The Immoral Majority, Jesus and John Wayne, The Power Worshippers, and Unholy

By Ben Howe

By Kristin Kobes Du Mez

By Katherine Stewart

By Sarah Posner

There were many things that were incongruous about Donald Trump being elected president of the United States in 2016. For starters: how did such a figure become a champion of the political Right? He had been a Democrat in the past, and was considered to be a liberal (in the American sense) on many cultural issues, like abortion. He was opposed to neocon foreign policy, one of the few areas where he seemed to have any interest in policy at all, and seemed indifferent to neoliberal economics beyond anything that would be to his immediate personal benefit. A notorious scofflaw, by the time of the January 6 insurrection and his second impeachment he’d made a mockery of standing for law and order. As far as “family values” went, that was only a punchline to a joke in very bad taste.

But perhaps the greatest incongruity of all was the rock-ribbed support for him among evangelical Christians, some 80% of whom voted for Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. The religious Right rallied behind a figure who was, “of course,” as Katherine Stewart drily notes, “the man who by all accounts has the least claim of any public figure in recent memory to those virtues that are commonly identified as ‘Christian’”. As Ben Howe puts it, this was a “story of the evangelical movement embracing someone who was not in it or of it, who was not like it and did not like it, and who represented culturally and morally all that it opposed.” So how was this justified, and why did it happen?

Howe, himself an evangelical of the Never Trump variety, breaks the first question down into what he sees as the three rationalizations evangelicals employed to justify their support for what he dubs “the new good news.” First there was “vessel theology”: the idea that it was not for Christian voters to judge the means God had decided to use to achieve his (God’s) ends. The second rationalization was compartmentalization: Trump wasn’t being elected to be a good shepherd to the soul of the nation, but to kick ass, both foreign and domestic. In other words, there is no spiritual dimension to political decisions but a complete separation of church and state. Finally, if these have failed to move you, there is the lesser-of-two-evils rationalization. Sure Trump was a moral degenerate, but what about Hillary or any of the Democrats? Aren’t they the ones holding Satanic black masses where babies are sacrificed to alien pedophile rings?

The second question, of why evangelicals so enthusiastically went for Trump is, like many “why?” questions, harder to answer. Motivation is always tricky ground to enter into, especially when analysing what appears to be perverse behaviour. That said, in supporting Trump, Howe charges that evangelicals have done irreparable damage to their brand, which means you do have to ask why they did it.

Howe settles on “a simple answer: selfishness.” Unpacking this, what I think his analysis illustrates more broadly is the way evangelicals became hooked on the drug of rage that Trump embodied so absolutely. Trump was the evangelist of a pervasive culture of resentment and “the new era of anger.” Indeed he was resentment and anger incarnate, and for a group that saw itself as sick of losing his was a gospel of endless winning, whatever that might mean. Instead of standing as a rejection of evangelical values he was the demon that the movement summoned forth. The two then became joined at the hip, feeding off each other in a perverse symbiosis. As Sarah Posner reports, “The [religious right] movement desperately needed a savior; Trump was eager to oblige because of his bottomless need for a worshipful retinue. Trump and the religious right, then, are each essential to the other’s success.” And not just success – which can be defined for Trump as staying out of jail and, more ambitiously, for the Christian right as “flipping the script on civil rights, casting conservative Christians as the real victims of prejudice and discrimination, undermining the separation of church and state, and implementing a totalizing legal structure of ‘biblical’ law” – but, finally, essential to their mutual survival.

I began by talking about Trump as an incongruous figure, but this is only one way of looking at him. For other observers he stands more as the terminal point in a long regression. In Jesus and John Wayne Kristin Lobes Du Mez makes the case:

How could the “family values” conservatives support a man who flouted every value they insisted they held dear? How could the self-professed “Moral Majority” embrace a candidate who reveled in vulgarity? How could evangelicals who’d turned “WWJD” (“What Would Jesus Do?”) into a national phenomenon justify their support for a man who seemed the very antithesis of the savior they claimed to emulate?

