Make Russia Great Again by Christopher Buckley

The bad news is I am back from vacation in Michigan and no longer have access to a lake simply by stepping out of my tent and choosing the form of my water transportation (pontoon boat, row boat, or kayak). The good news is I read another political satire and am here to report back.

First, the basics:

Make Russia Great Again Book Cover
Make Russia Great Again Fiction Simon & Schuster Kindle 288 NetGalley

The award-winning and bestselling author of Thank You for Smoking delivers a hilarious and whipsmart fake memoir by Herb Nutterman—Donald Trump’s seventh chief of staff—who has written the ultimate tell-all about Trump and Russia. Herb Nutterman never intended to become Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff. Herb served the Trump Organization for twenty-seven years, holding jobs in everything from a food and beverage manager at the Trump Magnifica to being the first general manager of the Trump Bloody Run Golf Course. And when his old boss asks “his favorite Jew” to take on the daunting role of chief of staff, Herb, spurred on by loyalty, agrees. But being the chief of staff is a lot different from being a former hospitality expert. Soon, Herb finds himself deeply involved in Russian intrigue, deflecting rumors about Mike Pence’s high school involvement in a Satanic cult, and leading President Trump’s reelection campaign. What Nutterman experiences is outrageous, outlandish, and otherwise unbelievable—therefore making it a deadly accurate account of being the chief of staff during the Trump administration. With hilarious jabs at the biggest world leaders and Washington politics overall, Make Russia Great Again is a timely political satire from “one of the funniest writers in the English language” (Tom Wolfe).

Of the recent political satire books I have read Make Russia Great Again was by far the best.

Christopher Buckley makes the White House activity all too believable and doesn’t go so far over the top as to spoil the humor. The dry humor works with just enough absurdity to add spice. Sure, it is at times sophomoric and crude, but given the subject matter what do you expect?

Why the three stars? I guess there is a fine line between humor that is funny and that which is depressing. So even as I smiled wryly at the humor, I was shaking my head at the reality that makes satire of the Trump era so difficult.

And this is where judging this book becomes difficult. If you WANT to laugh at/with Trump World, Buckley provides the opportunity. But in some ways it seems to normalize the absurdities involved. Ironically, the humor works in important ways because Buckley gets at the absurdity that lies close to any form of politics and celebrity culture and plays it straight. And he highlights how Trump turns this all up to 11. There isn’t a seething anger or a bitterness either.

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Celebrity Culture, Elected Officials & Leadership

Jim Geraghty’s Morning Jolt looks at the other side of the issue raised by Leonard Reed: leadership. He offers some wise words on interpreting what you see on TV or on social media:

Not every crime leads back to the suspect you already disliked. Sometimes the trail leads back to the people you thought better of, who you thought were on the right path, the people who you thought weren’t capable of this.

But this section on what it means to serve in elected office is important too:

The combination of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread urban violence should be reinforcing to all Americans the hard lesson that elected office is not about being a celebrity. It is not about looking good on television, or an opportunity to manipulate and control the lives of human beings like moving pawns on a chess board. It is not about soaring rhetoric and pretty words.

Leadership in elected office is often about telling people difficult truths that they don’t want to hear, making hard decisions that will fully satisfy no one, and accepting the responsibility for making those decisions. If you are not willing to accept that, don’t run for the job.

For more insight on celebrity platform versus character building institutions and leadership, I highly recommend A Time To Build by Yuval Levin which I hope to review here soon. Recent events have only highlighted how important these issues are to a vision for moving forward.

On Thinking for Self – Leonard E. Reed

A conversation on Twitter prompted me to think about the dozens of books on conservatism I have and further to actually pull some of them off the shelf.  This in turn induced in me both despair and desire.  Despair at the time it would take to even make a dent in this collection but also a desire to dive into this sea of knowledge in the hopes of rekindling the love and wonder I had in college and grad school.

All of this by way of introduction to why I stumbled on Accent on the Right by Leonard E. Reed (famous for the essay I, Pencil and for founding the Foundation for Economic Education) and decided to finally read the slim volume.  I did so today and found it an odd but still insightful libertarian essay on freedom, progress and persuasion.

There was a chapter, On Thinking for Self, however, that I thought was worth sharing.

