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The GOP's Post-Trump Identity Crisis: What's Next For The Republican Party?

Trump lost the election, but remains popular among Republican voters. New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann talks about how the GOP might deal with the changes Trump made to the party's ideology.

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Other segments from the episode on November 17, 2020

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 17, 2020: Interview with Nicholas Lemann; Review of 'The Book Collectors.'

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. When Donald Trump ran in Republican presidential primaries four years ago, he was scorned by nearly all mainstream Republican leaders. After winning the presidency and holding office for nearly a full term, the Republican Party's loyalty to Trump was near universal. Trump's popularity among Republican voters was so strong that few elected officials and candidates dared cross him.

But what happens to the party when Trump is gone? Our guest, veteran journalist Nicholas Lemann, has considered the question in an article in The New Yorker. Today we'll talk with him about what influence Trump might have on the party going forward and how the GOP will deal with changes Trump has made to the party's identity and ideology.

Nicholas Lemann has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999. From 2003 to 2013, he was the dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he is still a faculty member. He's written several books. The most recent, published last year, is "Transaction Man: The Rise Of The Deal And The Decline Of The American Dream." His article in the November 2 issue of The New Yorker is "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump." He joins us from his office in New York City.

Well, Nicholas Lemann, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

NICHOLAS LEMANN: Thank you. It's good to be back.

DAVIES: You know, you write in this piece that you talked to dozens of conservatives over the past few months and didn't find anybody who likes or admires Trump in any conventional way. You say that Republican leaders who didn't stand up to him were displaying either loyalty or fear because of his loyalty among the Republican Party's base and because he was vengeful to those who displeased him.

So I'm wondering, after the election, when it was clear the president had lost to Joe Biden - clear to almost everybody, clear to independent sources - and the president was alleging that there was fraud, were you surprised that as many prominent Republicans either took his side wholeheartedly or made supportive statements?

LEMANN: No, and I'll tell you why. First of all, you have to parse these statements with care. So President Trump tweeted on election night - and has somewhat afterwards - such statement says, I won the election, the election was stolen, the election was fraudulent and things like that. That's not - if you read word for word, that's not what the senior leaders of the Republican Party are saying, by and large.

Instead, you're hearing sentiments like, voter fraud is an important issue, and we should look into it carefully. And then at the other side, you're not seeing a lot of people saying, it's time to go, President Trump. Although it's notable that the last Republican president, George W. Bush, publicly congratulated Joseph Biden on his election, and the previous Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, came pretty close to doing that also.

So some of what's going on is about Georgia and the two Senate runoff elections that are coming up. And that's a narrow version of a broader phenomenon, which is a fear that Republican officeholders have that President Trump has a kind of hold on the Republican base or a large part of the base that nobody else in the party has and to reject him too openly is to risk that those people will be angry or won't turn out for elections. So I think that's what's really going on here.

DAVIES: Right. And I think you're right. A lot of these statements were very carefully written. And Mitch McConnell said the president has every right to pursue his legal alternatives, which is, really, simply stating the obvious fact that every American has access to the court system. He could have said nothing. I mean, clearly, people were making some statements. And, you know, it extends beyond national leaders.

You know, I live in Pennsylvania, and the Republican chairman of the state party here, Lawrence Tabas, said in a fundraising appeal two days after the election, Democrats are trying to steal our election and rob President Trump of winning Pennsylvania. So some are clearly endorsing his claim that the election is being stolen in full force, aren't they?

LEMANN: Yeah, some are. But I think the higher up the ladder of seniority you get, the less likely you are to hear the kind of quote that you just gave, unless you're dealing with people like media figures and so on. I mean, there's another thought that some of the senior people in the party might be having that they wouldn't state publicly, but just from looking at the election results I'm inferring this.

And that would be - arguably, on Election Day, the party ran ahead of President Trump. The party had a really good Election Day that might lead you to wonder whether the party might have a better future, electorally, without President Trump than with President Trump. I think if you had had a situation where down ballot the Democrats just swept and President Trump came very, very close to being reelected, there'd be different atmospherics around this.

