Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, by Maggie Haberman

Summary: portrait of a fascist as a fat man

The character of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future is based on Donald Trump: bullying, lazy, greedy, misogynistic. Confidence Man traces the original Biff’s career from the corrupt world of New York real estate to the American presidency.

It is a depressing story, but, in hindsight, seems almost inevitable now. Because, enabled by his overweening sense of entitlement and his daddy’s money, Trump has one talent that Biff lacked. As the title of Haberman’s absorbing book suggests, Trump has the instincts of a grifter. Like Giovanni Ribisi’s character in the short lived, but highly entertaining, series, Sneaky Pete, it is Trump’s instinct every time he is caught in one lie to double down with another, to meet every attack with a counter attack, and, where possible, to get his retaliation in first. 

According to Haberman Trump was once told, “You’re really very shallow.” “Yes” he agreed, “that is my strength.”

Everything is a transaction to Trump in a zero sum game. For him to win there must be a loser. Love, selflessness, compassion, empathy are meaningless to him. Haberman reports Former White House chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly, describing Trump as “the most flawed person” he had ever known. 

Yet enough Americans confuse Trump’s brand of meanness with strength to vote to award this revolting human being the Presidency.

Not that Trump ever understood the role he had won in a constitutional system. Again and again in this book he is described as unable to comprehend why he is not permitted to do the unlawful. How he yearns for the unconstrained power of a Putin or a Hitler. Nevertheless even corralled by the law and the constitution, Trump and his acolytes still managed to do more damage to the concept of “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, than the entire Confederate army.

Haberman’s fine book is not just an explanation of Trump but also a warning: given the chance again this bloated fascist will reek further chaos.

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann

Summary: a desperately sad but hopeful perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Rami Ethanan, a graphic designer, and Bassam Aramin, a scholar, are friends. They have a lot in common. Both are smokers. Both are former combatants. Both understand the deep, moral corrosiveness of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Both understand that peace requires people to talk to each other and try to understand each other’s point of view. Both are the fathers of murdered children: Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers; Bassam’s daughter, Abir, was murdered by Israeli soldiers.

Apeirogon is the story of how, in particular, these two men have sought to advocate for peace by building mutual understanding. But it ranges even more widely, into the lives of their families, including their murdered daughters, and into the cultural and political history of Israel and Palestine.

(From the Guardian)

I finished this book just before Israel launched its latest series of child-killing attacks on Gaza. As usual, in such situations, American politicians are to be found on social media congratulating themselves for the US military support to Israel that allows its leadership to launch such attacks on Gaza with impunity. Such politicians find the slaughter of children with rockets, and American journalists with bullets, much more palatable than the murder of children by suicide bombers. But that is the logic of the US’s military alliance with what the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has called an apartheid state.

The asymmetric nature of the warfare between Israelis and Palestinians is very much on display with the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. In prison, for throwing a dud grenade at an Israeli patrol, Bassam realised that responding to Israeli violence with violence, even if only stones, plays into the hands of those who want to sustain the occupation: it allows them to portray Israeli violence and theft as defensive, and the Palestinians as less than human. As a result of this realisation Bassam became committed to the ideal of non-violence.

Rami, recognising the common humanity of Palestinian and Israeli families who had suffered similar losses to his own, came to his own realisation that the status quo offered no real security for Israelis either. His wife, Nurit, a distinguished academic and peace activist, had understood this much earlier: with enormous courage she explicitly and publicly blamed the racist and militaristic policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the death of her daughter.

Apeirogon reminds us that as well as the meat-headed terrorists in the high echelons of government and the military, Israel and Palestine also have thousands of people like Rami and Bassam: people committed to non-violence, human rights and dialogue as a path towards justice.

For success such activists need international support. Yet the US and Europe fail utterly to do this, privileging Israel with arms and trade rather than compelling the dialogue that is essential for any meaningful peace to be forged.

Apeirogon is an extraordinarily important book. It is a tribute to the thousands of (asymmetrically) marginalised Palestinians and Israelis who have sought to build peace and fraternity through dialogue and understanding rather than acquiesce in violence. How many more children will be slaughtered before their path is recognised as the only truly viable one?

