[I would like to continue our conversation from Monday, wherein you described your commitment to “older” political literature. Might it behoove you to, in greater detail, explain this recent interest of yours?]
Well, if I’m gonna clarify, then you’re gonna have to be more specific, too: what part of this project would you like me to address?
[In our previous discussion, you said that you did not, for the moment, wish to read any political literature written within the last ten years—meaning, from 2008 to the present day. This implies a fault or deficiency about “recent” literature, yes?]
First, we should define “political literature”. In this instance, we’re referring to books written about political issues. It does not necessarily refer to political tracts, like The Communist Manifesto, the modern counterpart to which I cannot name. In fact, it probably doesn’t refer to much specifically, at all: we might include a book like The Smartest Guys in the Room, even though the Enron scandal is not strictly or exclusively political.
[I see. Now, as for the rejection of all recent examples . . .]
I would not want to encourage people to be suspicious of everything that was written after 2008. Humanity did not reach some supernatural pass ten years ago, wherefrom no worthwhile literature was ever possible again. My concern is with the glut of political, sociological, and psychological literature that has been written in the years since Trump entered politics. If you visit a bookstore, a real, physical bookstore, you will find so many books written about the present political scene, many of them spanning more than five hundred pages. Here’s one about Trump’s ties to Russia, there’s one about corruption in the Democratic Party, over there is one about the historicity of left-wing fascism, and so on and so forth.
[Is this problematic?]
It raises questions about the origins of these many books. Let’s start with the book examining the president’s interests in Russia. Obviously, the author could not have commenced to work on that book before 2015, and probably no earlier than 2017. Unlike a work of fiction, which might have any number of intentions, this book is intended to inform, to provide us with hard knowledge that can be referenced years from now, even forever. Such a book requires a lot of research, surely, a lot of academic discipline that is, if nothing else, very time-consuming. And yet, this thick book, this multi-hundred-page book, was somehow assembled in less than three years?
[You’re implying that it would take at least three years to complete the research, never mind to put the final draft together.]
Precisely. There’s a question of integrity and a question of intent.
[And what is your conclusion?]
That the author hastily put the book together, with little attention to detail, with the sole purpose of publishing it as soon as possible, the better to capitalize on the active fervor surrounding Trump and Russia.
[The author, then, is exploiting our collective obsession under the guise of offering the calm voice of reason?]
Unfortunately, that is exactly what I fear.
[Would the same be true of Bob Woodward? He wrote a number of books about George W. Bush while the latter was still in office.]
I don’t know. I don’t really know anything about Bob Woodward, but as I said, the problem is not exclusive to literature written after a specific date.
[But you are especially skeptical of recent literature. Nobody would argue that Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 was perfectly objective, and yet, you claim that reading this book helped you to better understand the present political culture.]
My skepticism is based on proximity, on the proximity of the author to the present culture. I don’t think it’s very ambitious of me to say that we are living in a most hysterical age, in a hostile climate defined by rhetoric that is not only intense, but truly unleashed. I sincerely doubt that very many of us are capable of writing objectively about the present state of American politics. There is this kind of psychic pull to activism, a compulsion to emotion, rather than to thought. We are told that we are living in political end times, that we absolutely must do such-and-such at once, as the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. Accordingly, I question how many of us really have the ability, how many of us possess the discipline required, to take a step back and think about this.
[And the authors of current political texts, while presented as enlightened, measured intellectuals, are often just as vulnerable to this mania as anybody else?]
That’s right. We must always question these writers’ agendas and ask what inspired them to write this book now.
[The obvious problem, then, is proving your own stability as a political writer. How do we know that you aren’t just as wayward as a disheveled host on Fox News?]
In our first conversation, I touched on my past failed attempts to write, and I wrote very poorly in the first year of Trump. I wanted to write in a hard, confrontational, unreasonable manner. I wanted to write polemics, which are all anybody seems to be interested in today.
[You believe that most people want to write as agitators?]
Well, I think we’ve all become a little impatient, impatient with the rigidities and mendacities of politics. We want to disregard all of the baloney and get to the point, which is to say: we want to get to the truth. That is honorable and understandable enough, but it lends itself, all too frequently, to a blinded zeal, one which does not always destroy more than it seeks to mend, but which causes way too much damage, all the same. Now, this phenomenon didn’t start with Trump, and it would be remiss to blame him for it: this tendency to chaos, maladaptive politically, is probably the same that fuels so much rewarding artistic energy. Think about Eminem, who founded an entire career for himself by refusing to yield to the double standards of decorum.
[Are we learning that Eminem, while a provocative artist, is probably unfit to be the President of the United States?]
Not by a long shot. Much of the country is indefatigably supportive of Trump, and an increasingly large number of leftists are intrigued by the possibility of nominating an abrasive candidate of their own, a juvenile bully such as Michael Avenatti. Aggression might not beget aggression, but it does engender further animosity, and someone will always be willing to answer the call for brutality. I tried to answer such a call myself, writing a series of articles that I believed to be uncompromising and authentic, but which were only disrespectful and shallow. I didn’t have any desire to give my opponents, whoever they were, the benefit of the doubt, and so, I rushed into my essays like a bull in a china shop, smashing every possible counterargument with brute force, which I had convinced myself was unstoppable strength. You might describe it as a power trip, or something.
[Illusory power, too: do you think anybody even read your writing?]
A couple of people did, but it never generated any serious attention. It shouldn’t have, either: there was no substance to my writing, no credibility to distinguish it from any of the innumerable hollow op-eds you can find in countless other settings. I really was no better than Laura Ingraham, even as I saw myself becoming the next Nietzsche.
