On a Saturday afternoon shortly before Christmas in 1984, Bernhard Goetz was riding the New York City subway. Goetz, who is white, was approached by four black screwdriver-wielding teenagers who asked him for five dollars. Goetz drew a 0.38 pistol from his jacket and shot each of the boys once, then turned to one of them on the floor of the subway and said, ‘You don’t look so bad, here’s another,’ firing again into the boy’s chest. He was convicted only of the most minor charge (possession of a handgun) and served eight months in prison. In a city increasingly gripped by fear, Goetz quickly became a New York folk hero: a real-life civilian Dirty Harry.

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  • Custom Article Title Max Holleran reviews 'Fortress America: How we embraced fear and abandoned democracy' by Elaine Tyler May
  • Contents Category United States
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    On a Saturday afternoon shortly before Christmas in 1984, Bernhard Goetz was riding the New York City subway. Goetz, who is white, was approached by four black screwdriver-wielding teenagers who asked him for five dollars. Goetz drew a 0.38 pistol from his jacket and shot each of the boys once, then turned to one of them ...

  • Book Title Fortress America
  • Book Author Elaine Tyler May
  • Book Subtitle How we embraced fear and abandoned democracy
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Basic Books, US$30 hb, 256 pp, 9781478920274

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is consistently ranked alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents of the United States. His greatness rests on two pillars. Elected in the midst of the Great Depression, he permanently changed how Americans viewed government: as a force that would intervene aggressively in the economy to relieve the burdens of millions. From 1940 onwards, he led his nation through World War II, altering the historical trajectory of the United States and establishing it firmly as a global superpower. Elected for an unprecedented and never to be repeated four terms, Roosevelt remains the dominant presidential figure that his successors have to measure up to.

Other, darker threads emerge when examining the Roosevelt presidency. In an era of racial strife across the South, Roosevelt largely ignored the crimes and lynchings committed against black citizens. Despite seeing off attempts to subvert or overthrow democracy, he nevertheless practised his own underhand tactics at preserving his power, most notably the attempt in 1937 to ‘pack’ the Supreme Court with more justices who would implement his New Deal agenda.

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  • Custom Article Title Andrew Broertjes reviews 'Franklin D. Roosevelt: A political life' by Robert Dallek
  • Contents Category United States
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    Franklin Delano Roosevelt is consistently ranked alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as one of the greatest presidents of the United States. His greatness rests on two pillars. Elected in the midst of the Great Depression, he permanently changed how Americans viewed government: as a force that would ...

  • Book Title Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Book Author Robert Dallek
  • Book Subtitle A political life
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Allen Lane, $69.99 hb, 712 pp, 9780241315842

The president of the United States looms large in contemporary politics, a powerful figure dominating news and popular culture: from newly elected president Donald Trump bestriding (or, depending on your political leanings, besmirching) the world stage, to Kevin Spacey as the Machiavellian Frank Underwood in House of Cards. For the modern observer, it is difficult to imagine an era in which the US president was not a significant global figure. The transformation of the president across the course of the twentieth century is a fascinating narrative, one that is well documented in William E. Leuchtenburg’s The American President: From Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Leuchtenburg has devoted a lifetime to chronicling the presidency, most notably a series of works on Franklin Delano Roosevelt that remain set texts for understanding the transformation of executive power in the first half of the twentieth century. The American President represents a rigorous and highly readable capstone to a remarkable academic career.

