Skip to content

European Perspectives on the United States in Times of Populism, Protests, and the Pandemic:

European Perspectives on the United States in Times of Populism, Protests, and the Pandemic

Wolfgang Fach, Trump: Ein amerikanischer Traum? Warum Amerika sich verwählt hat (Bielefeld: transcript, 2020), 124 pp.

Alain Badiou, Trump (Cambridge: Polity, 2019), v + 68 pp.

Noam Zadoff, Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, Mirjam Zadoff, and Heike Paul, eds., Four Years After: Ethnonationalism, Antisemitism, and Racism in Trump’s America (Heidelberg: Winter, 2020), 200 pp.

Why the citizens of the United States picked the wrong president in 2016 is gradually becoming more obvious. In the last four years, Donald J. Trump has polarized his country more than any other president before him. He has succeeded in dividing the nation into those who are with him—his fans, mostly Republicans—and those who are against him—mostly Democrats. His self-absorbed mentality does not allow him to recognize the truth in Abraham Lincoln’s prominent 1858 statement: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Trump’s use of social media, Twitter in particular, has not only made fake news the dangerous new way of informing people—who stay in their echo chambers protected by filter bubbles, even unwilling to communicate with others—but has also driven scientists, in the middle of a devastating pandemic, into despair because their expertise, while listened to at the beginning, is now being questioned by people who rather follow Trump’s irresponsible behavior. Publications have become myriad on both sides of the Atlantic that try to read, interpret, and understand a political phenomenon that seems to destroy U.S.-American democracy. Various German publications have pointed to the destructive effects of the Trump administration, for instance, Elmar Theveßen’s Die Zerstörung Amerikas: Wie Donald Trump sein Land und die Welt für immer verändert (2020) or Klaus Brinkbäumer and Stephan Lamby’s Im Wahn: Die amerikanische Katastrophe (2020)—to name only two examples out of many books written on the other side of the Atlantic that observe and critically discuss a phenomenon that is and is not unique to the United States. The small sample of European voices reviewed below is just the tip of the iceberg that continues to grow below the surface.

Wolfgang Fach’s study Trump: Ein amerikanischer Traum? Warum Amerika sich verwählt hat (2020) is a timely, even if highly provocative, analysis of a historical development in the U.S. presidential role that has led to the election of Donald Trump as forty-fifth president. Written in German and headed by a suggestive and critical title, Fach—Professor emeritus of Political Theory and the History of Ideas at the University of Leipzig—offers one of the many attempts at explaining Trump’s election. The simple answer is that we still do not really know. Some of the more complicated reasons, according to Fach, can be found in U.S.-American individualism, hero worship, inefficient governmental administration, the absence of a social safety net, and the subsequently emerging self-proclaimed caretakers as well as Woodrow Wilson’s “‘America first’” (10) parole. Through the German pun on the word “wählen” (vote / dial) in his title, Fach claims that the United States has chosen wrongly, that is, figuratively, has dialed the wrong number when making Trump its president.

The long essay, with its eleven chapters, centers around presidential types at a particular time in history—the dreamer, the farmer, the founder, the hunter, the savior, the teacher, the one who reigns, the doer / maker, and the leader—and is framed by a first chapter on the recognition that President Trump is an idiot (“Die Einsicht: The Idiot”) and a last chapter giving an outlook for the future (“Die Aussicht: Global Idiocy”). Fach likes to play with language. His pleasure in punning and metaphorizing as well as in alternating between academic and everyday, down-to-earth, or even gross expressions make the book easier to read but, at times, also verge on arrogance and disrespect. While this attitude seems to be somehow adequate in view of President Trump’s behavior, it does not do justice to his predecessors.

