The Trump Canon of Democratic Struggle

Lozada’s book offers an answer to the problem of how we discursively resisted Trump’s presidency.

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska reviews “What Were We Thinking” by Carlos Lozada

Carlos Lozada, the nonfiction critic at the Washington Post, made a name for himself as an expert on a freshly emerged type of literature: the Trump canon. During Trump’s presidency various intellectuals, public officials, and activists kept writing about an ongoing democratic decay; and Lozada kept reading them. This is how What Were We Thinking came into being: based on 150 books written predominantly in the Trump era, it attempts to answer not the question ‘how we got here, but ‘how we thought here.’ Therefore, Lozada’s aim was to engage with the interpretation of interpretations: to collect civic testimonies of democratic decay and reflect upon them, offering a refreshing account of the latest American history. Even though this endeavor is much laudable (while working on this book resembles any decent academic research, some critics surprisingly often stressed how demanding it should have been to read that many books in 4 years), it falls short of its promises. 

Let us begin with some positives. Lozada has assembled the majority of books from the Trump canon in one place, making it a kind of repository of thoughts, which offers an insight into how differently Trump’s presidency was understood and explained. A telling example is Ed Harry, a former labor organizer from Pennsylvania, who voted for Clinton in 1992, and then in 2016 shifted his orientation towards Donald Trump. Two different books published in the same year offer completely different accounts for Harry’s change of political preferences: for Selena Zito and Brad Todd, it is due to economic and political concerns, whereas according to Ben Bradlee’s explanation, Ed is infuriated by cultural aspects. Lozada interprets this explanatory discrepancy as a reflection of researchers’ inclinations, ‘prisms and biases, projecting onto the white working-class their own wishes and worries, confirming whatever they advocate or imagine.’ One could also stretch this observation further: if we cannot agree on what made a single voter change his mind, how can we, as the people in a democracy, settle bigger disputes, and make sense of Trump’s presidency? Lozada though does not engage in more abstract inquiries into reasons for diverse interpretations, offering only a robust collection of contradictions and stories. This is not an intellectual history, but a well-edited encyclopedia of the Trump era.

It simply offers a great deal of entertainment: the author was lavish in critique of some tacky fragments and did not fail to provide unbearably bad excerpts from politicians’ books (I am especially grateful that Lozada concisely presented Trump’s kitschy memoirs). These pieces read like a script for a late-night show, where few brilliant comments stand for a discussion thread and one proverbial-like sentence (‘It has never been about keeping immigrants out, it is about keeping the base all in’) sums it all up. Serious tones appear when blame is to be put for the Trump election: for Lozada, it was because of the Republicans’ inability to preclude Trump even from participating in the race. In sum, Lozada is a talented journalist with an eye for detail but it unables him from grasping a bigger picture of the era he described. 

And this is where lies the greatest flaw of Lozada’s piece: the books he analyses do not interact with each other, since they are all described one by one. It reads sometimes like a collection of book reviews, both well-selected and well-written, but not as a coherent story with a central theme and a concrete goal: be it a process-tracing of democratic decay or a constant celebration of civil resistance. It rather resembles a long drive on a highway with a literature podcast on; even if the podcast is good, listening to it for too long may become tiresome. Lozada limited himself to the genre distinction — he distinguished ten diverse subtypes of Trump canon books, among which is the heartland, resistance, and end-of-democracy literature — but did not dig deeper. The books described stand here as separate and insulated works that do not invite to explore processes. 

Lozada did not offer a coherent account of the social imaginary nor did he combined thoughts with social practices (‘Concepts and language matter, according to the social imaginary, but not cordoned off from the realm of practices,’ as Samuel Moyn states). The author focused instead on the polyphony of individual voices and provided a plethora of diverse perspectives. Such phenomenon of literature production on a single person — Donald Trump — is quite a paradox: there were many books written about a person who is not perceived as an avid reader. But there is certainly more to that. 

This formal aspect of a multitude of views gathered in one place could be, however, an advantage, if only Lozada had consciously expressed it: the agora of diverse individual dissents towards Trump’s politics and governance presents a value in itself. Perhaps no single coherent narrative could ever be told of American history: it is always a fight of voices, suppressed with dominant ones. Lozada’s book however does not depict any hierarchies and it seems that each of the discussed books had the same public resonance. Authors are stripped of the social and political context in which they produced their works. Even though the dialogue in the public sphere continued and the polyphony of voices was maintained, Lozada reduces it to a cacophony of insulated works — democracy dialectics cannot be observed in his book.

This precise characteristic of the American democracy and the public sphere was already ambivalently described by Tocqueville. As newspapers maintained civilization, according to Tocqueville (Democracy in America, Vol. II, Chapter VI), this polyphony of books and individual voices of equal men maintained democracy in the Trump era. But this cannot be Dialogue reinvigorated the public sphere and even led to the creation of a new genre, even if of poor literary quality — named by Lozada as Chaos Chronicles — triggered by Michel Wolff’s reportage on the White House’s works disruption.

There is yet another problem with Lozada’s book. Even though in the very beginning he claims that ‘the most essential books of the Trump era are scarcely about Trump at all,’ he does select excerpts that are mostly related to the president. In fact, Lozada’s selection depicts language used by diverse authors to define Trump and America under his reign (with a very interesting passage on scattered gender identities from Arlene Stein’s memoirs). What Lozada focuses on are long patterns of offensive adjectives that authors ascribe to Trump. There is more to that. Lozada is definitely attracted to the linguistic construction of the world: he very much appreciates the truth literature, literature pointing to postmodernism complicity in producing inconsistencies and broken promises, as well as the literature that seeks new emancipatory language. It is especially vivid in the chapter on identity claiming: naming things accurately is an empowering act. This is why so many diverse authors tried to figure out the best adjective for Trump’s America that ranged from autocracy to the death-of-democracy. Therefore, rather than answering the question of what were we thinking, Lozada’s book offers an answer to the problem of how we discursively resisted Trump’s presidency.

C. Lozada, “What Were We Thinking”, Simon & Schuster 2020

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