Leuchtenburg begins with the transfer of power from the assassinated William McKinley to Vice President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. McKinley’s re-election campaign in 1900 had a number of important firsts, including the use of filmed footage of the president as part of promotional efforts. But the addition of Roosevelt to the ticket, in an attempt by Republican powerbrokers to sideline him from his reforming governorship of New York, made the greatest mark on the future of the presidency. Influential GOP insider Mark Hanna was furious, stating: ‘What is the matter with all of you? Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one heartbeat between that damn cowboy and the presidency?’ McKinley’s death at the hands of anarchist Leon Czolgosz showed Hanna’s warning to be prophetic. Roosevelt, who switched easily between rough-riding frontier cowboy and the New York aristocrat, captivated not just the United States but the world: the first president who was a media personality as much as a political leader. He possessed, as one contemporary put it, a ‘singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter – the quality that medieval theology ascribed to God – he was pure act’. Roosevelt’s willingness to use the government to intervene in the domestic sphere, particularly regarding regulation of the trusts and monopolies of the robber barons, heralded a major shift in both the perception and the reality of what the federal government and the president could do. In the foreign sphere, his peace deal between Russia and Japan in 1907 led to him being the only sitting US president until Barack Obama to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But Roosevelt’s desire to make the United States a global power sowed the seeds of later US foreign policy, best exemplified in the decision he made in 1907, without consulting Congress, to dispatch the Great White Fleet around the world, a stunning display of US naval might. The idea of the United States as a global power broker continued into the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, whose idealistic attempts to form a more integrated global community were shattered on the rocks of an obstinate Senate.

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  • Custom Article Title Andrew Broertjes reviews 'The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton' by William E. Leuchtenburg
  • Contents Category United States
  • Book Title The American President
  • Book Author William E. Leuchtenburg
  • Book Subtitle From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $49.95 hb, 900 pp, 9780195176162

Beneath a frantic veneer of normalcy, American politics is not okay. It is as if Punch and Judy have careened out of a dive bar, tripped down the rabbit hole, smashed head-first through the looking glass, and found themselves running all three branches of government. Core to this is that unlikely combination of words, President Donald Trump.

As I write in April, Trump’s administration has been a chaos of incompetence and cruelty. That began with his inauguration, a patchily attended event, reportedly described by George W. Bush as ‘some weird shit’. Declared a ‘National Day of Patriotic Devotion’ by Trump, America disagreed and photographs of small crowds prompted a robust White House response. It was, Press Secretary Sean Spicer screamed, ‘the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period!’ While the nation mouthed a collective ‘what the?’, presidential counsellor Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer’s easily disproved lie: he gave, she said, ‘alternative facts’.

Lies and conspiracies have become the hallmark of Trump’s young presidency. Since taking office, Trump has blamed his massive popular vote loss on three to five million illegal votes, a claim based on the racist story of a friend of a golfer. Conway made up the ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ to justify Trump’s extreme anti-immigrant policies, and Trump referred to a non-existent terror attack in Sweden, prompting former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt to ask ‘what has he been smoking?’ Most egregiously, Trump restated a cable news conspiracy that President Barack Obama used British intelligence to wiretap then-candidate Trump, a claim denied by Obama, Britain’s GCHQ, and Trump’s own intelligence officials. And the press has to write this up as presidential politics. (Imagine a group of journalists writing soberly about a hangry five-year-old smashing a teapot with a bat. It feels a bit like that.)

The wiretap lie was a failed distraction from the federal investigation into Trump’s potential collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 election. So far, the Trump team’s entanglement with Russian questions has seen two former campaign officials and his National Security Advisor leave office, and the recusals of his Attorney General and House Intelligence Committee Chair. Which, to put it mildly, doesn’t look great.

Neither does his cabinet. With notable exceptions, Trump’s cabinet is a mix of the cartoonishly rich and bizarrely unsuited. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions was considered too racist to be a judge in the 1980s; Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claimed that schools should have guns because of ‘grizzly bears’; and Energy Secretary Rick Perry once forgot the name of his department while calling for its abolition. To clarify, Perry oversees America’s nuclear weapons program. In terms of diversity, the cabinet weighs in around ‘1950s country club’.

White House senior staff include alt-right propagandist Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, an alleged member of Nazi-linked Hungarian group, Vitezi Rend. I am sure he is charming at state dinners. Trump’s daughter, fashion designer Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, real estate developer Jared Kushner, hold high-ranking White House positions, and are reportedly consulted on national security matters. Who wouldn’t get Jared and Ivanka’s take before launching missiles?

