Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

On Spiegelgracht, in Amsterdam, yesterday.

A few days ago I argued that sins-of-omission by Paul Ryan and his fellow Republicans in the House, and Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans in the Senate, amounted to de facto shirking of their “check and balance” duty relative to Donald Trump. Because members of the majority party in the legislative branch  wouldn’t call out or even notice Trump’s excesses—except, as with Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, when they had decided not to run again—they were putting unsustainable pressure on other parts of the formal and informal governing system. The courts, the press, Robert Mueller, and so on.

I called this blind “I could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue” defense of Trump’s actions “tribalism”—and that is when the messages started pouring in. The previous installments are here and here and here.

Why am I quoting more samplings of accumulated mail on this theme? One reason is that this apparently minor linguistic point raises a lot of larger issues: The nature of today’s politics, the nature of group identity, the terms in which we discuss our differences, and so on. But another reason is simply to illustrate the depth and erudition that is still possible in public discussions of sensitive issues.

Noam Chomsky (!) used to argue that an hour of listening to sports-talk radio revealed the astounding sophistication that “ordinary” members of the public could bring to analysis of complex questions. My several bouts of serving on trial juries have had a similar effect. That’s an impression I’m also trying to convey with these selections. People from around the world have taken the time to write and argue their case, from a range of perspectives but with hardly any low-blows or venting. Obviously it’s a skewed sample that writes in to the Atlantic. But while the national discourse rings with simplified slogans, it’s worth noticing this other element in public thought.

Here we go. First, from a reader in Canada:

As you are no doubt aware, Canada is home to a large number of indigenous groups … or tribes.  While I’ve not heard from any of my friends about the use of the word Tribal, I imagine they would share the sentiments of your reader from the West.

Let’s take another whack at whether the right word to describe the tribal divisions now on display in Congress is in fact tribalism, or whether some other term would do better. The first entry in this series was here, with follow-ups here and here. This next set of entries makes the fourth in the series:

Tribalism is ok. From a reader with advanced degrees in linguistics, who grew up in the United States but has lived and worked for decades in Africa and in Europe:

Tribalism sounds just fine to me, having been in Africa and hearing “tribe” all the time. They always ask each other, and even us “Europeans,” what tribe we belong to, as if asking where are you from or what’s your job. I think tribe means “affinity group” for me now, and it certainly would pertain to political parties. Sort of like a club or group.

The lady who wrote about being offended should just come to realize that there is more than one sense to the word now.  It has acquired another broader meaning.  

Wolf-pack. From another reader who was raised in the United States but has lived in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East for many decades:

I vote for “Wolf-Pack.” Having a dog over the years and seeing how sensitive our dog is to always look to our lead and stay near us and do go where we are going, she is clearly a wolf following the Alpha Wolves.

"Tribes" is not only a word associated with Native Americans. I think of "Tribes" more in the African sense.

How about parallels to rabid sports fans, especially soccer crowds?

From the 1990s, and still relevant

Yesterday I argued that certain Republican congressional leaders were behaving in a “tribal” (as opposed to constitutional) manner, in declining to apply normal standards of scrutiny to Donald Trump. Then a reader who had worked with Navajo and Pueblo tribes wrote in to complain about the pejorative use of the term. I mentioned in that dispatch Harold Isaacs’s classic Idols of the Tribe. Another book that has stayed with me and that I meant to mention is Andrew Bard Schmookler’s The Parable of the Tribes.

I woke up this morning to find dozens of messages from readers suggesting other ways to get across the “tribal” idea. An initial sampling:

Faction. A reader recommends the classic Founders-era term:

I believe the word you are looking for is "faction".  James Madison uses it Federalist Paper No. 10, where he defines it succinctly:

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”

29th Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, U.S. Colored Troops in formation near Beaufort, South Carolina, 1864 Library of Congress

On Monday, the retired four-star general and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly asserted that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” This was an incredibly stupid thing to say. Worse, it built on a long tradition of endorsing stupidity in hopes of making Americans stupid about their own history. Stupid enjoys an unfortunate place in the highest ranks of American government these days. And while one cannot immediately affect this fact, one can choose to not hear stupid things and quietly nod along.

