Robert G. Kaiser retired in 2014 after a 50-year career at The Washington Post. He is the author or co-author of eight books, most recently “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t.”
Ben Fountain has cast his unconventional book about the 2016 election as an engaging meditation on two large questions that surely preoccupy many Americans these days: What on Earth happened in and to the United States in 2016? And why did it happen? In “Beautiful Country Burn Again,” Fountain confronts both these riddles in creative and provocative ways that force a reader to think hard about the sudden disappearance of familiar patterns of politics and government that, until they blew up, seemed to be persistent, if not permanent.
Fountain hates what has happened to his country’s politics over the past half-century, as our public life, taken over by a “Fantasy Industrial Complex,” has stumbled right into the toilet. He hates vividly, with the verbal energy of a prizewinning novelist. But he also analyzes this history with considerable care. He has done the reading, as the book’s footnotes attest. He is as good on our politics as Norman Mailer was in the 1970s, and he is as indifferent to evenhandedness as Mailer was, too. Some of his history is flawed, and much of his language ignores the rules of the road observed by more conventional political reporters. It is fun to read.
Fountain writes about President Trump’s most ardent supporters as a population unmoored from traditional American optimism — embittered by demographic upheaval, by decades of stagnant or falling incomes, and by condescending, well-to-do elites and “their sniffy pieties about tolerance and diversity forced down your throat by the pinheads who’d figured it out for the rest of us.” Trump gave these supporters affirmation of their view of the world and of their own significance. “The most powerful medicine in politics,” Fountain writes, may be “to be acknowledged as you are, affirmed and blessed from above: one can imagine it as a spiritual experience.”
The novelist’s talents that won him the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” are on display on nearly every page. Fountain’s writing can be emotionally provocative. Some of the best describes Trump’s talents as a performer, which Fountain takes seriously: At a Trump rally, “people clap and cheer on cue, eager to please this remarkable man. The intimacy he creates is astonishing . . . the confiding stream-of-consciousness slurry like the boss’s arm draped over your shoulder, trusting you above all others. . . . The crowd is seduced, and who among us isn’t happy to be seduced when it is done so expertly.”
Fountain challenges readers to confront the centrality of race in our history — the great American curse since the first slaves were brought ashore at Jamestown in 1619. The racial attitudes of white people, he argues, have always shaped our politics. The transformation of the once-proud “party of Lincoln” into the right-wing Republican coalition we see today started, Fountain agrees, when Lyndon B. Johnson voluntarily gave up the “solid [Democratic] south” by signing the civil rights bills of the 1960s (bills enacted only because of strong Republican support in that long-forgotten Senate).
As the South’s importance in Republican politics grew, the region began to provide the votes that elected Republicans to the White House, and Southern Republicans became important leaders in Congress. The key Republican in the new era turned out to be a Georgian, Newt Gingrich, whom Fountain correctly identifies as a principal villain of this story, the author of the “scorched-earth tactics that have characterized the past quarter-century of American politics.”
“And so,” Fountain writes, “the Grand Old Party, the party of New York bankers, thrifty New Englanders and wholesome Midwesterners whose ancestors fought and defeated the Confederacy . . . made a deal with the South. It had taken the better part of forty years, but Republicans finally found their answer to the New Deal.”
Conservatives’ enduring idol, Ronald Reagan, helped make the GOP the party of the white South, Fountain reminds us. He recalls the dark story of how Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign with a speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, just a few miles from where a Ku Klux Klan posse supported by local officials and police murdered three young civil rights workers in June 1964. No one was charged with the crimes for more than 40 years.
Reagan picked this symbolic venue to announce, “I believe in states’ rights” — the rallying cry of segregationists for decades. The federal government was too powerful, he declared — also a favorite theme of white Southerners. As president, Reagan promised“to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”
This speech was “a remarkable moment in American history,” Fountain writes, “one of the true masterpieces of the Southern Strategy, a dog whistle that blew out the eardrums of every racist reactionary within three thousand miles.”
Trump also adopted dog whistles, Fountain writes, and exploited “the country’s ingrained racism” to become its president. “Who would have thought,” writes Fountain, a Southerner, “that George Wallace would be reincarnated in American politics as a New York City real estate tycoon?”
As these quotations suggest, our author is neither diplomatic nor restrained. It’s easy to brush off his strongest rhetoric as too broad, too harsh, too liberal, but I found it harder to reject the arguments that underlie these colorful quotations. For example, Trump and Wallace did have much in common, including their racialist remarks and their disdain for what Wallace called pointy-headed intellectuals. And can we deny that “the great divide in America has always been the color of skin”?
Fountain is tough on Republicans but pitiless about the identity crisis of the modern Democratic Party. What happened to Franklin Roosevelt’s party of the American worker? How was it transformed into the party of the Clintons, “new Democrats” eager to deregulate Wall Street, end welfare as we knew it, befriend the rich and — in the cases of Hillary and Bill, among many others — become rich themselves? Fountain detests Trump as a phony and a fraud, but in his hands, Hillary Clinton is hardly more appealing.
There was a “fatal blind spot in her sensibility,” her inability to see how awful her hunger for money, and her clumsy efforts to deny it, looked to ordinary Americans. He recalls Clinton’s preposterous interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in 2014 when she pleaded poverty. “We came out of the White House [in 2001] not only dead broke but in debt. . . . We struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education. It was not easy.” Those houses cost $1.7 million and $2.85 million. Soon after leaving the White House, both Clintons had “blockbuster book deals.” Bill Clinton immediately began to rake in huge speaking fees. They were loaded.
Her remarks to Sawyer “were so transparently silly . . . that the country couldn’t help but call jerk on Hillary,” Fountain writes. “She really thought that we’d buy this bull?” And he is devastating about her Goldman Sachs speeches, for which the Wall Street bank paid her “$675,000 for three speeches, three hours of ‘work,’ more or less. It’s not real. Money for nothing is not part of the natural order.”
“One wonders,” he writes, “to what degree money underlies Hillary’s ‘likability’ problem, or more to the point, the deficits of ‘trust’ and ‘trustworthiness’ she regularly registers in the polls.” That’s a novelist’s insight. It seems like a good one.
Fountain’s research, including travels around the country in 2016 as a columnist for the Guardian, created a dark pessimist. He thinks “we’ve already lost. . . . The One Percent already owns American democracy.” He is intrigued by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s call for a revolution in American politics, which young people react to enthusiastically. It coincides with Fountain’s view that “the system as it stands in 2016 is beyond curing itself.”
The only hint of optimism in these pages is Fountain’s idea that the country is ready for its third great reinvention. He notes two previous moments, the Civil War and the Great Depression, when “the United States has had to reinvent itself in order to survive as a plausibly genuine constitutional democracy” and — thanks to Abraham Lincoln and FDR — did so. Rising inequality, a new oligarchy of the wealthy, the collapse of upward mobility and of hope — could these lead to another “profound act of reinvention?” Fountain notes that the Civil War came about 80 years after the country was born, and the New Deal came nearly 80 years after Lincoln’s death. It’s now just more than 80 years since the New Deal. Upheaval, anyone?
By Ben Fountain
Ecco. 433 pp. $27.99