DAVIES: You mentioned the Georgia Senate runoff. I mean, control of the Senate will be at stake. In these two Senate elections coming up in Georgia, do you expect Trump to play a role in there? Do parties want him to play an active role campaigning there?

LEMANN: That's going to be a really interesting question. I can see pros and cons on that one. I suspect what you won't see - I think in Pennsylvania, you had President Trump doing four separate rallies the day before Election Day. And Election Day in Georgia, I believe, is January the 5. I'm guessing you won't see that on January the 4 because, you know, he's just in a different place now than he was then.

It may be - and, again, I'm speculating a bit, but it's informed speculation - that the party is less - it's less about being eager to have President Trump super actively engaged on the ground in Georgia and more not wanting him to become an active critic of his party for sort of selling him out and failing to stand behind him. You wouldn't want him urging Republican voters not to go vote in the runoff, for instance.

DAVIES: You know, it seems extremely likely that on January 20, Donald Trump will no longer be the president. But there's the question of what kind of role he plays going forward. He recently formed a leadership political action committee, a leadership PAC. You want to explain what that is and what you think its significance might be?

LEMANN: Well, so a leadership PAC is a fundraising vehicle that allows you to have, you know, independent political activities. So former President Bush, after leaving office, for example, took up painting and produced some interesting paintings and stayed out of the limelight pretty completely. I just don't think that would appeal to a former President Trump at all. He's a man who loves the limelight and who would look for opportunities to stay in the limelight. And there's a variety of them. So that's going to be an interesting thing to watch.

For example, he could immediately declare his presidential candidacy for 2024, or he could declare it later. He could start going around the country, stumping for down-ballot Republican candidates. He could develop some kind of big media presence on television or radio or both or - and-or the Internet. So he has lots of options. But I think you wouldn't bet wrong if you would bet that he will try to be as much the center of attention as ex-president as he has been as president.

DAVIES: And we should note that he could face some serious financial and legal problems when he leaves office. I mean, your colleague at The New Yorker, Jane Mayer, had a piece in which she outlined a lot of these. There's that defamation lawsuit stemming from an alleged rape. There's the investigations by the Manhattan district attorney's office, which would not be affected by a presidential pardon, looking into the Stormy Daniels payment and whether Trump, you know, undervalued assets for tax purposes. We're really getting into speculation. But do you have a sense of...

LEMANN: Yeah. But I think a lot of that stuff, on the dimension we're talking about, which is his ability to, you know, hold Trump rallies as an ex-president, I think all of that would be helpful, not harmful, unless he actually physically has to sit in a courtroom for day after day and can't go to the rally. In general, receiving all forms of opprobrium from the establishment seemed to increase the love that his supporters feel for him. So that's a big Trump dynamic. And it also, you know, keeps him in the news. So I think it's a sort of - one track is his legal and financial problems. And a separate track is his ability to stay in the limelight. And they may have a - you know, as we say here in the academy, they may be inversely related.

DAVIES: Right. We certainly saw that in the Mueller investigation and the - and in the impeachment - I mean, seems to not have hurt him at all among his base.

LEMANN: Right and, in fact, may have helped him.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take a little break here. Nicholas Lemann is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article in the November 2 edition is "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann. His piece in the November 2 edition of the magazine is titled "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump."

Your article puts this discussion about the future of the Republican Party in a certain historical context. And let's just talk about that a minute. You say that, for decades, in modern political history, the Republican Party was an alliance or a fusion of two elements of the party's base. What were they?

LEMANN: So let me preface this by saying the U.S. has two major political parties. This is a huge, rapidly changing, diverse country that's had the two - same two major political parties for 160 years, which is weird. And one reason that's true is both parties are unlikely, to some extent, coalitions of disparate groups. So what I'm about to say about the Republicans doesn't apply only to the Republicans. It also applies to the Democrats. And we can talk about the way in which it does apply later, if you'd like.

