Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, David Hare and more on the rise of Donald Trump
A selection of writers pick the books that best make sense of the US election, and the ones that predicted the rise of a Trump-style candidate
Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump jeers the media in front a crowd of supporters in July in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images
My old mentor and friend Shelby Foote used to say that a person couldn’t understand the US without understanding the American civil war. As a Mississippi kid who was glad the south had lost the war (100 years before) and who felt that slavery was a blight on American history we would do well to try to “live beyond”, I thought Shelby’s insistence was a lot of hooey intended to prove the south’s undeserved centrality to all things American. In my naive view, the south and “southern values” were a garish anomaly, not typical of what America stood for – those values expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
I maintained this view until I unexpectedly experienced the American right wing’s irrationally hostile opposition to the Obama presidency. From questioning – completely without justification – Obama’s birth and religion, to opposing virtually all Obama’s policy initiatives, to slandering the president personally, to denying his actual right to hold office, the right wing formally and informally waged a campaign not only to discredit our legally elected head of state but, in essence, to erase him.
Okay, I said I was naive; but this shocked me. And it puzzled me. What was it about Barack Obama that incensed the right to such bizarre extremes? Here is a superbly intelligent man, dignified and persuasively presidential, a good communicator, an exemplary “family man”, remarkably scandal free; he knows the US constitution, he was and is strongly supported by the other party. He in every demonstrable way has had the country’s best interests clearly in his sight. One could disagree with him policy to policy. But the right’s reaction was outsized and, well, mindless. And all these views – to get around to the point – are the views put forward by Trump, both today and for the past nearly eight years.
It couldn’t just be his race – could it? – that set the right so against the president? Though, in America, one cannot – must not – ever discount the lowest sort of political urgings, and must never overlook race prejudice as a motive for most anything. If it quacks like a duck, etc.
All of what I heard in the rightwing contumely, then and now – including Trump’s stump speeches in the past week – certainly reminded me troublingly of the anti-integrationist, anti-black, so-called states rights – now hygienically rebranded as “nativist” or “populist” – calumny from my apartheid youth in Mississippi: the unrelenting attempt not just to disempower African Americans as political actors, but to extirpate them. How might I inform myself better about this growing sense of unease regarding the president’s race being a primary consideration – acknowledged or unacknowledged – in the right wing’s intransigence?
Well, first, I thought, read about the civil war, the vast crucible of American race politics, the “proving ground” where vitriolic, mindless anti-black rhetoric found its full voice and first prominent advocates. And what was the best history of the American civil war? Everyone knew that – probably even Shelby Foote, who wrote two volumes of his own. James McPherson’s Pulitzer prize-winning civil war history, Battle Cry of Freedom.
Read it. It will open your eyes about race history in America. It will shock you for what it tells you about politics in America today. And it will open your eyes wide about Donald J Trump and what we all have to fear from him.
Richard Ford’s latest book is Let Me Be Frank with You (Bloomsbury)
When I think Trump, I instinctively summon Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry of 1926 – adapted in a brilliant film starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons in 1960, and after this US election I wouldn’t be surprised if a modern director was inclined to a remake. The eponymous antihero is a hypocrite and a conman. He has a patchy sexual past and a history of heavy drinking, yet sells himself as a convert to evangelical religion, teaming up with Sr Sharon Falconer, who leads impassioned revivals throughout the midwest. Manipulative and cunning, Gantry is driven to accrue wealth through religious hucksterism, but also power; he feeds off the roar of the crowd. He’s a narcissist and a fraud who has left multiple ruined lives in his wake.
The main difference between Gantry and Trump is that Gantry is portrayed as genuinely charismatic. Lewis’s preacher gets his leg over figuratively and literally because, as a performer, he’s mesmerising. Trump is not charismatic. He is artless and politically clumsy, and wears his egotism on his sleeve. Nor is Trump mesmerising, except in the sense that a train wreck is mesmerising. Gantry’s success in pulling the wool over people’s eyes is understandable: he has a silver tongue, and on stage he’s larger than life. Trump can’t string a single grammatical sentence together, and at the podium he is lumpen and awkward. As a fictional character, Gantry works, and Trump doesn’t. As Mark Schorer, an American academic, observed: “The forces of social good and enlightenment as presented in Elmer Gantry are not strong enough to offer any real resistance to the forces of social evil and banality.” Some things never change.
