The Washington Book: How to Read Politics and Politicians review – unpicking the lexicon of America’s leaders | Politics books

The Washington Book: How to Read Politics and Politicians review – unpicking the lexicon of America’s leaders | Politics books


Politicians mince or mash words for a living, and the virtuosity with which they twist meanings makes them artists of a kind. Their skill at spinning facts counts as a fictional exercise: in political jargon, a “narrative” is a storyline that warps truth for partisan purposes. Carlos Lozada, formerly a reviewer for the Washington Post and now a columnist at the New York Times, specialises in picking apart these professional falsehoods. Analysing windy orations, ghostwritten memoirs and faceless committee reports, the essays in his book expose American presidents, members of Congress and supreme court justices as unreliable narrators, inveterate deceivers who betray themselves in careless verbal slips.

Lozada has a literary critic’s sharp eye, and an alertly cocked ear to go with it. Thus he fixes on a stray remark made by Trump as he rallied the mob that invaded the Capitol in January 2021. Ordering the removal of metal detectors, he said that the guns his supporters toted didn’t bother him, because “they’re not here to hurt me”. Lozada wonders about the emphasis in that phrase: did it neutrally fall on “hurt” or come down hard on “me”? If the latter, it licensed the rampant crowd to hurt Trump’s enemies – for instance by stringing up his disaffected vice-president Mike Pence on a gallows outside the Capitol.

Tiny linguistic tics mark the clash between two versions of America’s fabled past and its prophetic future. Lozada subtly tracks the recurrence of the word “still” in Biden’s speeches – for instance his assertion that the country “still believes in honesty and decency” and is “still a democracy” – and contrasts it with Trump’s reliance on “again”, the capstone of his vow to Make America Great Again. Biden’s “still” defensively fastens on “something good that may be slipping away”, whereas Trump’s “again” blathers about restoring a lost greatness that is never defined. Biden’s evokes “an ideal worth preserving”; Trump’s equivalent summons up an illusion.

At their boldest, Lozada’s politicians trade in inflated tales about origins and predestined outcomes, grandiose narratives that “transcend belief and become a fully formed worldview”. Hence the title of Hillary Clinton’s manifesto It Takes a Village, which borrows an African proverb about child-rearing and uses it to prompt nostalgia for a bygone America. Lozada watches Obama devising and revising a personal myth. Addressed as Barry by his youthful friends, he later insisted on being called Barack and relaunched himself as the embodiment of America’s ethnic inclusivity; his “personalised presidency” treated the office as an extension of “the Obama brand”. In this respect Trump was Obama’s logical successor, extending a personal brand in a bonanza of self-enrichment. The “big lie” about the supposedly stolen 2020 election is another mythological whopper. Trump admitted its falsity on one occasion when he remarked “We lost”, after which he immediately backtracked, adding: “We didn’t lose. We lost in the Democrats’ imagination.”

All this amuses Lozada but also makes him anxious. As an adoptive American – born in Peru, he became a citizen a decade ago – he has a convert’s faith in the country’s ideals, yet he worries about contradictions that the national creed strains to reconcile. A border wall now debars the impoverished masses welcomed by the Statue of Liberty; the sense of community is fractured by “sophisticated engines of division and misinformation”. Surveying dire fictional scenarios about American decline, Lozada notes that the warmongers enjoy “a narrative advantage”: peace is boring, but predictions of a clash with China or an attack by homegrown terrorists excite the electorate by promising shock, awe and an apocalyptic barrage of special effects. Rather than recoiling from Trump, do Americans share his eagerness for desecration and destruction?

Changing only the names of the performers, The Washington Book has a shadowy local replica. Here in Britain, too, ideological posturing has replaced reasoned argument, and buzzwords are squeezed to death by repetition. Whenever Sunak drones on about “delivering for the British people”, I think of him as a Deliveroo gig worker with a cooling takeaway in his backpack, or a weary postman pushing a trolley full of mortgage bills.

Though such verbal vices are international, a difference of scale separates Washington from Westminster. In America, heroic ambition is brought low by errors of judgment or moral flaws that for Lozada recall “the great themes of literature and the great struggles of life”: Kennedy’s risky confrontations with Cuba, Lyndon Johnson mired in Vietnam, Nixon overcome by paranoia. To set against these tragic falls, we have only the comic spectacle of Boris Johnson gurning on a zip wire or Liz Truss vaingloriously granting an interview atop the Empire State Building; neither of them had the good grace to jump off. American politics is dangerously thrilling because it is so consequential for the rest of the world. In Britain we are doomed to sit through a more trivial show, an unfunny farce played out in a theatre that is crumbling around us.

The Washington Book: How to Read Politics and Politicians by Carlos Lozada is published by Simon & Schuster (£23.56)



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