For the past 50 years, some of this country’s most celebrated historians have taken up the task of making Americans less stupid about the Civil War. These historians have been more effective than generally realized. It’s worth remembering that General Kelly’s remarks, which were greeted with mass howls of protests, reflected the way much of this country’s stupid-ass intellectual class once understood the Civil War. I do not contend that this improved history has solved everything. But it is a ray of light cutting through the gloom of stupid. You should run to that light. Embrace it. Bathe in it. Become it.

Okay, maybe that’s too far. Let’s start with just being less stupid.

One quick note: In making this list I’ve tried to think very hard about readability, and to offer books you might actually complete. There are a number of books that I dearly love and have found indispensable that are not on this list. (Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America immediately comes to mind.) I mean no slight to any of those volumes. But this is about being less stupid. We’ll get to those other ones when we talk about how to be smart.

1) Battle Cry Of Freedom: Arguably among the greatest single-volume histories in all of American historiography, James McPherson’s synthesis of the Civil War is a stunning achievement. Brisk in pace. A big-ass book that reads like a much slimmer one. The first few hundred pages offer a catalogue of evidence, making it clear not just that the white South went to war for the right to own people, but that it warred for the right to expand the right to own people. Read this book. You will immediately be less stupid than some of the most powerful people in the West Wing.

2) Grant: Another classic in the Ron Chernow oeuvre. Again, eminently readable but thick with import. It does not shy away from Grant’s personal flaws, but shows him to be a man constantly struggling to live up to his own standard of personal and moral courage. It corrects nearly a half-century of stupidity inflicted upon America by the Dunning school of historians, which preferred a portrait of Grant as a bumbling, corrupt butcher of men. Finally, it reframes the Civil War away from the overrated Virginia campaigns and shows us that when the West was won, so was the war. Grant hits like a Mack truck of knowledge. Stupid doesn’t stand a chance.

3) Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee: Elizabeth Pryor’s biography of Lee, through Lee’s own words, helps part with a lot of stupid out there about Lee—chiefly that he was, somehow, “anti-slavery.” It dispenses with the boatload of stupid out there which hails the military genius of Lee while ignoring the world that all of that genius was actually trying to build.

4.) Out of the House of Bondage: A slim volume that dispenses with the notion that there was a such thing as “good,” “domestic,” or “matronly” slavery. The historian Thavolia Glymph focuses on the relationships between black enslaved women and the white women who took them as property. She picks apart the stupid idea that white mistresses were somehow less violent and less exploitative than their male peers. Glymph has no need of Scarlett O’Haras. “Used the rod” is the quote that still sticks with me. An important point here—stupid ideas about ladyhood and the soft feminine hand meant nothing when measured against the fact of a slave society. Slavery was the monster that made monsters of its masters. Compromising with it was morally bankrupt—and stupid.

5.) The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: The final of three autobiographies written by the famed abolitionist, and my personal favorite. Epic and sweeping in scope. The chapter depicting the bounty of food on which the enslavers feasted while the enslaved nearly starved is just devastating.

So that should get you to unstupid—but don’t stop there. Read Du Bois. Read Grant’s own memoirs. Read Harriet Jacobs. Read Eric Foner. Read Bruce Levine. It’s not that hard, you know. You’ve got nothing to lose, save your own stupid.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
A classic book on tribalism.

A few hours ago I posted an item arguing that today’s GOP leaders, notably Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House, had essentially abdicated their constitutional responsibilities and were behaving in a “tribal” sense. By that I meant: whatever was good for their group, was Good, and whatever was bad for their group, was Bad—to the exclusion of any abstract standards of the good or bad of the polity as a whole.

“Tribalism” in this sense is a word I use frequently, to mean an in-group loyalty that I distinguish from the E pluribus unum American ideal. Every time I use the term, I at least half-think of  a wonderful book called Idols of the Tribe, by Harold Isaacs, which was about the power of group identity (and its good and bad ramifications).

