This week I’ve been pinging back and forth between two books that at first seem to have little in common. “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” by Tony Judt, and “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America,” by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck.
“Postwar” is a work of popular history about Europe in the decades between World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union. Its tone is narrative: It reads as if someone sat down next to Judt and asked how Europe worked, and he began an out-loud answer that didn’t stop for 960 pages. Although Judt clearly relied on a vast body of primary and secondary sources to write it, most of that stays behind the curtain of his own confident pronouncements about what happened and why.
“Identity Crisis” is quite different. Rather than expounding a confident narrative, it shows its work with near-obsessive precision, packing paragraphs with data and statistical analysis, and then pausing every few pages to pull it all together into an eloquent chart.
There is a whole chapter on how Trump took advantage of existing weaknesses within the Republican Party, for example, accompanied by data on endorsements showing how the party elite failed to coalesce behind any mainstream candidate. Of course, one of the reasons “Identity Crisis” can adopt this approach is because it’s focused narrowly on one election rather than a decades-long sweep of history.
Why did I find myself reading two such different books? Sometimes my reading choices can seem disjointed and scattered, as if I had been trying on different lenses for the world and discarding them in turn after they failed to give me the perspective I was looking for.
And yet, when I look back over my notes, I see how these two specific books are part of my stumble toward answering a question that I have been thinking about since 2016: What was it that suddenly seemed to change, first with Donald Trump’s triumph in the Republican primary, then through the success of the Brexit referendum in Britain, Trump’s win in the 2016 general election and the subsequent electoral victories of far-right populist parties and politicians in Europe, South America and the United States?
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