Photo by Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Great Hatred: the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, by Ronan McGreevy

Summary: a fresh and gripping new perspective on the Irish war of independence in London

Great Hatred is a superb addition to the literature of the Irish revolution. Similar to Anita Anand’s, The Patient Assassin, McGreevy explores the lives of the killers and the killed. So Great Hatred provides a triple biography of Reggie Dunne, Joe O’Sullivan and their victim, Henry Wilson. The result is a book that is hugely illuminating on the conduct of the War of Independence in London and the experiences of the London Irish community during the First World War and in the fight for Irish freedom.

As Director of Intelligence of the IRA, Michael Collins had a central role in London operations, so he is also a major figure in this book. One thing that did niggle with me was the author’s apparent acceptance, along with many other fine historians, of Emmet Dalton’s criticism of Collins’ actions at Beal na mBlath, and the idea that the only rational option was to try to run the ambush rather than stop and fight into it. This seems to me to ignore the realities of IRA ambush practices which Collins would have been more familiar with than Dalton.

Like so many other books, this one also does not mention that the last Dail representative for South Armagh in Northern Ireland was Collins. This is emblematic of the depth of Collins’ emotional commitment to the North, and in exploring this McGreevy seems to have found the key to the enduring mystery of who gave the order for Wilson’s killing.

Great Hatred is a fresh, elegantly written and wholly gripping work. It is one of the best books on the Irish Revolution in many years.

Silence Among The Weapons, by John Arden; and UnRoman Romans, by Siobhan McElduff

Summary: two wonderful books that in different ways remind the reader of the consequences of violent prejudice for ordinary folk

John Arden (1930 to 2012), a long-term resident in Galway, was a distinguished playwright, and an English member of Aosdana, the elite Irish artistic association. Silence Among the Weapons was his only novel, and was short-listed for the Booker when it was first published in 1982.

1982 was when I first tried to read the book, which I found difficult at the time and brought it back to the library once I had finished part one. This recounted events in Ephesus leading up to the arrival of the Roman general Sulla’s brutal army. 

Over the subsequent years I have often wondered what became of Ivory, the book’s principle narrator, and his lovers, Cuttlefish, an Ethiopian who has been enslaved since childhood, and Irene, an agent of the Persian King. So, I decided to track down a copy and finish what I started all those years ago. 

Like Arden himself, his principle characters are theatrical types. It is from their perspectives that the “great” events are viewed. These include the conflict between Sulla and Marius for mastery of Rome, and the ferocious Social War unleashed against the Italian allies of Rome who had the temerity to claim greater civil rights.  (One part of the book, dealing with Ivory’s adventures with pirates, I thought was probably an allusion to Hamlet who went on a similar jolly before turning Elsinore into a charnel house.)

Silence Among the Weapons led me to Siobhán McElduff’s wonderful book, UnRoman Romans. This is a reader of the ancient sources that she compiled with her students. It deals with the experiences of and attitudes towards people like Ivory and his friends: the slaves, the thespians, the dancers and the gladiators who “elite” Romans despised but upon whom their privilege depended.

I suspect the lives of Arden’s characters are based more upon his own experiences in the theatre than on the ancient texts. But one thing he seems to get very right: McElduff notes that “the Romans were frequently quite appalling in their treatment of those they considered outsiders or different, ” and this is something that Arden conveys starkly.

There is a clear intent in Arden’s writing to sound modern in spite of the ancient setting. Hence his references to “police” and theatre “green rooms” among other things. This is, I think, both to increase the reader’s empathy for his characters and their circumstances, and because, for Arden, Sulla, Marius and the Social War are mere examples of the colonial violence that has plagued the world for centuries. The second part of the book, for example, dealing with the eruption of the Social War makes very clear allusions to the beginnings of the Troubles in Derry: Arden even traces the beginning of his conflict to the reaction of the “City” to the reasonable demands of a “Civil Rights Association.”

I must say I still found portions of Silence Among the Weapons difficult: for one thing I would have expected a playwright to be able to present dialogue more clearly, but much seemed buried in long paragraphs. But the book is well worth persevering with. It is often funny, occasionally horrific, and the characters appealing. One hopes against hope that they can somehow escape the random carnage that is engulfing their world.

It is a great pity that, in spite of its remarkable success upon publication, that Silence Among the Weapons now appears to be out of print and in little demand. A book that asserts the importance of remembering ordinary people in the midst of the machinations of warlords should never be forgotten.

An Army At Dawn, by Rick Atkinson

Summary: a fine account of Operation Torch and the US army’s “European” baptism of fire

An Army at Dawn is an account of Operation Torch, the US army’s first engagement – in North Africa- against the European axis powers during the Second World War.