So the Republican Party, for a really long time - at least 100 years, probably more than 100 years - has had a kind of Trumpist base vote - that is, people who are nationalist, nativist and isolationist and populist in their basic political inclinations. It was - the Republican Party, more than the Democratic Party, they'd pushed through big immigration restrictions back in the 1920s. It was the Republican Party that was the home of doubt about entering the Second World War before we did enter it. It was the Republican Party that was doubtful about all of the big alliances - NATO and so on - that were created after the Second World War in connection with the Cold War.

So there was always a tension between the party's sort of business establishment - Wall Street establishment, people like the Bush family if you go back a couple of generations - and the Republican base voter population. And these two groups were held together by something called fusionism, which is, you know, the idea of fusing the two major elements of the Republican Party into an effective whole. So what made fusionism work was the Cold War. The more isolationist part of the party was completely bought into the Cold War because they didn't want to be taken over by the Soviet Union. And the internationalist wing of the party was also completely bought into the Cold War.

So there was unity around an overwhelming cause that kept the natural disunity of the party out of public view and kept it from becoming a problem. So in retrospect, when the Cold War ended, that helped create a problem for the party because the isolationist wing of the party didn't have to be committed to internationalism anymore. And you saw this especially after the Iraq war went awry. And you started to see a real passionate split within the party between the internationalist, democracy spreading approach that led to the Iraq war and the old isolationist strain that basically said, this is not our fight. And we don't need to wage it.

And President Trump perceived that either by instinct or reflection. And, you know, when he ran in 2016, one of the many things that differentiated him from the other Republican candidates, of which there were many, was that he was much more openly critical of the foreign policy positions of the traditional Republican establishment than anybody else.

DAVIES: But the other thing that was happening, of course, was, you know, economic decline and the loss of blue-collar jobs for a lot of the country, while, you know, the business wing of the party tended to embrace free trade and international economic cooperation. That was also an element of the tension, right?

LEMANN: Yeah. So this is - I want to underline what you just said. This is supremely important. It's supremely important in both parties right now. And it's supremely important in almost every democracy with a developed economy in the entire world. You know, since around 1980, inequality has been rising. Or another way to put it is, when the economy goes up, the benefits are disproportionately distributed to people at the top, not equitably distributed across the board. And this has caused enormous distress around the world with enormous political implications. And it's caused internal revolts among the - both major American parties. This is especially visible since the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed it.

So there's just a lot of populist energy out there in the world. Some of it is right-wing. Some of it is left-wing. And I don't think it's going to go away. And it's fundamentally about the end of such verities as prosperity helps everybody equally. You can count on your children doing better than you did. And if you have a good, blue-collar job, you'll be able to live a decent life and have a measure of security. Those things went away. And that, to me, is the mega-political fact of our time. And it's not going away either. And that's going to be what to watch in politics for the next decade, at least.

DAVIES: After Mitt Romney's loss to President Obama in 2012, the chair of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, commissioned this report that came to be known as the autopsy of the Republican defeat. What did it conclude?

LEMANN: So George W. Bush - it may not be remembered - put enormous effort into appealing to the Latino vote and quite effectively. So in his reelection campaign in 2004, he hit a real high watermark of over 40% of the Latino vote. And then when Mitt Romney ran in 2012, that had fallen by almost 20 points. So the feeling in the senior ranks of the party was, this is a huge problem for us because this is the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. And if we're a white party going forward, we're not going to be able to survive.

So we need to build a broader coalition. And the way we do that is by including Latino voters on a number of issues, including less restrictive immigration policy, which, if you remember, President George W. Bush proposed in 2006 and immediately failed to put through because of a revolt within his own party by the anti-immigrant elements. So that was what the autopsy said. The autopsy said the playbook is kind of a relatively libertarian, business-oriented economic policy combined with an inclusive, ethnic policy, specifically with Latinos in mind. And that's exactly what Donald J. Trump didn't run on.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Right. That's what I was getting to. So you have the party leaders saying, we're going to be pro-free markets. We're going to be a little skeptical of government. We're going to be for balanced budgets and be more ethnically inclusive. So what did Trump do? And how did it play with the party?

