What to read to understand the next four years.
Donald Trump is making America read again.
It started during the campaign, when J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” became the go-to text explaining Trump’s appeal among low-income white voters. It continued last month, when a public spat between Trump and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) boosted sales of Lewis’s trilogy, “March,” and memoir, “Walking With the Wind.” And then came the dystopian-fiction craze, when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway immortalized herself in America’s political lexicon by describing White House falsehoods as “alternative facts” — and George Orwell’s “1984” shot to the top of Amazon’s sales ranking.
A president who rarely cracks books has unwittingly launched a book club for America. Every feud, every outrage, every did-he-really-just-do-that episode propels a new literary discussion. In the months since the election, I’ve frequently been asked to suggest books explaining the convulsions of the Trump era. The question has even inspired me to start a book group of my own; the quest for insight is always better in good company.
As with any book club, national or personal, the key question is what book comes next — a more urgent matter now that those choices appear to reflect the political fears, grievances and aspirations of America’s citizen-readers.
Trump clearly grasps the cultural allure of books. He has authored more than a dozen of them (I hesitate to use the word “written”) and launched his campaign declaring that “we need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ” That book is as much a part of his brand as “The Apprentice” or Trump Tower. Maybe more.
Yet, while critics gushed over his predecessor’s love of the written word, Trump doesn’t mind being pegged as a literary lightweight — it’s just one more way to knock those coastal elites he supposedly disdains. Trump has freely admitted to not reading books, devoting instead endless hours to cable news. “I’m watching you all the time!” he told Megyn Kelly in a May 2016 Fox News interview. “I’m watching O’Reilly all the time. I’m watching Hannity . . . . I would love to sit down and read a book, but I just don’t have the time anymore.” (Someone should introduce him to C-SPAN’s BookTV.)
The scoffing about Trump’s literary indifference has been endless. “Donald Trump Is ‘Too Busy’ To Read Books,” sniffed the Huffington Post on the eve of the Republican National Convention. “Sad.” And when Trump told the Hollywood Reporter that he was re-reading “All Quiet on the Western Front,” journalist Michael Wolff winked that it was probably a book Trump suddenly remembered from high school.
But of all the concerns I have about the new president — and the list is mighty — a sparse bookshelf is hardly foremost, and every earnest appeal for “the one book Trump should read right now!” makes me smile. Developing a personal or intellectual sensibility through books is the work of a lifetime, not something you pick up at age 70 when you’ve just plunged into the maelstrom of the presidency. And as The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher has reported, “There is no clear correlation between studious presidents and success in the office.”
Sure, I wish Trump read more books. But at this point I’d settle for him reading his briefing books. Or the Constitution.
We have often looked to the book choices of our political leaders as a window into their minds and policy preferences — and at times they have been, for better or worse. For instance, Jimmy Carter’s fascination with the ideas of Christopher Lasch, author of the 1979 bestseller “The Culture of Narcissism,” was part of the impetus behind Carter’s ill-fated “crisis of confidence” speech, forever linking the 39th president to the notion of American malaise. And the New Yorker’s massive 1963 review of Michael Harrington’s “The Other America” helped get the President Kennedy focused on the poor, leading to LBJ’s War on Poverty.
In his 2013 history of popular culture in the White House, Tevi Troy cited Abraham Lincoln as an example of a self-taught, bookish man whose ascent to the presidency made the office more relatable. “The combination of humble origins and prodigious learning makes Lincoln an irresistibly appealing figure,” Troy writes. “If Lincoln can do it, politicians and citizens alike may think, so can I.”
Trump’s connection with voters is forged not through literature but on Twitter — that’s the window into his thinking — so it’s intriguing that people are using books to grasp, interpret or game out the Trump phenomenon. During the campaign, the subject of rural white voters emerged as a publishing and journalistic obsession. Beyond “Hillbilly Elegy,” works such as Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash” and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land” grappled with the history and attitudes of the white American underclass, while Carol Anderson’s “White Rage” argued that every era of black progress produced a backlash from entrenched white interests. All became bestsellers during Trump’s ascent.
Now with the Trump administration underway, Orwell’s “1984” is but one of several dystopian classics to regain currency. Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here,” the tale of a bumbling, repressive and democratically elected American fascist, has reached Amazon’s top 20. Same for Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” helped by the forthcoming Hulu adaptation of the book. Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is a Washington Post paperback bestseller.
The shift is telling. With “1984” surpassing “Hillbilly Elegy” on Amazon, it seems we’ve grown less interested in reflecting on how we got here and more in figuring out where we’re headed.
What genre might come next? I imagine many nonfiction book proposals are being shopped around, promising the inside story of the Trump presidency (working title: “American Carnage”). The resurgent far right may have its literary moment, too; see how “Dangerous” by Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos is gaining strength in advance of next month’s publication. But I’d bet political satire will gain prominence, particularly with a vain, thin-skinned president as its target. Already, British novelist Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, is publishing a Trump-inspired satire this April titled “Pussy,” which he wrote in a “fury of disbelief” after the November ballot. Trump’s sensitivity to “Saturday Night Live” skits shows that this is fertile territory and, as Hannah Arendt argued, ridicule weakens the aura surrounding strongmen, undercutting their pretensions of greatness and history.
Oh, and Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” has been selling well.
Trump does read some books, or at least claims to. Last summer, for instance, he touted Edward Klein’s “Unlikeable: The Problem With Hillary.” And in 2015 he raved over Ann Coulter’s subtly titled “Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole.” In fact, Trump’s initial campaign remarks about Mexican drug dealers and rapists were probably inspired by Coulter’s book, which he hailed as “a great read” just three weeks before announcing his candidacy.
Those are not exactly works that ease the minds of Trump’s opponents. It’s not enough that presidents read books, critics insist; they must read the right ones. For instance, when adviser Karl Rove disclosed President George W. Bush’s heavy reading habits in a 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen chided the president for turning to books that reaffirmed his choices and worldview. “Bush has always been the captive of fixed ideas,” Cohen wrote. “His books just support that.”
The wisdom-of-crowds approach, reflected in bestseller lists, is one way to find books that give us perspective, strategy or comfort in uncertain times. But even then, it’s hard to break free of our political silos. After all, the readers gravitating toward “1984” are probably not the same ones ordering presale copies of “Dangerous.” In the coming days I’ll start gathering with a few journalists, academics and wonks to try to identify, read and discuss varied works that help us understand, as Trump might say, what the hell is going on. (We’re kicking off with Pankaj Mishra’s “Age of Anger,” which sounds about right.)
So if you’ve rediscovered an old book that speaks to our new political realities, if you’re a professor of American government suddenly rethinking your assigned readings, if you’re finding new books in other languages that imagine where the United States and the world are headed, please share your picks widely — and let me know. And, yes, if you’re writing that one book that somehow explains it all, I want to be the first to hear about it.
2017 has ushered in the Trump presidency — and now the Trump’s America Book Club. I hope you’ll join.
President Trump has inspired new interest in books about the white working class, civil rights figures and dystopian societies.