A long time ago, in 1883, a future president (Woodrow Wilson, a subject of this year’s reckonings) studied political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, in a classroom in which was inscribed the slogan “History is Past Politics, Politics is Present History”, attributed to Sir John Seeley, a Cambridge professor.
That was before the era of the made-for-campaign book.
Politics books in this election year fell into three broad categories. The ordinary, ranging from “meeting-and-tells” to campaign biographies that outlived their relevance. The interesting, those which made tentative starts at history or contained some important revelations. And the significant, those few whose value should live past this year because they actually changed the narrative – or are simply good or important reads.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the books also fell in descending categories numerically. Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post read 150 books on Donald Trump and the Trump era for his own book, What Were We Thinking. Virtually all readers, however, will be content with simply a “non-zero” number, to quote a Trump campaign lawyer.
First, the ephemera and the expected offerings of any election year. Scandals in and out of government; tales of the extended Trump family; attempts at self-justification; books, some entertaining, by correspondents; how-to guides to politics meant to be read and applied before November.
The permutations and penumbras of the 2016 campaign continued to produce new books: Peter Strzok’s Compromised is the story of the origin of the investigation into the Trump campaign from one FBI agent’s perspective, strong stuff and persuasive though omitting facts inconvenient to him. Rick Gates’ Wicked Game contains some new inside scoop, but the real stuff presumably went to the Mueller investigation of which Strzok was briefly a part. Donald Trump Jr’s Liberal Privilege had a double mission: to encourage votes for the father in 2020 and perhaps for the son in 2024. American Crisis, New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s early book on the coronavirus outbreak, highlighted his programmatic vision rather than soaring prose, a choice appropriate for the year but quickly forgotten as the pandemic rages on.
Second come those books that made one sit up 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’s Too Much and Never Enough explained the pain of the Trump family over two generations and how that pain has influenced our national life for ill. David Frum was among the first to predict Trump’s authoritarian dangers. This year, Trumpocalpyse, well-written and insightful as always, focused on the attacks on the rule of law and “white ethnic chauvinism” as hallmarks of Trumpism, whether its supporters are poor or elite. Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Pulitzer-winning Post reporters, chronicled Trump more deeply and successfully than most in A Very Stable Genius. Trump’s anger at the book showed they hit their target.
Stuart Stevens’ It Was All a Lie takes Republican history back a few decades in a punchy mea culpa whose themes will be important in the debate over the future of the GOP. Among the Democrats, a rare good work by a politician, Stacey Abrams’ Our Time Is Now, as well as her triumph in political organizing in Georgia, marks her as an important force.
For quality in financial journalism and the importance of its topic, not least to current and future investigations of Trump and the Trump Organization, Dark Towers by David Enrich on Deutsche Bank offers as full an analysis of the bank and its relation to Trump as is likely to be public absent a further court case in New York.
Andrew Weissmann, a senior prosecutor with the Mueller investigation, wrote Where Law Ends, a strongly-written account in which he regrets his boss not having pursued further, notably in not issuing a subpoena to Trump and then in not making a formal determination as to whether the president would be charged with obstruction of justice. Weissmann’s frustration is understandable, but readers may judge for themselves how fair or not he is to the pressures and formal restrictions on Mueller himself.
There is a subcategory here, of books on foreign and security policy. HR McMaster’s Battlegrounds attempts to explain his working theories (“strategic empathy”) modified for current realities and arguing against American retrenchment and isolation. In The Room Where It Happened, former national security adviser John Bolton told of Trump begging for China’s assistance and wrote that Trump was not “fit for office” – the tale would have been better told to the House impeachment committee. David Rohde’s In Deep demolished the theory of the “deep state”. Barry Gewen delivered a new biography of Henry Kissinger’s life and work. Traitor, by David Rothkopf, sought to chronicle the Trump administration while seeking to reverse its effects and giving a history of American traitors.
Finally, the significant – those few books that contributed importantly to the year’s narrative, or that deserve a reading next year.
There was another Bob Woodward book, Rage – with tapes. The big news was that Trump was aware of the dangers of Covid-19 yet 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 chased. Michael Schmidt’s Donald Trump v the United States is another serious book, with a strong argument of how deeply the attacks on the rule of law by the Trump administration, notably by Trump himself, threaten democracy. Schmidt’s recounting of efforts to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey are sobering, and his revelations on how the Mueller investigation was narrowed to focus on criminality rather than Russian influence in 2016 form a useful corrective to Weissmann.
Politics meets history in a few volumes, notably Thomas Frank’s plea against populism, The People, No, contrasting Trump unfavorably with FDR. Peter Baker and Susan Glasser teamed for a masterpiece biography of former secretary of state James Baker, The Man Who Ran Washington, that reminds us what (and whom) the Republican party used to call leadership. It’s a serious book that recalls Baker, Gerald Ford’s campaign manager in 1976, did not challenge the election result because Ford lost the popular vote. It also shows the truth in Seeley’s aphorism about the relation of politics and history, with many insights into one of the best recent practitioners of politics, fondly remembered for his statesmanship 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’s Active Measures, on disinformation and political warfare – Clausewitz for the cyber era – finds fresh urgency in light of recent revelations about major cyberattacks on the US government.
Two books merit a final mention. As the Trump administration comes to a close, Ruth Ben-Ghiat analysed 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 of going down that path.
Strongmen is a vital book and a warning. Ben-Ghiat sees in Trump a “drive to control and exploit everyone and everything for personal gain. The men, women and children he governs have value in his eyes only insofar as they fight his enemies and adulate him publicly. Propaganda lets him monopolize the nation’s attention, and virility comes into play as he poses as the ideal take-charge man.” Dehumanizing rhetoric and actions against immigrants (and even members of Congress) and appointments of people whose motivation was loyalty rather than law has real cost to a political system whose fragility at points is evident. It takes both individual action and courageous will to preserve democracy.
On a happier note, Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith in After Trump offer a legal, sometimes quite technical roadmap to reform of many norms of government that have been eroded. Some are obvious, others will prove 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 from Barack Obama, whom the new president served as vice-president. Well-written despite being policy heavy, at times deeply moving, at others not as detailed as many readers might wish (despite its length), Obama is reflective both about the nature of power and about himself. More, his book serves once again to remind the world of the contrast between him and his successor. He is rightly proud to have written it – and to have written it by hand, to encourage his own deep thoughts about his presidency and the country he was honored, and sometimes troubled, to lead.
To learn more about the president to come, Evan Osnos’ Joe Biden: American Dreamer is an excellent place to start: his political skills, life tragedies and conviviality are here in equal measure. Osnos ends with a Biden speech about dispelling America’s “season of darkness” – a fervent hope for the new year ahead.