The Donald Trump presidency is not yet officially upon us, but the Trump era has already been good for political reading lists. Book buyers baffled by Trumpism and seeking understanding have turned to various sociologies of the ur-Trump voter, making best sellers out of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash” and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land.”
Liberals looking to feed their sense of alarm have been steered toward Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” and Philip Roth’s “Plot Against America.” “What Is Populism?” by German political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller has been widely recommended; so has Mark Lilla’s anatomy of reactionary thought, “The Shipwrecked Mind”; so has Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country,” from back in 1998, mostly for a prescient few paragraphs on “the nonsuburban electorate” and its potential affinity for strongmen. The racial element in Trumpism has sent people back to W.E.B. Du Bois on “Black Reconstruction” – once they’ve finished, of course, with the latest from Ta-Nehisi Coates.
But for your last-minute Christmas shopping, I have some slightly different recommendations to make. The Trump-era reading lists I’ve seen include many worthy titles, but they also tend to focus heavily on the dark forces lurking somewhere outside enlightened circles – in the hills of Appalachia, in the postindustrial heartland, in the souls of racists and chauvinists and crypto-fascists. They are anthropologies of populism, cautionary tales from history, blueprints for blunting revanchism’s appeal. But they do not generally subject Western liberalism itself to rigorous critique.
And that might be what liberal readers need right now: Not just portraits of the Brexit and Trump-voting domestic Other, but a clearer sense of their own worldview’s limits, blind spots, blunders and internal contradictions.
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So my reading list starts with two of liberalism’s sharpest internal critics, both deceased – a reactionary of the left, Christopher Lasch, and a conservative liberal, Samuel P. Huntington. Their most-cited works, Lasch’s “Culture of Narcissism” and Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” have obvious applications for our culture and politics today. But the books I would recommend are a little different.
For Lasch, it’s “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” (1995), a polemic against the professional upper class’ withdrawal from the society it rules and a critique of the ways in which multiculturalism and meritocracy erode patriotism and democracy. For Huntington, it’s “Who Are We? The Challenges to American National Identity” (2004), a book widely denounced as racist for arguing that the recent wave of Latin-American immigration might not be easily assimilable and might instead balkanize the country into identitarian redoubts.
Both books are imperfect: Lasch’s is too angry, Huntington’s too pessimistic (I think). But in different ways they both offer, in Lasch’s words, a “revisionist interpretation of American history, one that stresses the degree to which liberal democracy has lived off the borrowed capital of moral and religious traditions antedating the rise of liberalism.” And they illustrate how the Western elite has burned the candle of solidarity at both ends – welcoming migration that transforms society from below even as the upper class floats up into a post-national utopia, which remains an undiscovered country for the people left behind.
My next recommendation is from across the Atlantic: “The Abolition of Britain” (1999), by Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s right-wing brother. Writing early in the Tony Blair era, Hitchens argued that Britain’s rulers had broken faith with the island nation’s past, burying its history, customs and traditions, subjecting their people to a misguided European pseudo-empire, and tolerating social decay and disarray as the price of tolerance and progress. Nearly 20 years on, you will not find a clearer case against both Blair and David Cameron’s shared worldview, or a clearer explanation for why so many Britons voted for Brexit.
Then I recommend widening your gaze to Europe as a whole, through Christopher Caldwell’s “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” (2009), which critiqued the Continent’s rulers for welcoming – out of idealism, economic calculation and indifference – an unprecedented level of immigration from the Islamic world that their societies lacked both the competence and the civilizational confidence to assimilate.
When Caldwell’s book came out it seemed as if it described a slow-burning, hopefully manageable social and religious crisis. Today, in the wake of Angela Merkel’s decision to hit the accelerator on demographic change, the book’s mordant tone seems, if anything, too optimistic.
Which is why my next recommendations are a few shades darker: First “Submission” (2015), Michel Houellebecq’s seemingly dystopian novel about an exhausted near-future France that ends up choosing between Islamism and fascism (it picks the veil), and then one of Houellebecq’s earlier novels, “The Elementary Particles,” whose portrait of a loveless, sex-fixated and disposable modern masculinity reveals that its author believes the real dystopia is already here – that the end of history is actually a materially comfortable desert, from which the political and religious extremisms of “Submission” offer a welcome and rehumanizing form of escape.
This is itself an extreme idea, of course, and so is the comparison offered in my final recommendation, Ryszard Legutko’s “Demon In Democracy” (2015), in which the author, a Polish political philosopher, explicitly links the ideological conformism and faith in capital-P Progress of contemporary liberalism to the oppressive communism of his youth.
Legutko is a member of Law and Justice, the right-wing party currently ruling Poland, whose ascent has provoked the Western media to panic over its religious nationalism and illiberal forays. Which is all the more reason to read him, and to see through his eyes (and not only his) how the open society as envisioned by contemporary progressives can seem to conservatives like a closed and stifling one – closed to transcendence, closed to memory, closed to the pre-liberal traditions upon which Legutko (and most of the writers I’ve just recommended) would argue the liberal democratic order actually depends.
Liberal readers probably will not finish “Demon” ready to vote for Law and Justice; Houellebecq probably won’t convince them that our civilization’s choice is porn and cloning or the caliphate; Hitchens probably won’t persuade them to become Brexiteers.
But even for the unconvinced, reading these writers will go a long way toward explaining the most unexpected thing about Western politics in the strange year of 2016 – the sheer number of people in our prosperous, at-peace societies who don’t seem to want to live in liberalism’s end of history anymore.