This blend of family and government make the Trumps walking conflicts of interest. Trump’s sons fly the world plugging Trump-branded developments, and Trump partly runs the United States from his hotels. He supervised a missile strike on Syria from his golf club, Mar-a-Lago (as you do), and responded to a North Korean missile launch between courses in Mar-a-Lago’s restaurant. Diners watched and Facebooked pictures of the nuclear codes bag. Later, Trump photo-bombed a wedding.

In foreign policy, Trump has threatened to invade Mexico, hung up on Australia’s ‘President Trumble’, and had the Geneva Conventions explained to him by the president of Germany. He reversed the One China policy then re-reversed it when China ‘threatened to take the gloves off’, said he was cool with whatever on the notoriously chillaxed Israel–Palestine question, and sought (twice) to ban Muslims from the United States, a despicable plan swiftly overruled by ‘so-called’ federal judges. Trump still plans to build a useless, multi-billion dollar border wall that he has maintained Mexico will pay for. As former President Vincente Fox tweeted, ‘Mexico is not going to pay for that fucking wall! #FuckingWall’.

President Donald Trump receives a briefing on a military strike 550President Donald Trump receives a briefing on a military strike on Syria from his National Security team on Thursday 6 April, 2017, at Mar-a-Lago, Florida (photograph by Sheleah Craighead, White House)

 

 

In domestic policy, Trump has tried but failed to pass his party’s signature campaign promise – repealing Obamacare – despite controlling all three branches of government. Add celebrity Twitter wars, beating up the press, repealing protections for female workers just before Equal Pay Day, trolling civil rights hero John Lewis, omitting Jews from the Holocaust memorial statement, gutting science, attacking women’s health, and creating headlines like ‘Trump Organization Settles Restaurant Lawsuit with Second Celebrity Chef’, and you see where we’re at. If America was a Facebook friend, they would be posting about how ‘fine’ everything is after the divorce, while sucking down tequila and screaming into a balled-up towel.

In fairness, none of this was unexpected after the 2016 presidential election, which, put charitably, made a bar fight between clowns look like Swan Lake. The election pitted Hillary Clinton – former first lady, senator, and secretary of state – against The Donald, a reality TV star and casino tycoon with no government experience. During his campaign, Trump called Mexicans ‘rapists’, insulted the parents of a dead veteran, mocked prisoners of war, mimicked a disabled reporter, made sexist comments, tweeted about a Miss Universe sex tape, supported torture and killing suspects’ families, pledged to ban Muslims, threatened to jail Clinton, invited Russia to hack her, and appeared to suggest that his ‘Second Amendment’ supporters shoot her – something made more chilling still by his encouragement of violence at rallies. Then, it seemed, his campaign detonated: Trump bragged about not paying taxes, and – in a leaked tape – gloated about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’.

So how the hell did he win?

Two early books on that question are Matt Taibbi’s Insane Clown President and P. J. O’Rourke’s How The Hell Did This Happen? In a campaign where television satire boomed to prominence – offering a vicious sense of objectivity amid the hyperpartisan lies – it is welcome to have collections of campaign writing by two leading print satirists.

Taibbi’s collected Rolling Stone pieces argue that systemic flaws in America’s political culture prompted Trump’s unlikely win. While believing Trump would lose throughout the campaign, Taibbi’s real-time commentary is nevertheless sharply prescient. He argues that, in addition to ‘a triumph of the hideous racism, sexism and xenophobia that has always run through American society’, Trump’s victory was spurred by a rebellion against a ‘lazy and profligate’ oligarchy, a ‘triumvirate of big media, big donors and big political parties’ that kept constituents as far from the political process as possible. The political media had become ‘one geek in a suit interviewing another geek in a suit about the behaviours of pipe fitters and store clerks and cops in Florida, Wisconsin’. Politicians and journalists developed a feedback loop, heightened in presidential campaigns, where – trapped together on buses and planes – they relied on each other for what the people thought. This ‘insular arrogance’ led to an ‘astonishing cultural blindness’. Meanwhile in Congress, politicians were focused on the Washington ‘power game’, not their voters. Increasingly flushed with cash after Citizens United allowed unfettered corporate donations, US Representatives too often became fronts for corporate interests. An ‘ideal’ bill allowed ‘the sponsoring pol to keep as many big-money donors in the fold as possible without offending actual human voters to the point of a ballot revolt’.

