Top Ten Books for Donald J. Trump to Read Before His Inauguration
Dear Mr. Trump,
Last week, as if to confirm the suspicions of a burgeoning anti-democratic youth population fretting over the wisdom of electoral politics, the American people voted you in as their president. Many Americans believe you are ill-prepared for job. Your advisors are probably suggesting you populate your administration with competent aides, confidants, and cabinet members. This is all very good advice and should be heeded. There is also something else you can do, something you’ve been hesitant to adopt so far, something past presidents have practiced, and that something is to start reading important books. For, as that other tiny-handed man, Tyrion Lannister, once said, “a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge.”
With this in mind I humbly present ten books you should read before your inauguration this January.
- The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Edward Gibbon, that great historian of antiquity, began his magisterial treatise on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire with the observation that “in the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.” Marcus Aurelius, Rome’s greatest emperor, reflected, in his personal life, this civilized culture. During his tenure as emperor Marcus kept a notebook wherein he documented the practices and ethical principles that lead to virtuous living through rationality, clear-mindedness, and stoic self-control. This notebook became the book we know today as The Meditations. You should read what it has to say.
If the uninhibited screeds of @realDonaldTrump are any indication of your personality, there is no more important book you can read and digest right now than The Meditations. As president you can expect sustained and intense humiliations, insults, and recalcitrance on a daily basis from friend and foe alike. Politics is no easy game. International politics is no joke. This is where Marcus Aurelius can help. He understood how best to deal with slanderous, insulting, and vile people. “To expect bad men not to do wrong is madness,” he wrote, “for he who expects this desires an impossibility. But to allow men to behave so to others, and to expect them not to do you any wrong, is irrational and tyrannical.” The key is not to respond in kind to bad people but, rather, to accept as natural that people will behave improperly and then to move on with your own life in calmness and peace.
The Meditations feature at least two relevant ideas concerning your upcoming presidency. The first, briefly treated above, is how to maintain a calm mind amid the madness of the world. This is an important attribute for a man with his hands not only on the nuclear codes, but also on the levers of power at the Department of Justice, the globe’s most formidable legal agency. The second attribute, related to my next book recommendation, is how best to understand and perform the duties you assume in life.
2. The Founders’ Constitution
This January you will swear a solemn oath — and therefore incur a duty — to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Founders’ Constitution tells you exactly what you are sworn to preserve, protect and defend. Here you have not only the text of the Constitution but also the philosophical and political underpinnings animating it. Pay particular attention to the powers listed under Article 2. These powers are — unlike what your immediate predecessors have argued — limited.
3. Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare
The authority of the president is indeed very powerful. So you may be asking yourself right now why anyone would suggest you read a play. Why not, instead, more political theory? Theodore Roosevelt, another populist American president, was once asked what books a statesman should read to better equip himself for the task of governance. He responded that the statesman should read poetry and novels. He’s right. Fiction expands our minds and broadens our empathic powers. And there is no sweeter, nor a more instructive poetry in the English language than the plays of William Shakespeare.
Measure for Measure is particularly apropos for a man in possession of the vast powers of the American presidency. It tells the tragic story of the corrupting nature of political power. Witness the iniquitous fall of Angelo once he is invested with the power of law enforcement. Another character, Isabella, gets it exactly right when she warns Angelo that “it is excellent/ To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous/ To use it like a giant.”
The law, it turns out, can be a powerful and untamable monster.
4. Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke
Let’s talk about law. You are now head of the executive branch of the United States federal government. Unfortunately, current American political norms offer you a large role not only in executive enforcement of the law but also in lawmaking itself, Montesquieu be damned. That is why we have Obamacare and not, say, Pelosicare. The next two books on this list treat how you should view lawmaking.
You ran a campaign of radicalism. You want to “drain the swamp,” to throw it all away and start anew. Burke’s masterful Reflections on the Revolution in France shows why this revolutionary approach to policymaking is folly, dangerous folly. Lucky for us Burke pretty much summed up his entire thesis in just one paragraph. I’ll share this paragraph but, still, the entire book should be read.
The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens; and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions. In states there are often some obscure and almost latent causes, things which appear at first view of little moment, on which a very great part of its prosperity or adversity may most essentially depend. The science of government being therefore so practical in itself, and intended for such practical purposes, a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be, it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.
