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American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World But Failed Its People

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From writer and political analyst Jared Yates Sexton comes an eye-opening journey through American history that unearths and debunks the myths we've always told ourselves.

Recent years have brought a reckoning in America. As rampant political corruption, stark inequality, and violent bigotry have come to the fore, many have faced two vital questions: How did we get here? And how do we move forward?

An honest look at the past--and how it's been covered up--is the only way to find the answers. Americans in power have abused and subjugated others since the nation's very beginning, and myths of America's unique goodness have both enabled that injustice and buried the truth for generations. In American Rule, Jared Yates Sexton blends deep research with stunning storytelling, digging into each era of growth and change that led us here--and laying bare the foundational myths at the heart of the American imagination.

Stirring, unequivocal, and impossible to put down, American Rule tells the truth about what this nation has always been--and challenges us to forge a new path.

368 pages, Hardcover

First published September 15, 2020

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About the author

Jared Yates Sexton

15 books212 followers
Jared Yates Sexton is a born-and-bred Hoosier living and working in The South as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University. His work has appeared in publications around the world and his first short story collection, An End To All Things, is available from Atticus Books. His latest book, The Hook and The Haymaker, was released by Split Lip Press in January 2015. For more information and a select list of publications, please visit the author's website at www.jysexton.com. For more information on Split Lip Press, please visit www.splitlippress.com.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 101 reviews
Profile Image for Ben Serviss.
Author 1 book6 followers
July 17, 2020
I, like the one-star reviewer below, have not read this book, but since Goodreads doesn't care about following up on nonsense reviews (that have been flagged numerous times) just because some snowflake disagrees with the author's politics, I hereby give it 5 stars.
Profile Image for Christopher Owens.
289 reviews2 followers
September 4, 2020
Subtitled: How a Nation Conquered the World But Failed Its People

I follow Jared Yates Sexton on Twitter and became aware of American Rule through his promotion of the book there. I jumped at the chance to request this book the first time I saw it available on Net Galley. I received an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

My daughter took a college course a few semesters ago that used Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as one of its textbooks, and during one of her breaks I was able to take a brief skim through it. I believe American Rule is similar to Zinn’s book, focusing on the theme of differences between the mythology of the aims of America’s government and the actual actions that our government takes.

This book takes readers on a concise trip through American history ranging from the revolutionary times of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson up through Donald Trump’s America. There are several themes Sexton returns to again and again such as the myth of American exceptionalism, how the American constitution allows moneyed elites to use the government to protect and/or expand their own wealth at the expense of the common citizens it is supposed to support and defend, and how a combination of religion, white supremacy, and wealthy backers has poisoned the American political and governmental process.

I gave American Rule five stars. It provides a surprisingly concise yet complex summary of the American era. The outlook is fairly bleak toward the end, but offsets the pessimism by tossing out several actions we can take to make things better.

Profile Image for Chrystopher’s Archive.
530 reviews32 followers
November 15, 2020
How did we get here? this book asks, and attempts to answer.

In the end, the answer is a little bit that we’ve always been here, and that when we ask ourselves, “are we the bad guys?” the answer is “well, we’re definitely not the good guys, but some of us are trying to get better.”

As the author says, “The myth of American exceptionalism tells us that greatness and talent reside naturally within us, that our achievements are expected and dully ordinary, but by casting aside this myth, this product of superficial politicking hand opportunistic branding, what we find is that normal people have been excelling and achieving greatness in spite of America. Once this is clear, it becomes obvious that the march on Selma, the Stonewall uprising, Frederick Douglass’s fearless turn as America’s conscience, the perpetual struggle by women and vulnerable minorities to seek equality, and even the ability of people to continue striving, dreaming, and just surviving in a system designed to hinder them at every turn, are just as inspiring as a band of eighteenth century revolutionaries defeating Great Britain, the world’s foremost empire.”

