Author Of 'What Were We Thinking?' Says 'Trump Has Unwittingly Enabled' Discussions Of Race Carlos Lozada tells NPR: "It's ironic that a president with such a negative force for race relations" and women's rights has presided over a period where both groups feel more empowered to speak out.
NPR logo

Washington Post Critic Says 'Trump Has Unwittingly Enabled' Discussions Of Race

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/928120921/928120922" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Washington Post Critic Says 'Trump Has Unwittingly Enabled' Discussions Of Race

Washington Post Critic Says 'Trump Has Unwittingly Enabled' Discussions Of Race

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/928120921/928120922" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much has America changed during President Trump's administration? Carlos Lozada has a special vantage point. He is a Washington Post writer who took it upon himself to read scores of books from the past four years. He wrote his own book called "What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History Of The Trump Era."

CARLOS LOZADA: I think it fits a tradition in American life. And this is a country that defines itself in writing, from common sense - right? - from Thomas Paine, you know, on forward. This is a country that litigates all its big battles on paper, not solely on paper but certainly through books and writing. And this is just our turn.

INSKEEP: The books Lozada read, of course, include books that are all about Donald Trump. Some explore chaos in the White House. Michael Wolff wrote the first big one, followed by Bob Woodward and others. Many fans of the president have written their own books, like one by Donald Trump Jr. Critics of the president have written denunciations, but Lozada's reading list includes a lot by Americans who are far from the president, trying to tell their own stories and explore their distinct American identities.

LOZADA: There's a weird sense in which Trump, though, I think, has simplified all these divisions for us and overtaken them. Right now, you are an anti-Trump resistance or you're a pro-Trump base, and it's almost like there's nothing else. Once Trump is gone, whether that's in three months or in four more years, once he's not this all-consuming, obsessive presence - which incidentally, is how he likes it - then I suspect we're going to see how those divides are really far more complicated and how maybe we don't line up as easily as we think we do.

INSKEEP: Can you talk me through some of the identities that may have been clashing even within the same individual the past few years?

LOZADA: I think that when you look at the memoirs of the resistance, for example, you see how immediately writers started speaking solely to their own communities. It's almost like the Trump era forced everyone back into their corners. And, you know, we can worry about Trump's America if you're in the resistance, but you really don't care much for Trump's Americans, right? You just are solely speaking to your distinctive community.

When I see a lot of the memoirs of identity, though, I think that we see something different going on. There, it's easy to think of the identity politics movements as being all about group rights and group representation. But when you really dig into these books, what you find is just this piercing cry and call for individual dignity. And I think maybe that quest is just made easier in a group context.

INSKEEP: Who are some of the writers making that call for dignity?

LOZADA: I would point out a couple. Patrisse Khan-Cullors is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. And her memoir, "When They Call You A Terrorist," even though it shows the origins of this movement for the affirmation of group rights and group representation, it really is a very individual story of her life, of her family and that quest for personal dignity that is denied her and someone like her brother who is cycling through, you know, prison and the hospital - you know, two institutions that just keep him alive enough to keep going.

Another book like that I would say is Ibram Kendi's "How To Be An Antiracist," which got a lot of attention in the wake of the George Floyd protests. What spoke to me most about that particular book is that, you know, Kendi does not make a blanket case about the behavior or attitudes of white Americans or of Black Americans. You know, he wants to be treated on his own personal terms, and he wants to treat others that way as well.

INSKEEP: I think if a political writer was referring to identity politics a generation ago, they might get away with using it as code for Black identity politics or Hispanic identity politics. What have the past four years taught us about the prevalence of white identity politics?

LOZADA: You know, I think that they have just made crystal clear, as if we needed it, that white identity politics is a real thing, and that it didn't just materialize, you know, through Donald Trump's sort of dog-whistle politics. Of course, Trump has sort of transcended dog-whistle politics.

And there's a common expression in the Trump era when the president or some other figure goes beyond the dog whistle surrounding race and just says something overtly prejudiced - something that shows the underlying motivation for some political or policy act, whether it's about voting suppression or tax policy - people say, oh, he's saying the quiet part out loud. And I think there's also a sense in which all of America is now saying the quiet part out loud. Groups and individuals who've previously felt uncertain about speaking out are doing so. The #MeToo movement is saying the quiet part out loud. Black Lives Matter is saying the quiet part out loud. And that's a good, positive thing.

I think it's ironic that a president with such a negative force for race relations in America, who has shown such willingness to denigrate women, has presided over a period in which both groups have felt more empowered to forthrightly speak out and give their own testimony.

INSKEEP: I think you could make a case that for a couple of generations after the civil rights movement, there were a lot of people, especially white people, who were taught or taught themselves that the way to deal with race was not discuss it at all. And yet it was still there, and the issues were still there, and attitudes were still there, and structures were still there. It sounds like you think it's good that people are talking about it more.

LOZADA: It's essential that people are talking about it more. That doesn't mean that the way we're thinking about it right now means that we're getting it right. But I think it's important for this discussion to be out in the open. And I think that in some ways, Trump has unwittingly enabled that. By being so retrograde in some of his own views and statements, he's made it almost impossible to not speak out in response.

Now, you read some of these books, you know, on the left or resistance books or identity books, and Trump is this constant foil. And they point to Trump as having a sort of broken moral compass. And you can make that argument. That argument doesn't necessarily mean that your moral compass necessarily points north at all times. I think that we can't let sort of the backlash against Trump himself and whatever his particular attitudes are, you know, dictate the way forward. But it's at least the starting point of a conversation.

INSKEEP: Carlos Lozada is the author of "What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History Of The Trump Era." Thanks so much.

LOZADA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "CLEAR LANGUAGE")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.