The former mayor of Charlottesville delivers a vivid, first-person chronicle of the terror and mayhem of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” event, and shows how issues of extremism are affecting not just one city but the nation itself.
The deadly invasion of Charlottesville, Virginia, by white nationalist militias in August 2017 is a microcosm of the challenges facing American democracy. No one is better placed to tell the story of what really happened, and to draw out its larger significance, than Michael Signer, then Charlottesville’s mayor.
Signer, a lawyer, historian, political theorist, and public servant, sets the events on the ground–the lead-up to August’s “Unite the Right” rally, the days of the weekend itself, the aftermath-into the larger context of a country struggling to find its way through the sturm und drang of the Trump era.
He confronts some of the most pressing questions of our moment. How do we:
Reconcile free speech with the need for public order?
Maintain the values of pragmatism, compromise, even simple civility, in a time of intensification of extremes on the right and the left?
Address systemic racism through our public spaces and memorials?
Do something about the widespread disaffection with institutions and a democracy that seems to be faltering and turning on itself?
The siege of Charlottesville shows how easily our communities can be taken hostage by forces intent on destroying democratic norms and institutions. But Signer concludes with a stirring call for optimism, pointing out, with evidence drawn from Charlottesville and work it has spurred since, that even this tragedy contains an opportunity to bolster democracy from within and defend our very ability to govern.
Praise for Cry Havoc
“Mike Signer had a unique vantage point on one of the inflection points of our time: the white-supremacist rallies and violence in Charlottesville in 2017. In this important new book, he explores where we’ve been, where we are, and—most important—where we should be headed if we can summon our better angels.” - Jon Meacham, author, The Soul of America
“Michael Signer’s Cry Havoc goes behind the scenes as neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, transforming a small college town into an international flashpoint of extremist hatred and racial confrontation. The former mayor recounts, from his firsthand vantage point, the events of that tragic and dramatic weekend. This well-written, disturbing volume serves as a warning about what may be coming in America’s increasingly divided society. We would be wise to heed the lessons of Charlottesville, before one small city’s dreadful conflict becomes the blueprint for violence from coast to coast.” - Larry Sabato, Director, Center for Politics, University of Virginia
“A report from the frontlines of Trump’s America. Polarization, race, politicized memory, violence, and good-willed efforts of citizens and politicians to navigate it all. Mike Signer gives us his on-the-ground view of ‘Charlottesville under siege,’ revealing the deep vulnerabilities and promise of American democracy.” - Daniel Ziblatt, Harvard University, co-author, How Democracies Die
“Cry Havoc vividly recounts the disturbing events in Charlottesville and reminds us that the battle to preserve our democratic institutions is an enduring part of our national experience. Essential reading in a time of national peril.” - Robert Dallek, author, An Unfinished Life JFK, 1917-1963
"Former Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, in providing an account of the tribulations in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Unite the Right rally, demonstrates the pain and struggle of a community defending itself from hate and constructing a collective path together toward a vision of belonging. He also offers an intimate glimpse into what it takes to carry the immense weight of responsibility and accountability to the public amid such turbulence. In doing so, Signer gives his readers firsthand insight into the necessary conflict that is at the heart of true bridging. But that through compassion, faith, and commitment to one another, extremism can be overcome toward a broad expansion of the circle of human concern.” - john powell, Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion, University of California, Berkeley Law School
“Charlottesville, Virginia, my hometown, is now an emblem and a microcosm of the tensions and divisions roiling our nation. Mayor Michael Signer found himself in the center of a growing brushfire that culminated in the murderous Unite the Right demonstration in August 2017. Here he tells a difficult, unsparing but often engrossing story that illuminates just how hard it can be to face our past while also finding a healing and hopeful path forward.” - Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO, New America
“Since the Unite the Right rally, I have tried to understand the events around the murder of my daughter. Cry Havoc is an important narrative of Charlottesville, providing unique insights to help make sense of the senseless, and moving us to a place of hope and courage.” - Susan Bro, co-founder and president, Heather Heyer Foundation