This was a really interesting read, although I admit I’m not an American revolution history buff, and even the portions covering the earlier twentieth century were less absorbing to me than the latter half of the book. Once it hit the post WWII era is where I really began to see all the lines the author was drawing and where the book really took off for me.

The idea of constructed realities and how we respond to those living in a different one from our own, and how those realities become the dominant worldview was really sobering.

Recommended reading, for sure.
Profile Image for Kevin.
336 reviews4 followers
September 12, 2022
American Rule is a MUST-READ. It is clear, concise, well researched and documented as it traces the trajectory of American rule from the very beginnings of our nation through today. By using authentic and verified historical facts and documentation, and tying them together with the narrative of our political process from the very beginning, the author gives the reader an excellently written and very accessible summary of where we've been, how we got to where we are, and offers some wholesome and humane suggestions on how we can proceed forward; in this election year, amid this pandemic, etc. Find a copy of this book and read it ASAP!
Profile Image for Abigail.
144 reviews19 followers
November 15, 2020
This book should have been depressing.

It's a detailed history of all the shenanigans rich white men have pulled to stay in power, from the very beginning of America's history to the Trump administration. The media has always been partisan and biased—first pamphlets and newspapers, then radio and TV, now email and social media have been funded by people with an agenda. The rich and powerful pitted poor whites against poor blacks so that neither would see they were both being taken advantage of. Parties sacrificed ideals to stay in power. Idealists make it to the top, only to find the forces against change too strong to overcome.

However, far from being discouraged, I was comforted. Despite all the compromises and power plays, progress has in fact been made. Trying to recover a lost golden age feels impossible; finding out it never was, or that if there ever was one, it was brief and localized, means we are free to choose a new path going forward.

I only wish the author had acknowledged his bias more openly. It's clear that he's quite liberal, but by leaving it unstated, he casts doubts on the truthfulness of his seemingly meticulous and carefully cited research. Although no party or president escapes the microscope, it will probably raise hackles with its description of modern Republican presidents (which, again, probably aren't false, but are presented with no attempt at neutrality).

From his epilogue:
Americans must take a firm and nonnegotiable stand for fair representation and democratic values, understanding that electoral wins and losses need not be apocalyptic scenarios; grasp that divisive politics have been used as a weapon against the people from the very beginning; and recognize that communal good can far outweigh the visceral and toxic appeals of prejudice and tribalism.

…what we find is that normal people have been excelling and achieving greatness in spite of America. Once this is clear, it becomes obvious that the march on Selma, the Stonewall uprising, Frederick Douglass's fearless turn as America's conscience, the perpetual struggle by women and vulnerable minorities to seek equality, and even the ability of people to continue striving, dreaming, and just surviving in a system designed to hinder them at every turn, are just as inspiring as a band of eighteenth-century revolutionaries defeating Great Britain, the world's foremost empire.
Profile Image for David.
316 reviews44 followers
October 13, 2020
A fascinating and accessible analysis of American mythology and how we are still (and increasingly) impacted by it. If you’ve ever said, “How did we end up here?” this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Marcia.
171 reviews1 follower
September 17, 2020
I have this book on my list to read but was outraged at the reviewer who hadn’t read the book but gave it a 1 star. While two wrongs do not make a right, I am giving a 5 star review as a way to negate that review. It may not be right, but it feels right.
Profile Image for Mark.
Author 10 books11 followers
December 4, 2020
There are different versions of American history, unfortunately. And with Trump and his supporters pushing for a return to the history where America can do no wrong, is an exceptional country, and is pure of heart and deed, it's important to keep some the alternative, more realistic histories front and center. American Rule provides one of those alternatives -- tracing American history from its founding to today and identifying the many examples of how this country has, from its founding, been led by rich, elite white men whose primary motivation was to protect their power and their wealth. Easy to read and not excessively long, it's well worth the read if you're interested in something other than "America is great" history.
25 reviews4 followers
September 21, 2020
Quite good overview, but ruined a bit at the end when he tries to call for action. In a weird fashion, it seems like the author is calling back to go to the myth he deconstructs in the book.