In the first chapter, Fach quotes some of Trump’s former allies, who called Trump variously an eleven-year-old child, “a fucking moron,” “dumb as shit,” or simply “an idiot,” thus, an “accidental President” (11; emphasis in original), as Fach calls him. Subsequently, Fach suggests that one of the main reasons for this presidential accident seems to be U.S. Americans’ desire for heroes (18). While Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s American farmer and Thomas Jefferson’s husbandman did not yet exhibit heroic qualities and agriculture was not really a field that needed or even produced heroes, this period was short and soon disrupted when the colonies had to stand up against England and fought for their independence with George Washington as first national leader. With an ironic undertone, Fach calls the army’s soldiers “Soldatenhaufen” (25; heap of soldiers) and Washington “begnadeter Führer” (26; exceptionally gifted leader). As Fach points out, the new nation was still mostly royalist in attitude and replaced the monarch by the president who became their “king” (32). Americans destroyed statues of George III and erected new ones of their own majesty (35). Someone even suggested to simply call George Washington “George IV” (35). According to Fach, the strong leader without a functioning form of government administration was thus born (43).

It is with Andrew Jackson, whose portrait decorates Trump’s Oval Office, that the nation elects someone who does not govern systematically, but decides autocratically (55). For Fach, Trump’s choice of portrait is adequate (56). Jackson, as Fach shows, fought a war against banks to prevent the money from disappearing across the Atlantic. Fach’s label, therefore, does not come as a surprise when he calls Jackson’s policy “Purely American” (57; emphasis in original) and concludes that in no other presidents can we find so many parallels to Trump: “In keinem anderen Präsidenten steckt so viel Trump” (61). With the Great Awakening, which Fach considers to be a huge mush of intense (and maybe false) piety, “ein mächtiger ‘Brei’ intensiver Frömmigkeit” (62), the individual itinerant preacher served as an example of an activity which, in the long run, seemed to have divided U.S.-American society in religious matters. Benjamin Franklin, Charles G. Finney, Russell Conwell, and Horatio Alger, for Fach, belonged to those teacher figures who introduced positive thinking in their writings (ch. 7, 67-77). Alger’s Ragged Dick (1868), an example of the many novels he published, does not, as has been the common belief until today, present characters who rise from rags to riches but they do so from rags to respectability. As Fach shows, Alger’s novels have falsely been equated with the prominent promise of the American Dream to become rich. This myth has prevailed and is often juxtaposed with Andrew Carnegie, who rose to riches and who, in his Gospel of Wealth, openly suggests to give one’s money to public institutions, such as libraries, swimming pools, parks, universities, during your lifetime, and not to, as Fach implies, the lazy and drunk. Carnegie, Fach maintains, seems to project that there is no better politician than the businessman (77)—another feature we see in Trump.

Another prominent example of a man in power is Boss Tweed (1823-1878), who seemingly rose from rags to riches as a corrupt politician and businessman, as owner of banks, property, and hotels in New York City. In his headquarters, Tammany Hall, he was able to rely on a political machinery that offered public positions for (party-) political services (81). Due to presidents and central governments who did not interfere in individual state affairs, public institutions began to decline and could only be saved by private donors, such as Carnegie, on the one hand, or by a presidential maker and hero that Fach sees emerging in Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand. To maintain the nation’s union, strong leadership with the capacity to speak to the nation was necessary. Fach’s irrespectable insight into what a great leader needs, namely the gift of the gab because without it all is in vain, reads as follows: “Ein ‘großer’ Führer benötigt daher zuvörderst ein großes Mundwerk; fehlt es daran, ist alles Weitere für die Katz” (102-03). With the rise of the media in the early twentieth century, the president as “spokesman of the nation” (103; emphasis in original) was born. Because Franklin D. Roosevelt did not change the governmental spoils system, he left much room for (verbal) attacks as is visible as well in Trump’s slogan “drain the swamp” (106; emphasis in original). For Fach, Trump has become the disruptor of a system that allows for arbitrary hiring and firing. As Fach summarizes, Trump keeps ignoring Washington experts, hiring questionable and incompetent outsiders, firing progressives, leaving positions of the so-called deep state unfilled, arguing that the nation simply does not need them. Trump’s activities are dangerous because they disrupt and destroy but do not build anything new. This devastation needs a hero who shoulders the world, and this fixer type is, of course, Trump, according to Trump himself. Trump accuses the Democrats of being responsible for this turmoil because they, as he maintains, want to take away from people their weapons, health care, suffrage, liberty, judges, everything. Thus, everything is at stake and depends on him alone, “[a]lles steht auf dem Spiel und hängt allein von ihm ab” (Fach 110; emphasis in original). As Fach provocatively concludes, Trump is already changing his country, and, perhaps, tomorrow, he will change the whole world: “Der ‘Idiot’ verändert schon heute sein Land. Und morgen vielleicht die ganze Welt?” (111).