The ‘People’, Taibbi writes, were ‘sick of being thought of as faraway annoyances’, ignored, patronised, and used as ‘props’ by ‘robo-babbling representatives of unseen donors’. Added to this was the Republican strategy of pushing laissez-faire capitalist policies that hurt their constituents, while distracting them with ‘an ever-increasing list of villains responsible for the lack of work: communists, bra-burning feminists, black “race hustlers,” climate-change activists, Muslims, Hollywood, horned owls ...’ This, combined with cable news, fuelled a toxic hatred of media élites and a current of xenophobia that – with the alt-right’s rise and Trump’s ‘rage rallies’ – was whipped into something still darker: the unwinding of the post-Civil Rights era multicultural consensus.

These ‘movements took place against the backdrop of a splintering and collapsing of the media landscape’, where the commercialisation of news had emphasised not only partisanship but the business need for live events. The two-year presidential election campaign was ideal live television. Trump’s innovation ‘was to recognize what a bad TV show the campaign was’ and play ‘a better and more magnetic’ character. For media companies, Trump’s reality TV act was ‘good for business’ and while ‘[e]ditorially the press denounced him’, they ‘never turned the cameras off’. Trump also benefited from the first truly social media election, where fake internet news swirled into cable’s hyperpartisan bloodstream, leaving ‘us without any real forum for a national conversation’. As Twitter rose in political prominence, Trump’s ‘fortune-cookie mind – restless, confrontational, completely lacking the shame/veracity filter – [was] perfectly engineered for the medium’.

Trump used Twitter and his saturation-coverage rallies to tell the political and media establishment to go to hell ‘at a time when Americans on both sides of the aisle were experiencing a deep sense of betrayal by the political class’. The more the press criticised Trump for behaving like ‘a drunken stockbroker who fell of the end of a bar into a presidential race’, the better he did. The press power to destroy a candidate had ended. ‘Trump understands,’ Taibbi says, ‘that NASCAR America, WWE America, always loves seeing the preening self-proclaimed good guy get whacked with a chair.’ He gave his supporters permission to howl ‘Fuck everything, fuck everyone’ and ‘Republican voters ate it up’, spending the ‘primary season howling for blood as Trump shredded one party-approved hack after another’. Clinton and Trump’s ‘historically weak field’ of Republican rivals were fighting with outdated rules while Trump chainsawed the rule-book on live TV. ‘The irony,’ Taibbi laments, ‘is that when America finally wrested control of the political process from the backroom oligarchs, the very first place we spent our newfound freedom and power was on the campaign of the world’s most unapologetic asshole’.

While I think Taibbi is too hard on Clinton, Insane Clown President is an exceptional real-time analysis of the failings of the US political and media system, freshened by Taibbi’s wit and experience on the campaign trail.

Where Taibbi emphasises the political, O’Rourke accentuates the satire. O’Rourke wasn’t on the trail much, so How The Hell Did This Happen? is armchair banter – but the good stuff. Unlike Taibbi, O’Rourke doesn’t deliver a consistent quality of analysis. His thinkier pieces are too often straw-man arguments striving for humour that fall flat as political writing. And his deep dives into the policy positions of also-rans seem irrelevant now. There is a laziness in the book’s ‘hopelessly jumbled’ structure, and O’Rourke admits to it being thrown together with his editor at a cocktail party. It shows.

