Book collage

Like the amplifying effects of climate change, which are already delivering once-in-a-century storms every four or five years, America’s increasingly divided politics have created three once-in-a-lifetime elections in just the past 20 years. But the stakes in 2020 seem another order larger than in 2000, 2008, or 2016. And who Americans choose in November will dramatically affect what the world does – or doesn’t do – on climate in the critical decade that follows.

This month’s bookshelf highlights 12 titles that uncover the roots and explain the dynamics of this critical moment in American politics.

The first three titles focus on President Trump – appropriately, given that the election is widely seen as a referendum on his administration. How did he gain power? Why does he appeal so strongly to so many Americans? And what norms can be restored in the wake of his disruptions?

The next three titles profile three distinct subsets of the American electorate: Trump’s most dedicated supporters, the Black and allied protestors who created the Black Lives Matter movement now aligned against Trump, and the diverse groups of women who together organized the first and still the largest protest against the Trump presidency – the day after he was sworn into office.

The last six titles step back to place these groups and their concerns in broader social and historical contexts.

A new Gallup/Knight Foundation report details the deepening divide in Americans’ assessments of the news media. Then an economist explains why national debts and deficits don’t mean what we think they do, a reassuring message for a country that has just spent $3 trillion on the coronavirus pandemic and has yet to get serious about climate change.

The last four titles reach back into history to explore previous times when Americans faced, and surmounted, crises. Two of these historic “moments” – the New Deal and World War II – have figured prominently in calls for action on climate change; they reappeared again this year when cities and states pressed for more aggressive federal action on the coronavirus crisis. Americans did rise to the occasion in the Great Depression and World War II, but, as the last two titles detail, the nation is still struggling to fulfill the promise it showed then.

The next chance to make good on those promissory notes comes over the next month. These 12 titles can prepare readers to make their choices on November 3rd – and then help them understand the consequences of the nation’s choice afterwards.

As always, the descriptions of the titles in this list are drawn from copy provided by the publishers. If two dates of publication are offered, the second is for the paperback edition of the title.

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What Were We Thinking? A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, by Carlos Lozada (Simon & Schuster 2020, 272 pages, $28.00)

Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada has read some 150 volumes that explain why Trump was elected and what his presidency reveals about our nation. Many of these, he’s found, are more righteous than right. In What Were We Thinking, Lozada uses these books to tell the story of how we understand ourselves in the Trump era. Lozada’s argument is provocative: many of these books – whether written by Trump’s true believers or his harshest critics – are vulnerable to the same blind spots, resentments, and failures that gave us his presidency. But Lozada also highlights books that illuminate how America is changing. What Were We Thinking helps us transcend the battles of the moment and see ourselves for who we really are.

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Trump and Us: What He Says and Why We Listen, by Roderick P. Hart (Cambridge University Press 2020, 280 pages, $24.95 paperback)

Why did 62 million Americans vote for Donald Trump? An expert in political language, Roderick P. Hart turns to Trump’s words, voters’ remarks, and media commentary for insight. The book offers the first systematic rhetorical analysis of Trump’s 2016 campaign and early presidency, using text analysis and archives of earlier presidential campaigns to uncover deep emotional undercurrents in the country and to provide historical comparison. Hart pays close attention to the emotional dimensions of politics, above and beyond cognition and ideology. He argues it was not partisanship, policy, or economic factors that landed Trump in the Oval Office but rather how Trump made people feel.

See also: Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump by Jennifer Mercieca (Texas A&M University Press 2020, 320 pages, $28.00)

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The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning, by Dan P. McAdams (Oxford University Press 2020, 305 pages, $35.00)

The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump provides a coherent and nuanced psychological portrait of Donald Trump, drawing upon biographical events in the subject’s life and contemporary scientific research and theory in personality, developmental, and social psychology. The book’s central thesis is that Donald Trump is the episodic man. The chapters, written as stand-alone essays, build on each other to present a portrait of a person who compulsively lives in the moment. McAdams shows that Trump’s utter lack of an inner life story is truly exceptional. This book is a remarkable case study, which should aid readers trying to reckon with the often confounding behavior and temperament of the 45th President of the United States.

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The Securitarian Personality: What Really Motivates Trump’s Base and Why It Matters for the Post-Trump Era, by John R. Hibbing (Oxford University Press 2020, 304 pages, $29.95)

In The Securitarian Personality, John R. Hibbing argues that an intense desire for authority is not central to those constituting Trump’s base. Drawing from participant observation, focus groups, and a nationwide survey, Hibbing demonstrates that what Trump’s base really craves is actually a specific form of security: threats they perceive to be emanating from human outsiders, defined broadly to include welfare cheats, unpatriotic athletes, norm violators, non-English speakers, religious and racial minorities, and certainly people from other countries. The central objective of these “securitarians” is to strive for protection for themselves, their families, and their dominant cultural group from these embodied outsider threats. In The Securitarian Personality, Hibbing radically reinterprets a political movement that will continue to influence American politics.

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Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century, by Barbara Ransby (University of California Press 2018, 240 pages, $18.95 paperback)

The breadth and impact of Black Lives Matter in the United States has been extraordinary. What began as outrage over the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of his killer, and accelerated during the Ferguson uprising of 2014, has evolved into a resurgent Black Freedom Movement, which includes a network of more than fifty organizations. In Making All Black Lives Matter, award-winning historian and longtime activist Barbara Ransby outlines the scope and genealogy of this movement, documenting its roots in Black feminist politics and situating it squarely in a Black radical tradition. Ransby maps the movement, profiles many of its lesser-known leaders, measures its impact, outlines its challenges, and looks toward its future.