LEMANN: So almost every element of this he violated. And, I mean, in a certain way, it was smart because they had, you know, 16 or 17 pretty serious presidential candidates. And he was, by far, the most divergent from the autopsy of all of them. So he established, as they say now, a lane for himself very early. So you know, at his announcement, I believe, in Trump Tower was when he first started talking about rapists from Mexico coming across the border. So he went way out on a limb on being super anti-immigrant, especially immigrants from Mexico, and doing this in the most lurid possible terms.

He also, you know, was indifferent to traditional Republican concerns, like the idea that the federal debt is a problem, the idea that a government deficit is a problem, the idea that Social Security and Medicare growing out of control. He completely dismissed all that. He departed, you know, forcefully from the party's allegiance to free trade and globalization, which also was a position in the Democratic Party establishment. And he was way out in front of everybody else in rejecting those positions. So he really ran as the anti-autopsy candidate.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. Nicholas Lemann is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump" is in the magazine's November 2 issue and available at newyorker.com. He'll be back to talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM SCOTT'S "SACK O' WOE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann about the future of the Republican Party after President Trump leaves office. His article in the November 2 issue of the magazine is "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump."

So Donald Trump gets elected, kind of upends the Republican Party. And the traditional business wing that had kind of governed it comfortably was kind of set aside, and these populist initiatives that Trump embraced became more of the playbook - you know, anti-immigration, anti-international entanglements, anti-free trade, more protectionism. And you look at three scenarios that might describe the party's future once Trump is gone. Let's talk about them. One of them you call the remnant. Essentially, somebody uses the Trump playbook going forward. Describe this for us.

LEMANN: OK, so I'll describe it. It's - the remnant - you know, I use that term because according to many, the natural Republican constituency is shrinking as a portion of the country. So it's the party of a dying remnant of the country, aging and, you know, living in less populated areas, you know, that gets an advantage from gerrymandering and from the peculiarities of our constitutional system and maybe from vote suppression as well.

DAVIES: And you're talking about white voters?

LEMANN: Well, I'm talking about whiter, older, less well-educated and more rural. So it's a number of things. It's not just white. But under this theory, that's not a majority of the country anymore. It's a shrinking part of the country. But you can squeeze out another election or two by really getting those people fired up, turning up the fiery rhetoric, using all the ways you can think of to kind of change the rules of the game and the shape of the playing field to make yourself stronger than you really are.

So that's one scenario that I'm calling remnant. And in that scenario, you might see President Trump himself as the candidate or Donald Trump Jr. as the candidate. I think this election - you know, the article we're talking about came out before Election Day. I think after Election Day, this is a less likely scenario because the Republican Party did better than at least the Democrats thought they would. They outperformed the polls, and they showed a surprising amount of strength across the board, especially down-ballot. And they made significant gains with minority voters. You know, we have sketchy evidence, but they really made inroads.

In 2016 President Trump did better from, obviously, a low baseline than Mitt Romney had with both Black and Latino voters, and he did better in 2020 than he had done in 2016 with both Black and Latino voters. So that would give rise to the thought of, well, maybe the Republicans aren't a dying remnant. Maybe instead, they can rebuild themselves into a genuine, you know, population majority or something in range of that that's helped by the Electoral College system and gerrymandering.

DAVIES: Another scenario that you paint you call restoration. Explain this.

LEMANN: So restoration would be - you know, it's like waking up from a bad dream. Now the party can go back to normal. And what is normal for the Republican Party for at least the last century and maybe more is, at base, it's the party of business. So the basic pitch of the party is pro-business, lower taxes, less government spending, limited government, less regulation and sort of supporting, you know, freedom worldwide, including allowing American businesses to operate internationally. And in there would be greater friendliness to immigration as well.

And - but that would be the sort of the core identity of the Republican Party historically. And the party could successfully go back to that core identity and drop what I would call the sort of anti-business aspects of Trumpism. And life would return to a familiar form for people who work in the professional ranks of the Republican Party for the donors, for the world that most - many Republican officeholders grew up in.