Is “Global Idiocy” the vision of the future? Trump’s questionable “‘superior genes’” (qtd. in Fach 113) seem to be the only “quality” the current president, from his own point of view, can perhaps rely on since language is not his strength. Trump needs to be held accountable for the brutalization of language as well as of the etiquette of public behavior and patterns of thinking and acting. In the end, as Fach sees it, Trump triggers “‘a world of increasing disarray’” (qtd. in Fach 114) or “global idiocy” (114; emphasis in original).

Wolfgang Fach’s analysis of how Trump’s election as president can be explained is erudite and offers interesting facts and occasional anecdotes from U.S.-American history and politics. That the nightmare of a Trump presidency has become true and ran the risk of being prolonged in November 2020 is the result of a desire—perhaps universal and certainly, according to Fach, American—for a hero and strong leader who alone can fix everything that is broken, even if it is not broken. It seems that this longing coupled with the candidate’s gift of the gab is enough to make someone the head of a world power. The conclusions Fach draws are pessimistic and explain his own often ironic tone verging on sarcasm that more than once leaves the reader puzzled and torn between what he says and how he says it. Academic conventions are loosely adhered to; sources written in English are quoted in German without indicating a translator or even the fact that it is a translation. Surprisingly, encyclopedias such as Wikipedia are used as sources along with original and more serious works. In spite of its in-between status as academic study and a good read for a German-speaking non-academic audience, Fach’s Trump: Ein amerikanischer Traum? Warum Amerika sich verwählt hat is worth reading (in print or online) as one more—and insightful—explanation for the accidental election of Trump.

The next book on Trump under review here comes from philosopher, playwright, and novelist Alain Badiou. His slim volume consists of two lectures delivered respectively two days and two weeks after the election of Trump for president in 2016. Both were originally held in English, the first on November 9, 2016, at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the second on November 17 at Tufts University in Boston, and were then also translated into German. Badiou’s European perspective as an Emeritus Professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris finds strong and outright polemical words for the election.