Pundits scrambled to explain. Evangelicals were holding their noses, choosing the lesser of two evils – and Hillary Clinton was the greatest evil. Evangelicals were thinking in purely transactional terms, as Trump himself is often said to do, voting for Trump because he promised to deliver Supreme Court appointments that would protect the unborn and secure their own “religious liberty.” Or maybe the polls were misleading. By confusing “evangelicals-in-name-only” with good, church-attending, Bible-believing Christians, sloppy pollsters were giving evangelicalism a bad rap.

But evangelical support for Trump was no aberration, nor was it merely a pragmatic choice. It was, rather, the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad. By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates “the least of these” for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means. Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.

In other words, family values had not been rejected so much as redefined in a reactionary way, being all about patriarchal family structures headed by a heroically masculine father figure lording over a sweetly submissive domestic helpmeet. “Evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values. Donald Trump was the culmination of their half-century-long pursuit of a militant Christian masculinity.”

This point is one that’s often been addressed by political commentators trying to judge how much the rise of Trump marked a break with conservative orthodoxy and the Republican establishment and how much it showed continuity with an established historical arc. Was Trump’s election an aberration, or the dark harvest of seeds sown long ago? Looking back over a century at the fashioning of a masculine, militaristic Christian hero in American pop culture, Du Mez argues for continuity. Evangelicals didn’t just support Trump; in a very real sense they made him. Or to return to the image I used earlier, he was the demon they summoned and then embraced.

Part of the difficulty when discussing these matters lies in defining what it is conservatives and evangelicals believe. What are their core principles and values? Keeping in mind that political and religious creeds evolve, sometimes quite rapidly, I would say that conservatism today is basically neoliberal in its ideology, meaning that it’s opposed to government having any function at all aside from protecting private property. So basically just opposition to taxes and government regulation. Squaring that with a Christian message isn’t easy, but is nevertheless essential as that has become the political freight the religious Right has to carry.

Evangelicalism, however, is a more slippery term. Part of what makes it slippery is that it has become detached from any theological content. “In truth,” Posner writes, “what it means to be an evangelical has always depended on the world beyond the faith.” As critics, even within the evangelical movement, have complained, many people now consider themselves evangelical only because “they watch Fox News, consider themselves religious, and vote Republican.” Indeed, “among evangelicals, high levels of theological illiteracy mean that many ‘evangelicals’ hold views traditionally defined as heresy, calling into question the centrality of theology to evangelicalism generally.”

I talked about how political and religious labels like conservative and evangelical have begun to lose their meaning, but if we take a step back we can say that even categories like politics and religion have been tossed into the hopper. The lines between church and state have obviously blurred any clear or meaningful demarcation. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, politics is our new religion, and so is our religion. But there can be no mistaking which is the junior partner in this alliance of church and state. Politics, specifically Republican politics, hasn’t just infected American religion but taken it over. And, like Trump’s refashioning of the Republican party, the takeover has been hostile. Religious extremism has gone mainstream with an extreme political agenda that Katherine Stewart in The Power Worshippers sees as antithetical to the entire American political tradition.

The agenda being set isn’t about values but power. As always, one has to ignore the rhetoric, the words, and see what’s actually being done. Or, taking another route, we should follow the money. “The religious right is not a single organization,” Stewart writes, “and yet it is surprisingly well organized in a certain sense. It may be perceived as a grassroots movement, not answering in a formal way to a command-and-control hierarchy. But it is the big-picture strategists who are, to a largely underappreciated degree, acting as its architects and engineers.” What this means in effect is that “the Bible of Christian nationalism answers to the requirements of the individuals who fund the movement and grant it power at the highest levels of government.” Schematically, the movement serves “the emotional needs of its adherents, the organizational needs of its clerical leaders, and the political needs and ambitions of its funders.”