A reader in the American West writes in to complain about my use of the term:

I wanted to talk to you about the use of ‘tribal’ as a term to mean thoughtlessly following the pack.

I am a newly retired school teacher in [the Southwest], where I have taught for many years primarily Native American students, Pueblo, Navajo etc. The use of tribal in the political white sense does not go over very well among Native folks for obvious reasons. It feels like a putdown of one of the last cultural distinctions that exemplifies tribal sovereignty.

I’m sure this is not your intention nor is it President Obama’s intention but I can tell you the vocabulary while hip is not appreciated among many of the hundreds of thousands Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona and it does not help the young respect their own culture. If you want to secure those votes I would stop using the word tribal in a negative sense.

I wrote back to the reader thus:

Emily Jan / The Atlantic

We’ve noticed some themes in the submissions to our #ReadingMyAtlantic contest. Pets, for one—including this perfectly-posed pup and CityLab editor Adam Sneed’s sassy cat Saxby. Variations on hygge, which I am extremely here for as the weather turns. And of course, babies—so many sweet, adorable kiddos. Which brings us to the winner of last month’s contest …

Zach Kouwe’s four-month-old Josephine won us over with her alert reading posture.

#ReadingMyAtlantic

A post shared by Zach Kouwe (@zkouwe) on

Kouwe, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, says this: “[Josephine] is mesmerized by books and magazines (just like me). We also recently discovered she loves being propped up on the couch as if she’s sitting up herself. I just recently got a subscription and this was my first issue so I decided to see if Jo might be as interested as me. She was!” We hope the two of them enjoy the November issue, too!

Speaking of which, the November issue features two cover stories on the topic of creativity: Walter Isaacson on the science behind Mona Lisa’s smile and Derek Thompson on Google X and radical creativity. The issue hits newsstands today. So what are you waiting for? Get your copy, get your phone, and show us (through a photo or a Boomerang) where you’ll be #ReadingMyAtlantic this month.

Entering is easy: Snap a picture or Boomerang of your November 2017 issue, and share it on Instagram using this hashtag: #ReadingMyAtlantic. This month, we challenge you to include spreads from inside of the magazine, dress it up for Halloween, and show us how you like to foster creativity in your life.

The winner will be notified in early November, and will receive a special prize package that includes a one-year digital subscription (if you’re already a subscriber, you can add on to an existing subscription or gift it to a friend), an Atlantic baseball cap, a notebook featuring the cover of our very first published issue, and a poster of the “My President Was Black” cover, highlighting Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story from earlier this year. The winner’s post will also be shared from our Instagram account, so give us a follow. Full contest rules can be found below.

Last month, we told subscribers about a major project we are, today, launching to the public: The Atlantic’s first-ever membership program.

This morning, as the project—called The Masthead—goes live, I wanted to write you to explain why I think this is so important, and why I hope that you become a founding member of this endeavor.

I have several main goals as The Atlantic’s editor in chief. The first, and of course most urgent, is to argue for the importance of fact-driven journalism at a time when the president of the United States has declared the press to be the enemy of the American people. My next three goals are related to the first: to make sure we publish journalism that honors our history; to guarantee, by extension, that we provide you, our readers, with journalism that helps you become more informed; and finally, to ensure that The Atlantic, which celebrates its 160th birthday this November, will reach its bicentennial year as a thriving, self-sustaining business with global reach and clear purpose.

I come from a print background, but I believe that for our journalism to thrive, it should appear on as many platforms as possible. Our founders—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and other eminences of their day—had only one vehicle for sharing their ideas: the printed journal. Today, The Atlantic manifests itself in print, in digital, in video, in live events, and in podcasts.

And now comes a new platform, one that will provide you with direct access to our best writers and thinkers. Our goal is to build a closer relationship with you, one in which you help inform our coverage; one in which we seek answers to your most pressing questions about the world; one in which we put our newsroom to work delivering you insights and analysis about the issues you care about most.