Reed starts with, to him at the time, a frightening thought:

What a fearful thought-if this situation is general: a nation of people the vast majority of whom do no thinking for themselves in the area political economy! Positions on matters of the deepest social import formed from nothing more profound than radio, TV, and newspaper commentaries, or casual, off-the-cuff opinions, or the outpourings of popularity seekers!

Reed than explores the impact of such a climate on politics:

Assume a people who do no thinking for themselves.  Theirs is a stunted skepticism.  Such people only react and are easy prey of the cliche, the plausibility, the shallow promise, the lie.  Emotional appeals, and petty words are their only guidelines. The market is made up of no-thinks. Statesmen-men of integrity and intellectual stature-are hopelessly out of demand.  When this is the situation, such statesmen will not be found among the politically active.

And who may we expect to respond to a market where thinking for self is absent?  Charlatans! Word mongers! Power seekers! Deception artists! They come out of their obscurity as termites out of a rotten stump; the worst rise to the political top.  And when our only choice is “the lesser of two evils,” voting is a sham.

[…]

When thinking for self is declining, more charlatans and fewer statesmen will vie for office.  Look at the political horizon to learn what the thinking is, just as you look at a thermometer to learn what the temperature is.  So blame not the political opportunists for the state of the nation.  Our failure to think for ourselves put them there-indeed, brought them into being. For we are the market; they are but the reflections!

An interesting fact intrudes itself into this analysis: approximately 50 percent of those who do not think for themselves are furious with what they see on the political horizon-which is but their own reflections! And to assuage their discontent they exert vigorous effort to change the reflections from Republican to Democrat, or vice versa.  As should be expected, they get no more for their pains than new face making mentalities remarkably similar to those unseated. It cannot be otherwise.

I will leave it to the reader whether any of this is applicable to our time…

The Corruption Before Trump

We are where we are in American politics, in part, because all these big-picture projects succeeded in enriching private interests … but failed to achieve their stated public goals. The “shock therapy” delivered to Russia midwifed Putinism instead of a prosperous American ally. The war in Iraq ushered in a regional conflict that’s still burning to this day. Chimerica worked out better for the Chinese than for many working-class Americans, and far better for the Chinese Politburo than for the cause of liberty. And the self-justifying doctrine of the present elite — that you can serve the common good while in office and do well for yourself afterward — became far more implausible when the elite’s projects kept failing even as the officeholders kept on cashing in. – Ross Douthat

Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children by Erick Erickson

One of the weird things about my lingering inability to post book reviews with any sort of consistency is that I have continued to read; often quite a lot.  Last year I read/listened to 100 books!

One of those was Before You Wake: Life Lessons from a Father to His Children
by Erick Erickson.  Like so many, I never got around to posting a review of the book here.  Well, today is his birthday so I got the idea that maybe I should finally offer my thoughts on his book.

It is not easy to review books by people you consider friends; even if the friendship is mostly online rather than in person. I have known Erick for many years, and consider him a friend even if we have met only on a couple of occasions. Although our politics are both conservative, we bring quite different perspectives to blogging and politics.  But I have always appreciated the passion and insight Erick brings.  Plus, he is famous and I am not … So take that for whatever it is worth.

What struck me about this book was how personal it is. It has the flavor of a memoir rather than an advice book. And then there are recipes at the end. But it makes sense somehow because you can tell how much joy cooking, eating and entertaining give to Erick.

Erick offers insight into how he became the person he is today not in terms of his political philosophy but in terms of personality and interests. His childhood, in the US and in the Middle East, made a big impression on him. He recalls with relish and joy his experiences. At times you might wonder what it all means and how it ties together. But I think it is just something that Erick believes made hims who he is. And he is trying to capture that for his children and for readers who might be interested.

The other aspect that comes through is how increasingly Erick is viewing his life through the lens of his faith and his community rather than through politics and elections. He stresses over and over again that what he wants for his children is that they love God, love their family and seek to be part of a community that reflects the Creator; that they love their neighbors and serve others.

This is not a radical idea from a Christian perspective, but for those who only know Erick from partisan politics, and the world of talking heads and talk radio, this might seem oddly communitarian and localist. As tribalism, and with it a toxic public square, has come to dominate our politics Erick has clearly felt called to something different. Admittedly, he struggles with how that looks like day-to-day but his preference for something different comes through clearly in this short book.

His family’s medical challenges, his career path in the often unstable world of political commentary, and his growing fame online, on TV and on the radio, all provide opportunities to learn and grown.  Erick walks the reader through these events and seeks to pull our pearls of wisdom to offer his children.  There is nothing particularly profound but there is also plenty of advice worth taking.