For a specific example of how this works, Stewart looks at how Russia is used as a model (a shining city on a hill, if you like) for American Christian nationalists. Now the way the American Right has drawn closer to Russia is a point I’ve made before. After the fall of the Soviet Union, American “conservatives” saw Russia no longer as an evil empire but an exemplar, a textbook case of oligarchic takeover, single-party rule, and media control. As part of this process Russia’s ruling elite wrapped themselves in Orthodox vestments, despite Russia actually being one of the east religious nations on earth. This would dovetail perfectly with the use of religion by the American Right. Stewart is worth quoting here at length:

The Christian nationalists’ affection for Mr. Putin and all things Russian goes much deeper than a tactical alliance aimed at saving souls and defeating “homosexuals” and “gender ideology.” At the core of the attraction lies a shared political vision. America’s Christian nationalists have not overlooked Putin’s authoritarian style of government; they have embraced it as an ideal. During the 2016 presidential campaign Mike Pence hailed Mr. Putin as “a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” The Christian nationalist hasn’t shied away from the fusion of church and state that characterizes Putin’s regime. On the contrary, it appears they want to emulate it. They love Russia, it seems, because they hate America and its form of secular, constitutional democracy.

When Russians undertook a direct attack on American democracy in 2016 with the clear aims of electing Donald Trump as president and undermining Americans’ trust in their system of government, Christian nationalist leaders did more than join Trump in the spurious cries of “No collusion.” They joined him in denying that there ever was as an attack. They cheered him on as he obstructed efforts to investigate the attack. And then they joined hi attacking Democrats, the FBI, the “fake media,” the “deep state,” and everyone else who suggested that investigating and countering an attack on American was a good idea.

It seems sadly fitting that so many of the self-anointed patriots of America’s Christian nationalist movement should have found themselves working with foreign powers intent on undermining our national security, our social fabric, the integrity of our elections, and the future of American democracy. This is a movement that never accepted the promise of America. It never believed that a republic could be founded on a universal ideal of equality, not on a particular creed, or that it might seek out reasoned answers to humanity’s challenges rather than enforce old dogmas. It never subscribed to the nation’s original motto, E Pluribus Unum, that out of many, we could become one. From the beginning, its aim was to redeem the nation by crushing the pluralistic heart of our country. The day when it will have the power to do so is fast approaching.

The cynicism is jaw-dropping. America must be destroyed in order to be “saved.” The foot soldiers of the authoritarian movement will be Christians marching onward to a New Jerusalem, or Moscow, untainted by democracy and the rule of law.

Meanwhile, Trump was only a golden calf for the funders of the movement to present to the people, a false god who would liberate his followers from the rigorous yoke and doctrinal messiness of values and moral law and allow them to freely hate whoever they wanted. Religion, as Posner writes, “is just a cover for the endgame,” which is not the Second Coming or Rapture but the worldwide dismantling of democratic institutions, human rights, and humanitarianism (in their eyes, the latter word being now “not an accolade but an epithet”).

That all of this makes a mockery of Christian teaching, indeed inverts it entirely by turning love to hate, is, in the final analysis, beside the point. Trump has never had any interest in religion of any type, presumably seeing it as being for suckers. His followers have, thus far, only proven him right.

Review first published online March 22, 2023.


The Passenger and Stella Maris

By Cormac McCarthy
By Cormac McCarthy

The publication of Stella Maris only a month after The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy’s first novel since The Road in 2006, is just one of the odd things about this literary double album.

As albums go, what’s on offer is part new material and part greatest hits. In The Passenger we’re introduced to Bobby Western, a salvage diver operating out of New Orleans. It’s the year 1980 and things kick off with Bobby investigating the mysterious wreck of a plane submerged in the Gulf of Mexico. Mysterious because there seems to be a passenger missing from the sealed fuselage.