Otherwise an excellent overview of the exceptional and insidious influence of American propaganda from the founding onwards.
Profile Image for ac.
13 reviews1 follower
February 2, 2021
I admittedly have neglected learning about American history since high school. This book was a great primer that spared no details of America’s deep deep deep flaws.

I vacillated between relief and horror to learn that the Trump presidency was literally nothing new (see: Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan etc.) The author outlines the rise of “The Cult of the Shining City” which is a very compelling argument for why we have so many american myths about our alleged exceptionalism.

Took me awhile to get through, but I highly recommend!
Profile Image for Trent.
306 reviews41 followers
October 30, 2020
While "American Rule" is in many ways a spiritual successor to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, the author admits in the Prologue that it began much more simply - as an attempt to figure out if the recent influx of Fascist ideology in America (mainly via the Trump Presidency) was a symptom of a broken system or the root cause.

He quickly realized that he needed to go much further back into the annals of American history to find his answer. This book is, therefore, at its core, a history book. Much like Zinn’s opus, however, it is definitely not the history we were taught in school. Rather, it is a deconstruction of the American Myth of Exceptionalism - what is it, where did it start, and how can we debunk it in order to -actually- create a more perfect Union?

In this book, you will travel all the way back to America's founding, through the tumultuous 19th Century (and the evolution of the President into the 'Cult of Personality' we see today), through two devastating World Wars (and their much -more- devastating aftermath), and into modern America as we know it.

In order to improve, we must first know where we went wrong, and this book very explicitly outlines where America has (repeatedly) gone wrong. To his credit, though, Sexton also outlines how we can improve, grow, and forge ahead as a true leader in the modern world.

Highly recommended.
November 9, 2020
This book intrigued me when I first heard about it. Now that I have read it I am disappointed. The book is, more than anything else, an indictment of our educational system in general and of mr. Sexton's education in particular. Anyone who has studied American history to any reasonable extent already knows everything this book contains. I can not imagine how the author got through college without apparently ever hearing the names of historians such as Howard Zinn, John Hope Franklin and Winthrop Jordan. Zinn is even required reading in many high schools. It suffices to say that, if you are even a committed amateur historian, you already know everything the author has to say. And, if you are not a fairly committed student of history, you are probably never going to read this book anyway.
I kept waiting in vain for something, anything that I hadn't read many times before. The stories of the Bay of Pigs, Allende, Cointelpro, the Cuban missile crisis, McCarthy, the 3/5 clause, Lincoln's embrace of white supremacy etc. etc. etc. have been told and retold endlessly. The connection of America's history of white supremacy to the election of Donald Trump has been explored repeatedly. If you are looking for a corrective to the feel good version of American history, don't waste your time with this. You'll be better served by picking up the latest edition of Zinn's Peoples' History.
Profile Image for Michael Stegmaier.
1 review3 followers
August 29, 2022
Jared Yates Sexton knee-caps the entire concept of American Exceptionalism with this recontextualized 30,000-foot-view of American History. As much as the "noble lie" of American Exceptionalism has galvanized its people in a singular vision, it has been an effective tool to brainwash generations of Americans and to white-wash egregious violations of morality and ethics, the likes of which we have literally invaded other countries over (purportedly; the true reasons are often either banal or horrific). Sexton runs at a breakneck pace through the country's history time and again, showing that the true engine behind the juggernaut of America is not our righteous quest for equality and democracy but predatory capitalism with the government and the military as its teeth and claws.
Profile Image for Steve Steidle.
80 reviews
June 27, 2021
A powerful repainting of American history for what it truly is - racism, misogyny, and continued manipulation of the populace for the betterment of the wealthy few.
8 reviews
December 31, 2022
Two things are immediate red flags about this book. One, is his unhelpful obsession with Trump as the ultimate villan, leading him to look for similar figures in history on which to place all of the blame. This gives us detailed descriptions and accounts of a single person during a large and complex historical event. The best examples of this are James Madison, Andrew Jackson, and Richard Nixon. All of whom have had devastating effects on the lives is those living at the time, as well as a broader effect on how America works. In some ways, I have no issue with his preoccupation with finding one person to zoom in on and attribute everything bad that happens onto them. It gives us a fascinating and thorough account of Andrew Jackson, for instance. However, this need for an ultamite villain inadvertently leads to them being the main character, which is fine, in a biography of them or if you're zooming in on them to explore the devastating effects of their influence, but not in an overview of American history. Sexton has a hard time humanizing the groups that the subjects of his overview murder, torture, oppress, etc. And with this lack of inspiration and examples of people who fought back, it makes his call to action in the conclusion extremely hollow. This book also has one audience and one audience only. Liberals in 2017. We are not in 2017, and I am not a liberal. With that being said, there are things that I like about this book, for instance, his understanding of the effects of Christianity on the sociopolitical climate are integral to a full understanding of American history.
Profile Image for Dan Mccarthy.
291 reviews3 followers
October 4, 2020
A great reconstruction of the American myths of the "Shining City on a Hill" and "American Exceptionalism" through the lens of the Noble Lie. Sexton outlines how American has never lived up to it's proposed ideals, often working directly in opposition to them, both in internal politics and external global policies.

