“This book, We Do Our Part, is not directly about the Trump era or phenomenon, though Charlie gets to Trump at the end. But it is all about the resentful, unequal, uncaring parts of today’s American culture that Trump has inflamed and that have made Trump possible—and how to cope with them. Charlie’s essential argument is: Once upon a time, American culture genuinely was less selfish and money-minded than it is now (i.e., that the culture depicted in It’s a Wonderful Life was connected to something real); that a specific set of cultural and political changes led us in today’s unfortunate direction; but that things could again be different.
My view is that we can concentrate more clearly on the actual emergencies of this time—which include economic polarization unmatched since the 1890s, and an unqualified, ignorant president unmatched at any point in our history—if we don’t imagine that this is the first generation of Americans to face serious challenges. In addition, studying past crises-and-responses might increase the chances of devising a successful escape from the
But there’s a danger in this perspective: it can lead to discounting any of the moment’s problems as just another phase. Charles Peters has seen even more of American history than I have—he turned 90 recently, and was already active in politics during the 1950s—and he has written a book whose great virtue is to argue that there is something genuinely different and dangerous in the politics and culture of this era, and to suggest what might be done about it.