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Los Angeles Review of Books: David Bromwich’s “How Words Make Things Happen”

When it comes to chroniclers of the United States’s political decline, readers today are spoiled for choice. But none brings quite the same background to the job as does David Bromwich, in whose bibliography early titles like A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989) and Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic (1983) have given way to, most recently, American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (2019). An eminent scholar of, among other things, 18th-century poetry, criticism, and philosophy, Bromwich has in recent years turned up every few months in left-leaning publications like The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books to offer commentary on American politics. That he takes a dim view of Donald Trump is no surprise, but his view of the intellectual fashions of the left so volubly opposed to Trump is even dimmer, and more incisive for it.

American Breakdown, Bromwich’s second book this year, closely follows How Words Make Things Happen, an infinitely less topical-sounding text that would seem to belong more to the roster of Bromwich the distinguished English professor than Bromwich the political commentator. But it does clarify that the author looks upon politician and poet alike with the same critical eye — or rather, that he listens with the same critical ear. That goes for the political speechwriters as well. “He was the first man of the right to leaven his moralism with jokes,” Bromwich writes in a damning piece published shortly after the death of William Safire and later collected in the volume Moral Imagination (2014). “With fun and ‘pace,’ with plenty of euphemisms, and with calculated self-depreciation, he did more than anyone else to legitimate a reactionary president, Ronald Reagan, as a new kind of centrist.”

One might expect a man of the left to condemn a figure who “connects the political style of McCarthy with that of Rush Limbaugh.” But Bromwich doesn’t go easy either on the likes of Barack Obama, who, as he summed up in a 2014 LRB piece, “watches the world as its most important spectator.” The headline of an earlier essay in that same publication delivers a plainer assessment: “A Bad President.” What sets Bromwich off about both Safire and Obama is their abuse of language, and not the kind of syntactical misfires on which critics of George W. Bush fixated, and critics of Trump now fixate, with such righteous glee. In Bromwich’s view, Safire used words to stoke the flames of the Vietnam War, and later to press forward the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Obama used words first to make promises — closing Guantanamo Bay, restraining domestic surveillance — and then to retroactively convince his supporters of the obvious impossibility of keeping those promises.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.