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A book critic read 150 Trump-era books. Here’s what he learned.

“The books that cede the spotlight to Trump let him dictate the way we think about this time.”

An image of Trump against the backdrop of an American flag with sun shining through it.
People participate in the “Million MAGA March” from Freedom Plaza to the Supreme Court on November 14, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Back in 2016, a book critic for the Washington Post told his editor he wanted to read all of Donald Trump’s old books. The idea — hope, really — was that combing through all those books would reveal something useful about Trump.

Over the next four years, Carlos Lozada’s project ballooned into something much broader. In the end, he read something like 150 — yep, 150! — books not just about Trump himself but about this entire cultural moment.

Why would any thinking person sign up for so grotesque a task? Masochism, perhaps. But for Lozada, it’s something a little nobler. He wanted to map out an intellectual history of this bizarre period — he dryly calls it a survey of “Trump Studies.”

The result of his efforts is a fantastic new book called What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.

This is not another “Look at how crazy the Trump White House is” book, and it isn’t another lamentation on the death of democracy; instead, it’s closer to cultural criticism. The question isn’t so much what happened, but rather how it was even possible in the first place.

I reached out to Lozada to talk about what he learned from digging through all these books, what their weaknesses reveal about our intellectual culture, and what a truly authoritative book on this era would look like. I also ask him which books stood out as uniquely interesting or revelatory, and what they explained about this moment that the others didn’t.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

What the hell we were thinking, Carlos?

Carlos Lozada

In some ways, we weren’t thinking that hard. In some ways we were thinking this could not happen, right? Trump happened because so many people and institutions thought it was impossible and therefore in some senses enabled it or allowed it to happen. I think the inordinate coverage he received during his campaign was a reflection of the notion that this was a sideshow. That was definitely one part of it.

Another is that I think we were thinking the things that we wanted to think and that we were predisposed to think. A lot of the response to Trump as seen through these books reflects that. People say, “Look, this just proves everything I’ve been saying all along.” You see that in so many of the Trump books, whether it’s from the left or right or whatever. Trump is seen as a confirmation of or a natural outgrowth of all the trends the author has been writing about forever.

So something that becomes clear when you really dig into all these books is that a lot of the writing was for ourselves, was for like-minded audiences and communities. You see this in the “resistance” books that kind of hunkered down and made no effort to really move beyond or even understand what was happening beyond these communities and some groups that for absolutely legitimate reasons felt that they were under attack in the Trump era. But also a lot of the pro-Trump industrial complex publishing that emerged. The silos we talk about in our politics were very well-reflected in the books of Trump.

Sean Illing

I don’t want to say that Trump’s the perfect manifestation of American society, or that he even represents a majority of it, but he’s absolutely a uniquely American product and I’m not sure enough of the literature has wrestled with the implications of that.

Carlos Lozada

No, I think that is absolutely correct. I would use Trump’s own biography and chronology to make that same case. Trump came of age in the ’70s. He spent the ’70s partying in New York clubs. He spent the ’80s making a name for himself as a business tycoon. He spent the ’90s in his marriage struggles. He spent the 2000s as a reality television star. He spent the 2010s as a social media phenom. He’s every American obsession in excess. He is uniquely American, and every phase of his life embodies what was going on culturally during those periods.

Sean Illing

I actually read your book as a critique of our collective failure to understand our own culture, or to sustain the conditions that make national self-understanding possible. Am I projecting, or is that how you see it?

Carlos Lozada

I think that that’s a good approximation of where I ended up. There were wonderful books in this lot, and we can get into some of those later if you want. I don’t want to sit here and pass judgment in a very negative way on all the cultural intellectual output of this time. But I think in many cases we were inclined to interpret what was happening through our own biases and misconceptions, and an unwillingness to engage with the larger picture.

Sean Illing

You’ve hit this a couple times now, so can you offer an example of what you have in mind here?

Carlos Lozada

In the opening chapter of the book, for example, I cover all these books that came out about the white working class. I call it the “Heartlandia” genre of literature. There was a book called The Great Revolt by Salena Zito and Brad Todd that profiled a bunch of Trump voters. That was a common form. Let’s just go out and talk to a bunch of Trump voters and see what they were thinking. They profile this guy Ed Harry in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, who’s a former Democrat, former labor organizer, was even a delegate to the convention that nominated Bill Clinton in ’92. He switched to Trump. In that book he switched to Trump because he’s an economic populist. He’s fed up with trade deals and thinks Democrats have forgotten the working class. He’s suspicious of political dynasties like the Clintons and Bushes. So he’s become a Trump guy. That’s fine. That’s the story.

A few months later, I’m reading another book like this called The Forgotten by Ben Bradley Jr., who was at the Boston Globe for a long time. And suddenly I’m encountering this guy who was a longtime Democrat, labor organizer, and delegate to the ’92 convention in Pennsylvania. I was like, “Wait, I know this person. How do I know this person?” I start looking back in those books and it hits me: He’s the same guy! It’s this guy named Ed Harry who was profiled in The Great Revolt.

And that’s not just a sign of how formulaic and repetitive this kind of book can be. It speaks to how different the motivations of the authors are and how those motivations are reflected in the characters they cover. In the second book, Ed Harry’s motivations are entirely different. He’s a 9/11 truther. He’s a cultural warrior. He worries that George Soros is funding Black Lives Matter secretly, and he rails against transgender bathrooms. His motives for supporting Trump are so different, and those differences are reflections of the author’s perceptions of why Trump won.

