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Interview with Robert Kagan, author of “Rebellion”

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Midnight, at the kitchen table, with a bowl of cornflakes.

How do you organize your books?

Um. I own about 6,000 books and it's a bit of a disaster. I paid research assistants to sort things out. We should have it under control by around 2028.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

I wasn't much of a reader and have been trying to catch up ever since. I was fascinated by Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, which was probably not a good thing. My best friend and I used to go to a bar when we were underage, drink sloe gin fizzes and pretend we were Jake and Bill. I know.

What was the last great book you read?

“Middle March.” If historians could show the dynamic interaction of people in a society, as George Eliot does, we would have a much better understanding of humanity.

What books are on your bedside table?

I read about European history during and after the French Revolution to trace the complex relationship between ideology and foreign policy. I'm currently reading Europe after Napoleon by Michael Broers and next up is Christopher Clark's latest book, Revolutionary Spring, about the liberal revolutions of 1848.

Describe your writing routine.

For the history books, it was months of research, followed by attempts at writing, followed by months of research, over 10 to 12 years. I wrote for about 20 years, from the time I put our children on the school bus to the time the bus took them home. Now I work until it's time to cook dinner for my wife. My father, who wrote about 20 books, including a four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and never in the evening. We called him a lunch-bucket historian. I tried to be like that.

What do you read when you're working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid when writing?

I usually read the history of a different time and place than the one I'm writing about to get a contrasting perspective on human behavior. American historians often act as if there were no other countries and no other relevant experiences. They judge America by America's standards, which raises all sorts of problems.

Do you consider books a guilty pleasure?

Yes, when I read Salinger's Nine Stories for the 73rd time.

What was the last book you read that made you laugh?

“Middlemarch.” A lot. She is the funniest author in the English language.

The last book you read that made you angry?

Pretty much every book ever written about the Spanish-American War. Even major historians cartoonishly describe it as a great “imperialist” folly, when in reality it was triggered almost entirely by the terrible humanitarian crisis in Cuba.

Why did you title your book “Rebellion”?

This is what the Trump movement is all about: a rebellion against the America that Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and other founders envisioned. It is not the first anti-liberal rebellion and will not be the last.

They compare Trumpism to “the demon spirit in a Stephen King novel.” Do you read Stephen King? Keep talking about the comparison.

OK. No, I don't read King. But my daughter does! She read The Stand on the beach every summer for about eight years, starting when she was ten. So basically I get it.

What is the secret to warning but not alienating or discouraging in your writing?

I'm not sure I'll avoid upsetting people with this book, and in fact I wish the people who oppose the universalist liberal ideals of the Founding Fathers had less power.

A reader finishes reading the last page and closes your book. What should he/she do next?

Engage in the political fight as if it matters, just like they would on raising property taxes.

What do you read to relax?

Story. What can I say? And the New York Post sports page.

What's the most interesting thing you've learned from a book recently?

That Evelyn Waugh blamed Protestantism for the evils of the modern industrial world, in much the same terms that Patrick Deneen used to blame liberalism for the evils of the modern world. Discuss among yourself.

They organize a literary dinner party. Which three dead or living writers are you inviting?

Basically it's about who I would like to have at my side with Dorothy Thompson, the fierce anti-Nazi journalist of the 1930s and the model for Katharine Hepburn's Tess Harding in “Woman of the Year.” Not only was she expelled from Germany by Hitler in 1934 for her anti-Nazi reporting, but she was also physically removed from the German-American Bund's major pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939 for interrupting one of the speakers. I don't know who she would like to join us, other than her second husband, Sinclair Lewis, who I would be okay with. Add Reinhold Niebuhr? Was he fun?

Anna Harden

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