In hindsight and with the hope for a new and moderate president Joe Biden—inaugurated on January 20, 2021—one can only agree with Badiou when he, in his first lecture, labels the election of Trump in 2016 a “horror” (1-2), “a bad surprise” (2), and “the victory of the enemy” (2). Badiou is trying to find at least a partial explanation for why this result was possible. In contrast to the emotionally charged campaigns in both 2016 and 2020, he asks for a rational response that investigates some of the reasons for this catastrophe. From his Marxist-Leninist-Maoist perspective, as it seems to me (he is a co-founder of the Union des communistes de France marxiste-léniniste and a leading member of the French Maoist movement), he sees two interrelated reasons: the “victory of global capitalism” and “the complete failure of the great socialist states, first Russia, then China, and, more generally, the disappearance almost everywhere of the collectivist vision of the economy and of social laws, even in the form of a simple program” (3-4). He juxtaposes liberalism, for which “private property is the key factor in the organization of society” (5), and socialism / communism, which reject the focus on private property and rather favor “a collectivized organization of production and exchange” (6) and would eliminate inequalities, as he believes. The horror of Trump’s presidency, for Badiou, does not lie in Trump’s character but rather in global capitalism, which he labels a “monster” with “its inequalities, its crises, and its wars. […] And the monster becomes more monstrous every day” (9). For him, “the role of the state” currently seems to be “to protect these inequalities, to protect the monster” (10). Therefore, for him, the opposition of Republicans and Democrats is no longer a true opposition because both rely on the same economic principles. Like his more populist colleagues, he accuses “all members of the political class of today” (11) of oiling the “capitalist machine” (11) of the “monster” (11), over which, however, as he argues, they gradually seem to lose control. Badiou sees Trump in line with politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, and Marine Le Pen, who use gangsters or mafias as models and show elitist “fascist tendencies” (13). Trump et al. use language devoid of coherence and rationality in order “to produce affects” (13). Badiou identifies several components in the Trump phenomenon as representative of a larger dynamic that he frames as “democratic fascism” (13). Capitalism, democratic fascism, popular frustration, and the “total absence of a political strategy” (18) converge in the lack of “a great Idea” (19) and are, therefore, at the origin of the contemporary crisis.

Like many populists, Badiou sees Hillary Clinton and Trump as members of the “small worldwide oligarchy that is capitalizing its profits on a worldwide scale” (21). Granted, he does see the differences between Clinton and Trump and understands why people would favor Clinton over Trump, but, ultimately, for him, they are playing in the same league. The real distinction, as he argues, lies in Trump’s opposition to Bernie Sanders, whom he grants a different vision of the future “outside the monster” (23). Badiou proposes to return to the true dialectic of capitalism versus communism (24-25), idealizing communism as “the making in-common […] of everything concerning the great processes of production and exchange” (24).

While it is possible to recognize the differences between Clinton and Sanders that Badiou points out, he does not address the fact that Sanders did not win the nomination because he did not get the majority of votes during the pre-election campaign. In other words, communism—which is actually not what Sanders proclaims—is not an alternative favored by the people in the United States. Donald Trump was, in fact, able to use the label of communism to frighten voters, reminding them of the 1920s Red Scare and the 1950s hunt for communists—not that he did this with so many words. Striving for equality is deeply anchored in the origins of the United States, that is the Declaration of Independence, but there, too, one can also find the origins of inequality. It seems to me that equality is not something that can be achieved through communism but rather via the intersection of capitalism and moderate socio-economic programs, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal did. Extreme binary oppositions do not overcome crises but rather polarize people even more.

Badiou’s second lecture proclaims pretty much the same ideas but with a stronger focus on what could be changed in the future by taking the election of Trump “as an ugly symptom of the global situation […]” (27). Badiou emphasizes communism (and with it Sanders) as representing universality as well as equality and fascism (and with it Trump) as embodying identity and hierarchy. Badiou works with further dichotomies by equating Democrats and the left with communism and Republicans and the right with fascism as well as capitalism. This division, as he points out, if too strong, might lead to a civil war (36-37). While this war has not happened during the Trump presidency, it is again an issue being discussed the moment Biden became president-elect. In November 2020, the question was whether Trump and his fandom would peacefully concede the loss of the election, whether Trump would leave office with dignity (which he did not) or whether he would ask his partisans to stand by and fight if necessary, which he did. The United States is a divided and polarized nation, but not along clear-cut geographical borders, as in the nineteenth-century Civil War fought between the North and the South. The lines are now geographically, ethnically, and socially blurred so that people would have to fight in small enclaves, sometimes against their immediate neighbors, or sometimes in urban centers against small rural areas in the same state. Are people in the United States ready for this? I doubt it. Badiou’s communism is irreconcilably opposed to fascism. So how could communism be a solution to polarization? Badiou in his reasoning points to the “crisis of the political elite” (43), which then produces “strange persons” (43) exhibiting “vulgarity, sexism, complete contempt for intellectuals, and so on” (43). Some of the rather Marxist solutions to the crisis he proposes are the undoing of the “opposition between intellectual work and manual work” (48), the abandonment of actual borders for equality to exist across differences (49), and the dissolution of states as “separated and armed power[s]” (50), all based on the rejection of private property.