As any McCarthy hero could tell you, the world is no place for men who aren’t paranoid, which is a point that an amateur JFK assassination expert will later explain to Bobby. This is after some sinister suits (Feds, or maybe gangsters) visit Bobby and he has to go on the run, living off the grid and eating roadkill.

Chapters dealing with this main storyline alternate with the schizophrenic hallucinations of Bobby’s genius sister Alicia (their father worked on the Manhattan Project, which becomes a sort of intellectual original sin). It turns out Alicia committed suicide some years earlier and that the siblings were in love with each other in a quietly creepy way. Bobby then starts to go a bit crazy himself before winding up living in a windmill in Ibiza.

That’s it for plot. The business with the plane is a MacGuffin, an excuse to present a scrapbook of McCarthy’s folksy, faux-Biblical philosophizin’ about love and death and fate. Or, as Stella Maris sells it, God and truth and existence. The characters all sound pretty much the same, saying things like “All you can believe is what is. Unless you’d prefer to believe what aint.” Bobby’s story is that of the “last of all men who stands alone in the universe while it darkens about him. Who sorrows all things with a single sorrow.” This sounds bleak, but there’s always some worse revelation coming, as “Grief is the stuff of life”:

The world’s truth constitutes a vision so terrifying as to beggar the prophecies of the bleakest seer who ever walked it. Once you accept that then the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void becomes not a prophecy but a promise.

Some readers will find this pretentious to the point of hilarity, but fans of McCarthy will eat it up. And to give the master his due, he’s very good at it. Weaving together rhythmically spare but ornately dictioned descriptions of life in survival mode gives his writing a texture that’s as much a signature as his apocalyptic visions of a universe collapsing into moral and informational entropy.

Stella Maris is the name of the sanitarium Alicia checks herself into, and the novel of the same name — which is marketed as a coda to The Passenger though it’s really a sort of prequel — takes the form of what amounts to transcripts of discussions between Alicia and one of the resident psychiatrists. Transitioning from one book to the other we move from the mechanics of oil rigs and vintage roadsters rendered in prose that reads like a handbook of some blue-collar, masculine user’s code, to the rarefied world of quantum mechanics and the philosophy of mind.

Stella Maris is certainly a more open-ended book, and it’s an openness that casts a shadow back onto The Passenger. Alicia thinks Bobby is brain-dead after being in a car accident, and we’re left to wonder if maybe he really has passed on to some twilight quantum phase of being, and that The Passenger was just the dream of a dead or dying man. Or perhaps the first book was all one of Alicia’s hallucinations, or the creation of a dismal end-times deity she dubs the Archatron.

There are few writers as skillful at carrying long stretches of a novel with nothing but dialogue, but even given McCarthy’s ability in this regard Stella Maris gets to be a bit much. What it sounds like is the 89-year-old McCarthy talking to himself, musing aloud on various big subjects and not coming up with much except that darkness is falling on the West, the human race, and the universe.

That said, McCarthy’s bleak vision is tragic but not depressing, as it’s driven by an ambitious sense of experimentation and engagement with the American literary tradition that few writers today would dare, much less be capable of. And if it’s to be his final chapter it’s fitting he avoids signing off on a climactic note, preferring to watch the sun go down in style.

Review first published in the Toronto Star, December 2 2022.

Lessons in Stoicism

Lessons in Stoicism
John Sellars

Stoicism has always had a broad popularity, both for being grounded in an ethics of self-help and personal improvement and for its simple, direct statements of how to go about being a better person. It’s a practical and universal philosophy that also gets points for its tough-minded manliness.

My own feeling is that it’s based on a number of principles that sound good at first blush but don’t stand up to close examination. What does it mean to live one’s life in accordance with nature? How can we evaluate if we’ve done our best, or all that we could have done, in any past situation? What if one’s duty to one’s self is in conflict with a social duty? Is everything (anything?) in our life either under our control or incidental? To what extent are reason and emotion separable?

