How Booksellers Were Complicit in the Resurgence of White Supremacy and the Rise of Donald Trump
Josh Cook Considers the Relationship Between Bookselling, Politics, and Free Speech
When Sean Spicer was given prime billing at BookExpo America and Milo Yiannopoulos tried to publish a book with Simon & Schuster, I churned out 40 pages of text about free speech, white supremacy, and independent bookstores over the next several months, returning to it now and then as a salve or outlet for my frustration and then just… let it sit. I should have written something even earlier, after I had been in bookselling for ten years and watched Republicans and conservatives profiting—in terms of money and power—off the racist backlash to the Obama administration.
Someone should have written something even earlier, as we watched the Bush administration start two endless wars, institute torture as an official American practice, and completely remake American society after the trauma of 9/11. Someone should have written something when Rush Limbaugh’s first book was published, before the reactionary racism of right-wing talk shows became fully mainstream.
Like so many white, liberal Americans, I thought the gains made during the Civil Rights Movement were secure and that even if there was still a long way to go towards true social and racial justice, at least we weren’t sliding back. It’s embarrassing. Only the thinnest veils were thrown over the racism of the war on drugs, criminal justice reform, and welfare reform. Even after the Tea Party rose to power almost entirely through the white grievance and racism stoked by Fox News. Even after the Republican Party formally embraced this radical version of themselves. I did not see a resurgent threat and I did not see my complicity in that resurgence.
At most, I was an active participant in a conversation with the Porter Square Books managers group about our relationship to books written by and/or supporting contemporary right-wing, conservative, and/or Republican authors, with some of us arguing that we needed to dramatically change that relationship, and others arguing that the current relationship is correct. Parts of that conversation will appear throughout this essay. But as the Trump administration, Fox News, and Republican politicians enacted more and more racist and destructive policies, we never reexamined that compromise. It just never seemed like the right time. There were always more pressing problems.
Once the pandemic hit, we never felt like we had the emotional reserves for that difficult conversation. And I didn’t force it. I expressed myself on Twitter and in informal conversations, but I never truly pushed for a formal reexamination of what books we should allow on our platforms, what ideas we want to give space to, and what people we want to be a revenue stream for.
Money is power. The more money you have, the more time you can spend advancing your cause, the more people you can hire to help advance your cause, the more you can donate to other people and organizations advancing your cause. If you have money, you can pay lobbyists, create fake and biased studies to support your ideologies, make misleading advertisements, hire lawyers to litigate cases you think will advance your cause, pay troll farms to harass your opponents on social media. If you can’t convince people of your ideas, but you have enough money, you can get those ideas reflected in government policy anyway.
If you have published a book, people will listen to what you say, at least more than they will if you haven’t. If people see your book at a bookstore, they will conclude that the book world believes your ideas are worth reading. Whether they agree with your ideas or not, the fact of a traditionally published book tells readers some basic level of value or legitimacy has been reached. Furthermore, publishing a book unlocks other platforms for your ideas: book reviews, media appearances, events, and other publicity. You’ll get the chance to point people to your website and social media.
If you’re lucky, or have some specific supports, you’ll even make money. Donald Trump was president, in part, because the media, publishers, bookstores, book reviewers, readers, and everyone with power and influence in books decided it was okay to sell books by Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and all the other right-wing pundits and politicians, monetizing and legitimizing the white supremacist ideas they expressed and providing a platform for those ideas to reach more people. Donald Trump was president because we did not take responsibility for our own decisions.
Donald Trump was president because we did nothing when con artists monetized white grievance, white fear, and white supremacy. Most of us took some of that money. Some of us took a lot of that money. Donald Trump was president because the conservative movement over the last 30 years broke our political media’s bullshit detector. Donald Trump was president because people like Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, and, well, Donald Trump himself were taken seriously, as if they were honestly participating in American political discourse. Donald Trump was president because publishers and bookstores showed readers that we believed those people and ideas deserved to be taken seriously.
Whatever we do going forward, we can no longer pretend that we are innocent. Donald Trump put children in cages. We can no longer act as though book sales do not have ethical and moral components. Donald Trump sabotaged the national response to COVID-19, killing hundreds of thousands of people. We cannot pretend that it does not matter who we help make money. A Confederate flag was waved in the Capitol building during a violent insurrection that killed six people. We cannot pretend that we don’t have some responsibility over what ideas are discussed in public discourse.
Like many industries and institutions, booksellers have done a lot of work in the last few years in response to the Trump administration, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the #MeToo movement, and other events and forces for social change in our society. We’ve formed committees, hosted panels, and held training sessions and though all of that is important, I have almost never seen booksellers grapple directly with the economic, social, and moral consequences of selling books by white supremacists, fascists, misogynists, and other believers in objectively dangerous ideologies.
Though I will offer some specific strategies, I hope this piece acts as the start of a more sustained conversation about the relationship between bookselling, politics, and free speech. Furthermore, free speech is a concept with ragged edges and many of the decisions we make about what speech is protected or not, what speech is appropriate for what spaces, what speech should be amplified on which platforms, require nuance and context to be made.
Since I can’t provide that nuance and context for everything, I’m going to focus on speech by Republicans with actual political power and Fox News and conservative pundits with significant influence over politics and policy. I apologize for waiting this long to take this small step within my industry.
I apologize for not listening to what many, many people had tried to tell me and all of white America about the threat to our country. I apologize for prioritizing avoiding interpersonal conflict with friends, family, and colleagues over confronting a persistent and deadly threat. I don’t know if what I’ve written here will make a big difference. I don’t know if independent bookstores have enough power to make a big difference in the fight against white supremacy, other supremacist ideologies, and fascism in America. But we have some power.
And if we don’t fight, we can’t win.
Excerpted from The Least We Can Do. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Biblioasis. Copyright © 2021 by Josh Cook.