I find myself unsure of what to write about on this day, only a few days after the surprising victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. At this point, I have read far too many essays debating what went wrong for Clinton, why Trump won, and what the Republican nominee’s victory means for the future. On these, and other 2016 campaign questions, I have some thoughts—but no easy answers. Frankly, anyone who exudes confidence about his or her own prescription about what to do next, or how the Democrats could have (and, perhaps, should have) beaten Trump, should at the very least acknowledge that history has disrupted many similar “sure ideas” time and time again.
Instead I wish to think out loud a bit about books. As an intellectual historian, time and again I find myself looking back to books from the past and how they provide a map, as it were, to another country. Those books cannot provide a direct map for the present. History never can. But what history—and well-written books filled with ideas, passion, and energy—can do is to help us think through the present. In that sense, I wish to offer a few books that have come to mind in recent days as attempts to think about the history of how we got to Donald Trump as president of the United States.
Tony Judt’s writings near the end of his life on social democracy and the West should be read to understand this present moment. Judt, a European historian whose works on France in the nineteenth century and post-World War II Europe are essential readings for understanding the present, dared to ask out loud serious questions about the fate of social democracy in Western Europe and the United States. His book Ill Fares the Land, released the same year as his death in 2010, gets as some of the major questions that have animated American, and European, politics in the last decade. Understanding why so many Americans felt that going with Trump was not the catastrophic break with the past, as most political commentators termed the possibility of his victory in the months leading up to now, means reflecting on how basic questions of democracy, capitalism, and citizenship have changed in the last forty years. It is too bad we could not get the thoughts of Judt on events such as Brexit, the Greek economic crisis, or the rise of Donald Trump, but his writings in books such as Ill Fares the Land show that Judt was already considering the deeper questions of modern life that still dominate modern political and intellectual thought.
George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America also provides some intellectual fodder for our current crisis. Much digital ink has already been spilled about the plight of white, working class Americans. Packer’s book is a nuanced look at this, and other, groups of Americans struggling to adjust to modern life since the 1970s. I went back to my copy a few days ago, after I had grown tired of yet another argument online about which groups delivered the election for Trump (or, to put it another way, failed to deliver it for Clinton). Books like this—or J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration, or the works of Susan Faludi—all in their own way get at the cultural and political impact of the last forty years of American history, that “age of fracture” with which we’re all familiar. In other words, it would be foolish to focus on just one group of Americans to attempt to understand how we got here. Intellectual historians looking back on our era will conclude (in my humble estimation) that we’re a nation of “bubbles”—all siloed off from one another due to politics, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.
Of course, that assumes that we were actually one nation before, and are only now experiencing problems of disparate outlooks on national problems. America has always had division, dissent, and debate. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, the idea of certain groups of Americans being ignored in the political arena is not new either. What makes our era unique is the combination of factors that have made the nation so polarized.
Then there is the fact that there seems to be no way out of this polarization. I know that the world seemed bleak to Michael Harrington when he wrote of a “Collective Sadness” in 1974. Martin Luther King, Jr. only imagined a “beloved community” in the 1950s and 1960s, hoping against all hope that he could help forge a vision of a better tomorrow. When Frederick Douglass gave his speech titled “The Lessons of the Hour” in 1894, he could not have known how long the struggle against white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation would last—nor could he have even dreamed that the struggle would still be part of national political battle lines in 2016.
The one concrete, sacrosanct lesson I have learned from history is that when one lives through momentous events, you cannot reliably predict the outcome of those events. Once again the United States faces just such a moment. The possible future of the nation gives me pause. But we must remember to turn to books—and the ideas contained in them—as sources of intellectual sustenance in the journey ahead.