Lionel Shriver’s latest book is The Mandibles (Borough)
Last December, Donald Trump claimed that President Obama planned to let 200,000 Syrian refugees into the US in 2016. Obama promised that he had no such plan. Trump’s response was to say it didn’t matter what Obama said, because he still believed his own figure, and what’s more, so did his Twitter followers. The true figure, thus far, is about 2,800.
There is something called historical truth. Trump is not post-factual. He’s non-factual.
It’s to nail this kind of argument that I’ve written the screenplay for a film, Denial, to be released in the US next month. It’s based on Deborah Lipstadt’s excellent book History on Trial – an account of the legal action brought against her in the high court by David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier. People on the internet like to claim that everything is a matter of opinion and all opinions are equally valid. But they’re not. It’s pseudo-democratic bullshit. As Lipstadt says in our film, “The icecaps are melting. And Elvis is dead.” Opinions backed up by fact have more value than those that aren’t. There are not two available points of view about whether the Holocaust happened. There is something called historical truth.
Trump is not post-factual. He’s non-factual. So is David Irving. Reasserting the principle that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to falsify unchecked seems timely.
David Hare is a playwright and screenwriter. His forthcoming film is Denial
For me, the most informative book about the fix we are in is Colin Woodard’s American Nations. Woodard explores the US as a cluster of 11 different cultures, some of which we share with our neighbours, Canada and Mexico. In order to understand Trump and his appeal, I think we can focus on Appalachian culture, which was exported from the Scottish borders in the 18th century, and was marked by an affinity for conflict and evangelical protestantism. These people had been trained to do battle in the Scottish wars, were later put to work in the coal mines, and are now out of work (the most evocative portrait of the lives these immigrants left behind and what they did when they got to America is in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed). Another intransigent American culture is that of the deep south, slaveholders who came to the US from the sugar plantations of Barbados and were much more hierarchical and ruthless than the slaveholders in Virginia.
Perhaps the most interesting and relevant nation, though, is New Netherland, founded in 1624, a partly Dutch nation, very diverse, not religious, but authoritarian and corporate (run by the Dutch West Indies Corporation). Now New York City, it is the extreme capitalist nation, which has never minded making a buck from no matter what, including the slave trade. Woodard writes, “Indeed, full on slavery was introduced to what is now the United States not by the gentlemen planters of Virginia or South Carolina but by the merchants of Manhattan.”
Three hundred slaves were imported by the Dutch West Indies corporation in 1655 and auctioned – “In the last decade before the  English conquest, New Amsterdam was rapidly evolving into North America’s greatest slave market.” Woodard says that our 11 nations are only partly integrated with one another and have always been that way. I would say that the resistance to having a black man as president, which laid the groundwork for the current fix we are in, comes from the deep southern and Appalachian nations; but the mercenary and ruthless lack of conscience (hello, Donald Trump!) comes from the Manhattan nation.
Jane Smiley’s most recent novel is Early Warning (Picador)
This year I witnessed Bernie Sanders supporters occupy Washington Square Park to hear him speak and saw Black Lives Matter protesters shut down city streets , declaring, “This is what democracy looks like.” And, travelling to America’s whitest communities in recent years, I’ve seen protests against immigration and taxes, a precursor to Trump supporters who denounce our “rigged” economy and elections.
Christopher Lasch’s ornery 1994 book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy illuminates this election. An increasingly global, mobile and craven class, Lasch contended, isolates itself in its social networks and physical cocoons, a flight not only from daily experience in public spaces but a political abandonment of the working and middle class that also betrays basic democratic practices and values. Though they differ in temperament and outlook, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton personify versions of Lasch’s self-protecting privileged class, whose careers and lives contribute to the breakdown of an inclusive, national democratic culture.