John Sellars has written a quick introduction to questions like these but doesn’t clear any of them up. But I don’t think they can be. This isn’t to say Stoic philosophy is without value. It can provide comfort and be the basis for a constructive kind of personal therapy. It might even change your life. But you have to go into it aware of its limitations.

The Dawn Watch

By Maya Jasanoff

The title of Maya Jasanoff’s book has to be unpacked. The significance of the dawn watch has to do, I think, with her theory about how time is experienced differently on board a ship, which in turn relates to Joseph Conrad’s shuffling of narrative time. It probably also has some connection to Conrad’s career both as a seaman and a writer, standing both at the end of something (the realist novel, the age of sail) and what was coming (modernism and steam). As for the global world, that’s certainly part of the texture of the book’s ground, but while Jasanoff expertly blends history, geography, literature, and biography, “globalization” isn’t a real theme. Conrad was interested in the sinews of trade, at least on the level of moral allegory, and painted on a broad canvas, but he didn’t have a very deep or original take on the sort of thing we talk about when we talk about globalization today.

That out of the way, this is a bracing read that covers a lot of ground with clarity and insight. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Conrad led such an interesting life, at least before settling down to the life of a conservative literary gentleman and the writing of dreary melodramas. It also allows Jasanoff various entry points to discuss the history of economic colonialism during this period. Particularly impressive is the way she interweaves the story of Panamanian independence with the plot of Nostromo.

What depressed me, however, is the fact that Jasanoff is a historian and not an English professor. Of course the disciplines merge in a lot of ways, and in her Acknowledgments she mentions how a book on Conrad and his times is “a quintessential History and Literature topic,” but the fact that it’s academics from other fields who are doing so much of this work instead of literary scholars is something that has been bothering me for going on twenty years. Why is it that a book like this can only be written now by someone other than a literary critic? I’m sure it has something to do with the way English programs have drifted away from textual criticism and the study of sources in order to focus more on theory and political posturing, but it’s truly remarkably how completely the field has been abandoned. I think the academy just doesn’t value this kind of work anymore. Try and find a book like this today, directed at a general audience, written by an English professor. Yes, I know there are some, but very few, and even fewer that address contemporary writing. Truly this is a discipline that has lost its way.

Review first published online February 22, 2023.


Dan Jones

Every history of the Crusading era that I’m familiar with has spent a lot of time addressing the question of the crusaders’ motivation. The usual explanation for why the nobility of Western Europe invaded the Holy Land is the same as that traditionally given for the conquest of the Americas: faith and gold.

I don’t think it’s because we live in an especially cynical age that today we tend to emphasize the latter. Even at the time, crusaders were being called out for their shabby materialism. Dan Jones takes as his epigraph for this highly readable new history a quote from Adam of Bremen (ca. 1076): “In those days, men cared as much for furs as they did for their immortal souls.”

It’s a leitmotif sounded throughout. A later chapter heading will quote the 1108 Magdeburg Letter’s call for Christians to go on holy war “so save your souls and, if you wish it, acquire the best land in which to live.” “These were not wars of religion,” Jones kicks things off by telling us, “indeed, religion was often very plainly secondary to commercial and geopolitical considerations. But they were wars between religious men . . .” I don’t know what to make of that qualification. What of it? Everyone was “religious” in the middle ages.

Gradually, and I guess predictably, what began as a Christian mission became a business and then turned into a racket. It’s only in a footnote that Jones lets us know about how the innovation in Innocent III’s bull Quia Major (1213) allowed financial donations to bestow the spiritual benefits of actually going on crusade. It’s a parlour game as to when the Crusades finally ended, but by that point (at least) it’s clear they were dead.

Personality and Power

By Ian Kershaw

The role of the individual in history is a timeless debating topic precisely because it can never be definitively answered. The flag-bearers for the two opposing sides are usually taken as Thomas Carlyle for the “great man” theory of history and Leo Tolstoy for the importance of fate and larger historical forces. But while “the question has lain close to the centre of historical enquiry ever since the study of history became a professional discipline in the nineteenth century,” Ian Kershaw says that it has mainly been addressed as “a theoretical issue . . . seldom confronted directly and empirically.”

