America

In the chaos that opened the Trump administration in 2017, foreign governments were looking for any and all insiders for information. Australia turned to Joe Hockey, who turned to golf. In this very readable account of the former treasurer’s four years in Washington (2016–20), Hockey tells us how he navigated ‘TRUMPAGEDDON’. This is a story replete with funny anecdotes and unsettling observations. Diplomatic leaves the reader convinced that diplomacy is more about art and luck than about science and process. It is also oddly reassuring about the vicissitudes that the Australia–United States relations can weather, even under the most weird leadership.

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Ilan Stavans is a professor of Humanities at Amherst College in Massachusetts, a native of Mexico City who is now a distinguished scholar of Latin American and Hispanic cultures. Here he turns his outsider’s gaze on the large question ‘What is American Literature?’ to productive if rather erratic effect. This is a strange book, one that purports to achieve an Olympian overview of an established academic field, but one whose most effective contributions manifest themselves in casual, digressive comments on particular authors and contemporary cultural issues.

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Landslide by Michael Wolff & Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

by
January–February 2022, no. 439

The Trump presidency (2017–21) has generated more books across its four years than most presidencies have across eight. It is ironic that an avowedly anti-intellectual president, who advertises his dislike of reading, has had such a profound impact on political literature. These two books – Landslide and Peril – will likely remain the most read of that growing collection. As their titles suggest, each is a chronicle of the chaos that consumed the United States during and after the 2020 election campaign.

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In 1995, a new online marketplace called Amazon sent out its first press release, with its thirty-one-year-old founder, Jeff Bezos, proclaiming: ‘We are able to offer more items for sale than any retailer in history, thanks entirely to the Internet.’ Nearly three decades later – Amazon having steroidally expanded from a book retailer to a multinational hydra of e-commerce, cloud storage, and digital streaming – this is no longer hyperbole. The company absorbs at least half of America’s online spending, and nearly 150 million US citizens subscribe to Amazon Prime, roughly the same number that voted in the recent presidential election. In 2020, while the pandemic crippled most industries, Amazon’s net profit swelled by eighty-four per cent. Today, Jeff Bezos is valued at US$200 billion – approximately the value of New Zealand’s GDP.

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William Darrah Kelley – a Republican congressman from Philadelphia – stood at the front of a stage in Mobile, Alabama, watching as a group of men pushed and shoved their way through the audience towards him. It was May 1867, Radical Reconstruction was underway, and Southern cities like Mobile were just beginning a revolutionary expansion and contraction of racial equality and democracy. The Reconstruction Acts, passed by Congress that year, granted formerly enslaved men the right to vote and to run for office in the former Confederate states. Northern Republicans streamed into cities across the South in 1867, speaking to both Black and white, to the inspired and hostile – registering Black voters and strengthening the already strong links between African Americans and the party.

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Lerone Bennett Jr, bestselling author of Black history, ruffled feathers with a 1968 article in the glossy monthly magazine Ebony. ‘Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?’ the piece’s title asked provocatively. The title of Bennett’s later book on the topic proclaimed that Lincoln was Forced into Glory. Mainstream media either ignored or denigrated Bennett’s work, but his insights about Lincoln’s racism paved the way for a host of historical works that have revised our understanding of who should be credited with ending slavery in the United States.

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On the morning of 6 January 2021, President Donald Trump addressed a crowd of his supporters outside the White House for more than an hour. The president urged protesters who had already begun gathering along the National Mall to go to the Capitol Building where both houses of Congress were about to start the process of certifying the results of the electoral college, formalising Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election. The election had been stolen, Trump told them: it was time for them to take it back and march on Congress: ‘You will never take back our country with weakness,’ said the president. 

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It was obvious that Nick Bryant’s insightful new book would be a requiem for American greatness. More revealing is its history of Trumpism, which long predated the man’s presidency.

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In the novel Demons, Dostoevsky’s narrator describes the character Shatov as ‘one of those ideal Russian beings who can suddenly be so struck by some strong idea that it seems to crush them then and there, sometimes even forever’. This ideal person is one whose ‘whole life afterwards is spent in some last writhings, as it were, under the stone that has fallen on them’. The people who populate Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism are Americans rather than Russians, but they too are living in the last writhings of the strong idea that dominates their lives: the idea of Stalinist communism.

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On 4 November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. The former radio announcer, Hollywood actor, and governor of California (1967–75) beat Jimmy Carter by four hundred and forty electoral college votes. No contender had beaten an incumbent by that much since 1932, when in the midst of the Great Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt triumphed over Herbert Hoover. And much like FDR’s victory, Reagan’s win in 1980 permanently altered the course of US politics. The welfare state that had existed under both Democratic and Republican presidents was diminished, if not entirely dismantled. The religious right, previously a nonentity in American politics, gained major clout. And the economic tenets of neo-liberalism, dismissed as fringe ideas in previous decades, took centre stage.

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