This book stems from Sexton's own internal struggle to come to terms with the mythological America he was sold as a white Evangelical with the true America; one designed with oligarchical, white supremacist, and anti-democratic institutions from the very founding.

While I enjoyed the book, it isn't anything new to historians of the United States. However, Sexton does provide a clear through line from the American Revolution to modern day Trumpism which is a helpful introduction to anyone who has finally removed their rose colored glasses.
3 reviews
September 22, 2020
This book will likely divide your understanding of the USA into two eras- before reading this book, and after having read this book. It answers a lot of questions I never thought to ask but in hindsight seem like I should definitely have been asking.

It's a clear fluid read; Sexton's prose flows smoothly and is easygoing without being informal.

I appreciate the hard work that went into telling the actual story of the USA. It's a story that is vital to understanding what is happening in the country right now. The book gives hope for crafting a better country going forward, if enough of us are willing to ask the questions that are answered by reading this book.
Profile Image for Jon Wlasiuk.
Author 1 book3 followers
October 1, 2020
A new grand narrative of American history is forming and American Rule is among the best books to communicate the outlines of this new territory to a national audience. Jared Yates Sexton is neither an American historian by training nor does this book break uncover new archival sources, which will no doubt fluster some academic historians. Regardless, American Rule demonstrates a mastery of historiography without getting lost in the tired debates or the stuffy norms of academia. With its connections across time and its sharp, sobering revelations of an America enthralled to a poisonous ideology, American Rule establishes Jared Yates Sexton as the Hannah Arendt of Trumpism.
Profile Image for Emily.
421 reviews
February 9, 2021
Sexton is a fantastic writer and is able to make what could be considered “boring” history interesting. We all know the stories of how America was founded and the pivotal moments in our history. What is interesting is to see them all lined up one after the other and you start to see the common thread that has led us to where we are now. We, the people, must contest the political play and demand that changes continue to be made to improve our nation.
Profile Image for Andy Goldman.
Author 10 books14 followers
November 27, 2020
Eye-opening look at how this current mess in America has its roots in the founding of the country. Almost overwhelming to consider while dealing with everything else right now, but important to know nonetheless.
Profile Image for Brittany.
74 reviews
September 16, 2022
I have learned and forgotten more from this book than I’ve ever gotten out of a history class. If you want to understand how the U.S. got to where it is right now, I implore you to read this.
Profile Image for Allen.
78 reviews
October 3, 2020
What a terrific book! The amount of sourced historical fact is so abundance that I can overlook any extra analysis, albeit very poetic and probably spot on. Howard Zinn would be proud. really enjoyed the extra time to read it today without the President tweeting nonstop..
Profile Image for Sydney Apel.
362 reviews1 follower
September 15, 2022
The thesis of this book is that America has always been a capitalist, white supremacist country fueled by partisan media and the only way forward is to reckon with it, learn from it, and to stop putting our political figures on pedestals. And I absolutely agree. The author breaks down our sordid history by presidential figures and historical eras, covering some things I knew and some things that were unbeknownst to me (namely the turn of the Democratic party to centricity and neo-libreralism around the time of Clinton). If you're trying to understand our current hellscape, I recommend this wholeheartedly
June 29, 2020
I have seen the authors twitter feed. Giving a synopsis of his own work. It’s not based in any facts other than ones he cherry picks. Neglects to mention that Democrats are the confederacy he is referring to. Never mentions the facts that every single piece of CivilRights Legislation was opposed by Democrats. He is an associate professor of creative writing (not a history major or historian) and I can already tell you his book is more fiction and opinion than fact. I hope that this book is placed in the fiction section next to animal farm where it belongs.
May 3, 2021
Excellent. If you want to know how we got where we are, and especially if you're thinking it wasn't supposed to be this way, then you really ought to read this. Because as a matter of fact, this was the plan from the beginning: minority rule by property- and slave-owning white christian males. They just didn't want the rest of us to know that. Now we do.
519 reviews8 followers
January 31, 2022
This book has become the first of many in my latest block of books that pierces the myth of American exceptionalism. The core message of the book is that America has always needed myths to give the populace something to believe. It is about distraction and control. The book starts at the country’s founding and ends as the country is fading from the world stage.