You might think that this is what Kershaw is going to do then in Personality and Power, but it’s a task he’s both well-equipped and temperamentally unsuited for. Kershaw is a dry and painstaking historian, with a prose so geared toward qualification and half-statement that it’s hard to think of him confronting any question directly. In the sentence I just quoted from earlier, for example, I left out how the question of the “individual’s impact on historical change” has only “indirectly . . . lain close to the centre of historical enquiry.” Why “indirectly” when the statement that it only lays “close to the centre” is already vague enough?

This may seem like academic hair-splitting, but Kershaw is always engaged in this kind of rhetoric of half-statement, taking two steps forward and then sometimes two or more steps back. Was Mussolini involved in the assassination of the Socialist leader Matteotti? “Almost certainly he was at least indirectly implicated.” I don’t think you can be less conclusive in only eight words.

So if you’re looking for a direct and empirical answer to the question Personality and Power poses you may be disappointed by some flabby answers. “Without [Lenin] the twentieth century would have been different, if in ways we can only dimly imagine.” Well, sure. Hitler’s “colossal impact on European history during his era was second to none.” OK.

As for the role of the individual vs. historical forces, “Given a unique context that offered the necessary structural conditions, Stalin provides a self-evident case of the importance of the individual in history.” So which is it? The unique context and structural conditions, or the individual? Nothing seems self-evident about this. As for Mussolini, little of his route to power was under his “personal control.” There was “nothing inevitable” about his takeover, because without “the prevailing social, economic, and political preconditions his dictatorship would not have been possible.” I can’t get my head around this. If he was swept to power by the prevailing winds, with little under his control, doesn’t that make his takeover seem more, not less inevitable? Or here Kershaw is on De Gaulle and decolonization: “His achievement should not be exaggerated. The global pressure for decolonization was so strong that it would have happened anyway, whatever the character of the French government. Still, without de Gaulle’s leadership it could well have been a far more thorny path.” Could have. I suppose.

That said, I did find the discussion in Personality and Power to be mostly on point, insightful, and of real value in addressing the central question. The broad conclusions that Kershaw draws probably won’t surprise anyone, basically being elaborations on Marx’s dictum that individuals make history under existing circumstances, but he places them in a context that provides an appropriate historical scaffolding.

That scaffolding also encourages the reader to draw some of their own conclusions, or at least entertain further speculations. I found myself thinking back to an idea Bob Woodward put forward in his book Shadow about how post-Watergate American presidents were consumed by the “myth of the big-time president” and the need to prove themselves through leading the state through some dramatic crisis. And by dramatic crisis what they meant was a global war. One gets the same sense in this book of a number of oversize, big-time national leaders in the first half of the twentieth century followed by a bunch of bureaucrats of lesser stature. It’s a process that even got going before the Second World War though, as Kershaw notes in his introduction to Francisco Franco: “It is, of course, obvious that Franco’s wider impact scarcely compares with that of Hitler and Mussolini, or Lenin and Stalin. He presents a case study in the role and impact of the individual in history at the lower end of the scale.” Because Spain was too weak to get involved in the war (on Franco’s preferred side, anyway) and so sat on the sidelines of history.

Another point that I wondered about was the inverse relation between the immediate, dramatic impact made by revolutionary leaders and how lasting that impact was. The more radical, individually-directed historical changes tended to be the ones that didn’t last. History has a way of ironing out the bumps of oversized personalities. This doesn’t mean that such leaders didn’t “make” history, only that their window for making it was necessarily limited to their own lifetimes. Of course figures like Lenin and Hitler caused incalculable damage, but it’s hard to think of their legacies as anything other than something that had to be, with difficulty, overcome. Meanwhile, a genuine strongman like Josip Broz Tito could only influence his own part of Europe, with a legacy that disappeared on his death because Yugoslavia, like Spain, couldn’t make or break Europe on its own.