Trump speaking with Putin oval office 550President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 28 January 2017 (photograph by Sean Spicer, White House)

 

Still, when O’Rourke is on song he is savagely funny: while watching the Republican candidates’ debate, he writes of refilling his glass ‘with the special vitamin that makes Jeb Bush interesting’, and of Chris Christie, that he ‘could pop a waistband button outside the Trenton state house and break a window in Newark’. O’Rourke is, as he himself wrily notes, ‘an elderly and unhinged Republican’ who thinks ‘most popular music sounds like angry potty mouths falling down a flight of stairs while carrying a drum set’. That presents in certain country club attitudes, particularly his wince-inducing take on Clinton as a ‘lying old fishwife’.

That leads to my broader comment on both books: there should be more on the vicious sexism Clinton endured – from the ‘bitch’ signs and Trump’s ‘nasty woman’ sneer on live television, to the fact that Trump – an old, white, ‘pussy grabbing’ billionaire – won the presidency over his vastly more qualified female rival. The just fury resulting from that crowning sexism, together with horror at Trump’s cruelty to minorities, is already redefining American politics, spurring the biggest US protest in the Women’s March and grass-roots activism that is already influencing Congressional special elections in traditionally Republican districts. More must be written on it.

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  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title James McNamara reviews 'Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus' by Matt Taibbi and 'How The Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016' by P.J. O’Rourke
  • Contents Category Politics
  • Book Title Insane Clown President
  • Book Author Matt Taibbi
  • Book Subtitle Dispatches from the 2016 Circus
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Penguin, $35 pb, 352 pp, 9780753548400
  • Book Subtitle 2 The Election of 2016
  • Book Title 2 How The Hell Did This Happen?
  • Book Author 2 by P.J. O’Rourke
  • Biblio 2 Allen & Unwin, $29.99 pb, 256 pp, 9781611855227
  • Book Cover 2 Small Book Cover 2 Small
  • Author Type 2 Author
  • Book Cover 2 Book Cover 2
  • Book Cover 2 Path images/ABR_Online_2017/May_2017/How%20the%20hell%20did%20this%20happen.jpg

This is an angry book. David Cay Johnston has been doing investigative reporting on Donald Trump's business practices for nearly three decades, and this book is a compilation of his findings. Most of the information in the book has come out before, but Johnston sees an urgent need to put it all in one place for the world to see. How has the United States come so close to electing this con artist as president? The answer that comes out of these pages is clear: Trump has a lifelong talent for degrading every institution he touches, often to the point of implosion.

For decades, the Republican Party has pushed the idea that government is 'the problem, not the solution', to paraphrase Ronald Reagan. Trump has spent those same decades touting his extraordinary success in business, and this year Republicans embraced the profane billionaire as a vacation from political and social norms. Every presidential candidate claims to be an 'outsider',  but Trump was the real deal. With every insult and slur, Trump showed he was unbound by political decorum, and ready to do the job that generations of useless politicians had failed to do.

Trump's supporters admire the way he 'tells it like it is', but this book shows that his purported success in business is based on doing exactly the opposite. In 2005 the author of another book, TrumpNation, alleged Trump was only worth $150 million, rather than the $6 billion he claimed (sometimes he has claimed as high as $12 billion). Trump sued for libel, but failed to provide an account of his real net worth in terms of assets and liabilities. Instead, he testified that his net worth fluctuates 'with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings'. When pressed by an incredulous lawyer about exactly what he based his statements of his net worth on, Trump replied, 'I would say it's my general attitude at the time that the question may be asked. And as I say, it varies.'

Court documents are an important source of information for Johnston, because lawsuits are central to Trump's business model. He routinely underpays labourers and suppliers, or doesn't pay them at all. This often lands him in court, where his strategy involves dragging out proceedings for as long as possible to exhaust plaintiffs who don't have the money or will to fight on. He protects his reputation by threatening to sue anyone who writes something about him that he doesn't like. Today, Trump boasts of his mastery of debt and bankruptcy, intimating that he knows how to get away with paying far less than he owes, and could get a much better deal on America's trillions in debt. But in the early 1990s he only escaped total ruin thanks to the favouritism of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, which let him short-change his creditors by $1.5 billion while keeping his casino license. Local political connections have saved Trump more than once. When Florida's Attorney General Pam Bondi announced she was considering investigating Trump University as a possible fraud in 2013, her election campaign organisation immediately received a $25,000 cheque from the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Less than a week later, she announced her office would not take any action against Trump.

