Daniel Oppenheimer’s “Exit Right” is a flawed book, but it is flawed in the particular way that only great books can be. It fails to fully answer the impossibly ambitious questions it lays out, but its insights are so absorbing that it doesn’t matter. Its stories only partially fit Oppenheimer’s underlying argument, but the prose is so perfect you barely realize it. And just when you think you understand what propels and paralyzes one of his characters, the author moves to another. This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more. Read more.
This is Oppenheimer’s first book, but he writes with the assurance and historical command of someone who has been thinking about his topic for a long time. The colors of his own flag are hard to discern, which makes him a reliable guide. His sympathy goes to the candidly conflicted, the nakedly shattered. He wants to know why people come to hold the political beliefs they do. Stories of apostasy, he writes, “are worth telling because it’s during the period of political transition, when the bones of one’s belief system are broken and poking out through the skin, that the contingency and complexity of belief become most visible.” This quest is particularly relevant at a time when Americans are dug deep into two opposing trenches, and crossing no man’s land is a great way to get picked off. Read more.
In spite of these criticisms, Exit Right grabbed me as few books have done in recent years. This is political history at a very high level, especially when American politics seems to reach new lows every day. What a pleasure it is to be reminded that ideas do matter, and that those who devote their lives to them are doing something worthwhile. Read more.
The differences aren't lost on Oppenheimer. While in principle his subjects offer a model of political engagement, the character of the apostates changes over the course of his narrative, which spans nearly a century. Put most simply, they become less serious, reflecting a broader decline in America’s ideological life. Chambers was a poète maudit and an acclaimed literary Bolshevik in the 1920s who then slipped underground to supervise a spy ring that eventually infiltrated the State Department. Burnham, his contemporary, was a theorist and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, a favorite subaltern of Leon Trotsky’s when Trotsky was trying to organize the anti-Stalinist revolt from exile in Mexico. Read more.
Kirkus Reviews (starred review):
"A political identity is always a negotiation, between what it demands and who we are," asserts freelance journalist Oppenheimer as he explores "the negotiation of specific left-wing identities…and how those negotiations fell apart."
In this confident debut, the author examines the processes by which six prominent figures—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens—came to alter their political views to move from being devotees of the left (arguably excepting Reagan) to advocates for conservatism (arguably excepting Hitchens). Oppenheimer’s purpose is not to suggest some unifying principle behind his subjects' metamorphoses or to evaluate the views of either the right or the left but rather to explore the nature and origins of personal political belief. Read more.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Amid an era of deep political divide — though certainly not the worst in our history, as some like to declare, and with a social media apparatus for the Everyman to expound on various “truths” — comes a timely psychological political profile from Austin-based author Daniel Oppenheimer.
Though the writer, filmmaker and academic explores the dramatic shift in philosophy, from left to right, of six giants of American political history of the 20th century, Exit Right will inspire a self-examination of all political believers. Read more.
“The wisdom, discernment, and erudition on display in this book are exceptional. After reading it, you may never think about why we believe what we believe in the same way again. Daniel Oppenheimer is a political essayist for the ages.” (Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge)
“Exit Right is a book that every conservative should read and understand. It’s a fascinating, illuminating, deep-thinking look at some of the most important political transformations in American history. While few on the right will agree with every word that Daniel Oppenheimer writes, he’s always smart, provocative, and penetrating.” (Eli Lehrer, president and co-founder of The R Street Institute)
“Exit Right is a compelling and beautifully written work of political history. By tracing the stories of six individuals, Daniel Oppenheimer not only gives us a nuanced look at America’s rightward turn. He also tells a more elemental story about political action—about who we are and what we believe, and how those things can seem unshakeable one moment yet so tenuous the next.” (Jason Sokol, author of There Goes My Everything)
“Daniel Oppenheimer's Exit Right is well written, well researched, funny and full of charm and insight, and is perfectly poised to be the book to read as the country swings into the next election cycle. But perhaps even more remarkable than that: with Exit Right, Dan has managed to successfully explain the phenomena of both Ronald Reagan and Christopher Hitchens in the same book.” (Manuel Gonzales, author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories)
“If it were just a series of sharply focused, incisive portraits, Exit Right would be riveting reading. The fact that they add up to a secret history of the American Left over a century of great tumult is a fascinating bonus. But most unexpectedly—and most valuably—it turns out to be a sort of philosophical mystery story: Are we defined, as we might like to think, by our strongest convictions? Or by our doubts?” (Andrew Bujalski, director of Funny Ha Haand Results)