Kershaw insists this is not a series of pocket bios but I suspect that’s what most people will be reading it for. The larger question he sets out with, however, is broadly entertained. I thought the importance of luck – a determinative force in history that can’t really be analyzed but which can be of enormous importance – might have been addressed a little more. Also, in the back half of the book there were some figures I wasn’t sure belonged, like Helmut Kohl. And I was puzzled as to why Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was not only left out but not so much as mentioned anywhere. I realize the question of whether or to what extent Turkey should be considered part of Europe can be complicated, but I still thought his story very much belonged here.

Great men (and one woman, Margaret Thatcher), or broader historical forces? Obviously history is the product of both. A book like this lets us consider the question a little deeper though, and do some of the historical math.

Review first published online February 8, 2023.

Russia: Revolution and Civil War

Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917 – 1921
Antony Beevor

Instead of revisiting more familiar battlefields, in his new book Antony Beevor looks at one of the most important, destructive, and least well known conflicts of the twentieth century, the Russian Civil War. Often seen in the West as just a coda to the First World War, the fighting in Russia drew in armies from all over the world (including Canada) to finally settle the outcome of the Russian Revolution.

The action is very hard to keep straight, with numerous armies led by an odd assortment of generals moving about a vast landscape. This confusion, in turn, was one of the main reasons the Bolsheviks emerged triumphant, as the motley alliance against them had trouble pulling in the same direction. Beevor does a great job though using biographical sketchwork and telling anecdotes to pull things into a coherent narrative that makes sense of the brutal and chaotic origins of Russia’s great tragedy.

Lifesavers and Body Snatchers

Lifesavers and Body Snatchers: Medical Care and the Struggle for Survival in the Great War
Tim Cook

Given the number of books already published on the First World War, especially after its various centenaries were commemorated from 2014 to 2018, you might figure that there wasn’t much more to say. In particular, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tim Cook, who has already written so extensively on the subject, would have much to add about the Canadian experience.

Remarkably, with Lifesavers and Body Snatchers he has.

In this book the focus is on the Canadian Medical Corps, which provides a different perspective on the sorts of damage done, the fallout from bullets and gas, artillery and shell shock. But the background is also well developed, and especially the often bitter political infighting.

Cook has an unrivaled mastery of the archival sources and reveals here for the first time the program of harvesting body parts from fallen soldiers for medical study, without the knowledge or consent of the soldiers and their loved ones. “This was not grave robbing in the deep of night, but an open act of forcing dead soldiers to once again serve their country: having fallen in combat they were now to contribute to victories in future medical battles.”

The King Is Dead

The King Is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII
Suzannah Lipscomb

Suzannah Lipscomb’s little book doesn’t aim to be much more than a footnote in the family history of the despicable Tudors, but it’s still a treat. Among historians there’s long been a suspicion that the will of Henry VIII was tampered with in some way, but Lipscomb looks at the evidence and sees no grounds for believing in a conspiracy. In the family power politics of the time it was pretty clear even to court observers at the time that the Seymours were going to be in and the Howards out after Henry died.

Nor was it all that surprising where Henry’s succession plans went awry. Could anything have been more predictable than Edward Seymour attempting to take over as Lord Protector and set himself up as de facto king? Given the nature of politics in the sixteenth century I don’t think it likely that conciliar rule was going to work.

Did Henry think it would? Power does that to people. “What is most striking,” Lipscomb concludes, “is the disjunction between [Henry’s] professed belief that he would be obeyed and loved – that even after death, he would leave a forceful imprint on his closest companions – and the reality that they so quickly, and thoroughly, shrugged him off.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the will became wastepaper though. It was invoked successfully by Mary against Lady Jane Grey, and the only reason the Stuarts eventually came to power was because of the surprising barrenness of Henry’s direct line. Instead, like all such attempts to map the future – think of the money laid aside for prayers to be said for Henry’s soul, or modern naming rights to sports stadiums – it had a diminishing shelf life.