A man who made a fortune from golf courses, Trump now presents himself as the voice of the silenced white masses. Were he alive, Lasch might eviscerate these two very different elites, beholden to different privileged interests yet nonetheless falling over themselves to champion the “common” person. His book offers an implicit explanation of the elite’s cynical exploitation of “ordinary” people and the popular cynicism toward the elite. Lasch’s book presciently exposes the hypocrisy of Trump’s candidacy. A property developer who made a fortune from luxury condos and golf courses, Trump now presents himself as the voice of the silenced white masses. A onetime Democrat whose primary political allegiance is to himself, Trump precisely embodies the selfish elite Lasch dissected in the 1980s and 1990s.
The physical segregation of Americans into economically or racially homogenous communities has its counterpart in the subdivision of our discussions and opinions. Roughly $7.5bn (€6.7bn) will be spent on this election, the vast majority raised from the corporatised donor class. “The unreal artificial character of our politics reflects elites’ insulation from common life,” Lasch wrote, “together with a secret conviction that the real problems are insoluble.” Campaign chatter inundates us on social media, but dumb memes are no substitute for incisive information, rigorous analysis, or meaningful debate. Effectively excluded from public debate, most Americans no longer have any use for the information inflicted on them in such large amounts. Wealth, false choices and Trump himself devour the coverage. Lasch concluded: “When money talks, everybody else is condemned to listen.”
Rich Benjamin is author of Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey into the Heart of White America (Hachette)
Joyce Carol Oates
Nathanael West’s wildly parodistic A Cool Million (1934), Sinclair Lewis’s bluntly satirical It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and Philip Roth’s more subtly modulated and ingeniously conceived The Plot Against America(2004) should provide some plausible background for the rise of Trump.
The actual rise of Trump was made possible by a curiously limited, outmoded system of primaries in the Republican party that gives wildly disproportionate weight to extremists – a problem with our congressional elections.
Joyce Carol Oates’s latest book is The Doll-Master (Head of Zeus)
The bestselling non-fiction book in America in 1925 and 1926 was Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, and it was about Jesus Christ. Jesus, Barton explained, was not only “the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem”, and “an outdoor man”, but a “startling example of executive success”. “He picked up 12 men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organisation that conquered the world.” This may sound ludicrous, but it is also the reductio ad absurdum of America’s long conflation of business with religion, and it speaks to the equally absurd rise of Donald Trump as a politician that somehow millions of Americans believe – in the face of astounding evidence to the contrary – will save them. It is a triumph of faith, indeed.
Trump is fond of claiming in messianic terms that he alone can save America, and restore the American Dream. The historian who coined the phrase “American Dream” in a book called The Epic of America, would, I suspect, disagree. In 1931 James Truslow Adams argued that chasing the spectre of wealth is what got America into the mess of the Depression; he carefully traced that ideology back to the 19th century, when there developed a “new conception of business as somehow a social and patriotic duty”. This is the ideology into which Trump has tapped so powerfully: the idea that business success is itself a virtue to be ranked above all others, to be worshipped. (We must put aside, evidently, concerns over what kind of “success” Trump is precisely held to have achieved, and by what means.)
The world Fitzgerald envisioned was one in which character was increasingly sacrificed for wealth – Trump’s world.
Faith in business was an idea much on the minds of Americans in the 1920s, during the so-called boom presided over by three successive “businessmen” presidents, including Calvin Coolidge, who declared in 1925 that “the chief business of America is business”. This idea was so widespread that it was itself the target of the bestselling American novel of 1922, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. In its opening pages, George Babbitt gazes upon a bank tower and Lewis tells us: “He beheld the tower as a temple-spire of the religion of business, a faith passionate, exalted, surpassing common men.” In 1926 Lewis’s Elmer Gantry satirised the hypocrisy of selling religion, while a year earlier Scott Fitzgerald skewered the same attitudes when he said that Jay Gatsby was a son of God and must about “His Father’s Business: the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty”. The idea that someone in service to the American worship of wealth could through sheer force of will drive himself near to the top is at the heart of Fitzgerald’s morality play. The world that he envisioned was one in which character was increasingly sacrificed for wealth – and that is the world that Trump embodies, and which he would like to rule.