“Incredibly compelling. Cry Havoc connects a richly detailed personal story of local politics with national trends that should scare us all.” - P.W. Singer, author, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media
“Cry Havoc chronicles how Charlottesville, VA., was torn apart by violence and murder in the summer of 2017, and how the small town has come together to heal since then. By telling the deep story of the rally that shocked the world, Mike Signer, the mayor of Charlottesville and an influential political theorist, not only takes us deep inside the life of one small American town; he points to lessons that could inspire the whole country to move towards a better future." - Yascha Mounk, author, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It
“Mike Signer held the front and center seat during Charlottesville's darkest moments when our nation's democracy, values, and rule of law faced the worst of challenges. His brilliant, inspiring, accurate, and timely account is a must-read for every American concerned about the future of democracy, the civility of our discourse, and the harm of extremism.” - Khizr Khan, Gold Star parent
“Mike Signer does something remarkable in Cry Havoc. He takes responsibility. With candor and integrity, he describes his actions, his omissions, his ambitions, and his limits as a mayor in the midst of a consuming public crisis. This book will make every reader ask, What would I do? What choices would I make? And it will make every reader a more wise and skillful citizen.” - Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University and author, You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen
Kirkus Reviews: “An insider’s account of the ‘madness and mayhem’ of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 and the nightmare confrontation between free speech and public safety that the clash created. Signer (Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father, 2015, etc.) was mayor of the progressive college town when hundreds of armed, torch-carrying protesters arrived, shouting ‘Jews will not replace us,’ ostensibly to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee from removal. Although he lacked power in his ceremonial position (the city manager was in charge), Signer felt compelled to act: He was Jewish, an expert on demagoguery, and teaching a university course on race, policy and history. With a doctorate in political science, the author was committed to deliberative government. In this deeply introspective book, which addresses Donald Trump's fearmongering rise to the presidency, Signer explains how he was ‘pushing the boundaries’ of his job, encouraging different perspectives on the statue issue and upsetting many staff with his seeming meddling. Some citizens insisted on removing the Confederate monument; others, on keeping it as a ‘teachable moment.’ Opposing ‘symbolic politics,’ the author hoped to ‘recontextualize’ the statue, using public space to tell the full story of race. With the ‘Unite the Right’ rally imminent, Signer began seeking a ‘silver bullet’ to avert violence between opposing protesters, enlisting advice and assistance from experts. His frustration at not being able to shape the outcome is palpable. ‘I could have left more up to others,’ he writes. He offers a thorough analysis of the ‘shortcomings’ of First Amendment law and the failures of policing. Berating himself as sometimes ‘impetuous,’ he emerges as a well-intentioned, proactive figurehead who suffered undeserved attacks on social media. Signer refuses to scapegoat, but it is noteworthy that most of those in power at the time are now gone. A complex, disturbing, valuable tale of racial disharmony, government failure, and one man's frantic attempts to save the day.”
Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father (2015)
Becoming Madison is an intellectual and psychological biography that takes a fresh look at the life of the United States’ fourth president, focusing on Madison before age 36, when he did his most enduring work—learning at the elbow of the great iconoclast and revolutionary cleric John Witherspoon, battling with Patrick Henry over religious freedom; introducing his framework for a robust and resilient central government; becoming the intellectual godfather of the Constitution’s brilliant checks and balances; and working to ratify the Constitution at Virginia’s convention in 1788.
Mike reintroduces readers to a brilliant, improbably charismatic, powerfully driven, and exquisitely sensitive young man, who was uncomfortable on the public stage but whose passionate concern to shape a great and enduring nation compelled him onto it.
Young Madison’s reluctant but firm decision to hurl himself into the ring, again and again, for the common good prove that leadership is possible in a democracy, and that ideas can make a difference. His story shows how much democracy depends on leaders like Madison. The stunning story of his victories is simply incomprehensible without understanding the passion, charisma, energy, humor, and fierceness of Madison the actual man.