[You do realize that, by admitting such a thing, you will be forever disreputable to so many people?]
I do, but I’m just so sick of deceiving myself about who I really am, and who I really was. Part of the problem with commentary is that you, as the writer, are never allowed to fail. You have to have this superhuman intellect, this infallible intelligence that refuses to yield, even when it is painfully obvious that you are wrong. Isn’t it ironic: perfectionism reached its apex with Trump.
[Another reason why you would be suspicious of political literature written in his wake. Let’s get back to your commitment to reading only older political writing. I understand why you would want to distance yourself from the modern, but what makes the books of yesteryear any more reliable? How do you know that those weren’t written in a state of mania, as well?]
Should I make a joke about Hunter S. Thompson’s drug use? But, seriously: the problem is one of proximity, recall. I believe that only the strongest people are capable of assessing the present political climate without succumbing to its temptations to truculence. Accordingly, only the finest modern political literature will be of use to us in understanding present politics. However, there was a very different process at work when I read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72: I found myself learning about the political culture of the early 1970s less than the political culture of today. I seldom asked, “What does the book say about 1972?” but much more often, “What does this say about 2018?”
[I wasn’t questioning the efficacy of your approach. I was questioning the problem of integrity, an issue which you have not addressed insofar as it pertains to the literature of the past.]
I’m not sure I follow.
[You complained, probably rightly, that modern political literature is sloppy and rushed, but you have not explained whether this is true of older political literature, as well. For instance, Campaign Trail was written almost entirely “in the moment”, “in real time”, so while it might not have been written in the state of panic that defines our present political culture, it’s awfully hard to argue that it was composed only after studious academic research.]
True, but it also had a very different intent. Campaign Trail was meant to document precisely that: the political goings-on as they came to be, while they came to be. The Trump book, on the other hand, is presented as an objective, disinterested, fact-based account, one which could, presumably, be cited in more scholarly writings. Considering this higher intention, the question of “the state of panic” is raised, and, under the circumstances, doubt is cast on the book itself.
[Is this to say that, twenty or thirty years from now, this “Trump book” could have the same value as Campaign Trail?]
That’s a good question, and one wherewith I’ve wrestled in conversation often. However, it is very poorly constructed.
[Can you elaborate?]
Yes, I was going to.
Oh, it’s cool. The problem with this question is that it equates Campaign Trail with “the Trump book”.
[Pause for a moment: I’ve grown quite fatigued, referring to the latter as something other than its name. Could you please tell me the title of this book?]
Which one? There are so many to choose from. House of Trump, House of Putin; Trump/Russia: A Definitive History; Russian Roulette; The Plot to Destroy Democracy . . .
[I see your point about the problem of integrity. It would have to be an astounding coincidence, so many books about the same exact topic being written at almost the same exact time, unless profit were the primary incentive. Let’s go with Russian Roulette, if for no other reason than because it has “Russian” in the title.]
All righty, then. Now, your question as to whether Russian Roulette will someday obtain “the same value” as Campaign Trail implies that the latter acquired value only in time, that it is redeemed or justified because of its historical value. I never said that. On the contrary, Campaign Trail is a very engaging and rather insightful book, regardless of one’s political convictions, and while it was not written only after extensive scholarly research, it also never required such an undertaking, because its intention wasn’t scholarly. Russian Roulette, with its promise to provide a strictly factual and high-minded account, obviously has different ambitions, and it must be judged accordingly.
[In other words, the historical value of Campaign Trail is in addition to its other merits, whereas Russian Roulette will be meritless until, and unless, it acquires historical value, a value which will, presumably, be much slighter than that of Campaign Trail.]
Now you’re getting it. And one of the key differences between the two is that Russian Roulette is marketed as a highbrow, informative work, whereas Campaign Trail, and the rest of Thompson’s work, have always been seen as oddities, more or less, appealing to a decidedly unusual crowd. It is pleasantly surprising, then, when Campaign Trail turns out to be a thoughtful little book . . . and it is as disheartening as it is disturbing when Russian Roulette turns out not only to be thoughtless, but to be most certainly lowbrow, as well.
[Disturbing, is it?]
Oh, it’s very disturbing. It’s enough to agitate the sleep, to repurpose an old statement of Freud’s. It’s one thing when the cockeyed bum at the bar says something absurdly false, but quite another thing when the man who is paid millions of dollars to broadcast “the truth” on the nightly news is exposed as a charlatan, as an imbecile who doesn’t know the first thing about . . . whatever it is he happens to be talking about.
[You’re referring to the distinction of authority—intellectual authority, in this case. There is a kind of trust invested in the authority, and when that authority betrays our trust . . . well, you know the rest.]
Do you suspect we’re giving up on that distinction, losing it, in the age of Trump? Could it be that, with a parvenu for president, and the world, whatever its specific condition may be, still standing intact, we are more seriously doubting the validity of that distinction? Does Trump stand as proof that, although that distinction might be preferable, it is not invariably necessary?
[Hmm. A most unsettling proposition, that. The question of our diminishing standards, the matter of the vulgarization of man, has been of interest to philosophers for years. Nietzsche wrote about it, and he never saw any national leaders quite like Trump.]
Do you know that for certain? How much political literature contemporary to Nietzsche, how much nineteenth-century European history, have you been reading as of late? How well do you know all you discuss?
[Your summer of older political literature has taught you there are many more charlatans, many more undeserved intellectual authorities, than you were comfortable in believing before.]
[And while that is, in many ways, liberating and rewarding, it is also, in several other ways, a kind of nightmare, a kind of heartbreak.]
Oh, that is right. Oh, that is so, so very right.
[Well, that’s probably enough for today. We’ll pick up when we have more to discuss.]