A decade after Barton said that Jesus was the best businessman of all, Lewis wrote It Can’t Happen Here, a dystopian satire responding to the rise of fascism in Europe by imagining a populist demagogue who becomes a totalitarian president of the US. But of course, that could never happen in America.
Sarah Churchwell’s latest book is Careless People (Virago)
Most people idealise democracy as a form of governance in which an informed populace deliberates about the common good and carefully selects leaders who carry out their preferences. By that standard the world has never had a democracy. Political scientists such as Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, authors of Democracy for Realists, who study how democracies really work, are repeatedly astonished by the shallowness and incoherence of people’s political beliefs and the tenuous connection of those beliefs to their votes.
Most voters are ignorant not just of current policy alternatives but of the most elementary facts about politics and history, such as the major branches of government or which countries have used nuclear weapons. Their opinions flip depending on how a question is worded: they say that the government spends too much on “welfare” but too little on “assistance to the poor”, and that it should use “military force” but not “go to war”. When they do formulate a preference, they commonly vote for a candidate with the opposite one. Nor does voting provide a feedback signal on a government’s overall performance. Voters punish incumbents for recent events over which they have dubious control, such as macroeconomic swings and terrorist strikes, or no control at all, such as droughts, floods or even shark attacks.
Achen and Bartels suggest that most people correctly recognise that their votes are astronomically unlikely to affect the outcome of an election and so they prioritise work and family over educating themselves about politics. They use the franchise as a form of self-expression: they vote for candidates who they think speak up for their kind of people.
Steven Pinker is Johnstone professor of psychology at Harvard and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature and The Sense of Style (Penguin)
To the horror of the Washington establishment, a gabby maverick with no record of political office uses his celebrity, in a depressed and paranoid America, to fuel a furious movement that threatens the hegemonies of politics, corporations and the media. Considering the insurgent unthinkable, they plot to stop him.
The year is 1934, and Upton Sinclair, a well-known journalist and author, has sensationally won the Democratic nomination to be governor of California, on the back of his End Poverty in California movement (Epic). Sinclair is now most remembered as the writer of industrial documentary novels such as The Jungle, set in the Chicago meat yards, and Oil!, which was adapted as the Oscar-winning movie There Will Be Blood. His most enduring legacy, though, has proved to be a quixotic bid for public office, which introduced two perversions – subsequently recurrent – of the political process. Sinclair’s gubernatorial race was the beneficiary of one campaign innovation – the power of an anti-political candidate in times of crisis – and the victim of another: the use of negative media “attack ads” against an opponent. These tropes seem to have reached their apotheosis in the 2016 US presidential election.
Ideologically, Sinclair most resembles Bernie Sanders. Both men were socialists who became Democrats for specific electoral purpose. However, in his takeover of a major party in a key campaign, Sinclair most spookily previews Donald Trump. Like Trump, he terrified the elders of his adopted affiliation and the media by being widely viewed as too peculiar to rule. Smeared as politically reckless (in his case, for “communist” views), Sinclair was attacked for his evangelical vegetarianism and tendency to speak from candour rather than calculation. The outsider’s rise was seen as so threatening to the status quo that the incumbent Republican governor, Frank F Merriam, responded with a campaign that included the first recorded use of a hostile screen commercial, funded by Hollywood and screened in cinemas.
Greg Mitchell’s 1992 book about these events,The Campaign of the Century, although historical, has tended to find topical resonance. It was first published in the election year in which an independent presidential candidate, Texas oilman H Ross Perot, became the most successful non-politician presidential candidate until Trump. In 2011, it was released for the first time as an ebook, because, as Mitchell acknowledged in a preface, he saw, in the Occupy Wall Street grassroots movement, parallels with Epic, and wanted to offer Sinclair as both a warming and warning example to the new wave of progressive protestors.