DAVIES: Well, to get the votes of the base that swept Trump into office, you have to adopt some of those populist arguments - don't you? - whether you mean them or not.

LEMANN: Well, that's the question - is, yeah, how much - the reason it's fun to watch politics is, you know, everything is a complicated calculation that could go right or spectacularly wrong. For instance, I think after Trump, it would be very hard for a Republican candidate to get up and say, I am all about a full embrace of China. I want to have a full integration and a very broadband trade relationship with China across the board, and it'll be good for America. I think that argument is not something you're going to hear from Republicans anymore, but there are some elements of traditional Republicanism that you could hear again. So the challenge for politicians is to figure out, you know, which elements of Trumpism are sticky and which elements can be jettisoned.

DAVIES: Briefly, who would the candidates be of a restoration of the traditional Republican Party?

LEMANN: A number, of course. And, you know, if past is prologue, you'd see Mike Pence running for president. But the person who was getting the most buzz when I was reporting this story is Nikki Haley, former governor of South Carolina, former U.N. ambassador in the Trump administration. And she's, you know, got a very appealing story. She's a child of immigrants herself and so would be a good person to sort of take the party away from anti-immigrantism (ph). She's super-pro-business. And having served as U.N. ambassador in a not super-Trumpist way, she can signal to the internationalist wing of the Republican Party that, you don't have to be afraid of me. And she's clearly kind of doing the early things one has to do to run for president, so I would keep an eye on her as a restorationist candidate.

DAVIES: Do you think if Trump, in three months, announces that he's going to run in 2024, he clears the field?

LEMANN: No, I don't. You know, politics is full of surprises. There were moments when people thought when Jeb Bush announced for 2016, he would clear the field, but that sure didn't happen. And, you know, a lot of politicians look in the mirror every morning and see a future president of the United States. So I don't think it would clear the field. I think it might clear the field of certain kinds of Republicans whose appeal is to Trumpist voters very strongly. But I don't think people are that afraid of him. And I think the perception is if he ran again, he would lose again. So I don't think so.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. Nicholas Lemann is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump" is in the magazine's November 2 issue and available at newyorker.com. He'll be back to talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUONG VU AND PAT METHENY'S "SEEDS OF DOUBT")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann about the future of the Republican Party after President Trump leaves office.

There's a third scenario that you describe for the potential of the Republican Party, one that you acknowledge is among the most unlikely. You call it reversal. Explain this. This is pretty wild (laughter).

LEMANN: Yeah. So - but when I say it's unlikely, I want listeners to take it seriously. And that is that, you know, the traditional formation for a long, long, long time was that the Republicans were the party of business and the Democrats are the party of labor. So the reversal scenario - and, you know, many countries around the world have two major parties, one the party of business and one the party of labor, so that's a kind of standard thing in politics.

To give you an example, another person who is often talked about as a potential presidential candidate in 2024 is Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. He tweeted on election night, we are now the party of the working class; that is the future of the Republican Party. He tweeted that as the results were coming in. So under this scenario, the parties switch places. The Democrats become the party of business, and the Republicans become maybe not the party of labor, but the party of the working class or the lower-middle class or even the middle class.

And the way this runs is the Democrats - well, first of all, clearly, you can't say American business is Republican anymore, as you used to be able to say. That's just not true. And Silicon Valley, probably the most important business sector in the country, is Democratic Party territory. Wall Street is substantially Democratic Party territory. So the idea is that the Democrats have moved so far in that direction and have to embrace policy preferences that go along with that, that they have left behind blue-collar America.

And that leaves an opening for the Republican Party by being, for example, skeptical of trade, somewhat skeptical of immigration, friendly to religion and religious people. It's kind of the economic-left, social-right quadrant on the chart. And the idea is the Democrats have gone to economic center, social left, and that that leaves an opening to the Republicans to kind of make up the difference.

DAVIES: You know, you cite some research in the story about where Republicans and Democrats have support - in congressional districts, for example - and Republicans actually have less support in affluent districts than Democrats now.