I’m not saying that these writers are writing in bad faith. I am suggesting that sometimes we see that which we want to see, and we see that which we are inclined to believe already.

Sean Illing

Why do you say the best books about Trump aren’t really about Trump at all?

Carlos Lozada

I think it has to do with the shortcomings of the books that obsess over Trump. After a while, all the books about the chaos of the Trump White House or the books that obsess over the day-to-day drama feel incredibly repetitive. They are shocking and entirely unsurprising at the same time. The books that cede the spotlight to Trump let him dictate the way we think about this time. And I don’t think we need to do that. I don’t think that he’s earned that, or that anyone has.

For me, the most useful books of the Trump era are the ones that put the fights that we’re having — over race and immigration and institutions and identity and culture — into the long arc of the American story. The books that show that these are ever-present battles in the history of this country. I’m thinking of a book like America for Americans by Erika Lee, the historian, who shows how right alongside the nation of immigrants tradition is just as strong a strain of xenophobia and a rejection of outsiders. A book like One Person, No Vote by Carol Anderson, which shows the long history and struggle for voting rights and the insidious evolution of forms of voting suppression. Or a book like These Truths by Jill Lepore, which shows how we’ve struggled to live up to the founding ideals and how that’s not just a shortcoming of America but is the definition of America.

... Those books aren’t just useful for context. They’re useful to sort of explain and understand right now even when they don’t obsess over what’s happening day-to-day in the Oval Office. That’s why I found them to be useful. They weren’t beholden to this moment, which is why they end up explaining so much about this moment.

Sean Illing

What about the books written by Never Trumpers? Did they reveal the same sorts of blind spots that other resistance books revealed?

Carlos Lozada

I read a lot of books about what was happening on the right during the Trump years. I imagine I’ll be reading a lot of books about the fights on the left during the Biden years. The Never Trumpers were in a tough spot. They were rejected by the new powers that be on the right. They were always kind of looked at vaguely suspiciously on the left. They became homeless, and they started writing these pained breakup letters to the conservative movement, to the Republican Party.

But I felt that they didn’t wrestle as fully as they could have, or should have, with their own role in enabling Trump and Trumpism to arise in the first place. Why was the Republican Party, the conservative movement, so ripe for that kind of takeover? I think that in many cases, some of these writers either ignored or just looked the other way at some of these forces that were overtaking the Republican Party. Now they’re writing all these mea culpas about how awful it is, when I feel that they played a significant role in that.

Sean Illing

I’ll give a little credit to Stuart Stevens, the former GOP operative, who I think did wrestle with these exact questions in his book.

Carlos Lozada

I was not able to include Stuart Stevens’s book in my book; it came out too late. There were several really good books that I wish I had more time to include. And I think Stevens does that mea culpa to perhaps a greater degree than some of the others. But that was my main response to the Never Trump books. Among the books on the right, they were the best ones, but I still felt that the sense of shock they displayed was a little naive.

Sean Illing

It does seem as though the polarization of the era is very much reflected in the writing of American intellectuals, and that was maybe one of the biggest recurring themes I noticed in your book.

Carlos Lozada

Yeah, I think that’s right. There’s not much effort to step beyond our intellectual corners. I feel like the country is stuck in this divide and it hinders our analytical capacity to grasp what’s really happening.

Sean Illing

Are there any books that stand out to you for bucking this particular trend?

Carlos Lozada

One is called A Time To Build by Yuval Levin, who’s a conservative intellectual who typically writes high-level political theory stuff, but this is a book that emphasizes, without much partisan gloss, the risks of what happens when our institutions become more performative than formative. His concern is that political and cultural institutions both shape and restrain our behavior, and when they become platforms for performance art, we lose that. He sees that happening throughout the government now. But his book is trying to do something bigger than some of these other books we’ve talked about.

Another that was helpful for me was Unmaking the Presidency by Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes. It takes up this obsession we all have with political norms, which we’ve all learned are crucial to making the system work, and gives a history of where all these norms came from, how they built up around the presidency, and the dangers of seeing them torpedoed. So, like Levin’s book, it stepped way back and gave critical context that I found very useful in this moment.

Sean Illing

What do you think we will most regret about the Trump era when we look back on it? For me it’s the opportunity costs — all the things we didn’t do or couldn’t do because this singularly terrible human being seized so much of our collective attention.

Carlos Lozada

God, I wish I knew. I mean, there are ongoing slow-motion crises that we didn’t deal with, like climate change. But I think in some ways we managed to skate by bigger challenges and bigger problems. Like, every day I woke up, and thought, well, at least we’re not in some unexpected war — and that felt like a good day when we have someone in the White House who’s so uniquely unfit and impulsive and unprincipled.

But, of course, this luck ran out with the pandemic. And I think the human cost of having someone at the helm who, in so many ways, refused to engage honestly with this crisis is just immense. For three years, we managed to get by, but then suddenly we couldn’t anymore. And the cost of this is escalating every day, and it’s no less horrific simply because we’re getting used to it.

Sean Illing

If the authoritative book on the Trump era is ever written, what’s the biggest question you think it will answer?

Carlos Lozada

I would hope that an authoritative Trump book in the future would not try to be comprehensive in covering the day-to-day White House madness, the one-damned-thing-after-another history approach, because I think that’s been a huge part of the problem with so many of the books on Trump.

What I want to read is a book that is more selective, that tries to tell me the most essential and lasting ways in which this period has transformed our culture and politics and the governance of this country, and the ways in which it has accelerated changes that were already underway. I don’t want more crazy stories about Trump in the White House.

We’ve had enough of that.

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