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Author of more than a dozen books on American political history, Dallek takes a look at ten presidents of the past century (ending with Ronald Reagan) and how their actions appear to be preludes to those of Donald Trump. Taking one brief chapter per president, he recounts the great legislative triumphs, foreign policy blunders, lies to the American people (and those of other countries), failed promises and promises kept, how each worked with Congress and their own administrations, how they campaigned, and which of their achievements remain to secure world peace and order. He covers a wealth of material infectiously, and even an avid reader of presidential history will have new anecdotes to share. In the last chapter on Trump, Dallek leaves little doubt that in the author's expert opinion, Trump has accomplished little to nothing, and his lack of intellect, education, and morality puts him outside the norms of presidential behavior. Dallek opens with a quote from John Dos Passos, which surely gave instigation to writing "How Did We Get here": "In easy times history is more or less of an ornamental art, but in times of danger we are driven to the written record"— From Carla's Picks
The award-winning, New York Times bestselling historian considers the vast array of triumphs and failures of America’s modern presidents that paved a path to Donald Trump, offering an understanding of our current moment and hope for a way back to true leadership.
The struggle to preserve the Republic has never been easy or without perils. The rise of conflicting political parties, which the founders opposed, and President John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts repressing First Amendment rights made Franklin’s observation at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention—“a republic, if you can keep it”—seem prescient.
In the twentieth century, America endured numerous struggles: economic depression, World War II, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran-contra scandal, the war in Iraq—all of which gave rise to demagogues, as did the growth and reach of mass media. But this wasn’t the Founding Fathers’ vision for our leadership. The resistance to putting a demagogue in the White House survived the anti-Communist agitation of the 1950s and the Vietnam War in the 1960s. But the latter opened the way for Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and Watergate, which again tested our democratic institutions and the rule of law. Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 moved Vice President Gerald Ford, his successor, to declare, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
But was it? Donald Trump’s 2016 election has presented a new challenge. How did past politics and presidential administrations pave the way for this current assault on American democracy? Our nation’s history provides reassurance that we will restore our better angels to government. Yet it must be considered that earlier administrations and public outlook facilitated the rise of such an un-presidential character as Trump in the first place. In How Did We Get Here?, Robert Dallek considers a century of modern administrations, from Teddy Roosevelt to today, shining a light on the personalities behind the politics and the voters who elected each. His cautionary tale reminds us that the only constant in history is change, but whether for good or ill the choice is Americans’ to make.
Robert Dallek is the author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 and Nixon and Kissinger, among other books. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, and Vanity Fair. He lives in Washington, D.C.