As it turned out, the 1934 template had less relevance to the 2012 presidential election, when an incumbent president received a handsome re-endorsement, than had seemed likely in the febrile atmosphere leading up to the vote. The Campaign of the Century, though, proves a useful handbook to the present political convulsions in America, although liberals will read it now looking for clues to how a feisty outsider can be stopped.
What ultimately finished Sinclair was that the intervention of a strong third party candidate, Raymond L Haigh of the Progressive party, split the anti-establishment vote and allowed Merriam to be re-elected, helped by the media touting him as the sensible or at least safer option.
It’s possible that, in November, either the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson or the ex-CIA agent Even McMullin, a last-minute anti-Trump runner, can do a Haigh for Hillary, spreading the resentment. The larger question, though, is which candidate will be left standing after the Trump and Clinton campaigns and their proxies have engaged Merriam-like negative tactics against each other.
The American decision in 2016 sees the polarities of California 34 reversed – the maverick a regressive rightwinger, a Democrat running as the defender of sanity and capitalism – but the parallels are otherwise uncanny. Upton Sinclair, an unfairly neglected writer of political fiction, is a more lasting presence as a ghost in the political machine.
Mark Lawson’s latest book is The Allegations (Picador)
Long before Donald Trump started dropping hints about political assassinations, death was a looming presence in his speeches. In the darkness of his imagined America, Mexican immigrants murder your children, Muslims can’t be trusted not to detonate bombs, and Hillary Clinton is coming for your handgun, leaving you at the mercy of armed intruders. It’s not just your paycheck or your happiness that’s at stake, in other words; it’s bodily survival.
You probably didn’t need telling that fearmongering sometimes works. But the 2015 book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life makes a haunting case for just how much authoritarians stand to gain by exploiting our fear of mortality. The book’s trio of authors – Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski – have spent many years running experiments in which participants are reminded of their inevitable fate (“Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you”, goes one typical mortality-reminder exercise) to see how it changes them. Their results endorse the hunch set forth with brilliance, but little scientific rigour, by Ernest Becker in his masterpiece The Denial of Death. Unable to accept the fact that our lives are finite, we seek symbolic immortality – often through child-rearing or creative work or devotion to great causes, but sometimes to demagogues instead.
“Sensing a way to feel significant again,” they write, “people join the cause of the seemingly larger-than-life leader as a revitalised basis for self-worth and meaning in life.” Whether he’s conscious of it or not, Trump triggers the fear of death in his audiences, then presents them both with various specific “solutions” (a wall to keep out Mexicans, a ban to keep out Muslims) and one big implicit promise: merge symbolically with the wealthy, domineering Trump himself, and feel powerful again.
Trump’s popularity has been variously attributed to racism, misogyny and economic insecurity; but the authors show how all these only get their urgency from the unspoken, underlying fear of literal demise. And perhaps, in the end, there’s a glimmer of hope in this. There’s been a regrettable tendency among liberals to write off Trump supporters as utterly irredeemable – bigots we can never hope to understand, much less change. But The Worm at the Core shows that their deepest motivating fear, however appallingly they may express is, it is one that the rest of us know all too well.
Oliver Burkeman’s latest book is The Antidote (Canongate)
If we’re going to resort to name-calling, I’m pushing for Humbug Donald. The surprising potency of his brew of racism, sexism, bigotry, narcissism, ignorance and demagoguery comes down at least in part to Americans’ perverse respect for the huckster who sells it.
Like the wizard, Trump blinds voters with sham opulence, and promises to make their wishes come true
That’s what L Frank Baum immortalised in his 1900 bestseller The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. All-American Dorothy and her charming sidekicks trip off to the dazzling Emerald City to seek help from the mighty wizard of Oz. The awesome eminence promises to give them everything they desire if they kill off his biggest (female) rival first. But when they return to claim their rewards, they discover that “Oz, the Great and Terrible” is a cowering little ventriloquist from Omaha.
