A poignant quality of anachronism threatens these exigent, idealistic books by the writer-professors Jill Lepore and Suketu Mehta. The product of admirable research and serious reflection, they appear at a time when the very project of carefully acquiring and disseminating insights about the world, and the United States in particular, has been marginalized by the historic momentum of Republican authoritarianism. Presumably these manuscripts were completed by January 2019. Since then, things have moved at an extraordinary speed into extraordinary terrain. The House of Representatives, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Office of Special Counsel, the Office of Legal Counsel, the United States Geological Survey: each of these historically sturdy institutions has been stunned by the Trump administration like a cow in a slaughterhouse; numerous states have criminalized abortion services; the US Navy has proved willing to conceal the name “McCain” from the sight of the president.
These and other autocratic advances have been met by an anguished storm of theories and speech acts—including the very words you are reading. Countless books, think pieces, Twitter threads, comedy shows, and podcasts have scrutinized the diseased body politic down to its smallest, rottenest internal part. The insight industry is booming. Interesting forms of expertise and cultural capital have been developed. Stars of analysis, wit, and protestation have been born. We are alert as never before to the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, the rules of Congress, racial and economic injustice, the techniques of propaganda, the elements of malignant narcissism. The ship may be about to hit the iceberg, but we have excellent hypotheses about the captain’s complex childhood and the shortcomings of the hull design. We know who the commerce secretary is.
Jill Lepore’s new “little book” is a historian’s attempt to mobilize her knowledge to political effect. Last year Lepore published These Truths: A History of the United States, a monumental and brilliantly assembled work of political history that “is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book, an explanation of the origins and ends of democratic institutions.” The ideological essence of that work has been distilled in This America: The Case for the Nation. In a New York Times Op-Ed that accompanied its publication, Lepore urged Democratic presidential candidates to “speak with clarity and purpose about what’s at stake: the liberal nation-state itself.” Lepore went on:
The hard work isn’t condemning nationalism; it’s making the case for the liberal nation-state.
This is an argument of political necessity and moral urgency. So far, Democrats haven’t made it. Instead, in…
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