LEMANN: Yeah, Democrats now hold 10 of - all 10 of the 10 richest-per-capita-income congressional districts and 44 of the 50 richest congressional districts. So, you know, there - it isn't foreordained that the Democrats will always have the allegiance of working-class Americans. Now, the - couple of big asterisks here. One is race.

And, you know, a lot of Democrats listening to this would say, yeah, but that may be true for whites with, you know, only a high school education, but that's - it's only true for whites, and there aren't enough whites. But the comeback or the reversals to that is, well, white is - has been historically a fluid category. And you might see, for instance, Latinos, even some African Americans kind of opting into a working-class Republican coalition in the ways that the election results made clear could be possible.

DAVIES: You know, this is an interesting theory. Do you find Republican leaders who embrace it and a candidate who might run as the Republican of a new working-class Republican Party?

LEMANN: Well, the Republican who is positioning himself most obviously in that way is Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, whom I quote at length in my article. He ran, of course, in 2016 as one of the more establishment alternatives to Donald Trump, but he's been kind of hiring aides from the reversalist part of the party and trotting out some concepts in a series of speeches. One is what he calls common-good capitalism. And, you know, if you read The New Yorker article, a lot of things he says sound not that far from Elizabeth Warren or even Bernie Sanders. He doesn't say, I'm a socialist, the way that Sanders does, so maybe Warren is the better comparison.

But a lot of - there's a lot of upside-down politics here. There's a pretty hot-blooded economic populism out there in the Republican Party that was not there before, just as it was in the Democratic Party either between, say, 2000 or 1995 and 2010. So this is kind of a free-floating mass of political energy that's waiting for somebody to claim it. And, you know, the way Joe Biden ran his platform was more consciously directed to working-class voters than any Democratic candidate in years. What he'll be able to do is another question. But he and people around him get that they're being challenged by the Republicans on this dimension with these kinds of voters in a meaningful way.

DAVIES: You know, one more thing I wanted to talk about - you know, it seems clear from any independent analysis at this point that Joe Biden has won the election and that there isn't any real evidence of election fraud. And yet Trump continues to loudly proclaim that the election was stolen, and you're finding a lot of resonance among his base. And I'm just wondering what that portends if this goes on for weeks or months or years.

LEMANN: Well, first of all, it's not a way that any defeated major party candidate for the presidency has ever behaved that we've seen. And it's pretty alarming to have someone raising those kinds of questions. In the extremely close contested Bush v. Gore election, for instance, you know, Vice President Gore could easily have done that. And he recently gave an interview where he said, you know, I could have kept fighting, but it would have come down to violence in the streets, and you can't have that.

So there's a level of faith in the system - or one could even say patriotism - that sort of forms as a brake on behavior, you know, to hold impulses like that in check. But President Trump doesn't have a lot of brakes on his behavior. So I think what it does is it puts out to, at least those who love him - it reinforces the idea, you're right to think that this country is utterly corrupt and broken, and you shouldn't confine your participation in politics to conventional forms.

You know, there's this sort of famous-in-a-certain-small-circle guy named Michael Anton, who wrote an essay during the 2016 campaign called "The Flight 93 Election." And in this cycle, he published a book, and in the book, he sort of raises the specter of a Confederacy-style secession from the country, of people in red states simply not feeling they have to obey the authority of the federal government.

So those ideas are out there among a lot of people, and it's sort of scary to have that and not to have instead an attitude that, you know, you play the game as hard as you can and play by the rules and accept the result. That's not what President Trump is modeling for people.

DAVIES: Well, Nicholas Lemann, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LEMANN: Thank you.

DAVIES: Nicholas Lemann is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump" is in the magazine's November 2 issue and available at newyorker.com. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Book Collectors," the true story of a library established by Syrian resistance fighters amid the ruins of war. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS SONG, "NAMASTE")

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Imagine a room in war-ravaged Syria lined with bookshelves and filled with patrons reading books in Arabic and English, everything from poetry to American pop psychology. Now picture that, outside that library, city streets are reduced to rubble and bombs are a constant threat. That's the real-life scene journalist Delphine Minoui chronicles in her new book called "The Book Collectors." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Books have always gone to war, serving as comfort and distraction. And, oftentimes, the most unexpected books have struck a chord in wartime. For instance, who would have guessed that "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," Betty Smith's 1943 semiautobiographical novel, would become one of the most popular books among servicemen in World War II, who received it as part of a massive distribution program that put over 122 million books into the hands of American troops?