Atkinson notes that from the outset American generals argued that the only way to defeat Germany was a direct attack on its heart through France. The British, by contrast, having been unceremoniously evicted by the Germans from France, Norway and Greece, were altogether more circumspect about this approach. Instead they advocated a “peripheral” strategy, starting in North Africa”. This also had the advantage of maintaining access to the raw materials, including the cannon fodder, of their empire.

In spite of all the advice to the contrary Roosevelt eventually sided with the British and launched Torch, an invasion of French North Africa aimed at catching the Germans in a pincher with the British 8th Army.

By Atkinson’s account Roosevelt’s decision avoided disaster. In spite of great strategic acuity, the Americans had little senior experience of war-fighting: Patton and Marshall had been relatively junior officers in France during the First World War, Eisenhower had yet to hear a shot fired in anger. So some of their officers didn’t even know, for example, how to load a ship in “battle order” with the things they would need first going into the hold last, and the vice versa.

Consequently the US made initially heavy weather of the campaign, including the landings, in spite of the vast majority of the French forces ostensibly defending the coast wishing to defect to them.

After initial setbacks however the Americans learned their craft well in brutal fighting in the Atlas Mountains. Consequently Patton, Bradley and particularly Eisenhower went on to shape the strategy of the Western European theatre, informed by the operational lessons they learned in North Africa.

A minor theme running through the book relates to the racism displayed against the local Arab population by the Allied combatants. This dimly echoes Bonaparte’s atrocity strewn campaign in Egypt and Palestine and prefigures the post war independence movements to come.

An Army at Dawn is a fine, lucid account of this North African campaign. It is a refreshing alternative perspective on the English national religion that the Second World War has become.

The Devil That Danced on the Water, by Aminatta Forna

Summary: a masterpiece of history, journalism and memoir

The Devil That Danced on the Water is something of a hybrid book. It is in part a memoir of Aminatta Forna’s childhood. As a daughter of a Scottish mother and a Sierra Leonean father she was a bit of an outsider in both paternal and maternal societies and, perhaps therefore, a keen observer of both.

But this book is also a memoir of Aminatta’s father, Mohamed, a post-independence finance minister of Sierra Leone and a champion of sustainable development. When he managed to obtain a budget surplus, and despite being a medical doctor himself, he advised the reinvestment of the surplus into primary education rather than health as the only viable basis for his country’s future development.

Unfortunately for Sierra Leone, Forna’s Prime Minister, Siaka Stevens, had other ideas and squandered the money on patronage and corruption. Soon Mohamed was out of government but remained a focal point for democratic opposition.

Forna’s narrative is framed by an account of Mohamed’s final years following his arrest on trumped up treason charges. In describing his judicial murder by the Sierra Leonean kleptocracy, Aminatta charts the roots of the country’s appalling descent into bloody chaos in the latter part of the 20th Century.

Forna’s illustrates how, like all violence, that meted out to her father rippled across her whole family. She details her extraordinary step-mother’s struggles to take care of her and her siblings while desperately trying to also save Mohammed’s life in the face of the brutal stupidity of the Sierra Leone dictatorship. That she knew that Mohamed was being unfaithful to her at the time of his arrest never seems to have caused her to waver for a moment in either of these efforts.

Forna is an exquisite writer and a brave reporter, summoning incredible reserves of moral courage to interview many of those involved in her father’s assassination in order to gain a deeper understanding of just what happened. The story she has to tell is a deeply moving and hugely illuminating one. The Devil That Danced on the Water is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

The Ratline, by Phillipe Sands

Summary: meh!

I once attended an academic conference in which one researcher after another spent their allotted time telling the audience in exhaustive detail how they went about undertaking their research, and how interesting that was for them whether the audience shared their interest or not. Few of them mentioned anything they had actually found out.

It is a common enough story amongst inexperienced researchers: developing robust methodology can be such a challenge that it is the thing that comes to preoccupy them rather than the actual purpose of the research itself. We’ve all been there.

Phillipe Sands is not an inexperienced researcher. The Ratline is his follow up to the very fine East West Street, his hybrid family memoir/ joint biography of the originators of the legal concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide. However reading The Ratline, I did find myself, again and again, transported back to that conference, thinking to myself: But what is your actual point here?

