The ‘J’ Stands for Genius

Scott McLemee highlights the panoply of books on Trump, or matters related to his presidency, that scholarly presses plan to publish between now and this summer's end.

January 26, 2018

A second tell-all book on the Trump White House will be out on Monday, in advance of the president's first State of the Union speech, scheduled for the following evening.

Just writing that sentence makes me tired. The man has held the public sphere hostage for two solid years now. Yet he remains ever on the verge of unleashing some new surprise on the world, as if to make sure we're still paying attention. And each incident, epithet, tantrum and lie is broadcast, often in real time, then replayed incessantly -- not just for a couple of news cycles, but also for months to come, to provide background for coverage of the next rant or tweetstorm. Among the few neutral ways to describe Trump's political career is to call it unprecedented. What that's meant in practice is that he creates his own context, which becomes normal through the blunt force of repetition.

A little analytical distance is perhaps in order. Between now and the end of the summer, scholarly presses are slated to publish a crowded shelf’s worth of books on Trump or on matters closely associated with his presidency. Review copies for most haven't come in yet, but the following descriptions of some of the forthcoming titles might be of interest to readers looking for more than recycled sound bites or informed guesses about whom Mueller will indict next.

Political scientists are professionally equipped to find order and continuity in developments that otherwise look chaotic or disruptive, or both. And the forthcoming poli-sci books on Trump are true to form. (Quotation below are taken from press catalogs; the publication dates given here may vary from those indicated by online book vendors.)

Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck (Princeton University Press, September) maintains that economic conditions and demographic factors pointed to "an extremely close election" from early on -- exactly what was delivered on election night. Alan I. Abramowitz's The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation and the Rise of Donald Trump (Yale University Press, June) updates the argument, made in his earlier book The Disappearing Center (Yale, 2011), that American political polarization is a real and deepening phenomenon that reflects “an unprecedented alignment of many different divides: racial and ethnic, religious, ideological, and geographic.” His statistical analysis indicates “‘racial anxiety’ is by far a better predictor of support for Donald Trump than any other factor.”

Its scope is much wider than the Trump years, or U.S. politics, for that matter, but Patrick J. Deneen's analysis of Why Liberalism Failed (Yale, January) surely applies. The problem lies in liberalism's inherent contradictions: "It trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history."

The hollowing-out of formal democracy by increased disparities in wealth is also central to Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age, by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry E. Brady and Sidney Verba (Princeton, June): "With those at the top of the ladder increasingly able to spend lavishly in politics, political action anchored in financial investment weighs ever more heavily in what public officials hear." A similar argument seems to inform Yascha Mounk's The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It (Harvard University Press, March). The author points to "three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fears of multiethnic democracy and the rise of social media."

Those forces do not remain within national borders, of course, nor does Trump's influence. Chaos in the Liberal Order: The Trump Presidency and International Politics in the Twenty-First Century, a collection of papers assembled by Robert Jervis and three co-editors (Columbia University Press, June), looks at Trump in a global frame: "Does Trump’s election signal the downfall of the liberal order or unveil its resilience? What is the importance of individual leaders for the international system, and to what extent is Trump an outlier? Is there a Trump doctrine, or is America’s president fundamentally impulsive and scattershot?"

More than any earlier president, Donald Trump is a creature of the media -- both broadcast and social, though his activity blurs that distinction a little more all the time. The range of topics covered by Trump and Media (MIT Press, March) -- a collection of papers edited by two communications scholars, Pablo J. Boczkowski and Zizi Papacharissi -- includes “the disruption of the media landscape, the disconnect between many voters and the established news outlets, the emergence of fake news and ‘alternative facts,’ and Trump’s own use of social media.” It is too late for a paper on the president's relationship to the adult video industry, but maybe that's for volume two.

Three forthcoming titles from Pluto Press look at the relationship between Trump as media figure and as political force. Christian Fuchs's Digital Demagogue: Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Trump and Twitter (February) updates Frankfurt School media theory to analyze Trump as an example of how reactionaries use digital platforms to promote "the rise of authoritarianism, nationalism and right-wing ideologies around the world." Under the Cover of Chaos: Trump and the Battle for the American Right, by Lawrence Grossberg (January), sees Trump's media presence as part of the far right's "political strategy of sowing chaos into the heart of mainstream politics." And Mike Wendling's Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House (April) takes up the role of social media in consolidating a movement characterized by "technological utopianism, reactionary philosophy and racial hatred," which then rallied behind Trump's message of nativism.

While the Pluto titles do sound broadly similar, two of the authors come to different assessments. Grossberg "lays out a possible nightmare future: a vision of a political system controlled by corporate interests, built on a deliberate dismantling of modern politics," while Wendling thinks the alt-right's "lack of a coherent base and its contradictory tendencies are already sapping its strength and will lead to its downfall."

The quintessential American thinker Homer Simpson once made the profound observation that it takes two people to lie: one to lie and one to listen. Let's wrap up with a few forthcoming titles that, in effect, apply Homer's insight to the politics in the era of fake news and alternative facts

Misinformation and Mass Audiences (University of Texas Press, January), a collection of papers edited by Brian G. Southwell, Emily A. Thorson and Laura Sheble, takes the potential for false, misleading or outright dishonest information to proliferate to be the downside of mass communications -- obliging scholars to "investigate what constitutes misinformation, how it spreads and how best to counter it." By contrast, Linsey McGoey argues in The Unknowers: How Elite Ignorance Rules the World (Zed, August) that "ignorance is more than just an absence of knowledge, but a useful tool in political and economic life" because "financial and political elites have become highly adept at harnessing ignorance for their own ends: strategically minimizing their responsibility and passing blame onto others." Dana L. Cloud's Reality Bites: Rhetoric and the Circulation of Truth Claims in U.S. Political Culture (Ohio State University Press, February) acknowledges "widespread skepticism regarding the utility, ethics and viability of an empirical standard for political truths."

Finally, there's Lee C. McIntyre's Post-Truth (MIT, February). The title names a condition in which "the assertion of ideological supremacy by which its practitioners try to compel someone to believe something regardless of the evidence" has become normalized, and so much the worse for reality. Without any of the books at hand, I can't surmise exactly how they propose to change the situation, but a pedagogy oriented to developing critical skills is bound to be part of the remedy. The question left hanging unanswered is whether it's not already too late.


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