I am asking you today to become a founding member of The Masthead. You will not only receive some of our best journalism, written exclusively for our members; you will be directly underwriting The Atlantic’s future. I believe this is a worthy project, launching at a moment rife with challenges for independent journalism. Please join us in this next adventure.

Reuters / Yuri Gripas
Donald Trump, who is at one of his golf courses, early this morning.

The purpose of my 152-installment Trump Time Capsule series during the 2016 campaign was to record, in real time, things Donald Trump said or did that were wholly outside the range for previous serious contenders for the White House.

I’ve resisted continuing that during his time in office, because the nature of the man is clear.

But his Twitter outburst this morning — as he has left Washington on another trip to one of his golf courses, as millions of U.S. citizens are without water or electricity after the historic devastation of Hurricane Maria, as by chance it is also Yom Kippur — deserves note. It is a significant step downward for him, and perhaps the first thing he has done in office that, in its coarseness, has actually surprised me. (I explained the difference, for me, between shock and surprise when it comes to Trump, in this item last week.) Temperamentally, intellectually, and in terms of civic and moral imagination, he is not fit for the duties he is now supposed to bear.

***

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
Reuters / Carlo Allegri

The relationship between the drama of a presidential campaign, and the literature and reportage that come from it, is shaky at best.

By acclamation the best modern campaign-trail book, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer (see Molly Ball’s assessment here), came from the historically very uninspiring George H.W. Bush-Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988. The book took Cramer nearly four years to write. Along the way, he despaired that he’d missed his chance to get it out before the next election cycle and that all his effort would be in vain. But the book endures because of the novelistic richness and humanity of its presentation of the politicians Cramer is writing about—they’re not simply the charlatans, liars, and opportunists of many campaign narratives (though each has elements of that) but complex, striving figures with mixtures of the admirable and the contemptible. Cramer chose what also turned out to be the inspired strategy of giving full time not just to the two finalists but also to four of the also-rans who fell back along the way: Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, and the young Joe Biden.

My friend and former Washington Monthly colleague Walter Shapiro applied a similar “equal time for the also-rans” strategy in his elegant little book about the 2004 campaign, One-Car Caravan. The title refers to the humble origins of nearly all campaigns (i.e., all but Trump’s), in their early stages when the only reporter interested is crammed with staffers into the single campaign car. The 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace campaign was brutal and violent; it also gave rise to Garry Wills’s memorable combination of reportage and scholarship, Nixon Agonistes, plus a book I remember being impressed by at the time, An American Melodrama by the British journalist team of Godfrey Hodgson, Bruce Page, and Lewis Chester. The 1972 Nixon-McGovern campaign was an all-fronts nightmare for the country, but from it came the lasting press chronicle The Boys on the Bus, by my college friend Timothy Crouse.

On the other side of the literary ledger are the routine backstage tick-tock accounts that over-apply the lesson of Theodore White’s seminal The Making of the President, 1960 book. White pioneered the idea that minutiae about what candidates ate, did, or said off-stage could be of great interest. Through overuse by other authors, and because the tick-tock is now a staple of regular campaign coverage, the approach long ago became a cliche. (A: “With an oozing Philly cheesesteak in one hand, Hillary Clinton forged her connection to the hard-pressed voters of this crucial swing state.” B: “It was not that Obama spurned the ritual of modern campaigning, he just did it appallingly badly. Faced with the famed Philly cheesesteak, after a day sampling various wursts, he couldn’t handle it, and promised to ‘come back for it later.’” One of these is a sentence from a real book about the 2008 campaign.)

* * *

This  is a setup for saying: The 2016 election, a low point for the nation, has produced some impressive works. For instance, two books that each spent time as leading national best-seller:

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
Brendan McDermid / Reuters

This week Jill Abramson, the estimable former executive editor of The New York Times, whom I’ve always admired and never criticized, contended that I had been “stoking” the idea that the NYT had a vendetta against Hillary Clinton.

That is false.