Badiou’s two speeches are followed by a final Q & A section, in which he discusses questions of power, the relationship between movements and the state as well as between Marxism and race, and the possibility of “new strategic politics” (62), which cannot reside in political power to control “the effects of globalized capitalism” (66). Badiou’s simplified response to capitalism is either communism or “complete barbarism” (66); he evokes conspiracy theories that label the CIA, the NSA, and the Pentagon as the “‘permanent government’” (67) with the specter of Hitler and Mussolini in the background and, with these simplifications, plays upon people’s fears. As Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here proclaims, these fears can enable populists to take over democratically sanctioned authority and power.

Written from a Marxist perspective, Alain Badiou’s lectures proclaim communism as the true alternative to capitalism, notwithstanding the fact that practical or so-called communism in a number of countries, such as Russia and China, has collaborated with and even enhanced capitalism. Binaries never solve problems but create irreconcilable polarization. Sanders himself does not proclaim communism but, if anything, socialism. The solution, as it seems to me, can only be moderate capitalism in conjunction with social programs. Badiou is right in his final idea, namely that Trump is “a symptom of a bad situation,” which is “why we must look at the situation which created Trump and not be fascinated by Trump himself” (68). It seems that in January 2020, although the situation is still bad, the symptom, at least in part, had to leave.

Like many other European works interrogating the Trump administration, the introduction to the collection of essays edited by Noam Zadoff et al. begins with addressing reactions of fear, here the one expressed by a group of students at Indiana University in Bloomington in November 2016. The students made a film of their initial meeting, in which they communicated their fear of “the massive outbreak of racism that was bound to sweep across the country in the aftermath of the election […]” (1). Their reactions that also point to the intersection of racism and anti-Semitism finally triggered a project that brought scholars from the United States, Europe, and Israel to Berlin in June 2017 to the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin, which collaborated with Indiana University’s Borns Jewish Studies at Bloomington with its European Gateway in Berlin. The scholars came for a conference “to discuss the first six months of the Trump presidency and its impact on universities and media channels in the Unites States, as well as the influence of Trump’s isolationist tendencies on America’s international policies” (1). In their introduction, the editors point to another phenomenon which has worried scholars and politicians alike since 2016. Europe, too, saw its populist tendencies and witnessed what could happen if a “nationalist rhetoric when uttered—and put into practice—from a position of power, in fact, the power of the highest official in the country” (1) was not prevented from being spread. Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here again comes to mind, which convincingly reveals that, indeed, it can happen anywhere when populism is on the rise. The many racist events in the United States since 2016 have justified initial fears and have led to the aforementioned conference and the present collection of essays as a collaboration between Bloomington, Berlin, and Munich (Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism and the Bavarian American Academy). In the wake of the killings of Black people in the United States leading to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and discussions of structural racism and a colonial past, also in Germany, the volume aims “to trace the historical roots of current events and to examine different aspects of Trump’s presidency, namely those related to questions of race, racism, and ethno-nationalism, four years after he was elected” (2).