The author doesn’t pull punches in pointing out the facade the myths create. Also their ability to keep the country from facing difficult truths. Old white people want to return to Mayberry, but that never existed, except as a script churned out in Hollywood. Yet that myth of exists, as the uncomfortable truths of the 1950’s would cause them to admit to embarrassing facts of the era.

Using first sources, the author destroys the myth of how the Constitution was written. It is also quite telling just how messed up the process was and is an excellent primer for the next 200+ years.

All three authors [Hamilton, Madison, Jay] made the case that America’s Constitution was meant as a means to consolidate the influence of the states, improving upon the Greek, Roman, and British systems. They suggested that the United States, with the correct engineering, would become the heir to these empires and grow more powerful than any empire that had come before, but that mission required the cessation of the perpetual revolution as envisioned by Jefferson in favor or a system that protected the wealthy. This approach blended the rigidity of control in past and existing empires with Enlightenment thinking, instituting a new reality where people were to be controlled but believe themselves to be free.

The Founders’ plan for perpetual control of the people also required a narrative to protect it from scrutiny, and in The Federalist Papers, Madison, Jay and Hamilton found an opportunity to establish that narrative. Their essays coupled the Constitution with the appeal of divine inspiration and the tenets of the revolution, with an emphasis on unity against outsiders. They argued that God had given “one connected country to one united people - a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manner and customs.”

Through this framing, the Founders planted the concept of American identity and American exceptionalism, particularly white American exceptionalism: a worldview in which the creator of the universe had touched a people and made them superior to carry out his plans.

Whoa. That above is our worshiped founders setting up the system so that rich people benefit, anyone not white is pushed down and the populace sees themselves as the chosen ones. From that point on, everything following became justified. As the United States expanded west, as it gathered territories and built an empire, all actions came back to this founding myth. It drives the conflict found within today. The outcome of everyone being equal is not what the founders had in mind. We have distorted their intent, as they could not imagine the world of today or why their inflexible system won’t last.

Read the book to open your eyes to the origin of myths we are told to believe since kindergarten. Understand that until everyone realizes they are being led down a path that is no longer tenable, the rift will only get worse. It is only by agreeing that reality is actually reality and not a myth that we will be able to navigate the world to come.