Trump has made his legal battles part of his mystique. He claims he never settles lawsuits, because that would make him a target for more lawsuits. In fact, as Johnston shows, quietly settling lawsuits is a way of life for him. The phrase 'the court sealed the terms of the settlement' appears regularly throughout the book. This allows Trump to deny he has ever lost anything or failed in any way. Most successful business people like to talk about how they learned from their setbacks, which made them what they are today. For Trump, every disaster is in retrospect a roaring success, evidence of his unerring genius at every stage of his life. He cannot describe himself, or allow himself to be described, in anything less than superlatives. He promised Trump University would 'teach you better than the best business schools would teach you, and I went to the best business school'. He planted a quote from Marla Maples in the New York Post holding him responsible for the 'Best Sex I Ever Had'. He even claims he 'reads the Bible more than anyone else'.

Donald Trump by Gage SkidmoreDonald Trump (photograph by Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons)

There are too many unconscionable details in this book to summarise. There is Trump's standard practice of talking up the value of his properties to obscene levels, then telling tax assessors they are worth hardly anything. There are his connections to mob figures and drug traffickers. There are his announcements about lavish charitable donations that rarely materialise. There are the many hospitality awards he has received from an organisation whose trustees consist of Trump, his family members, and an art thief known as 'Joey No Socks'. From the start-up football league he bankrupted, to the buyers of apartments that were never built, to the unfortunate students of  Trump University, there are countless dreams that were destroyed because people made the mistake of trusting him.

The problem with this book is the problem with Trump himself, and the great danger he presents: the outrages overwhelm to the point of anaesthesia. A credibly researched book like this one would sink the aspirations of a normal presidential candidate. A single chapter of this book would endanger a normal career of any kind. But it won't matter for Donald Trump, who exhausted the world's reserves of pique long ago. The book may be intended as an indictment of Trump's offences against decency, but by the end it seems like a terrifying account of the new normal.

Trump's most accurate claim about himself is that he is tireless. Ordinary politicians lie for marginal gain, but can't fully commit themselves to lives of deceit and obfuscation. Maintaining lies in the face of mounting counter-evidence takes a terrible toll on a normal person. Not so Trump, who evidently doesn't believe in the concept of objective truth.

His method of estimating his net worth – whatever he feels like at the time – is the same as his method of determining the number of illegal immigrants in the country, or his standing in the polls, or the role of Ted Cruz's father in the assassination of President Kennedy. His response to any counter-evidence, no matter how strong, is to insist that no one really knows, so you may as well believe him and move on.

In country with extremely low trust in politicians and political institutions, and partisanship that manifests as rabid tribalism, plenty of people are prepared to accept Trump's view of truth and reality. In Johnston's words: 'To disagree with Trump is to be wrong. To portray Trump in a way that does not fit with his image of himself is to be a loser.' Trump has long prized loyalty as the only value that matters, and now he promises to fight for America in the same way he has fought for his family, with no scruples whatsoever. This is a political vision that appeals to plenty of people, maybe enough to get him elected to the most powerful office on earth.

David Cay Johnston has done all he can to prevent that, but it may not be enough. The truth is not enough anymore.

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  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title David Smith reviews 'The Making of Donald Trump' by David Cay Johnston
  • Contents Category Politics
  • Custom Highlight Text

    This is an angry book. David Cay Johnston has been doing investigative reporting on Donald Trump's business practices for nearly three decades, and this book is a compilation of ...