The collection’s subdivision into five main parts offers chapters on “Political Analysis,” “Historical Perspectives,” “Global Connections,” “Race, Culture, and Identity-Politics,” and a final interview conducted by Mirjam Zadoff with Khalil Gibran Muhammad. In part I, “Political Analysis,” Roger Cohen (correspondent for the New York Times, nationalized American, son of South African Jewish immigrants to Britain), Michael Kimmage (History, Catholic U of America, Washington, D.C.), and Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo and Mary K. Bloodsworth-Lugo (both in Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State U in Pullman, WA) closely discuss aspects of the Trump administration such as foreign policy as well as immigration rhetoric. Cohen’s foreshadowings in 2017, updated in August 2020, are strikingly accurate in their depiction of the Trump administration when he writes: “A single Trump term has inflicted terrible damage on America. A second would undo the Republic” (8). The one hope he expresses is that “checks and balances still work” (17). Michael Kimmage focuses on elements of the Trump foreign policy that make Trump’s racism and anti-Semitism manifest, such as his conspiracy theories or “conspiratorial mindset” (23), which, as Kimmage argues, is driven by a politics of “disruption” (19) of emotionalization, chaos, and incoherence (19) as well as numerous “assault[s] on multilateral institutions” (22), which show that diplomacy is not his driving factor. Comparable to the historic Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), Trump has reduced politics to simple conspiracies, communicated through social media, especially Twitter. As Kimmage concludes, restoring “reasoned deliberation grounded in moral responsibility” (25) will be a tremendous challenge for the next U.S.-American government. Lugo-Lugo and Bloodsworth-Lugo’s contribution then discusses Trump’s metaphorical use of language to depict Mexican immigration to the United States not only as a crisis but specifically as a health crisis. This label, as they convincingly argue with reference to the cases of typhus in Los Angeles in 2019, is one with a history that goes back to at least the nineteenth century (30), which, in turn, makes it much easier for Trump to “deploy the trope of the ‘diseased (Mexican) immigrant’” (31) and to blame the Chinese for the spread of COVID-19 (31).

Part II, “Historical Perspectives,” consists of three contributions by Richard E. Frankel (History, U of Louisiana, Lafayette) on the rise of modern anti-Semitism (1880-1914), Linda Gordon (History, New York U) on the 1920s Ku Klux Klan, and Kristoff Kerl (History, U of Copenhagen) on the racism and White supremacy of the Far Right (1970-1990s). Frankel points to the intersection of globalization and hate, which has turned the label globalist into a word with negative associations that connect it to worldwide conspiracy theories. He juxtaposes the racist reactions to Chinese laborers in the late-nineteenth-century United States to the arrival of many Eastern European Jews in Western Europe, often crossing Germany on their way to the United States. As Frankel maintains, Germany used the example of the anti-Chinese movement across the Atlantic as an analogy to the rising anti-Semitism in Germany that was expressed in a similar racist public discourse and exclusionary measures. In both cases, immigration is considered a threat to health for the United States and Germany respectively. Similarly, Linda Gordon studies the entanglement of anti-Black racism and anti-immigration activism in the Ku Klux Klan and describes it as a large populist and fascist movement. Since populism focuses on instilling fear in people, the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was highly successful in triggering not only racist attitudes but also anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic aversion in the U.S.-American population directed against the immigration of Eastern European Jews and Southern European Catholics. Gordon ends with a word of caution on the overlap of populism and fascism and on the historical contingency of these concepts: “Most important, however, is that neither label, whether populist or fascist, is adequate to illuminate current dangers. History does not repeat itself. […] We can, however, use the history of those populisms and fascisms as warnings, and as guidance in identifying fascistic trends and trajectories” (65-66; emphasis in original). Kristoff Kerl follows Frankel and Gordon in discussing the close connection between anti-Black and anti-Jewish racism by drawing on the notion of “‘minority racism’” (70) and the monthly magazine Instauration, which “was an influential actor in the (re-)shaping of white supremacist thinking” (78).

