If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved
The Electoral College victory of Donald Trump in the US Presidential election of 2016, and the openly dishonest, bungling, and criminal administration that’s ensued, has generated a raft of books about the end of the American experience, the end of human civilization, and/or the end of all sentient life in the Alpha Quadrant. Bolstered by the Age of Hyperbole echo chamber that is the state of our political discourse, these books tend to alternate between being deeply silly and being deeply stupid, sharing only in common being deeply unhelpful. While clamoring at top volume about lying, most of these books also lie, mainly by asserting that they are not about Trump at all but rather about deep political and sociological issues that have long been simmering in the authors’ minds and only just happened to break into print at a moment when a racist, sexist, fascist, lying moron occupied the White House.
Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky, in his new book If We Can Keep It, at least grudgingly admits that there’s more going on here than random timing. “There’s a level on which no political book released during his presidency isn’t about Trump,” he writes. “He makes this book’s topic, polarization, much worse than it would be without him because he is the first president since Andrew Johnson, and I’d say only the second of all time alongside Johnson, to so openly thrive on division.”
So If We Can Keep It doesn’t lie about being a Trump book. But it is nevertheless deeply silly, deeply stupid, and deeply unhelpful. It starts from a ridiculous premise - the Republic hasn’t collapsed - proceeds through a ridiculous set of mocked-up glimpses at various moments of American history - “It was a hideous year, 1973. The OPEC oil embargo of the United States over the latter’s military support for Israel stunned Americans. We’re the United States! How can we be pushed around by these autocratic men in their funny outfits? But push around they could” - and ends with a set of fairly common-sense ideas for Congressional reform ridiculously propped up as ways to “keep the republic” (so it’s not collapsed, then?).
As noted, Tomasky claims his book’s central subject is polarization, which is, he claims, “simply defined, political division along ideological, regional, or other pertinent fault lines - is our normal state.” This is not simply defined - this is wrongly defined. Even in less hysterical times, polarization meant more than simply division - it meant unbridgeable division, diametrical, unreachable opposition. Like the ends of a planet. Which are called poles.
Any hope that a book wrongly defining its own professed main subject might somehow stagger on to hit some thought-provoking points is dashed fairly early and keeps getting dashed throughout the book, which ranges from claims whose outlandishness is clearly designed to cover their absurdity, as when Tomasky summarizes the US Congress granting a fairly sweeping amnesty to illegal aliens in 1986: “Senate Republicans supported the bill 41-11, with House Republicans opposed it, 62-105 (although “Gingrich, Newt” voted yea!). Right there, in that 105 number, we see the seeds of what became by 2016 thousands of people chanting ‘Build the wall!’”
… to corrections and clarifications so anile and pointless that they cause not just distraction but irritated distraction:
A man named Frank McNamara is generally recognized as having launched the first credit card, Diners Club, in 1950. But it wasn’t really a credit card (the holder couldn’t carry over balances), and it wasn’t even plastic (cards were cardboard until the 1960s), and only a comparatively small number of businessmen had them.
The distinction between credit cards (balances) and charge cards (no balances) has long since blurred in common usage (and in any case both allow a person to buy something on credit), and … a card can’t be cardboard? The correction is important? Valentine’s Day cards aren’t cards unless they’re laminated?
Tomasky claims that “fate” directed that he write his book during the first year of Trump’s presidency, but this is not only a lie but an apparently required lie in books of this kind. Financial opportunism directed that this book be written during Trump’s presidency, and the dozens of such books that have appeared since 2016, proclaiming that everything is crashing to the ground in bloody shards, are ample proof not of the need for alarmist klaxons but of the value of striking while the iron is hot.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.