  • Book Title The Making of Donald Trump
  • Book Author David Cay Johnston
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Hardie Grant, $29.99 pb, 280 pp, 9781743792995

When I arrived in America, green card in hand, I soon got down to my favourite pastime: discussing politics over grain-based liquor. I was surprised to find that President Barack Obama was widely reviled. I had spent the previous decade in England and Australia where, in my experience, Obama was considered a decent president or, at least, a decent man. Not, it would seem, in the United States.

That opinions could so differ between Western nations was partly attributable to the radicalisation of American politics in the Obama era. From their first leadership meeting after Obama's election, Republicans mounted an unprecedented 'guerilla war' against his presidency. Denying any Democratic victory was more important than governing. This extremist shift, Jane Mayer argues in Dark Money, reflects a sophisticated, multi-decade effort by a small group of billionaires to inject radical right-wing views into the political mainstream. This might sound a bit Bond villain, but Mayer, a veteran New Yorker journalist, proves her case through masterful investigative reporting.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title James McNamara reviews 'Dark Money: The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right' by Jane Mayer
  • Contents Category Politics
  • Custom Highlight Text

    When I arrived in America, green card in hand, I soon got down to my favourite pastime: discussing politics over grain-based liquor. I was surprised to find that President Barack ...

  • Book Title Dark Money
  • Book Author Jane Mayer
  • Book Subtitle The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Scribe, $35 pb, 464 pp, 9781925321715

Michael McDonnell knew he had a bestseller on his hands. Historical biographies regularly top the New York Times bestseller list, and his research uncovered a larger than life figure named Charles de Langlade. Born in 1729 to an Indian mother and a French-Canadian father, Langlade grew up straddling two cultures, but that did not stop him from becoming a leader of the Anishinaabeg, a linguistically connected group that included tribes like the Odawa (Ottawa) and the Ojibwe.

Forrest Gump-like, Langlade seemingly appeared at every turning point in the French and Indian War. Indeed, his raid on a British trading post helped trigger the war. He led the Indian warriors at the 'massacre' of Fort William Henry and fought in the battle for Quebec, where he was rumoured to be the sharpshooter who killed the British General James Wolfe. After the defeat of his French allies, Langlade shifted allegiance to the British, fighting against the Americans in the Revolutionary War. Once again on the losing side, he recovered, establishing a trading post on the site of present day Green Bay, earning him the title, 'Father of Wisconsin'.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Glenn Moore reviews 'Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the making of America' by Michael A. McDonnell
  • Contents Category United States
  • Book Title Masters of Empire
  • Book Author Michael A. McDonnell
  • Book Subtitle Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio St Martin’s Press $49.99 hb, 416 pp, 9780809029532
Friday, 18 December 2015 09:55

'Letter from New Orleans' by Kevin Rabalais

The streets of New Orleans double as scented gardens for the blind. Round any corner in the Vieux Carré – known to most as the French Quarter – and experience the assault of sensory details. It might start with a spicy tang of boiling seafood, crawfish, or shrimp or crabs plucked from the amphibious Louisiana land. Maybe it's frying beignets or praline mixture bubbling on stoves, or one of those fluorescent alcoholic drinks that bartenders pour inside goldfish bowls and sell to tourists from the Mid-west to sip as they stroll through the Quarter, convinced that they've reached the precipice between civilisation and debauchery.

Then it comes. Somewhere in the middle of defining the precise scent, your ear tunes itself to the city's true heartbeat. First you might hear the trombone. Now the trumpet and tuba combine to release the city's musical gift to the world. In New Orleans, second-line jazz parades are more common than changes in the weather. They begin with one group – the women's Pussyfooters Club, say, out doing what they do to pass a good time, in the local parlance – but open themselves to anyone who wants to dance through the humidity that assaults the city for the six months, sometimes more, that New Orleanians call summer. If you're unlucky enough to miss those second-lines, turn another corner and find a band – slick or rag-tag, most of them better than any you'd hear in a club in other cities – out busking for tips.

