BOOK REVIEW

As the US election looms, here are 16 books that explain Trump, Clinton and America

Memoirs by both candidates, along with books that examine the US’s political divide provide an informative backdrop ahead of the US election day

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2016, 11:41am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2016, 11:41am

Without a doubt, dozens of book deals about 2016 US Presidential campaign are being inked right now, with political journalists and campaign insiders promising to deliver the inside story of this extraordinary presidential race.

In the meantime, though, there are several works – some published this year, others long ago – that tell us much about the presidential race, the candidates and their parties, and, above all, about the world that gave them to us.

Here are 16 book recommendations as the US election day approaches:

If you want to understand the Republican nominee, The Art of the Deal (1987), remains the foundational document of Trump Studies. Even if it was written by a ghostwriter who now disavows it, the book has become, in Donald Trump’s personal and political narrative, his own story. So it’s essential to unpacking how the candidate hopes to be seen and understood. The Art of the Comeback (1997), his third memoir, is especially useful to understand Trump’s thoughts on women; in his world view, it is women who emerge as the predators, not him. In addition to Trump Revealed (2016), make sure to check out Michael D’Antonio’s Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success (2015), which shows Trump as a distorted, exaggerated version of American obsessions with wealth, sex and fame.

The Trump campaign grew in both success and darkness, and two dystopian novels of homegrown totalitarianism help imagine the worst-case scenarios. It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis and The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth will probably hit the top of the Amazon charts if we wake up on November 9 to president- elect Donald J. Trump. But the most useful work to comprehend Trump’s appeal is What Is Populism (2016) by Princeton University political scientist Jan-Werner Müller. In this essential book, Müller defines populism’s most salient characteristics – anti-elitism, anti-pluralism and exclusivity – and explains Trump and other populists through that framework. It is a quick read, and worth every page.

Of course, 2016 has been the year that the white working class was rediscovered as an object of journalistic fascination and electoral strategy, and books such as the poignant but preachy Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and the acclaimed but condescending Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild have got plenty of attention. However, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg is the most instructive in detailing the origins of the long-held class resentments that this campaign has brought to the surface. Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation captures the fights over diversity and representation that Trump skillfully deploys to rally his base, while Sarah Jaffe’s Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt surveys the activist movements on the left – from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street – that helped shape the Democratic primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and have provided a new vocabulary of radicalism and protest, one that has permeated the discourse of the Democratic Party.

As with Trump, Clinton’s memoirs show us how she wishes to stage-manage her reputation. If you want to read one of them, read Living History (2003). Though still guarded, it provides a much clearer sense of Clinton as a person, not just a policy automaton. That said, if you’re looking for a real Clinton political manifesto, or the closest thing to it, you still can’t do better than It Takes a Village (1996). Largely panned when it was published, it nonetheless showcases a mix of Clinton’s values – including a surprising streak of social conservatism – and her eternal struggle to define herself. This is a book that gets better with age.

The 2014 Clinton memoir Hard Choices ostensibly details the candidate’s experiences and triumphs as Secretary of State, but too often lapses into trip reports and foreign-policy buzzwords. Skip it. A deeper look at Clinton’s record as America’s top diplomat is available in Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle for American Power by Mark Landler, which purports to reveal a clash of worldviews between the former rivals turned partners, but instead merely delivers a terrific survey of American foreign policy in the Obama years, replete with pivots, rests and Clintonian credit-mongering.

The universe of conspiratorial anti-Clinton literature is vast and constantly expanding, and 2016 saw several additions to the canon. In particular, Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America is an intricate reinterpretation of American history in which the Democratic Party, and Clinton as its “dark id,” are the purveyors of all evil for all time in America. It is easy to see how, if you bring yourself to believe what is in these pages, it becomes nearly impossible to vote for Clinton, no matter your reservations about her opponent. And ironically, the campaign book by Clinton and Tom Kaine, Stronger Together, makes a case for the ticket’s ready-on-day-one expertise, but does so in such a lazy, repetitive and unreadable manner that it undercuts that very premise.

Finally, several works offer insight into the evolution and challenges of the two major parties. Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal: Or, Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? (2016) is a classic (and persuasive) disaffected liberal’s case against what the Democratic Party has become under the Clintons; that is, in Frank’s telling, a party more concerned with the creative class than the working class. Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (2016) shows how misplaced nostalgia permeates modern politics, and offers a road map for the Republican Party after the wreckage of the 2016 campaign. (Hint: it starts with humility.)

And lest you think this race is unprecedented in its vitriol and lunacy, here’s a bonus pick: read the splendid American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division by Michael A. Cohen, and see how, in some ways, we have seen this before. Though it may be of no consolation to realise that the 2016 race is not just depressing, but generic, too.