“Are you not a Great Wizard?” Dorothy exclaims.
“Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man.”
“You’re more than that,” said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; “you’re a humbug.”
Since the 1960s it has been fashionable to read Oz as an allegory of turn of the century populism: the yellow brick road represents the gold standard, the Emerald City stands in for paper dollars, and so on. One doesn’t need period analogies to see a connection to the 21st-century populism of Trump, who blinds voters with sham opulence, terrifies them into submission, and promises to make their wishes come true.
Dorothy is the real saviour of the book (Baum’s wife, it’s worth noting, was a prominent suffragist), but even when they’ve exposed the wizard as a fraud, she and her friends turn to him for aid. “How can I help being a humbug,” chuckles Oz the not-so-great, “when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?”
A self-help reading might observe that the characters don’t need a wizard to give them brains, heart, or courage. They just have to believe in themselves. A profound loss of faith among the white working class explains why today’s Dorothy (and particularly her Uncle Henry) will probably vote for Trump. I’m just hoping there are enough others to send this brainless, heartless, cowardly huckster away for good.
Maya Jasanoff is Coolidge professor of history at Harvard and author of Liberty’s Exiles (HarperPress)
In trying to understand Donald Trump’s unexpected ascent in American politics, it makes sense to talk about the rising tide of anti-establishment sentiment, the backlash against free trade and globalisation, and even the role of celebrity. But no issue has been more important to Trump’s success than race. Trump has given vent to many white voters’ fears and anxieties about the loss of racial privilege and status, and run the most avowedly ethnonationalist presidential campaign since George Wallace.
And while many have argued that the effectiveness of Trump’s racially coded appeals is tied to rising inequality and the economic woes of the working class voters who constitute Trump’s base, it would be more accurate to say that Trump is tapping into a vein of working-class racism that has been a part of American politics for a long time.
That’s why Stanley Greenberg’s Middle Class Dreams helps explain so much about Trump’s rise. It was published in 1995, but much of it is based on Greenberg’s work in Macomb County, Michigan, following the 1984 presidential election. Macomb was a nearly all white suburban county just outside of Detroit. It had been a solidly Democratic county in the 1960s, giving sizeable majorities to both JFK and Lyndon Johnson. But in 1972 66% of Democratic voters in Macomb supported George Wallace in the Democratic primary, and in the general election Richard Nixon carried the county easily. In 1980 Macomb voted for Ronald Reagan, and in 1984 he took two-thirds of the vote. In other words, these working-class voters, who had once supported progressive candidates, had shifted decisively to the right.
What Greenberg discovered in his many interviews with Macomb voters was that they felt that the Democratic party had abandoned them, that it had stopped paying attention to the concerns of working people and the striving middle class, and started paying too much attention to the concerns of black people and other minorities. The fundamental problem Macomb voters had with the Democrats was the party’s embrace of civil rights in the 1960s.
What Middle Class Dreams demonstrates is just how important race, and racism, was in shaping many voters’ political attitudes. As Greenberg puts it, “these white defectors from the Democratic party expressed a profound distaste for black Americans, a sentiment that pervaded almost everything they thought about government and politics”. More than that, “not being black was what constituted being middle class; not living with blacks was what made a neighbourhood a decent place to live”. When the Democratic party started to take civil rights seriously and to embrace (however tepidly) antiracism, many white working class voters saw it as a betrayal.
More than 40 years after Wallace, Trump is tapping into these same currents. The list of outsiders that many white voters fear the encroachment of is longer now: it includes Muslim and Latino immigrants as well as African Americans. But what Middle Class Dreams shows is that the conviction of Trump supporters that white Americans have been forgotten, and that the country is going to hell as a result, is not new. It’s all too old.
James Surowiecki is author of The Wisdom of Crowds (Anchor)