I always used to joke online that the biggest secret about Erick was that he was a really nice guy involved in an often ugly business. This book brings that “secret” out into the open. Erick’s mantra might be boiled down to faith, family, friends and food. Seek community and connection in these, he tells his children, and you will find purpose and meaning. 

I doubt a lot of people who disagree with Erick’s politics have or will read this book.  Which is a shame because we could do with a world where more people got to know each other who disagree.  And this book will help you understand Erick Erickson the person rather than Erick the talking head or Erick the radio host.  It won’t change your mind but it might change how you see pundits and those in the news. 

Plus, if you happen to be a foodie or cook, you get the added bonus of what sound like a bunch of delicious recipes.

The New Trail of Tears by Naomi Schaefer Riley

The New Trail of Tears is an important and yet depressing book. It details the myriad problems besetting American Indians today. These include: a lack of economic opportunity, massive dysfunction and family breakdown and tribal and Washington leaders unwilling to face the reality or do anything about it except propose more money and more government (neither of which has worked).

Naomi Schaefer Riley details the plight of the American Indian by highlighting the structural, legal, economic, and political barriers to their success.  Through history, interviews and anecdotes, and analysis, Riley charts the bleak picture.  They lack the opportunity to achieve success in important ways because they do not have the property rights we take for granted.  They can’t really build up equity in property, use land or ownership as an investment or as collateral for a loan, etc. This basic element of financial and economic growth is denied.

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Review: Rumours of Glory: A Memoir by Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn is one of my favorite musicians/artists. His lyrics are poetry and often profound and deeply moving. I own almost all of his albums and have listened to his music for decades. We come from polar opposite perspectives when it comes to theology and politics but I am still a huge fan.

So when I realized, a little after the fact, that he had published a memoir, I had to read it. Rumors of Glory was fascinating and engaging because, despite my fandom, I know very little about Cockburn the person (perhaps because I didn’t want to get into his politics too much for fear it would ruin his music – not that he hides his politics, particular in later albums).

What really comes through is his honesty and free spirit. You also get to see how his life and music line up; where certain songs and lyrics came from and how they reflect his life and experiences; chronology and discology.

His lyrics remain beautiful poetry and I enjoyed reading them scattered throughout the book and following the chronology.

I will admit I did struggle a bit with the politics, however, and occasionally the theology. I appreciate his passion and his compassion but was a little frustrated just how one sided it was.

He castigates and lambasts conservatives, right-wingers, and corporations endlessly and with vitriol and occasionally with near rage. But he never really questions his basically socialist, and often seemingly utopian, perspective. He never questions the left, or their sources, never seems to give the American government the benefit of the doubt or admit the myriad of benefits the free market can bring. He never delves into the corruption and kleptocracy of socialist and communist countries around the world. The corruption, fundamental amorality, and basic incompetence of the UN never comes up either. American politicians and multinational corporations are always to blame.

That said, you can’t help but be depressed and frustrated with the devastation, despair, and destruction that Cockburn has witnessed around the globe and for which he offers a sort of tour.

Unless you are a blind ideologue, you can’t help but be frustrated and angry with the greed and violence that has produced nearly endless wars across the globe. America does have much to answer for and American corporations and their allies in government do to. When you count the cost in lives lost, money spent, and the environmental degradation it is hard not to feel sympathetic to the pacifist perspective.

Cockburn’s personal life also proves to be fascinating and a little depressing. He honestly discusses how he was closed and cut off from true intimacy and communication early in his life and how his relationships suffered as a result. But he also relates how part of his personal and spiritual journey was trying to resolve this flaw and how even his tragic experiences led to growth and understanding.

His spirituality and faith start out somewhat conventional (he was introduced to the faith and became a Christian as a result of his relationship with his first wife) but ends up almost a pantheistic (or universal search for the divine in life). But even so, he remains committed throughout to faith in God; he prayers and writes with depth and power about faith. His determined search for truth and beauty and his commitment to loving God and loving his neighbor are always there. This I can respect and appreciate no matter the heterodoxy.

Anyone with an interest in Cockburn and his music will want to read Rumors of Glory. Anyone interested in the interplay between life, art, music, and politics would also find this memoir engaging and insightful. I enjoyed it thoroughly.