The Storm Is Upon Us

By Mike Rothschild

There’s a school of thought, and it’s one I’m inclined to ally with, that has it that the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016 was the result of a publicity stunt or exercise in branding that slipped the guardrails of democracy. If so, it may share something with the phenomenon of QAnon. While there are a few prime suspects, it’s still not known for sure who got the QAnon ball rolling, but more to the point it’s not clear what their aim was. Perhaps, in an attention economy, it was just a way of catching eyeballs and getting clicks. But whatever its initial purpose, even before the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021, it was clear that things had gotten well out of hand.

In both cases – Trump and QAnon – the tinder had been prepared in advance and was only now, to borrow the analogy of Evan Osnos in Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, being lit. The question then becomes just why so many people adopted such a crazy belief system, one that had at its heart the idea that “deep state” elites were running a pedophile sex ring and that Donald Trump was the only one capable of having the guilty parties apprehended (and summarily executed). Rothschild has an answer for that, and I think it makes sense:

This is ultimately what brings people to Q, and what keeps them there. The promise of bad people being punished is one element of it, but the feeling of being part of something important and powerful is vastly underestimated. Q believers see themselves as soldiers fighting for the ultimate cause – and are surrounded by people who validate them, rather than insult them. Yes, Q makes mistakes and gets things wrong, and posts on a message board full of the worst people saying the worst things. But that can be explained away, or written off as just another attack by the enemy. What’s real, what’s tangible to Q believers is how it makes them feel. What questions it answers. What holes it fills that other aspects of life don’t. For some, it’s as compartmentalized as that – good feelings shared with a community about something awesome that will happen to people they hate.

In other words, QAnon is a sort of religion. Rothschild spends a fair bit of time discussing its cult-like attributes, with experts weighing in. The biggest argument against such a classification is QAnon’s lack of a clear leadership structure or org chart, but on the most basic level I think we can still talk of a Church of Q. It’s a belief system giving its adherents a meaning and purpose to their lives, a sense of community strengthened by an us vs. them mentality, the faith that justice will finally be served on the wicked, and an outlet for their frustration, anger, and hate. Of course, it all seems silly from the outside, but so does much of what goes viral on the Internet. “Bored and isolated,” Rothschild writes of Q followers, “they went looking for explanations, enemies, and entertainment. And conspiracy theories provided all three.”

The Q movement, like Trumpism, was also aided by plugging into a “rich tapestry of conspiracy theories, ancient hatreds, currency scams, moral panics, and social media rumors,” as well as anti-liberal “populist” attitudes that were becoming deeper and more prevalent at the time. Chief among these latter being a hatred of the government and the media, a hatred that would metastasize with the pandemic lockdown. But with the election of Biden in 2020 and the eventual end of the pandemic, were the phantoms of QAnon laid to rest, or only temporarily banished? Has the storm passed? The fact that the Republican Party had effectively become “the party of Q” during the Trump years and even after doesn’t bode well for the future.

Rothschild’s book does a good job covering a complicated phenomenon “touching numerous different areas of culture, politics, sociology, and technology.” Along the way he alerted me to some points that I’d missed. In particular, I was interested in how QAnon was deliberately marketed to target demographics like Boomers (“as much as seven times more likely to share fake-news stories” on Facebook) and women. I knew nothing at all of the phenomenon of “Pastel QAnon,” which had to do with promoting QAnon by way of female bloggers and influencers who were into wellness and yoga stuff. This is a part of the Internet that’s outside of my own media silo. But given the prominence of women in the movement – the congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, and January 6 rioter Ashli Babbitt – I shouldn’t have been surprised. Q was not a movement exclusive to angry white men, but one made up of an entire class of anxiety- and grievance-filled Americans. A group that hasn’t gone, and won’t easily go, away.

Review first published online December 1, 2022.