I’ve been making my way through the raft of political non-fiction that’s been released over the last couple of years.
Despite being a hardy British fellow, I find the political situation in the United States far more interesting that the nonsense that’s going on in the UK at the moment. Bu the thing which fascinates me most are the strange connective tissues between UK and US politics and the threat from Russian interference.
Being born in the 80s, while there have been ups and downs politically, the state of international politics has remained pretty static when compared to the first half of the last century. But now many of the institutions created in the post war era are coming under attack and being pulled apart and stretched. For the first time things we considered sacrosanct — NATO, the UN, the EU, the Special Relationship — indelible parts of our larger society are beginning to show cracks.
And those changes, most notably the spread of oligarchy to the United States, the Russian influence operations targeting western political establishments and citizens, the Brexit debacle in the UK, and the boundary pushing — and sometimes breaking — in the former Soviet states by Russia, have resulted in a lot of ink being spilt. Some of it is excellent, some of it self publicity of the worst kind, but it all speaks to the strange times we live in.
Below you’ll find a quick round down of the political non-fiction books I’ve read recently which might provide you some inspiration, or at worst, save you some precious reading time for better books.
Russian Roulette – Michael Isikoff and David Corn
Russian Roulette is the definitive account of the Russian infiltration of the Trump campaign and the operation to influence the US 2016 election.
In the book it journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn walk you through decades of Russian interference in US politics culminating in the blatant and wide ranging ongoing influence campaign targeted at the US population prior to and through the 2016 presidential election.
Russian Roulette, Michael Isikoff and David Corn
“But, the source explained, this fit Putin’s larger strategic vision: “to destroy NATO, destroy the European Union, and seriously harm the United States.”
Russian Roulette has scorn enough for everyone, including a damning indictment of the final days of the Obama administration who, it argues, found itself so paralysed by fear of affecting the ongoing presidential election campaign that it ignored the warning signs of the scale of the Russian interference.
The book also outlines the degree of international cooperation between businesses, mainstream politicians, social media companies, and state and non-state actors which ultimately permitted the infiltration of US political institutions.
It’s a shocking read.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible – Peter Pomerantsev
In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev, tells his experience working as a journalist inside a turbulent and ever changing Russia. He describes a changing world where state control and manipulation is slowly perfected; where the message sent out by television stations is tightly controlled, and how this manipulation of public reality is warped and finally exported via channels like Russia Today (RT) and the internet to work its same manipulation of western audiences.
It’s intimate and terrifying and should give us all pause for thought about monitoring the type of content we watch in places we usually consider safe.
Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev
“The Kremlin idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside its walls.”
Fear: Trump in the White House – Bob Woodward
Watergate legend, Bob Woodward, tells the experiences of the Trump campaign’s first year from a range of well sourced, insider accounts.
With his usual professionalism, Woodward, describes with clear and concrete sourcing, this illuminating, if rather scary, part of history and of the Trump presidency and the people that surround him.
Fear: Trump in the White House, Bob Woodward
“But in the man and his presidency Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back-and-forth, the evasions, the denials, the tweeting, the obscuring, crying “Fake News,” the indignation, Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the president: “You’re a fucking liar.”
On Tyranny – Timothy Snyder
A short book, but important.
In On Tyranny, historian Timothy Snyder, outlines the steps a closing society takes on its conversion to a fascist state. Scarily prescient, it’s a must read, even if just to be able to identify the comparisons with changes in current society.
On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder
The president is a nationalist, which is not at all the same thing as a patriot. A nationalist encourages us to be our worst, and then tells us that we are the best. A nationalist, “although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge,” wrote Orwell, tends to be “uninterested in what happens in the real world.
The Road to Unfreedom – Timothy Snyder
This is the second Timothy Snyder book on this list, but for for a very good reason.
In The Road to Unfreedom, historian Timothy Snyder, weaves a narrative telling world history from the perspective of Russia from World War Two to the present day. In the book he pays particular attention to the war in Ukraine and the methods of psychological manipulation used by Russia to create a state of confusion and mistrust of authority both locally and internationally. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because Ukraine was — and still is — the testing bed for the same tactics used by Russia against the US elections — which lead to Trump — Brexit, and the rest of Europe.
