own com­puter,” above all blue-col­lar union mem­bers. In blam­ing both sides she leaves un­ex­plained why, for ex­am­ple, the share of union house­holds vot­ing for Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees, af­ter sud­denly crash­ing in 1980, rose steadily over the next fif­teen years, reach­ing a peak of 60 per­cent in 1992, roughly what it had been be­fore Rea­gan. Le­pore can barely con­tain her con­tempt for Bill Clin­ton, whom she de­scribes as a com­pro­miser who “liked and needed to be liked” by al­most ev­ery­one, and who was con­sis­tent chiefly as a phi­lan­der­ing “ras­cal.” Even be­fore the dis­as­trous midterms of 1994, she says, Clin­ton had steered his ad­min­is­tra­tion to the right; there­after, he found com­mon ground with Gin­grich—she by­passes events like the gov­ern­ment shut­downs in which Clin­ton out­wit­ted Gin­grich—and pur­sued an agenda much of which “amounted to a con­tin­u­a­tion of work be­gun by Rea­gan and [Ge­orge H.W.] Bush.” On the Lewin­sky scan­dal, Le­pore cites An­thony Lewis, who re­marked that the coun­try had come “close to a coup d’état,” but leaves mys­te­ri­ous how the plot was hatched or why, given her de­scrip­tion of Clin­ton’s Rea­ganesque pol­i­tics, Repub­li­cans would have both­ered with it. She dan­gles An­drew Sul­li­van’s ex­co­ri­a­tion of Clin­ton as a cyn­i­cal, nar­cis­sis­tic, men­da­cious “can­cer on the cul­ture”— over­look­ing Sul­li­van’s pro­mo­tion at The New Repub­lic of a men­da­cious but in­flu­en­tial right-wing at­tack on Clin­ton’s health care plan and of the racist block­buster The Bell Curve—be­fore shift­ing her re­buke to be­rate “the con­ser­va­tive me­dia es­tab­lish­ment” and Clin­ton de­fend­ers like Glo­ria Steinem and Toni Mor­ri­son, whose blasts of Ken­neth Starr and the GOP ex­trem­ists in Congress she claims “di­min­ished lib­er­al­ism” by por­tray­ing the pres­i­dent as a vic­tim. An im­mense and, for Le­pore, im­mensely de­struc­tive cul­tural force also emerged in the 1990s: the In­ter­net. She rea­son­ably blames that emer­gence in part on what fu­ture his­to­ri­ans will, I sus­pect, re­gard as a truly calami­tous piece of Clin­ton-backed leg­is­la­tion, the Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Act of 1996. While scrap­ping what reg­u­la­tion of the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­dus­try the courts had not al­ready un­done, the law opened the way to the con­sol­i­da­tion of ex­ist­ing me­dia em­pires, the cre­ation of vast new mo­nop­o­lies like Google, and the pro­hi­bi­tion of gov­ern­ment over­sight of the In­ter­net and its darker re­gions, “with,” as Le­pore writes, “cat­a­strophic con­se­quences.”

Although the Repub­li­cans’ sin­gle­minded as­saults on pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion were chiefly to blame, the In­ter­net rev­o­lu­tion ac­cel­er­ated a wors­en­ing of in­come in­equal­ity, which be­fore the eco­nomic col­lapse of 2008–2009 re­turned to pre–New Deal lev­els. It also ad­vanced, Le­pore as­serts, the ruin of both na­tional par­ties, turn­ing them into hol­low shells, “hard and par­ti­san on the out­side, empty on the in­side,” as well as the de­base­ment of po­lit­i­cal de­bate, now un­moored from fact and “newly waged al­most en­tirely on­line . . . fran­tic, des­per­ate, and para­noid.” Even the ex­cep­tional (to Le­pore) Barack Obama, who she says sum­moned Amer­i­cans “to choose our bet­ter his­tory,” failed to re­verse the chaos, as his “com­mit­ment to calm, rea­soned de­lib­er­a­tion proved un­ten­able in a mad­cap cap­i­tal.” In­stead there was Trump, buoyed by a new Amer­i­can pop­ulism, pro­moted by ut­terly un­re­strained dynamos of mass de­cep­tion, and in­spired by the very worst in our his­tory. Le­pore does not of­fer a fi­nal ver­dict on Amer­ica and its truths, but her con­clud­ing lines are an­guished, de­pict­ing a ship of state be­ing torched by those newly in charge and the craven op­po­si­tion hud­dled clue­less below decks, with a new gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­cans called upon “to forge an an­chor in the glow­ing fire of their ideals,” yet in need of “an an­cient and nearly for­got­ten art: how to nav­i­gate by the stars.” An­other ap­proach, though, would in­volve re­turn­ing to Hamil­ton, who in Fed­er­al­ist 68 ex­plained how the Con­sti­tu­tion aimed to ob­struct “ca­bal, in­trigue, and cor­rup­tion” and to de­feat the “most deadly ad­ver­saries of repub­li­can gov­ern­ment,” who would seek to ex­ploit “the de­sire in for­eign pow­ers to gain an im­proper as­cen­dant in our coun­cils.” Trump may per­haps re­flect the worst in the long his­tory that Le­pore re­lates, but in more ways than she sug­gests, he also rep­re­sents a sharp break, matched in our his­tory only by South­ern se­ces­sion and the Civil War. Re­claim­ing Amer­ica’s truths means, first and fore­most, un­der­stand­ing the ex­act his­toric di­men­sions of the un­prece­dented cri­sis—a cri­sis that, be­yond dem­a­gogy, lies, and phony pop­ulism, goes to the le­git­i­macy of the con­sti­tu­tional or­der.

7Thomas E. Mann and Nor­man J. Orn­stein, “Let’s Just Say It: The Repub­li­cans Are the Prob­lem,” The Wash­ing­ton Post, April 27, 2012.

Ti­tus Kaphar: Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother, 2014; from the ex­hi­bi­tion ‘Un­Seen: Our Past in a New Light,’ which in­cludes work by Kaphar and Ken Gon­za­les-Day. It is on view at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Por­trait Gallery, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., through Jan­uary 6, 2019.

Jill Le­pore

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