The Syrian resistance fighters whom reporter Delphine Minoui began interviewing in 2015 surprisingly favored self-help literature. Their counterpart to "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" is Stephen Covey's bestselling pop-psych bible, "The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People." This book means so much to us, one young fighter tells Minoui - it's our compass in a way.

Minoui understands that Covey's book affirms the power of the individual, something these young men - raised under the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad - are fighting for. The suburb of Damascus these men are from, a town called Daraya, was a site of peaceful protests during the Arab Spring uprising of 2011. Beginning in 2012, forces of the Assad regime laid siege to the town, pummeling it with barrel bombs and sarin gas attacks, cutting off water, electricity and humanitarian aid - in short, inflicting the kind of determined total erasure of a city, called urbicide.

Minoui, a Middle East correspondent for Le Figaro who lives in Istanbul, was on her computer one night in 2015, scrolling through the Facebook site Humans of Syria when she was stopped by a black-and-white photo. The caption read, the secret library of Daraya. In the photo, two young men in sweatshirts stand in a room lined with bookcases packed tight. Her curiosity aroused, Minoui worked her contacts via Skype and WhatsApp to track down the photographer, a young man named Ahmad Muaddamani, one of the co-founders of the secret library. He tells her an incredible story that Minoui, in turn, would spend years fleshing out. The result is a slim, vivid account called "The Book Collectors."

Minoui, whose writing has been translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud, is an unadorned stylist. Occasionally, though, she comes up with a lyrical phrase that stops a reader short, such as when she refers to the photo that first caught her attention as depicting a fragile parenthesis in the midst of war. The story behind that photo, as she'll learn, is even more arresting. In late 2013 Ahmad, then in his early 20s and a committed resistance fighter, was called upon by his friends to help excavate the ruins of a house filled with books. Ahmad wasn't even a reader. The books he'd been assigned in school were propaganda. But when he picked up one of the rescued books and started reading, Ahmad said he felt, the same sensation of freedom I felt at my first protest.

Ahmad and his comrades salvaged 6,000 books in one week. A month later, bulked out by other scavenging missions, this disparate collection of literature, theology, science and, yes, self-help stood at 15,000. To preserve their find, the men carved out a library in the basement of an abandoned building. They built wooden shelves and catalogued the books. The library quickly became a gathering place, a mini-university in a city where almost all the professors had either been exiled, jailed or killed. In this refuge, Minoui says, people could experience the sensation of a page opening to the world when every door is locked.

"The Book Collectors" is itself a charged addition to the library of literary survival tales involving not only the preservation of books but the rescuing of the ideas they contain. I'm thinking of everything from Thomas Cahill's "How The Irish Saved Civilization," about the remote libraries of monks in the so-called Dark Ages, to Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita In Tehran," to which Minoui's story is a kind of all-male companion piece. In "The Book Collectors," unlike these earlier accounts, the Internet plays a key role in the rescue work and not only by first alerting Minoui to the existence of the secret library. Some of the resistance fighters become such avid readers that they download still more books on their cell phones, augmenting the holdings of the library.

Anyone who knows the history of current events in Syria won't be surprised to learn that the secret library doesn't survive, nor do all of those young men. The story of the secret library, however, is preserved here when so much else in Daraya has turned to dust.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Book Collectors" by Delphine Minoui.

On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about the Chicago 7 trial with Jon Wiener. Seven - initially eight - activists against the war in Vietnam were accused of conspiring to riot in Chicago when the 1968 Democratic National Convention was underway. Wiener's book has been reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's film about the trial. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SONG FOR SALLY")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering help today from Diana Martinez and Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA'S "SONG FOR SALLY")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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