How Democracies Die review – the secret of Trump’s success

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written a fascinating – and alarming – account of how the US shook off its democratic safeguards and gave the world Donald Trump

History, the surprisingly fashionable Alexander Hamilton remarked in 1787, teaches that men who overthrow republics begin “by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants”.

In other words, dictators do not always arrive at the head of columns of troops. When they seize the television stations, they do not send in soldiers but party loyalists who promise to end “fake news”. They do not need to imprison judges, just pack their courts and rewrite the constitution to make opposition impossible. They win democratic elections, then dismantle democracy.

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To Kill the President by Sam Bourne review – has Trump saved the thriller?

Having a sociopath in the White House has helped resurrect a genre that seemed short of ideas, as this all-too-plausible page-turner provesIn normal circumstances, To Kill the President would be just another thriller. “Sam Bourne” is the pseudonym of Jonathan Freedland, a senior figure on the Guardian, our sister paper. Freedland is always worth reading, of course. But a book that began with US officials scrambling to stop their president replying with a nuclear strike to mockery of his manhood from North Korea would have seemed ridiculous only a year ago. Everyone knows the North Koreans would retaliate by reducing Seoul to rubble. Readers would not just have to suspend their disbelief but send it off on holiday, if those same representatives of the Washington deep state had then concluded that the only safe option was to assassinate their commander-in-chief. Continue reading...

Post-truth review – Nick Cohen on three timely books

Matthew d’Ancona, James Ball and Evan Davis examine fake news and its corrosive impact on western democracy If the medium is the message, then the message of the web is “bullshit”. Long before today’s crisis, the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt broke from the conventions of a discipline not known for its plain speaking and explained Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Andrew Wakefield, the Canary, Breitbart, Putin propagandists, Holocaust deniers, climate change fantasists, truthers, birthers, Salafists, sexbots and Mr Michael Gove of the London Times. Liars respect truth in their way, wrote Frankfurt in his 2005 essay On Bullshit. They care about it enough to know what the truth is and find ways to suppress it. Bullshitters are more dangerous. They neither know nor care whether what they say is true or false, only whether they can advance their interests by fooling the gullible. Continue reading...

The Shortest History of Germany review – probing an enigma at the heart of Europe

James Hawes’s brief yet rewarding history of Germany examines its place in a continent in the throes of upheavalIn AD843, Charlemagne’s grandsons divided his empire like mafia bosses parcelling out territory. Louis received the land we were to later call Germany. A large part of it had been in the Roman empire, lying behind the Limes Germanicus, the great wall the Romans built to keep out the barbarians to the east. Cologne, Stuttgart, Vienna, Bonn, Mainz and Frankfurt, all the greatest cities of the future West Germany and Austria, with the exception of Hamburg, grew up within or in the immediate shadow of Rome’s western empire. Louis knew where his kingdom began – Germany began at the Rhine, of course. He knew, too, that at its heart were territories that were now Catholic lands and had once been part of the Roman empire. But where did Germany end? He wasn’t ...

Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World by Timothy Garton Ash – review

This urgent, encyclopedic study explores what freedom of speech means in an age of diversity Freedom is worthless if it is not lived. However important rights are in a constitutional democracy, they will wither unless you use them. From John Milton’s polemics against the Presbyterian attempts to enforce Calvinist censorship on the England of the 1640s, via John Stuart Mill’s rebellion against the conformism of the Victorians, to Salman Rushdie’s argument with the Islamists, the urge to defend and expand freedom of speech has been created by the threats of its enemies What applies to great writers applies to everyone else. No one thinks hard about freedom of speech until they are forced to. In Timothy Garton Ash’s case, the pressure came from within. Continue reading...

Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times by Thomas Piketty – review

Eight years on from the banking crisis, Thomas Piketty’s calls for financial reform are still ignored. This collection of articles finds him undiminished in his beliefs

Thomas Piketty depresses as much as inspires. Read him and you become convinced that western democracies have set themselves problems they no longer have the will to solve.

Democracy’s superiority to dictatorship is not that democratic leaders are necessarily more virtuous than dictators are. Nor can anyone but a cockeyed optimist believe that democratic publics are by definition always clever and benevolent. Democracies’ great advantage is meant to be that they have a rubbish chute. When leaders and policies fail, we shove them through it and replace them with something better.

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Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists by David Aaronovitch review – at home with the hard left

The columnist’s account of his Marxist upbringing is compassionate and wiseWhen the Soviet Union fell, my grandfather’s second wife did not share the wonderment at the passing of one of the most terrible regimes humanity has seen. She felt as if her life had been wasted, and hinted that her one consolation was that my grandfather had not lived to see it. “How could you?” I thought as I listened. The same question powers David Aaronovitch’s account of his communist upbringing, and takes it far beyond the boundaries of memoir into an often moving and always wise examination of the legacies of childhood. Continue reading...