Profile Image for Dolly.
101 reviews1 follower
January 20, 2021
A difficult must-read for my fellow Americans, especially those who care about our gasping, desiccated sham of a democracy. Jared Yates Sexton is a journalist who turns an eye to history in order to help us understand our current crises. American Rule is a rehash of our country's story so we can connect the dots.

Prior to reading, I was not ignorant to the brutal realities of American genocide, warmongering, colonialism, racist oppression, and slavery... and yet I was still surprised by what I learned. My high school textbooks definitely didn't teach me what a virulent eugenicist Woodrow Wilson was, for one example. The more you read American Rule, the more it becomes clear why some presidents' legacies get skimmed over as unremarkable or otherwise sanitized in our public education curriculum (because of how malignantly irredeemable they are -- I'm looking at you Andrew Jackson) and how others are lionized (in spite of policies and beliefs that range from tepid and insufficient to downright condemnable). I won't go into all the details in my review -- not because I'm ironically avoiding spoilers, but because it really is through Sexton's chronological brick-laying of facts and events that the reader comes to understand firsthand how we get from U to S to A. It is truly disgraceful how we have watered down, deleted, rewritten, and romanticized America's "days of yore."

Perhaps the most important accomplishment of this book is countering the myth we frequently hear today in response to the blatant ugliness of Trumpism: This isn't America. It usually comes in the form of, "This is not who we really are. We're better than this. This isn't what our Founding Fathers stood for. Think of our values." These statements sound hollow when looking at the evidence of history. They ignore the inherent contradiction that is America. We are a nation that was built on empty platitudes, which were manipulated and twisted to serve an elite and wealthy minority. Real people - particularly BIPOC -were slaughtered, tortured, and victimized every step of the way to achieve that end. This truth has shaped our society and made its mark on generations of Americans from its 18th century origins to the present. Indeed, the cries otherwise bear an uncanny resemblance to the mantra they seek to oppose, the one chanted by Trump supporters themselves: "Make America Great Again."

It may be hard to look truth in the face, especially when it is so gloomy and dark. A lighter, cleaner fantasy is so much more compelling. America has only been "great" insomuch as the gargantuan degree of global power it has wielded over the last couple centuries and how much it has abused that power to the harm of both its own citizens and the peoples of the world. To say otherwise is to write fiction. But as Sexton so movingly and passionately writes in the epilogue, if we can confront our reality, be honest with ourselves about our hypocrisies and our harms, then we can truly do the work of redressing the rot and creating a society that does function with our prized democratic ideals not just in mind, but in action.
Profile Image for Ross Nelson.
235 reviews2 followers
November 18, 2020
The purpose of this book, I think, is to point out that the US is a victim of its own mythology. Too often, we are faced with a difficult problem or an unfortunately historical truth, and we simply proclaim it over or solved, and wall-paper it with a new myth of how we set things right.

Given the number of people who proclaim there is no systemic racism in America, it's clear that this is a real problem. Unfortunately Sexton bites off a bit more than he can chew, attempting to tackle the entire US history from the Revolutionary War to Donald Trump. As a result, there are oversimplification and references to "pop history" rather than academic history. As simple example is his statement that George Washington was the wealthiest man in the US upon his election to president. Washington was probably in the top ten, but there's no good way of measuring, plus he was land-rich which meant his wealth was illiquid. Similarly he seems to bear a grudge against James Madison, apparently for his role in the electoral college, but Madison's views were not as simply as Sexton makes them out.

His use of footnotes is also annoying in that he'll quote someone as saying A, B, and C, and the footnote only contains statement C. Finally, his partisanship is so strong, that a lot of people who might benefit from reading the first 2/3 of the book will likely be completely turned off by the last 1/3. I don't begrudge him his political POV, but it will limit his audience.

All that said, he does marshal a strong argument that most of US history has been anti-democratic (lower-case d) and that his has generally favored the mercantile class. His shots at racist presidents and senators score well-deserved hits on his targets and buttress his point that these people's flaws get covered up because American Exceptionalism demands it.
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