Like East-West Street The Ratline is concerned with the atrocities of the Second World War. It has grown out of conversations that Sands had with Horst von Wachter, son of Otto, a man indicted for mass murder in 1945 but who was never captured.

Horst insisted that his father was a good man, who, in spite of his involvment with the Nazis was never implicated in murder. Further Horst reckons that his father, who died in Rome, was murdered.

All of Horst’ fanciful assertions about his father are exhaustively explored by Sands. Unsurprisingly there is no “THERE” there. What we knew at the beginning is what we know at the end: His father was directly involved in atrocity and he was not murdered.

Some reviewers have found compelling Sands’ account of his painstaking investigations to discover nothing. I didn’t. Much of it I found banal in the extreme, particularly the extensive passages quoted from the diaries of Otto’s wife, wittering on about various domestic and society concerns while her husband is out conducting affairs with other women and ensuring that the machinery of mass murder is running smoothly. I presume that Sands’ purpose in including such material is to illustrate the banality of evil. But that does not stop the material in question from being desperately boring too.

Following the war, and after 3 years on the run in the Alps, Von Wachter senior came into contact with some pro-Nazi elements in the Catholic Church. He hoped these would help him escape on to someplace such as Argentina or Namibia via the titular Ratline.

It is a historical fact that elements of the Catholic Church assisted Nazi criminals to escape justice by facilitating their flight to South America and elsewhere. Other Vatican officials, most notably Hugh O’Flaherty from Kerry, also ran one of the biggest Allied escape networks of the Second World War, but Sands does not mention this.

In any event the impression given by the book of the Ratline is less an organised right-wing conspiracy and more a few corrupt and venial individuals seeking to profit from the desperate efforts of repulsive individuals to evade justice.

Von Wachter did not progress beyond Rome along this Ratline because he could not stump up the cash to pay. Instead he whiled away his time swimming in the Tiber where he contracted the infection that killed him.

Overall then The Ratline offers some methodological insight into how Sands conducts his research, but little new on any aspect of the war, crimes against humanity or genocide that was not much more fruitfully explored in East-West Street. It is a story of the banality of evil, banally told.

Towards a new Ireland: reflections on The Treaty, by Colin Murphy, and Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin

Summary: Unity in diversity requires accommodation not triumphalism

Towards the end of Colin Murphy’s gripping play, The Treaty, there is a scene in which Griffith and Collins present to the Irish cabinet the text securing partial independence that they have managed to negotiate. The minister of defence, Cathal Brugha, berates them brutally for the compromises they have been forced to accept and for failing to meet every detail of his impossible ideal of an Irish republic. As far as Brugha is concerned Griffith and Collins are traitors bought off by the British.

As discussions regarding the constitutional arrangements for a new Ireland are developed over the next few years this scene will be played out again and again across Ireland in households and communities, on social media and in elected forums. The heirs of Cathal Brugha, the self-appointed guardians of the sacred flame of Irish republicanism, will denounce all those who propose any sort of accommodation with unionism as a means to secure Irish unity. Indeed, it’s happening already.

I recently commented on social media that, much as I like the Irish tricolour, a new Ireland might need a new flag. And, really, the only folk who should maybe be singing the Soldier’s Song these days are the national Defence Forces.

That was met with not inconsiderable fury from some folk. John Hume may have taught us that you can’t eat a flag, but Twitter teaches us that flag-shaggers are not just Brexity gammons. There are plenty in Ireland too whose communion with the patriot dead allows for no iota of compromise on their ideals of an Irish republic.

The questions of the compromises needed to obtain peace and unity led me to reread Playing the Enemy, John Carlin’s superb account of the end of apartheid. Many will be familiar with part of the story: the book, particularly its final third, provided the basis of the Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus.

Carlin’s outstanding book is much more detailed in its account of how the peaceful transition of power was achieved. It starts well before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. There, he had decided not just to endure, but to continue to struggle. And part of this struggle involved understanding his captors. Starting first with his jailers, then with the increasingly senior officials and ministers who came to negotiate with him, then with the far Right who he engaged with to stave off the risk of civil war, Mandela sought to build trust and demonstrate to them that they had nothing to fear from a democratic future in South Africa.

Part of this process involved understanding the power of symbols. He learned Afrikaans so that he could show his oppressors respect as human beings by speaking to them in their own language. He came to appreciate the importance of rugby to the Afrikaners and the passion they felt for their anthem and the green and gold Springbok jersey.

