To this venerable genre, Nick Bryant adds an un-Trollopian modern sensibility and a great deal of journalistic flair. A longtime BBC correspondent, the British-born Bryant has covered the United States from the United States for much of his distinguished career. In “When America Stopped Being Great,” he offers what the book’s subtitle calls “a history of the present.” But it’s really an elegy for a nation that Bryant first came to know as a young man on an extended visit to Orange County, Calif., amid native-son Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” campaign and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
At the time, Bryant was wowed. But as he went from impressionable teenager to seasoned correspondent, he also came to see that the nation he’d fallen in love with was falling apart. The book’s title invokes Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, and Trump’s outsized career and improbable and catastrophic presidency are woven throughout its 40-year narrative of decline.
Bryant begins the book with a BBC interview he did with Trump in 2014 that left him thinking Trump’s “best days and grandest designs were in the past.” He ends the book’s penultimate chapter with the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol (amazingly “present” history, given the book’s March publication date), which left him thinking much the same thing about the United States. Trump, it turned out, did have grander designs, but the “city upon a hill” Bryant had once admired now looked, in his words “like a disease-ridden ruin.”
Of course, Bryant is hardly the only foreigner whose impressions of the indispensable nation have soured. As the United States became No. 1 in covid cases while Trump spouted “America First,” the Pew Research Center found in a September 2020 report that other countries’ views of the nation had plummeted. In Bryant’s United Kingdom, 83 percent of the public viewed America positively in 2000, when a departing Bill Clinton was inspiring the premiership of Tony Blair. In the summer of 2020, the country’s favorability rate was 41 percent. A similar decline occurred in France, Canada, Japan and Australia; the drop in Germany was even greater.
If Bryant is echoing foreign laments, he nonetheless gives them a fresh arc. Drawing from his crammed reporters’ notebook and crumbling love affair with his adopted country, he tells a story familiar to anyone who’s cared too much about someone intent on self-destruction. In Bryant’s dark but deftly told tale, the United States is in the final stages of a precipitous, ongoing and likely irreversible decline. There are lots of villains and not a lot of heroes. Even leaders viewed as relatively competent come in for harsh treatment. Probably best off is George H.W. Bush, “an era-defining politician” who embodied “those fleeting years of unrivalled US global dominance, when . . . politics was more level-headed.” Barack Obama, by contrast, gets slammed for his aloofness and lack of engagement with legislative politics — the title of the chapter on his presidency is “No You Can’t.” Clinton and Bush the younger come off even worse: the former because he gives in to conservative ideas and his own carnal urges, the latter because he undermines federal capacities and undertakes disastrous wars. Trump, understandably, defines rock bottom.
Bryant has an encyclopedic knowledge of public affairs and popular culture — think of what would happen if George Packer and Rick Perlstein teamed up — and he uses the combination to make striking, and often surprising, links. During Clinton’s impeachment trial, Bryant observes, the White House became O.J.’s “white Bronco,” a similarly sordid spectacle evoking both fascination and disgust. The perversity of Senate apportionment gets captured in a single statistic: 16 states have fewer residents than Queens. The result is riveting, often revelatory, crammed with facts, occasionally personal, and almost always depressing.
Indeed, probably too depressing. I’ve written a lot about the trends Bryant charts, and I yield to few in my gloominess about the state and future of our nation. And yet, I found myself wanting to argue with Bryant’s assessment. I found myself thinking about the signs and sources of hope: the strengths of the American knowledge economy that made possible record-quick vaccine development; the demographic changes that could make racial demagoguery of the Trump variety a far less viable electoral strategy; the passage of major relief bills even before the recent $1.9 trillion breakthrough; the defeat of Trump and the unexpected Democratic capture of the Senate in the wake of his party’s failure to stand up to his big lie.
The great strength of Bryant’s book is his ability to make large structural changes vivid through outsized personalities and his own personal experiences. (Perhaps the most affecting section of the book tells the story of his pregnant wife’s battle with covid-19 — which thankfully ended with a recovered mother and healthy daughter evocatively named Honor.) The result is readable, powerful and instructive. Still, we shouldn’t forget that it is the structural changes that must be tackled, and that some of them — America’s huge economic and racial divide, partisan hyperpolarization, the failure of our Constitution to prevent a radicalized Republican Party from undermining democracy — are now visible to broad movements and bold leaders bent on fundamental reform. I hope they too read this book. I also hope they will end it thinking about what can yet be achieved rather than what has been lost.
When America Stopped Being Great
A History of the Present
By Nick Bryant
376 pp. $30