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Book Review: What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era - Carlos Lozada

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

Short review: In What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, Carlos Lozada, the nonfiction book critic for the Washington Post, deftly divides one hundred and fifty Trump-related nonfiction books published during the last four years into ten easy-to-digest categories. Within these categories, Lozada spends two hundred and fifty pages offering critiques of each book, deciding which ones readers should focus on and the ones they should skip with justifications included, while also tying all books of each section together through a discussion of the common theme of each category he's created, such as books dealing with immigration, 'The Heartland,' studies of authoritarianism and its relation to America, and others. The book is written in a mostly conversational-professorial tone, and readers will find that the pacing is perfect. If you’ve been looking for a guide to the many nonfiction books published during the last four years that deals with Trump, his policies, or the ramifications of either, I highly recommend this book.


Long review: During the past four years, one thing has remained constant in the literary world: books dealing either directly with Trump or the consequences of his policies and their aftereffects have been all the rage, with many of them, if not the majority, ending up either on or at the top of the New York Times Bestseller lists.


When one starts to think about the biggest and most influential volumes that have been published since 2016, the standard bearers have usually been Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, Fear by Bob Woodward, or one of the umpteen memoirs written by former Trump staffers, such as The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton or A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey. But, what about all the other books that have been published in the same time period and have not gotten as much attention, or what about books that dwell solely on the social and historical effects of Trump’s policies while mostly ignoring the man himself? In What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, the first book by the Washington Post nonfiction book critic Carlos Lozada, such a sentiment is explored, with Lozada acting as a kind of informal guide through around one hundred and fifty titles that have been published since 2016.


Instead of talking about each book individually, Lozada chooses to place them into one of ten categories, with each category focused around one central ‘theme’: studies of the Midwestern heartland and the people who live and dwell there; works that are defined as being ‘resistant’ to Trump or books from ‘The Resistance’; accounts written by GOP members that are either pro-Trump, against Trump, or try to understand where the party goes after him; history and social-based explorations of the southern border wall and immigration in general; books that focus on ‘truth’ and the lack thereof in the Time of Trump; works that are focused on ‘identity politics’ and everything that comes with that term; books that deal with the Me Too movement and related topics; books that Lozada calls ‘The Chaos Chronicles,’ otherwise defined as the types of books, like those written by Woodward and Wolff, that describe what happened during the Trump administration instead of describing the how or why behind it all; case studies in the Russia Investigation and books that deal with Trump’s business ties to Russia; and, finally, books that talk about how authoritarianism either could take hold in America with the way that things are starting to go with our society or how it has already been occurring for decades depending on the color of your skin.


While that might sound like a lot, don’t be intimidated by it—each chapter, with the focus of one theme per chapter, runs no longer than twenty or twenty-five pages, and Lozada’s writing is airy and intellectual at the same time. Most books that are discussed are explored for a few paragraphs at most, with Lozada searching for and critiquing or agreeing with their thesis. Some of the books, especially in longer chapters with heavier subjects like the one that deals with immigration-based books and memoirs, carry more weight to them—he explores the books in that section, for example, as more of a whole rather than book by book, with the overall theme of human loss and suffering being the binding thread that ties them all together.


Now, for a book that only runs for two hundred and fifty pages, one might think that the analysis between the covers is rather skimpy and short. While that technically isn’t wrong, Lozada writes with such clarity and force that long, winded paragraphs aren’t needed to uncover the main point behind the books themselves and whether or not they are either important, now or in the future, or ‘good’ in the sense of being entertaining. The common theme of ‘The Chaos Chronicles’ section, stated directly in the introductory section of the chapter is that, while they may be ‘entertaining’ in a conventional way, books that only detail the what of everything that’s happened in the Trump administration will be of no use in the future other than purely for the historical record. Lozada claims that, on the other hands, the books that will matter in the future, such as Elaine C. Kamarck’s 2016 book Why Presidents Fail: And How They Can Succeed Again, will endure the test of time because they not only recount what has happened since 2016 and the years just before, but how it came to be this way and what it means for the future, the consequences echoing out for decades to come.


Lozada, as one might expect, does not mince his words about what he thinks are good books worth your time and those that are purely fluff (he is not a fan of Fire and Fury and its sketchy journalistic standards), and he does make it clear, albeit between the lines, that he is not a fan of President Trump. In the section dealing with conservative-penned books, he eviscerates Newt Gingrich for becoming a sycophant, using a destructive force like Trumpism to personally profit off the chaos of recent times, and he chides people like Jeff Flake, writing that, while Flake’s 2017 memoir/conservative manifesto can claim on its surface to be a damning assessment of Trump’s early tenure, Flake doesn’t admit to having caused some of the conditions that led to Trump’s rise, chastising him for not being frank and upfront about what the GOP was like during the Obama years and how they ignored Trump’s birtherism conspiracy theories until it was too late.


In most political books, especially ones dealing with political criticism one way or the other, the author taking a side can dilute the entire message and power of the book. With this work, however, Lozada is able to rise above the fray for the most part by not judging the books according to their author’s political whims. He instead chooses to focus on their messages and themes, and such a goal allows him to disavow books like those published by Gingrich and Flake and not come off looking politically biased. This also means that, if a conservative-leaning and/or pro-Trump reader comes upon this book and is nervous about reading it, I would tell them to read it anyway—the literary analysis that Lozada has done of so many recent books is too valuable to miss, and it’s mostly nonpartisan in essence.

One thing this book is not is an in-depth literary critique of all one hundred and fifty books. As previously mentioned, Lozada is able to move from book to book at a rapid click, and the time spent with each tome might come off as surface to some readers, especially those versed in aiming a critical eye at nonfiction and those who came to this book looking for policy critiques of the president and his disciple’s books. But, to me at least, Lozada writes with just enough substance to make his points and get them across quickly, and his prose flows smoothly, with the time flying by as I read and absorbed the messages he was creating out of the themes from each category of books.


This is an important book, and I think it will be taught in classrooms in the future. If not for the content within, at least for the approach that Lozada takes to literary critique with his subdivision of different subjects and overarching themes. I now find myself musing on the various categories as I peruse the current events and history shelves of my local library, thinking in my head which category each newly added book would fit into, and, with that kind of lasting thought coming from Lozada’s work, I can say that he has accomplished exactly what he set out to do with this work: provide some sense of guardrails for understanding the chaos that these last four years has provided.


Rating: 4.5/5 Stars




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