Publishing a hot-button political treatise that aims to assess the meaning of “current events” while transcending their moment, in order to propose sweeping reforms is an act of supreme self-confidence, if not hubris, even in ordinary times. To do so seven months into the all-bets-are-off presidency of a possibly deranged, morally bankrupt, wildly careening one-man wrecking ball risks folly. Who’s to say where this presidency is headed, or how it will end, and with what consequences for American democracy?
Against the odds, however, Dionne, Ornstein, and Mann have overcome the pitfalls of an “instant book”—save, perhaps, the inevitable taint of the overly familiar. (Readers will have long ago digested the dreary details of the first year of our political discontent, making room in the pit of the stomach for the fresh hell of a second.) Delivering practical tips for surviving “Trumpism,” the trio protect their analysis against immediate obsolescence by drawing this hopefully fleeting moment on a larger historical canvas.
The long view allows these proudly progressive public intellectuals to trace the historical roots of the Trump phenomenon to the collapse of traditional norms of American politics and public discourse over the past three decades, and to the simultaneous erosion of a shared sense of national purpose. The broad timeline also allows our reformers to envision a future in which these norms, and the democratic institutions they once bolstered, are restored at greater strength.
The first half of the book is almost as difficult to read as the daily newspaper. For it is an unremitting catalogue of Trump’s offenses against public decorum and common decency during the 2016 campaign, and his assault on competent governance, professional ethics, and American leadership abroad during the initial months of his presidency. How could this person be elected president? Dionne and company insist, rightly, that any hope of reversing the downward spiral unleashed by Trump and “his” supine Republican Congress turns on answering this question.
A chapter that could have been titled “Choose Your Poison” explores whether Trump voters were motivated by his unsubtle race-baiting and fear-mongering, or by enduring economic malaise in the Rust Belt. The sad answer is “both.” While it is impossible to disentangle the upsurge of open bigotry and xenophobia from the loss of manufacturing jobs and the alienation of the American worker, “nativism and racial feeling, including outright racism...were indeed a decisive part of Trump’s appeal.” The authors point to various data, including the exit polls of voters who listed immigration as their most important issue and voted overwhelmingly for Trump, 64 percent to 33 percent. (But it is also true that voters who said that trade with other countries took away American jobs voted for Trump by a comparable margin.)
Old-fashioned populist resentment of “clueless” elites also spiked. The authors quote a white working-class Trump supporter: “’I’d love to see one-tenth of the outrage about the state of our lives out here that you have for Muslims from another country. You have no idea what our lives are like.’”
Here, as elsewhere, the historical perspective is illuminating. It was the 1960s, when postwar prosperity was at its zenith, which saw the great gains in civil rights, a far more generous immigration policy, and an initially popular “war on poverty.” The authors, citing the economist Benjamin Friedman, note that a rising standard of living makes a society more open, tolerant, and democratic; by the same token, a sustained period of hard times uncorks a meanness in the land.
The authors’ method—distilling and contextualizing reams of public commentary, scholarly studies, and polling data—also produces a succinct, focused account of “the most unlikely achievement of [Trump’s] campaign”: the fact that he won the largest margin among white Evangelicals of any Republican presidential candidate since exit polling began. Catholics have nothing to crow about—white Catholics voted by almost exactly the same margin for Trump as all other whites—but the shift in the moral standards of white Evangelicals, Dionne and company marvel, was “genuinely breathtaking.”