The Road to Unfreedom, Timothy Snyder
“Western journalists are also taught to report various interpretations of the facts. The adage that there are two sides to a story makes sense when those who represent each side accept the factuality of the world and interpret the same set of facts. Putin’s strategy of implausible deniability exploited this convention while destroying its basis. He positioned himself as a side of the story while mocking factuality. “I am lying to you openly and we both know it” is not a side of the story. It is a trap.”
If you’d like to find out more, take a look at my review of The Road to Unfreedom, which is not a review, here.
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership – James Comey
This is less a political book, and more a biography of James Comey, the former director of the FBI fired by Donald Trump to restrict the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
In it, Comey, tells a series of tales from his life which culminate in his reasoning for making the decisions he did which arguably affected the political discourse in 2016. He explains in his own words his various interactions with Trump which eventually lead to Comey’s firing and the composition of the special council lead by Bob Mueller.
A Higher Loyalty, James Comey
“Doubt, I’ve learned, is wisdom. And the older I get, the less I know for certain. Those leaders who never think they are wrong, who never question their judgments or perspectives, are a danger to the organizations and people they lead. In some cases, they are a danger to the nation and the world.”
A Higher Loyalty gives an important perspective on the political motivations of Trump over the last two years, but is occasionally tainted by Comey’s seeming desperation to justify his actions.
Fire and Fury: Inside the White House – Michael Wolff
Fire and Fury is probably the biggest seller on this list, but my least favorite.
Michael Wolff was given — if unintentionally — unprecedented access to the White House and its staff through some of the early and most important developments of the Trump presidency. It gives insider accounts and terrifying insights into just how unprepared and inadequate Trump and his transition team were when vying for the presidency.
Fire and Fury: Inside the White House, Michael Wolff
“George W. Bush, on the dais, supplied what seemed likely to become the historic footnote to the Trump address: “That’s some weird shit.”
Read it for the drama, but it’s not something I’d recommend.
Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
Okay, so this one’s a bit random, but stick with me. Homage to Catalonia is the true story of George Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell’s essay explains the reason for his support for Democratic Socialism and against totalitarianism in all of his later writing.
Homage to Catalonia is a bit off the beaten path if you’re interested in current events, but in it Orwell brilliantly describes the experiences of real men and women within a totalitarian state in the last century, and shows the warning signs for it happening again.
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
“All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”
Fascism: A Warning – Madeleine Albright
Fascism: A Warning is a great primer for understanding the spread of fascism over the last century and draws parallels with the dramatic upheavals in current western democracies. A really great read from a really great teacher.
You must read this book.
Fascism: A Warning, Madeleine Albright
“Hitler lied shamelessly about himself and about his enemies. He convinced millions of men and women that he cared for them deeply when, in fact, he would have willingly sacrificed them all. His murderous ambition, avowed racism, and utter immorality were given the thinnest mask, and yet millions of Germans were drawn to Hitler precisely because he seemed authentic. They screamed, “Sieg Heil” with happiness in their hearts, because they thought they were creating a better world.”
They Thought They Were Free – Milton Mayer
If you’re only going to read one political/historical book this year read They Thought They Were Free. The book describes through first hand accounts how liberal German democracy in the 1930s transformed into the fascist killing machine that we know from history.
It tells the experiences of every day people — teachers, shop keepers, bankers, local council employees — and explains how, without realising it, they were permitting the Nazi party to destroy their society.
They Thought They Were Free, Milton Mayer
“National Socialism was a revulsion by my friends against parliamentary politics, parliamentary debate, parliamentary government—against all the higgling and the haggling of the parties and the splinter parties, their coalitions, their confusions, and their conniving. It was the final fruit of the common man’s repudiation of “the rascals”. Its motif was, “Throw them all out.”
They Thought They Were Free is a difficult but essential book, if only to highlight that the history does not stand still, and the tragedies of the past, if ignored, will repeat themselves.