Part III, “Global Connections,” features contributions by Dirk Rupnow (History, U of Innsbruck) on Holocaust remembrance in the age of global Trumpism, Jacob Ari Labendz (Judaic Studies, Youngstown State U) on Trump’s attitude toward American Jews, and Ursula Prutsch’s (American Studies, LMU Munich) comparison of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Rupnow draws on the right-wing Austrian party FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) and the year 2018 as Austria’s official “‘year of communication and remembrance’” (84) to point to “growing right-wing populism, and at the same time growing racist, Islamophobic, and anti-migrant resentments” (93) on both sides of the Atlantic. Labendz illustrates Trump’s ambivalent attitude toward Jews as “a national minority associated with the State of Israel” (101) and the president’s claim that criticism of Israel is equivalent to anti-Semitism. Prutsch points to “antisemitic prejudices under the umbrella of symbolic pro-Israel attitudes” (124) and to far-right populism in Brazil and the United States. Both Trump and Bolsonaro, as she claims, “know perfectly well how to instrumentalize the media for their mission” (131; emphasis in original).

Part IV, “Race, Culture, and Identity-Politics,” offers Sina Arnold’s (Social Sciences, TU Berlin) analysis of the American left’s urgent need for a thorough reflection of its own role in the rise of anti-Semitism to counteract Trump’s “indifference towards growing antisemitism” (158), for example, when he did not mention Jewish victims in his speech on Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2017. Axelle Germanaz (American Studies, U Erlangen-Nuremberg) takes a close look at a White supremacist transatlantic music scene and shows that White supremacist ideas are not just a political but also a pop-cultural phenomenon with its goal “to preserve and uphold an imagined white purity” (165) by defending it against imagined shared threats. Valeria Luiselli (op-ed for the New York Times), concludes this section by focusing on the disastrous effects of Trump’s racist politics on undocumented and unaccompanied Latin and Central American immigrant children. She briefly relates her personal experiences with groups of Hispanic immigrant children in Brooklyn who actively discuss questions of belonging and not belonging in their school curricula. Her label for this “new generation of Hispanic children” as “new Quixotes” (185) seems to be more than adequate.

The conversation (June 18, 2020) between Mirjam Zadoff and Khalil Gibran Muhammad concludes a volume that is dedicated to a transatlantic exchange of ideas; it is “an invitation to engage in comparative reflection, and, hopefully, an incentive to cultivate a critical open-mindedness” (5), as the editors suggest. Zadoff and Muhammad discuss transatlantic racism as well as protest and memorial cultures, in particular the “1619 Project,” which commemorates the arrival of the first Black slaves in America. They point to the paradox in an understanding of the United States as a “liberal democracy” and “the way that it has profited from the exploitation and domination of its own citizens of color” (194), which the COVID-19 crisis has again brought to the fore and has connected to “the intersections of capitalism and racism,” that is, “‘racial capitalism’” (195). Moreover, Muhammad reads the “defund the police” demands as “a process that centers the people who are most proximate to the problem and who have spent time working out solutions and therefore have the highest legitimacy in our liberal democracy for shaping the outcomes” (196).

What Four Years After has to offer is a productive, interdisciplinary, and transatlantic cooperation that not only sheds light on the Trump administration but, most of all, on the need for a comparative and diachronic perspective on similar phenomena that shape both sides of the Atlantic, among them the rise of populism and, in its wake, racism and anti-Semitism and their entanglement in globalization and capitalism. Scholars and journalists from Germany, Austria, Denmark, and the United States use their respective disciplinary perspectives to jointly discuss four years of crises as experienced above all in the United States and Europe but also beyond these geographical limits. While the majority of contributors reside in the United States, all engage in comparative analysis and, with their European colleagues, make this collection a piece of scholarship that reminds those of us who work in American Studies that we need to think beyond the borders of the United States, including with and from European perspectives, to understand what has been happening in the four years after the 2016 U.S.-American presidential election.

While I have only been able to discuss the tip of the iceberg of Trump Studies, with the iceberg continuing to grow by the minute, there seems to be light at the end of the Trump presidency. New publications by Barack Obama, The Promised Land (2020), Michelle Obama, Becoming (2018), Evan Osnos, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now (2020), and Kamala Harris, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (2019), reveal that the outlook for the future might be more colorful and less polarized.

Carmen Birkle (Philipps-Universität Marburg)

Export Citation