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Before Fire and Fury: A Reading List

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The New Yorker ran the perfect cartoon this week by Jeremy Nguyen. With the caption “A blizzard descends on the White House,” it shows the neoclassical building under a heavy snowfall of copies of Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury. The book was published January 5th with a 150,000-copy print run, and online and bricks and mortar booksellers had a hard time keeping up with demand. In the meantime the publisher, Holt, has received a million orders for the book. Fire and Fury has had such an impact, many say, because Wolff tossed aside decorum, burned his bridges with the Trump Administration, and brazenly exploited Donald Trump and his entourage in order to get a very good story. Perfect. But isn’t he merely confirming what we still have trouble believing? While you are waiting for your copy of Fire and Fury, here are a few other books that provide background knowledge on how we actually found ourselves in such a preposterous situation. 


Banner photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

When Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, a bewildered nation turned to Strangers in Their Own Land to understand what Trump voters were thinking when they cast their ballots. Arlie Hochschild, one of the most influential sociologists of her generation, had spent the preceding five years immersed in the community around Lake Charles, Louisiana, a Tea Party stronghold. Hochschild looks at today’s conservative movement and the ever-widening gap between right and left by focusing on a single group (the Tea Party), state (Louisiana), and issue (environmental pollution). She "skillfully invites liberal readers into the lives of Americans whose views they may have never seriously considered."

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The Unwinding

America is in crisis. In the space of a generation, it has become more than ever a country of winners and losers, as industries have failed, institutions have disappeared and the country's focus has shifted to idolise celebrity and wealth. George Packer narrates the story of America over the past three decades, bringing to the task his empathy with people facing difficult challenges, his sharp eye for detail and a gift for weaving together engaging narratives.The Unwinding moves deftly back and forth through the lives of its people, including Dean Price, the son of tobacco farmers who becomes an evangelist for a new economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a factory worker in the industrial Midwest attempting to survive the collapse of her city; Jeff Connaughton, a political careerist in Washington; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire. Their stories are interspersed with biographical sketches of the era's leading public figures, from Oprah Winfrey to Steve Jobs, to create a rich, wise and very human portrait of the USA in these hard times. The Unwinding portrays a superpower coming apart at the seams, its elites and institutions no longer working, leaving ordinary people to improvise their own schemes for salvation. 

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Coming Apart

In Coming Apart, Charles Murray explores the formation of American classes that are different in kind from anything we have ever known, focusing on whites as a way of driving home the fact that the trends he describes do not break along lines of race or ethnicity. Drawing on five decades of statistics and research, Coming Apart demonstrates that a new upper class and a new lower class have diverged so far in core behaviors and values that they barely recognize their underlying American kinship—divergence that has nothing to do with income inequality and that has grown during good economic times and bad. The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk. The evidence in Coming Apart is about white America. Its message is about all of America.

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Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis-that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in post-war America. J. D.'s grandparents were "dirt poor and in love," and moved north from Kentucky's Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance's grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history. A deeply moving memoir with its share of humour and vividly colourful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

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The Righteous Mind

In The Righteous Mind, psychologist Jonathan Haidt answers some of the most compelling questions about human relationships: Why can it sometimes feel as though half the population is living in a different moral universe? Why do ideas such as 'fairness' and 'freedom' mean such different things to different people? Why is it so hard to see things from another viewpoint? Why do we come to blows over politics and religion?Jonathan Haidt reveals that we often find it hard to get along because our minds are hardwired to be moralistic, judgemental and self-righteous. He explores how morality evolved to enable us to form communities, and how moral values are not just about justice and equality - for some people authority, sanctity or loyalty matter more. Morality binds and blinds, but, using his own research, Haidt proves it is possible to liberate ourselves from the disputes that divide good people.

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Trumpocracy

As the President of the United States, Donald Trump continually voices admiration for brutal strongmen such as Russia's Vladimir Putin, the Philippines' Roderigo Duterte, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egypt's Abedel Fattah el-Sisi. He has threatened the American mainstream media, obsessed over leaks, and worked mostly through executive orders. Some Americans still believe this is part of a carefully crafted plan to bring authoritarianism to our country. As Frum reveals, carefully crafted or not, this is where Trump is taking us. In this thoughtful and hard-hitting book, he issues a warning for democracy and America's future: all over the world countries are being destroyed by similar populist bumblers, making impulsive decisions and ignoring traditions, Quietly, steadily, he and his administration are damaging the tenets and accepted practices of American democracy, perhaps irrevocably. As Trump and his family enrich themselves, the presidency itself falls into the hands of the generals and financiers who surround him. During his own White House tenure, Frum witnessed the ways the presidency is limited not by law, but by tradition, propriety, and public outcry, all now weakened. Whether the Trump presidency lasts 2, 4, or 8 more years, he has changed the nature of the office for the worse, and likely for decades. In this powerful and eye-opening book, Frum makes clear that the hard work of recovery starts at home. Trumpocracy outlines how Trump could push America towards illiberalism, what the consequences could be for our nation and our everyday lives, and what we can do to prevent it.

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Trump

Last but not least, a graphic novel to lighten things up. Political cartoonist and commentator Ted Rall, who has written graphic biographies on personalities such as Edward Snowden, or Bernie Sanders, published this Donald Trump biography before he was elected and explains the phenomenon before the unthinkable happened. In deliberately crude drawings, Rall sketches Trump's beginnings but better, he analyzes the man and his supporters: "There are parallels between Facism and Trumpism. And differences." He shows how the American political landscape has moved into uncharted territory and helps us understand clearly how Hillary Clinton lost. 

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Journalist, globe trotter and food lover

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