“Highly readable and often insightful...A perfect introduction to a deeply private and immensely important man." —Kirkus Reviews
“An important study of the intellectual and psychological development of a young Madison who believed that leaders should forsake self-interest in promoting the common good.” —Library Journal
"Sound and revealing." —The Wall Street Journal
"Intellectual history at its finest…an essential biography of an essential Founder.” —The Richmond Times-Dispatch
"In this engaging new study, Signer wrestles with the early life and career of James Madison and attempts to explain why Madison remains unheralded among the founding generation. ... According to Signer, however, Madison's humble status in American memory is not a function of his failures but rather a product of his successes...Highly recommended." —CHOICE
“[A]s lively as a thrilling mystery, as enlightening as a full college semester and as pleasing as a frosty bowl of Southern punch.” —Lincoln Journal-Star
"James Madison would be called a "flip-flopper" in today's political climate. Thank God he changed his mind and concluded that adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution was not just good politics but necessary policy. This is just one of the wonderful aspects of James Madison's life that Michael Signer captures so well in this important biography. Our nation owes huge debts to Madison, and today's civic leaders owe a huge debt to Signer for reminding us why."—US Senator Tim Kaine
"Becoming Madison is superb. As a native Virginian who grew up going to steeplechase races at Montpelier, the history is lively and engaging. But Michael Signer's greatest contribution is to turn a biography of Madison into a manual on leadership that is as relevant and valuable today as it was 200 years ago.” —Anne-Marie Slaughter, President and CEO, New America
"This engagingly written, carefully researched book is the fullest account we have of the development of Madison's thought and statesmanship through the promotion and drafting of the Constitution to the greatest triumph of his life, the ratification of the Virginia Convention of 1788. Signer shows how there, in face-to-face debate with Patrick Henry, Madison proved what John Marshall termed Madison's unmatched ability to convince could overcome Henry's supreme power to persuade. This capacity characterized Madison's style and career in a way that allowed him to become the master philosopher and practitioner of Lincoln's Union 'conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all ... are created equal.' Signer also shows brilliantly how Madison's studies at Princeton under John Witherspoon began an influential and revealing partnership in public spirited citizenship for good government. Altogether the book brings us closer to understanding how Madison became able to be, all things considered, the father of the Constitution." —Ralph Ketcham, Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, author of James Madison: A Biography
"For centuries James Madison has been overshadowed by the more striking and charismatic members of America's founding generation. And Madison's youth has been even less well known than his maturity. Michael Signer goes far toward filling this historical gap with an engaging, insightful account of how the unassuming young Madison became the hero of the Constitution." —H. W. Brands, University of Texas at Austin, author of Andrew Jackson, His Life and Times and The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace
Demagogue: The Fight to Save Democracy from Its Worst Enemies (2009)
Demagogue began as Mike's doctoral dissertation, which was about the historical tendency of pure democracies to self-destruct through demagogues. The ancient political theorists called this the “cycle of regimes,” and it fascinated the Founding Fathers—including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton—who placed a concern with demagogues at the heart of America’s own Constitution.
Demagogue tells the story of the fight against demagogues in several arenas: in American history, in political theory, and in foreign policy and democracy promotion. Along the way, readers meet fascinating figures and remarkable stories, from the ancient Greek demagogue Cleon to the Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long to the Detroit “radio priest” Father Coughlin, to great thinkers including Plato, Thomas Jefferson, and Hannah Arendt. The end result is a vision of democracy that crucially depends on constitutionalism: an active, self-maintaining culture of civic values among citizens.
With constitutionalism, Mike argues citizens can take control of democracy for themselves, arresting the cycle of regimes and protecting democracy through political culture, rather than just through checks and balances and institutions.
"The author constructs a muscular narrative... Makes a forceful case for civic engagement and eternal vigilance." —Kirkus Reviews
"[D]elivers hope, confidence and a vision for diplomacy." —Publisher's Weekly
"[This] intriguing book... echoes Tocqueville's contention that liberal mores and traditions within society are the bedrock of democracy." —John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs
"[D]emagogue is a thoughtful book, one that employs history,
political theory, and foreign policy analysis to impressive effect, and one that makes a powerful case for the importance of an engaged citizenry’s constitutional conscience in the fight against demagogic tyranny and excess." —D.J. Mulloy, Terrorism and Political Violence
“Demagogue is a simply extraordinary book. A fascinating work of political theory, an eloquent response to the Bush administration's disastrous efforts at promoting democracy, a roadmap for progressives seeking to chart a new foreign policy direction and an intellectual lifeline for anyone who believes America should be on freedom's side, and knows, in their heart, that there must be a better way.” ―Peter Beinart
“The demagogue is the only enemy of democracy who pretends to be its friend. Michael Signer's erudite and eloquent defense of constitutional democracy against its demagogic counterfeit should be required reading for the citizens of established and emerging democracies alike.” ―Michael Lind
“Michael Signer has written a strikingly original book. Demagogue tells the story of democracy by analyzing its antithesis – the often frighteningly charismatic leader who draws his strength from his purported connection to the demos itself. Amid the myriad studies of democracy and waves of democratization, of rising incomes, civil society, institutions and elections, Signer brings the human element back into the equation. The demagogue, he argues, is an eternal element in democracy's rise and fall, one that we ignore today, from Venezuela to Russia, at our peril.” ―Anne-Marie Slaughter
“With American democracy facing so many challenges at home and abroad, Demagogue could not have come at a more important moment. Michael Signer has given us a deeply thoughtful book, shedding new light on one of the most important ideas in American foreign policy and drawing vivid portraits of some of history's most troubling and pivotal figures. Written with refreshing clarity and flair, this is a book to enjoy – and not soon forget.” ―Derek Chollet