Over the past couple of months, I have ditched my weekly wrap-up for a monthly wrap-up, but then felt like I didn’t really ever sit with my thoughts about a book. I’ve been looking for a way to introduce a book review format that didn’t feel too much like a traditional book review, and I think I finally found it, in large measure thanks to a suggestion for thinking about books from one of The Unread Shelf’s subscriber emails. In the email, she suggests three questions to ask about a book, and I am going to attempt to review a few books using these three questions to see how it goes.
First, though, let me set this book up. What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era is a book about books. Carlos Lozada has read over 150 books about Donald Trump and his presidency during his four years as the non-fiction book critic at the Washington Post. As he read, he began to see patterns of thought that were common throughout the works and to develop a feel for what concerned people, and what the trajectory of that thought was, for the Trump era. As I heard in an interview, Lozada initially sat down to write a series of articles synthesizing these books for the Washington Post, but found himself realizing that this was more of a book-length project.
The result of Lozada’s synthesis is a short, but TBR exploding book, sharing ideas from the books that Lozada has read and also sharing Lozada’s list of the twelve books that he believes will long outlast the Trump era. The book is divided into chapters based on the category book that Lozada believes it belongs to. There are the inevitable chapters on the liberal resistance to Trump, the conservative splintering around their ideology and allegiance to Trump, and about the “chaos chronicles” a.k.a. the books describing the Trump White House. However, and perhaps more evergreen and compelling are the chapters on the heartland, truth, identity politics, feminism and the me too movement, immigration and authoritarianism. These chapters shine through in both their content and the way that Lozada contextualizes them as firmly being products of the Trump era and responses to the Trump presidency.
I noticed . . . .
The first thing I noticed is that Lozada is no fan of Trump. Very few of the books that he chooses to include in his analysis are pro-Trump. Perhaps this is because, as he says, “Even a book titled The Case for Trump struggles to make the case for Trump” (69). What seems to be true, as I read Lozada’s book, was that more writers have struggled to come to terms with how Trump got elected and who would vote for Trump than to make the case for Trump’s actual value as a candidate or appeal as a president. (I also must, in the interest of full disclosure, admit that I fail to see Trump’s appeal myself.) This grappling is most likely what has given birth to the plethora of non-fiction that Lozada reviews. The writings of the Trump era are a reflection of the difficulty that writers have had with accepting Trump as president.
I Wonder . . .
I wonder what books written about the Trump era in the future will look like. This book already seems a little dated (even though it’s brand new!) because there are few mentions of COVID-19 or the Black Lives Matter protests, and there are, of course, no mentions of Trump’s complete break with reality in election fraud. Oh the books that will be written in the future. Lozada could probably come back and revise and expand this book in a year or two with just the writings produced about the lengthy year of 2020. A future book about the Trump era will not be considered complete until those things are included.
I also wonder if the issues that Lozada discusses with feminism, immigration, and identity politics will continue to consume an outsized amount of attention during the Biden era. I wonder what writings Republicans will write during the Biden era, especially if the newest polls saying that 88% of Republicans believe the 2020 election was not fair and free is really true.
It Reminds Me Of . . .
As an academic, this book reminds me of a more casual version of a literature review. I think I may have written some things like this on a smaller scale (and of course not about Trump era non-fiction). This is a good overview for someone to read on a topic to see which primary sources and other writings that they might be interested in exploring more in depth. I certainly found more books I wanted to read, and I places some of the books I have read within the context of their conversation with other books in these genres.
One Excellent Quote . . .
Although Lozada spent much of the book quoting other writers, when he adds in his own commentary, it certainly shines. This quote on the nature of America and the struggle for freedom and civil discourse in the United States is one for the commonplace book.
With passions always strained, the bonds of affection always near the breaking point, the pursuit of freedom and prosperity and belonging is an endless American struggle, an enterprise in equal measures exhausting, exasperating, and exhilarating.
This is quite an optimistic and aspirational view of the American people–one that I hope that our country can live up to.