It's not the heat, it's the humidity, goes one local adage, and the subtropical air can feel more like an assailant than a necessity. This is one reason for the larghissimo tempo. Don't expect the simple things to function here. If they do, it won't be long before heavy weather rolls in and thunder sends the city's graceful, termite-infested wooden houses atremble, knocking out electricity, sometimes for days. If you can't forget that most of the world runs on some semblance of a schedule, you may need to find another home. If you have the good fortune to discover one that radiates a more lavish spirit, please give the rest of us directions.

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  • Custom Article Title 'Letter from New Orleans' by Kevin Rabalais
  • Contents Category Commentary

There is something pleasurable about a good American history book. I recall reading David Hackett Fischer's Paul Revere's Ride (1994) on a train journey from Boston to Washington. I read it not because I was teaching about Paul Revere, but because it was a fine work, true to a tradition in which, as Fischer put it, books 'are a sequence of stories, with highly articulated actors'. These stories are grounded in archival research, which makes them credible. Although they make a scholarly argument, they are written to be accessible to a wide audience. Writing in impenetrable jargon and deferring to French theorists, so fashionable in literary criticism, never took hold in American history departments.

Edward E. Baptist writes in the American tradition, albeit without the sense of humour displayed by many great historians. He prefers to write with a touch of anger, eager to expose the role the slaves who toiled on cotton plantations played in driving America's economic growth. Nevertheless, his book is based on meticulous primary research, and he tells his American story through a series of smaller ones, each of which takes the reader back to antebellum America. These stories are based on 'thousands of personal narratives', memoirs, and 2,300 interviews conducted by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. They come together in a way that makes it hard to disagree that American capitalism, and indeed the American nation, is tainted by its association with slavery.

We all instinctively know that slavery is wrong, but in keeping with the book's economic focus, Baptist emphasises its brutality as a labour system, where output was maximised using intimidation and punishment, or, as he prefers, 'torture'. To drive this point home he refers to the slave system by the shorthand term 'the whipping machine'. It is richly evocative language, the more so because the term derives from one of Baptist's stories.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Glenn Moore reviews 'The Half Has Never Been Told' by Edward E. Baptist
  • Contents Category United States
  • Book Title The Half Has Never Been Told
  • Book Author Edward E. Baptist
  • Book Subtitle Slavery and the making of American capitalism
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Basic Books (NewSouth), $44.99 hb, 525 pp, 9780465002962

The traveller, as V.S. Naipaul describes that role in A Turn in the South (1989), 'is a man defining himself against a foreign background'. Over the past forty years, Paul Theroux has built his career writing books, nearly fifty novels and travelogues, to become an exemplar of that definition. He seeks always to go farther and deeper, often journeying, to borrow one of his titles, to the ends of the earth. He has visited the far reaches of Asia (The Great Railway Bazaar, 1975), South America (The Old Patagonian Express, 1979), the Pacific (The Happy Isles of Oceania, 1992), and Africa (Dark Star Safari, 2002). In those places and others – also occasionally in his fiction – Theroux keeps a leading role for himself while the locales and their denizens support. His occasionally egocentric persona and often acute observations as an outsider in exotic lands have made him one of the most distinct voices in contemporary travel writing.

Theroux's journeys have typically pushed him beyond America's borders. In Deep South – a book that includes pedestrian photographs by the usually impressive Steve McCurry – the Northerner stays in his own country, venturing well beyond the Mason-Dixon line into South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Like Naipaul, who covered similar terrain in A Turn in the South, he ignores Louisiana. Early in Deep South, Theroux, the author of thirty novels and collections of short stories, writes, 'Fiction often highlights a landscape and suggests a future, but fiction can be misleading. A good reason to travel is to put fiction in context.'

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Kevin Rabalais reviews 'Deep South' by Paul Theroux
  • Contents Category United States
  • Book Title Deep South
  • Book Author Paul Theroux
  • Book Subtitle Four Seasons on back roads
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Hamish Hamilton, $34.99 pb, 441 pp, 9780241146736