Robert Kagan Takes the Long View on Trumpism

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Midnight, at the kitchen table, with a bowl of cornflakes.

How do you organize your books?

Umm. I own about 6,000 books and it’s a bit of a disaster. I’ve been paying research assistants to put things in order. We should have it under control by about 2028.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

I was not a great reader and have been trying to catch up ever since. I was entranced by Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” which was probably not a good thing. My best friend and I used to go to a bar underage, drink sloe gin fizzes, and pretend we were Jake and Bill. I know.

What’s the last great book you read?

“Middlemarch.” If historians could show the dynamic interaction of people in a society the way George Eliot does, we’d have a much better understanding of humanity.

What books are on your night stand?

I’ve been reading about European history during and after the French Revolution in an effort to trace the complex connection between ideology and foreign policy. I’m now reading Michael Broers’s “Europe After Napoleon” and next up is Christopher Clark’s latest, “Revolutionary Spring,” about the liberal revolutions of 1848.

Describe your writing routine.

For the history books, months of research, followed by attempts at writing, followed by months of research, for 10 to 12 years. For about 20 years I wrote between the time I put our kids on the school bus until the time the bus dropped them home again. Now I work until it’s time to cook dinner for my wife. My dad, who wrote about 20 books, including a four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, worked 9 to 5, and never in the evening. We called him a lunch-pail historian. I’ve tried to be like that.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

I usually read history of a different time and place than I’m writing about to give me a contrasting perspective on human behavior. American historians often act as if there are no other countries and no other relevant experiences. They judge America by the standards of America, which raises all kinds of problems.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

Yeah, when I read Salinger’s “Nine Stories” for the 73rd time.

What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?

“Middlemarch.” A lot. She is the wittiest writer in the English language.

The last book you read that made you furious?

Pretty much every book ever written on the Spanish-American War. Even great historians write about it cartoonishly, as a great “imperialist” folly, when in fact it was sparked almost entirely by the horrific humanitarian crisis in Cuba.

Why did you title your book “Rebellion”?

That’s what the Trump movement is: a rebellion against the America that Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and other founders envisioned. It’s not the first anti-liberal rebellion and won’t be the last.

You compare Trumpism to “the demon spirit in a Stephen King novel.” Do you read Stephen King? Talk further about the comparison.

OK. No. I don’t read King. But my daughter does! She read “The Stand” every summer at the beach for about eight years beginning when she was 10. So I basically get it.

What’s the secret to warning, but not alienating or disempowering, in your writing?

I’m not sure I’ll avoid alienating people with this book, and I do indeed wish the people who oppose the founders’ universalist liberal ideals had less power.

A reader finishes the last page and closes your book. What should s/he do next?

Engage in the political battle as if it mattered, the same way they would about rising property taxes.

What do you read to relax?

History. What can I say? And the New York Post sports page.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

That Evelyn Waugh blamed the evils of the modern industrial world on Protestantism in almost the same words as Patrick Deneen blames the evils of the modern world on liberalism. Discuss among yourselves.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

It’s basically a question of who I’d like to have join me and Dorothy Thompson, the crusading anti-Nazi journalist of the 1930s and the model for Katharine Hepburn’s Tess Harding in “Woman of the Year.” Not only was she expelled from Germany by Hitler in 1934 for her anti-Nazi reporting, but in 1939 she was bodily removed from the German American Bund’s massive pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden for interrupting one of the speakers. I don’t know whom she’d want to join us, aside from her second husband, Sinclair Lewis, which I’d be down with. Add Reinhold Niebuhr? Was he fun?

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