5. Simple Rules for a Complex World by Richard A. Epstein
I was tempted to include Thomas Rawls’ A Theory of Justice here. While it wouldn’t be a bad pick at all, we can use just one idea from that great book and that is the idea of the Veil of Ignorance. In terms of law and regulation Richard Epstein’s Simple Rules for a Complex World seems to me like a book most would choose as a policymaking guide from behind the veil of ignorance. It’s a book that incorporates time-tested ideas from ancient Roman law, English common law, and the early constitutional debates of the American republic. The basic idea is that, contrary to prevailing opinion, the increasing complexity of society does not require a concomitant complexity of law and regulation but, rather, a simplification of the same. Throughout the book Epstein builds his argument on the ideas of individual autonomy, first possession property theory, contract law, tort law, taxation theory, eminent domain powers, and, finally, the voluntarist vs. coercive theories of distributive justice.
Grad a pencil and some paper. You’ll want to take notes on this one.
6. The Fractured Republic by Yuval Levin
The next two books deal with a major problem facing our nation: the problem of polarization. As the election you just won so iniquitously demonstrates, America is increasingly at odds with itself. And we all know what happens to a house divided against itself. Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic seeks to rehabilitate our house. In it he argues that the cause of polarization in the country is a blind nostalgia both sides of the political wars hold for the past. The conservatives glorify 1980s Reaganomics, even though those particular policy prescriptions no longer adequately address current economic issues. The left, on the other hand, glorifies the 1960s Great Society as the foundation of the modern welfare state. Both sides, oddly enough, see the 1950s as a time of national unity and purpose. The right sees that period as a utopia of social conservatism; the left sees it as the high-water mark of New Deal regulation with the added sweetener of high marginal tax rates. But in the twenty-first century we no longer enjoy the unity of the 1950s. We can no longer come to an agreement on national policy. This is because we are an incredibly diverse nation with incredibly different ideas and preferences. The bonds of national unity, whether they be the constraining power of social conservatism on the one hand or the consolidating leviathan of the regulatory state on the other, are hopelessly anachronistic in terms of the issues facing us today.
Levin would have you work towards decentralizing power so this diverse and increasingly individualistic nation can sort itself into politically tolerable jurisdictions, forming a mosaic of national unity through the beauty of distinct and diverse micro-polities. The one-size-fits-all method of federal government no longer works. To keep accumulating power in Washington over a population of profound polarization is to invite increasingly intense social strife, angst, and violence with each new election.
7. The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
If this terrible polarization is not treated it will only get worse. A fair warning of what is to come if we don’t figure it out is found in Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War. You’ll want to pay particular attention to his analysis of the Corcyra Revolution and civil war. Here Thucydides presents a bleak picture of human nature embroiled in revolt. “Death thus raged in every shape,” he observes, “and, as usually happens at such times, there was no length to which violence did not go; sons were killed by their fathers, and suppliants dragged from the altar or slain upon it.”
Many of our fellow citizens, drunk on decades of peace, prosperity, and liberal government, have forgotten the true nature of fallen humanity. They overestimate our virtues and, under the banner of American exceptionalism, underestimate how easy it would be to for us to regress to the historical mean of authoritarianism, corruption, demagoguery, and aggression. History is not over. This brief flowering of liberalism the Western world has enjoyed for the last two centuries may very well prove to be the exception rather than the rule of human political organization. This is why it should be the prime objective of your administration, of all administrations, to produce and preserve institutions capable of containing the more dark, broken, and ferocious aspects of human nature. Remember Thucydides when he writes that “human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all superiority.”
8. Washington’s Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation by George Washington, edited with notes by J.M. Toner, M.D.
One way you can work towards reintroducing civility into our politics is to act civil yourself. Historically, the American people have looked to their president for inspiration and leadership. You have a unique opportunity to ameliorate the tensions in our society by conducting your behavior with equanimity, poise, and dignity. Your campaign offers no hope that you’ll behave in such a fashion. Your acceptance speech, on the other hand, offers only the faintest hint that you will moderate yourself in the future. Please do that.
Here is a quick pro-tip: cut it out with the identity politics. Identity politics in a world of ubiquitous social media is toxic to a multiethnic democracy. Aside from that, George Washington offers some other guidance on how to behave. You should read it. Everyone else should too.
9. Deadly Detention by Eric Weiner
How could a book of such lowly repute — one so inappropriate by comparison — be included in a list preceded by such high-minded and worthy selections?
10. The Papers of Past Presidents
A custom of the presidency is for each exiting president to leave a note in the Oval Office for the incoming president. Each president also leaves behind invaluable papers concerning their presidency. You should read them. Experience, after all, is the greatest teacher. I’d pay particular attention to Mr. Obama’s papers as his experience is the closest in time to your administration. It’s possible he might share something instructive.
These are the books I think will best guide you as you begin your presidency.
Best of luck,
Brian E. Denton, Queens, New York