What I have argued, repeatedly during the campaign and most recently nine days ago in an item about Hillary Clinton’s new book, is that the Times very badly erred in its wild over-coverage of the Clinton email “issue,” and that this distorted coverage was, in turn, one of many factors leading to Donald Trump’s elevation to the presidency.

All notes on "Hillary Emails" >
Reuters / USA Today Sports

Over the weekend I wrote about Donald Trump’s attacks on protesting NFL players, at a raucous rally in Alabama, and his tweeted threats that if North Korean officials didn’t change their tune, “they won’t be around much longer!”

A sample of the response—pro, con, amplifying, and correcting:

‘To Make America Great, Remind Us of What Makes America Exceptional ...’ A veteran of America’s current long wars writes:

I am a U.S Marine who has proudly served in Afghanistan and Iraq after a weekend filled with consternation over our president's comments and tweets. I'm convinced that he no longer cares about his job or national unity.

He turned an NFL protest into a wedge issue about the flag so that he can appeal to a base of voters he is letting down. If players want to protest on the sidelines before games it is their choice and I respect their right to do so.

As a U.S servicemen I have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution which grants the right to free speech, peaceful assembly as well as to petition the government for wrongs committed. How players or individuals choosers to exercise such  freedoms is not my concern but my commander in chief using the flag and the sacrifice made by military families as a wedge issue is what troubles me.

Being in the military you fight so that you have a home to come back to, you fight for a more "perfect union" but not to divide, politicize or segregate our nation on the basis of what voters believe in standing for the flag and which voters don't. I don't support the presidents effort to divide a nation already split on so many issues and unsure how to combat inequality.

To make America great he must remind us of what makes this nation exceptional which is our belief that freedom and justice exist for all and that all Americans are created equal with inalienable rights.

* * *

Trump Never Loses!’ From another reader:

Amidst the noise, I think you've overlooked last week's 'shocking' (but not surprising) reprise of one very basic Trump theme: TRUMP NEVER LOSES

All notes on "Trump Nation" >
Eric Liu (Citizen University)

If you happen to be in Redlands, California, on Thursday evening, September 21, I suggest you go by the headquarters of the tech company Esri to hear a talk by my friend Eric Liu, on the practical possibilities for civic engagement in our politically troubled age.

If you don’t happen to be in Redlands, I recommend getting Eric’s book, You Are More Powerful Than You Think. It addresses a central question of this age: what, exactly, citizens who are unhappy with national politics can do, other than write a check or await the next chance to vote.

This is a question I wrestled with immediately after last year’s election, in this Atlantic article, and in a commencement speech a few months later. But Eric, author of several previous books about the theory and practice of citizenship (including The Gardens of Democracy and A Chinaman’s Chance) and head of the Citizen University network, based in Seattle, has devoted his useful and enlightening new book to just this topic, in the age of Trump. He described some of its principles in a NYT interview with David Bornstein a few months ago. Essentially his topic is how to bridge the gap between thinking, “something should be done,” and actually taking steps to doing that something, on your own and with others. This also is the ongoing theme of Citizen University, which emphasizes that citizenship is a job in addition to being a status.

I’ll leave the details, of which there are many, to Eric — on the podium in Redlands or in the pages of his book. The high-concept part of his argument flows from these three axioms:

  • Power creates monopolies, and is winner-take-all. → You must change the game.
  • Power creates a story of why it’s legitimate. → You must change the story.
  • Power is assumed to be finite and zero-sum. → You must change the equation.

He goes on, in practical terms, to illustrate what these mean. The political question of this era (as discussed here) is how the resilient qualities of American civic society match up against the challenges presented by the lurches of Donald Trump. Can the judiciary adhere to pre-2017 standards? How will the Congress fare in its ongoing search for a soul? Will states and cities maintain their policies on the environment, on standards of justice, on treatment of refugees and immigrants? And how, fundamentally, can citizens play a more active and powerful role in the affairs of their nation? These and others are central struggles of our time. And Eric Liu’s book is part of the effort to push the outcome in a positive direction.