Fourth: Conservatives often are compassionate, and Douglas Smith’s The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union From Ruin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) is a case in point. Communists who seized Russia in 1917 set the pattern (see Venezuela’s recent history) of quickly destroying their economy. By 1921 starvation loomed. Enter American humanitarians who ran the largest feeding operation in history, in the process saving the lives of more than 10 million Russians and Ukrainians—and doing so in the realization that they were enabling the survival of an evil regime.
Fifth, for those with multiple free evenings: Stephen Harrigan’s Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas (University of Texas Press, 2019) is 829 pages of storytelling—but since Texas has 254 counties, that’s only 3.26 pages per county. Harrigan portrays characters who made Texas larger than life: Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Gov. Hogg and his daughter Ima, Pa and Ma Ferguson, “Pass the Biscuits” Pappy O’Daniel, David Koresh, the Bushes. But he also makes room for immigrants who came in chains or by choice, entrepreneurs whose businesses or election prospects came crashing down, and a variety of rascals, renegades, and racists.
My sixth choice is much shorter, and it may owe its existence to Donald Trump. Edwin Battistella’s Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump (Oxford, 2020) shows that historical amnesia underlies some claims about the purportedly good old days of civility. “Lying Hillary” is in the long tradition of Martin Van Ruin, Fainting Frank Pierce, Useless Grant, Rutherfraud Hayes, Tricky Dick Nixon, and Slick Willy Clinton.
NOW, LET’S RUN THROUGH other worthwhile books in chronological order, starting with those about the Old World. Liberal historians often say that religious liberty emerged from the 17th-century religious wars or the 18th-century Enlightenment, but Robert Louis Wilken’s Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (Yale, 2019) shows how early Christians such as Tertullian argued that “every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions. … It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”
Martin Goodman’s Josephus’s “The Jewish War”: A Biography (Princeton, 2019) offers useful background about the birth of that classic history and how it’s been used over the centuries. The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin, by Jonathan Phillips (Yale, 2019), is a smoothly written story of a central figure in the history of the Crusades. Saladin, of Kurdish descent, has received good publicity for more than 800 years not only from Muslims but from the nobles of Christendom, such as Richard the Lionheart, whom he defeated. He wasn’t as generous and merciful as some claimed, but he was also not as bloodthirsty as many of his contemporaries.
Edward Smither’s Christian Mission: A Concise Global History (Lexham, 2019) comes through on the pledge of its title, overviewing 2,000 years in 200 pages. Smither accentuates the positive but doesn’t overlook some missionary mistakes: “the abuse of power, the conflation of empire and mission.” Laurence Louër’s Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History (Princeton, 2020) goes deep into the weeds of the Muslim rift: It’s hard plowing, but valuable for those who want to understand the complexities.
Two writers have given their names to Machiavellian and Orwellian manipulation. Patrick Boucheron’s Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear (Other Press, 2020) is a lively read that reveals how the Florentine “studied the art of government”—by traveling and writing, not imagining and speculating. Machiavelli praised deceit and manipulation: He criticized ideals of Christian compassion and said wise leaders should choose to be feared rather than loved. Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth (Doubleday, 2019) is a thorough biography of George Orwell’s 1984 that shows what went into it and why it is still popular.