New books shed light on US history as a guide to the present

There are few alternatives to reading compelling literary accounts to understand how the US in 2023 has reached this point

Former speaker Nancy Pelosi at the unveiling ceremony for the Joseph H Rainey Room on Capitol Hill in Washington. Rainey was the first black person to serve in the US House. AFP
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At their most instructive and useful, national histories function like tapestries that knit together many narrative strands, both consensus and contested. The increasingly bitter contests over historical narratives now exemplify the deepest divisions in a fracturing US. The weave is unravelling badly.

While liberals use the institutional power of universities and the entertainment industry to promote their preferred storylines, Republican state legislatures are using the coercive force of government to outlaw teaching about the most unflattering aspects of US history — slavery, segregation and racism — plus gender and sexuality.

Several new books shed important light on this intensifying struggle.

The Donald Trump movement that culminated in a failed coup and the January 6 insurrection, attacking the constitution and the state in the name of patriotism and “freedom”, was the culmination of a lengthy resurgence of white grievance and resentments. This return of the repressed had obvious way stations in Richard Nixon's “southern strategy” in 1968 that welcomed pro-segregation forces into the Republican Party, the rise of Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh and his talk radio imitators, and, especially, Alabama governor George Wallace until he was crippled by a would-be assassin in 1972.

Whether he knows it or not, Mr Trump's most immediate precursor was Wallace, whose attitudes and agenda he often seems to channel in a kind of uncanny demagogic seance. Freedom’s Dominion by Jefferson Cowie is a breakthrough in situating the Trump movement in its broadest historical context, though briefly acknowledging that is left for the very end of the book.

Prof Cowie builds on the insight, best developed by the sociologist Orlando Patterson, that for many white Americans, and other some dominant communities around the world, “freedom” has meant the prerogative to oppress, dispossess, enslave or abuse others in the pursuit of the crudest individual and communal self-interest. The presumed loss of an assumed privilege of white Christian national pre-eminence is the primal fuel driving the Maga faction and its allies and antecedents.

Freedom’s Dominion begins and essentially ends with Wallace, an arch-segregationist (whose eventual repentance is another story). It is remarkably sweeping, tracing patterns of freedom as the right to dominate in Wallace's homeland of Barbour County in south-eastern Alabama during four key historical periods: the brutal white invasion of Alabama and dispossession of the indigenous Creek Nation resulting in the infamous Trail of Tears ethnic cleansing; violent resistance to Reconstruction after the Civil War; the savage reimposition of white supremacy and segregation; and efforts to preserve that system despite the civil rights movement and anti-discrimination mandates from the federal government.

Prof Cowie reads this history as a continuous struggle between local control and independence from national authority as the key to the freedom to oppress versus fitful and often unsuccessful, although sometimes decisive, intervention by the federal government to enforce the law to protect minorities. This notion of freedom as the right to dominate, and at least scoff at restraints and requirements imposed by Washington, is central to the Trump movement, which, as I noted in these pages a year ago, is typified by its hatred and rejection of the national government and its agencies.

An important companion to Freedom’s Dominion, also published last year, is Waging a Good War by military historian Tom Ricks, which presents a major new gloss on the other side of the civil rights struggle. The book is titled A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968, though this analogy is not original to Mr Ricks. Especially during this classical phase, the civil rights movement often referred to itself as a righteous nonviolent army waging a war of successive campaigns, and frequently invoked military and paramilitary metaphors.

By subjecting this well-established history to a rigorous application of this analogy, Mr Ricks manages to shed important new light on the successes and failures of the most consequential grass roots movement in the US since the Civil War. At times, these comparisons seem strained, such as likening the first freedom rides to the Doolittle bombing raids over Tokyo in the early phases of the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, but for the most part the reading holds up very well and adds a great deal to what otherwise seemed a thoroughly explicated part of recent US history.

For a broader understanding of US history since the Second World War, the definitive volume is undoubtedly Winds of Hope, Storms of Discord: The United States since 1945 just penned by the Palestinian-American historian Salim Yaqub (full disclosure: Prof Yaqub and I have been close friends since we were eight-year-old children in Beirut). But Prof Yaqub’s volume is unique in covering US history from the end of the Second World War until virtually the present day, past the January 6 insurrection.

In less than 600 pages, he manages to weave together virtually all crucial developments regarding the relationship between the government and economy; the US global role; demographic transformation; growing disagreements between Americans; and the impact of increasingly rapid and disruptive technological change. It is the ideal introduction for apt high schoolers, any college students and all general readers not thoroughly immersed in contemporary US history.

Prof Yaqub makes this potentially stultifying narrative compellingly readable. It zips along seamlessly, while making all the connections between the data points needed to form a beautifully integrated history. It should be translated into Arabic and widely distributed and read in the Middle East as soon as possible.

Prof Yaqub has been previously known for two masterful books on US-Arab diplomatic and political relations in the 1950s and 1970s. Unsurprisingly then, he begins with the captivating story of how two sons of the Turkish ambassador to the US in the 1930s and '40s became fanatical fans of the black music scene in Washington and beyond, and went on to found Atlantic records, one of the premier blues, R&B and, ultimately, rock labels. Ahmet Ertegun became a central figure in US popular culture and the founding chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This story, which opens the book's introduction, is the only real nod to Prof Yaqub’s previous scholarly work, and Prof Yaqub’s personal Middle Eastern background. Then flows a comprehensive and impeccable contemporary history of America, which, like Freedom’s Dominion, is required reading for anyone who wants to understand why and how the US enters 2023 simultaneously so truly great yet so profoundly troubled.

Published: January 10, 2023, 4:00 AM