As negotiations progressed he made sure that these symbols, which for decades had represented oppression to the black majority of the population, were retained in the new South Africa. In the course of the 1995 rugby world cup he led his whole country to embrace and share them.

Mandela understood that peace in South Africa depended not on victory for one side over another but through accommodation of all. It was his country’s incredible good fortune that they had in Mandela a person with the moral and the intellectual grandeur necessary to lead his people away from more retributive ideals to a place to where they came to share his vision of unity in diversity.

Ireland does not have a Mandela. So, achieving a new Ireland will depend on much more contentious leaders, and other ordinary people making accommodations with each other and with unpalatable symbols of the past to create a new rainbow nation in the Northern hemisphere.

It is an achievable goal. But it is something that will be threatened not just by the Protestant Supremacists of the North. It will also be put in jeopardy by the absolutist heirs of Cathal Brugha, the hard-faced men and women unreconciled to the variety of the Irish nation, and disgusted by any mention of compromises that may be necessary to achieve a unity of this diversity.

Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro

Summary: some Johnsons know how to wield power

Master of the Senate is the third volume of Robert Carol’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. Like the previous volumes, it is something of a history of his times as well as being a biography of Johnson.

So, Johnson is absent for large chunks of this biography as it introduces us to crusading economist Leland Olds, Hubert Humphrey, doyen of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Richard Russell, the leader of the Senate’s virulently racist Southern caucus, and, of course, Martin King.

Among other things this book is a study in power. It is fascinating to learn how Johnson transformed the hitherto irrelevant role of Senate majority leader into an office of incredible power.

There was little personally attractive about Lyndon Johnson. He was a bully, a serial adulterer, and a racist. But he understood power and he wanted to be president. So to obtain a viable presidential candidacy, Johnson destroyed Olds to keep his financial backers in the oil industry happy, and cosied up to Russell and his determined efforts to maintain state sanctioned terrorism against the black citizens of the United States across the South.

Caro observes in the course of this book, as he has in previous volumes, that Johnson’s life is composed of light and dark threads. However where Johnson’s instinct for compassion conflicted with his personal advancement, then his selfish interests won out.

But, in 1956 as he made his first attempt at the Democratic nomination, Johnson discovered that the support of corrupt oil interests and racist bigots was not enough. He needed support in the North as well. And Johnson revolted Liberal Democrats. So he had to do something to appeal to them. This led him to championing what became the 1957 Civil Rights Act, after first gutting it of all the substantive portions that Russell and his ghouls objected to. The negotiations and manoeuvring towards even this modest achievement provide a gripping climax to this volume, as compelling as anything in The West Wing or The Wire.

Caro argues that ultimately Johnson was by far the most important civil rights president since Lincoln. It is a remarkable aspect of his story how such an extraordinary narcissist was led towards this end from a beginning of overweening and selfish hunger for power.

William Wilberforce, by William Hague

Summary: an exceptionally fine and engrossing biography of a great humanitarian

In the sublimely brilliant film, The Ladykillers, the exquisite Katie Johnson’s character is called Mrs Wilberforce. In giving her that name the producers wanted to signal immediately to the audience that this little old lady represented the epitome of English decency and moral courage.

Her character’s namesake, William, is a rarity in British history: a hero who is celebrated not for their participation in conflict or colonialism, but for their role in a humanitarian campaign – the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the worst crimes against humanity in history. Over the centuries the slave-trading European powers stoked wars in Africa and trafficked over 10 million human beings into brutal enslavement in the Americas, killing millions more along the way.

William Hague’s biography of this key parliamentary figure in the struggle against the slave trade is a richly detailed and elegantly written account of the man’s life. Along the way he makes some fascinating excursions into the wider history of the time, including 18th century parliamentary machinations, evangelical religious revivalism, and the dubious electoral politics of that era.

Hague is generous in his assessment of Thomas Clarkson, the towering anti-slavery campaigner, without whom Wilberforce’s parliamentary efforts would have come to nothing. Of course, Hague argues, without Wilberforce Clarkson’s campaigning would also likely have been fruitless. Instead he asserts the critical complementarity that these two brought as the cutting edge of a national movement brought into being by, more than anyone else, the Quakers.

Similar to Jenkin’s biography of Churchill, this book is enriched by Hague’s understanding of parliament and government gained over the course of his own senior political career. It is an exceptionally fine work of history and reminds the reader why the name Wilberforce remains such a resonant one.