American Breakdown

American Breakdown
David Bromwich

Most books on political issues have a short shelf life, but those dealing with the presidency of Donald Trump, who breaks news with every tweet, are quicker to expire than most. So of course some of David Bromwich’s judgements haven’t aged well in the two or three years since they first appeared in various publications. I had to smile, for example, at his description of Lindsey Graham as “among Trump’s most strident critics in the Republican Party.” And wince at how “It now [March 2019] seems likely that Mueller will produce overwhelming evidence of money laundering, as well as tax, business, and bank fraud.” I’m sure such evidence exists, but Mueller wasn’t looking for it.

Other, more general observations have fared better. Trump and indeed the Republican Party’s oligarch envy. Their cultivation of hate. A base defined more by its cynicism than its credulity. The naivety of the Democratic establishment (though I think many of us were just as guilty of this).

But what I find most depressing about the speed of the news cycle in the Trump Era is that, in hindsight, no immediate negative impression he’s made has had to be corrected. Instead, whatever conclusions arrived at based on the evidence at any particular time have had, inevitably, soon to be adjusted downward. Because this is how Trump’s manufacture of outrage works, as he’s forced into having to outdo himself in order to get his fix of being the center of attention and having people talk about him. And still Trump has always been worse than advertised, with always something worse to come.

First World War: Still No End in Sight

First World War: Still No End in Sight
Frank Furedi

This is a curious, somewhat meandering book that presents a new interpretation of the legacy of the First World War. In brief, that legacy is presented as a series of responses to the post-war breakdown in the authority and legitimacy of traditional political ideologies (liberalism, nationalism, capitalism, etc.). The old beliefs were shown to be hollow but there was nothing to replace them with. After much shuffling of the deck, we arrive at today’s culture wars and identity politics, which have resulted from a de-politicization of politics and a turning inward. I’m not convinced that much of this has any connection to 1914-18, but it does make for an interesting overview of a chaotic century.

Augustus

Augustus
Adrian Goldsworthy

The noblest Roman of them all? I don’t think anyone has tried to make that argument. Adrian Goldsworthy will, however, grant that Augustus was a mostly benevolent military dictator who, contra the adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely, actually mellowed as he ascended to divinity. Goldsworthy goes into most detail talking about Augustus’ rise to power, which is fitting given that it is the most complicated and remarkable part of his story. I’m still not sure how to explain it better than Shakespeare’s “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” He was the golden child.

A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe
Geoffrey Wawro

An excellent account of the opening phase of the First World War, focusing on the moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Empire was the real sick man of Europe in 1914, and when war came it quickly experienced a total moral and material collapse (the two were intertwined, as morale tends to sink when you have no ammunition, clothes, or food). One wonders, however, what options there were. In today’s parlance we would speak of the Empire facing an “existential crisis,” especially facing a rising power in Serbia that was determined to stir the Balkan pot. That said, the response was short-sighted as well as vicious. As her last foreign minister put it: “we were bound to die; we were at liberty to choose the manner of our death and we chose the most terrible.” Giving up power is something few people do willingly. The death of an old regime is almost always messy. This was yet another example of that general historical rule.

The Age of Illusions

The Age of Illusions
Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich’s brief history of post-Cold War America is at least consistent and coherent. In brief, the end of the Cold War gave rise to great expectations of a spectacular peace dividend, which Bacevich imagines as a vision of Oz’s Emerald City. The United States would adopt a political “consensus” consisting of four elements: global neoliberalism, military empire, individual freedom, and presidential supremacy. The hubris this consensus was founded on would lead, with the swiftness of fate, to extreme inequality, endless war, anomie, and Donald Trump.

The overarching theme of the book is that of hubris. Greed, the use of military power, the exercise of personal choice, and Donald Trump (the id unleashed) would each, ultimately, reject all restraint. Such hubris was not created by Trump, or the media, but was instead the expression of public longings. “When all is said and done,” Bacevich concludes, “presidents don’t shape the country; the country shapes the presidency.” Responsibility for what happens next rests with the people. Readers may take what comfort from that they will.

Falter

Falter
Bill McKibben

I really dislike Bill McKibben’s use of the game analogy to speak of human civilization. It’s both unnecessary and problematic. “I call it a game because it has no obvious end,” he writes. Then, later: “This ‘human game’ I’ve been describing differs from most games we play in that there’s no obvious end.” So it’s a game because it has no obvious end, but because it has no obvious end it’s unlike other games? He also says that “even if it has no ultimate aim that doesn’t mean it lacks rules, or at least an aesthetic.” Then, only a few pages later, “I said before that the human game we’ve been playing has no rules and no end.” I wish he’d never brought the matter up.

If we just put the metaphor (if that’s what it is) to one side, Falter is another decent if somewhat unfocused overview of a situation that I think is pretty well understood by now (at least by people who read). McKibben wants to offer up some reasons for hope, but I found these to be the least convincing parts. The bad in our present situation is very bad, and probably worse than we think, while the optimistic slant is mostly wishful thinking.

The Storm Before the Storm

The Storm Before the Storm
Mike Duncan

Mike Duncan’s account of “the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic” actually covers a bit more ground than that subtitle suggests, taking us from 146 BCE and the final destruction of Carthage up to Julius Caesar’s arrival on the scene. That’s where the story usually starts, but as Caesar himself put it, by then the Republic was only a name.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and it didn’t fall in a day either. A long view helps underline the gradual inevitability at work. Various reforms of the Republic were attempted, but things kept heading in the same direction. Elites don’t give up political or economic power willingly, so revolutions and coups became serial until power was consolidated in one man.

This is very much a book in the Tom Holland vein of popular history, and indeed you could read Holland’s Rubicon as a sequel, as it pretty much picks up where Duncan leaves off here. As popular history there’s no original research presented, or new insight, but the ground is well covered in a brisk, easy-to-read manner and it’s a story that is as relevant as ever.