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How to Read a Protest: The Art of Organizing and Resistance, by L.A. Kauffman (University of California Press 2018, 152 pages, $22.95)

When millions of people took to the streets for the 2017 Women’s Marches, there was an unmistakable air of uprising. But what exactly do protests do, and how do they help movements win? In this original and richly illustrated account, organizer and journalist L.A. Kauffman delves into the history of America’s major demonstrations, beginning with the legendary 1963 March on Washington, to reveal the ways protests work and how their character has shifted over time. Using the signs that demonstrators carry as clues to how protests are organized, Kauffman sheds new light on the catalytic power of collective action and the decentralized, bottom-up, women-led model that has transformed what movements look like and what they can accomplish.

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American Views 2020: Trust, Media, and Democracy: A Deepening Divide, a Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey (Gallup/Knight Foundation 2020, 63 pages, free download available here)

There is a widening gulf between American aspirations for and assessments of the news media. With each study, the American people render increasingly polarized judgments. For the 2020 American Views survey, Gallup and Knight polled more than 20,000 U.S. adults and found further partisan entrenchment about how the news media delivers on its democratic mandate for factual, trustworthy information. Republicans express more negative sentiments on every aspect of media performance compared to Democrats and independents. This report is based on data collected just before the coronavirus became a global pandemic and the movement for racial justice swept the nation. This update offers new insights into how the public is responding to these challenges in their own media consumption and their thoughts about how to address them.

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The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy, by Stephanie Kelton (Public Affairs Books 2020, 336 pages, $30.00)

Any ambitious proposal to deal with crucial issues – poverty, inequality, health care, infrastructure, climate change – inevitably runs into the buzz saw of how to find the money to pay for it, rooted in myths about how deficits are hobbling us as a country. Economist Stephanie Kelton busts those myths: that the federal government should budget like a household, that deficits will harm the next generation, crowd out private investment, and undermine long-term growth, and that entitlements are propelling us toward a grave fiscal crisis. With its important new ways of understanding money, taxes, and the critical role of deficit spending, Modern Monetary Theory redefines how to responsibly use our resources so that we can maximize our potential as a society. MMT gives us the power to imagine a new politics and to move from a narrative of scarcity to one of opportunity.

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Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, by Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman (St. Martin’s Press 2020, 304 pages, $28.99)

In Four Threats, Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman explore five moments in history when democracy in the U.S. was under siege: the 1790s, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Depression, and Watergate. These episodes risked profound – even fatal – damage to the American democratic experiment. From this history, four distinct characteristics of disruption emerge. Political polarization, racism and nativism, economic inequality, and excessive executive power – alone or in combination – have threatened the survival of the republic. What is alarming about the present moment is that all four conditions exists at once. But by revisiting how earlier generations of Americans faced threats to the principles enshrined in the Constitution, we can chart a path toward repairing our civic fabric and renewing democracy.

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The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, by Robert Putnam (Simon & Schuster 2020, 480 pages, $32.50)

Deep and accelerating inequality; unprecedented political polarization; vitriolic public discourse; a fraying social fabric; public and private narcissism – Americans today seem to agree on only one thing: This is the worst of times. But we’ve been here before. During the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal, fiercely polarized, and deeply fragmented. In a sweeping overview, drawing on his inimitable combination of statistical analysis and storytelling, Robert Putnam (author of the groundbreaking Bowling Alone) analyzes the confluence of trends that brought us from an “I” society to a “We” society and then back again. Drawing inspiring lessons from an earlier era, when a dedicated group of reformers righted the ship, Putnam charts a path to becoming a society once again based on community.

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The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics During the Age of Roosevelt, by Jill Watts (Grove Press 2020, 560 pages, $30)

In 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidency with the help of key African American defectors from the Republican Party. At the time, most African Americans lived in poverty, were denied citizenship rights, and were terrorized by white violence. As the New Deal began, a “black Brain Trust” joined the administration and began documenting and addressing the economic hardship and systemic inequalities African Americans faced, even in FDR’s own administration. They became known as the Black Cabinet. Masterfully researched and dramatically told, The Black Cabinet brings to life a forgotten generation of leaders who fought post-Reconstruction racial apartheid and whose work served as a bridge that Civil Rights activists crossed to achieve the victories of the 1950s and ’60s.

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The Year of Peril: America in 1942, by Tracy Campbell (Yale University Press 2020, 408 pages, $30)

The Second World War exists in the American historical imagination as a time of unity and optimism. In 1942, however, America seemed to be on the brink of defeat and was beginning to splinter from within. Historian Tracy Campbell portrays the social, economic, and political fault lines that pitted factions of citizens against each other after Pearl Harbor was attacked, even as the nation mobilized, government-aided industrial infrastructure blossomed, and parents sent their sons off to war. This captivating look at how American society responded to the greatest stress experienced since the Civil War reveals the various ways, both good and bad, that the trauma of 1942 forced Americans to redefine their relationship with democracy.

See also Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, by Martha S. Jones (Basic Books 2020, 352 pages, $30).

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...