For those trying to understand the political, economic, regional and social shifts that drove one of the most stunning political upsets in the nation’s history on Tuesday, we have some suggested reading from our critics and reviewers.
THE UNWINDING: An Inner History of the New America
by George Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
It’s possible that the book that best explains the America that elected Donald Trump appeared more than three years ago. In “The Unwinding,” George Packer took a wide-angled look at this country’s institutions and mores and was appalled by what he found.
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The book begins like a horror novel, which to some extent it is. “No one can say when the unwinding began,” he writes, “when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.”
What follows are profiles and meditations on personalities as diverse as Sam Walton, Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Warren and Newt Gingrich. He describes how Gingrich’s rhetoric, when he came to power in the late 1980s, changed the way elected leaders spoke to one another: “He gave them mustard gas, and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him.”
His book hums with sorrow, outrage and compassion.
STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN LAND: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press)
In this finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction, Hochschild looks closely at Tea Party supporters in Louisiana. In The New York Times Book Review, Jason DeParle wrote: “A distinguished Berkeley sociologist, Hochschild is a woman of the left, but her mission is empathy, not polemics.
“She takes seriously the Tea Partiers’ complaints that they have become the ‘strangers’ of the title – triply marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change, and liberal culture that mocks their faith and patriotism. Her affection for her characters is palpable.
“But the resentments she finds are as toxic as the pollutants in the marsh and metastasizing throughout politics. What unites her subjects is the powerful feeling that others are ‘cutting in line’ and that the federal government is supporting people on the dole – ‘taking money from the workers and giving it to the idle.’ Income is flowing up, but the anger points down.”
HILLBILLY ELEGY:A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
by J.D. Vance (Harper)
Vance’s memoir, which has spent time at the top of the best-seller lists, describes his experiences growing up in a once-thriving steel town in Ohio. In her review in The Times, critic Jennifer Senior wrote: “An investigation of voter estrangement has never felt more urgent, and we’re certainly not getting one from the lacquered chatterers on the boob tube.
“Now, along comes Vance, offering a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald Trump.
“Combining thoughtful inquiry with first-hand experience, Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both” parties.
LISTEN, LIBERAL: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?
by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.)
In The New York Times Book Review back in April, Beverly Gage wrote: “Liberals may be experiencing mixed emotions these days. The prospect of a Trump presidency has raised urgent fears: of the nation’s fascist tendencies, of the potential for riots in the streets.
“At the same time, many liberals have expressed a grim satisfaction in watching the Republican Party tear itself apart. Whatever terrible fate might soon befall the nation, the thinking goes, it’s their fault, not ours. They are the ones stirring up the base prejudices and epic resentments of America’s disaffected white working class, and they must now reap the whirlwind.
“In his new book, the social critic Thomas Frank poses another possibility: that liberals in general – and the Democratic Party in particular – should look inward to understand the sorry state of American politics. Too busy attending TED talks and vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard, Frank argues, the Democratic elite has abandoned the party’s traditional commitments to the working class. In the process, they have helped to create the political despair and anger at the heart of today’s right-wing insurgencies.”
THE POPULIST EXPLOSION: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics
by John B. Judis (Columbia Global Reports)
This “cogent and exceptionally clarifying guide,” Jonathan Alter wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “helps to understand what ‘populism’ means, where it comes from and why it is advancing on both sides of the Atlantic.”
Judis distinguishes left-wing economic populism from right-wing cultural populism, which accuses “elites of coddling an ever-shifting third group – immigrants, blacks, terrorists, welfare recipients or all of the above,” Alter wrote.
“In the end, Judis has a surprisingly benign attitude toward even right-wing populism. He thinks Trump and the European right-wing populists are nasty nationalists, but not fascists. … Instead, Judis writes, Trump resembles the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the buffoonish media baron.”
WHITE TRASH: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
by Nancy Isenberg (Viking)
Donald Trump was elected by America’s wealthy as well as its working class. But this eloquent book is that rare history of America that not only includes the weak, the powerless and the stigmatized, but also places them front and center. It’s an analysis of the intractable caste system that lingers below the national myths of rugged individualism and cities on hills.
Isenberg notes how the central engines of our economy, from slave-owning planters up through today’s bank and tax policies, have systematically harmed the working poor. “We have to wonder,” she writes about her book’s subjects, “how such people exist amid plenty.” Part of her answer is the “backlash that occurs when attempts are made to improve the conditions of the poor,” from the New Deal through Obamacare. “Government assistance is said to undermine the American dream,” she writes, adding: “Wait. Undermine whose American dream?… When you turn an election into a three-ring circus, there’s always a chance the dancing bear will win.”