Disunited States: the state of a nation in Trump’s era of political disarray

As vital American midterm elections loom, a swathe of books expose a cynical elite

Philip Roth bemoaned the intractability of “American reality” for the novelistic imagination: “It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination.” Perhaps this is what led Norman Mailer and Joan Didion to political reportage.

But where to begin with the histrionics of the 2016 presidential election? Novelist Ben Fountain opens Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion and Revolution, his campaign chronicle, in January of that convulsive year. Novelists notice stuff reporters miss. Hillary emanates a "dreadnought presence", while oleaginous Ted Cruz toggles between "fire-and-brimstone ardor" and "a mealy-mouthed smile as he takes the applause".

Then there’s old-man Bernie – “Clunker eyeglasses, woke-up-like-this hair”. All this is prefatory though to the entrance of the most bogglesome character of them all. A Trump stemwinder exudes “the junky nonstop patter of a telethon host”, its “confiding stream-of-consciousness slurry like the boss’s arm draped over your shoulder . . . ” Later, Fountain anatomises the jerry-built monstrosity of Trump’s Republican convention speech, “the rhetorical equivalent of suburban sprawl”– “ISIS was here, murderous immigrants over there, political correctness, the rigged system, and ‘international humiliation’ plunked down there, there and there like strip shopping centers scattered about a mishmash of housing developments.”

For full effect, consider the accompanying visuals. Trump’s handlers teased crisp 1968 “Law-and-Order” Richard Nixon; instead, the ghoulish flop-sweat-slicked 1974 version showed up – “by the end . . . practically lock-jawed with fatigue, punched out . . . smile . . . ghastly, dry lips snagging on dry teeth.”


As these excerpts attest, Fountain is a superb writer. But there's an air of preciousness about Beautiful Country; its author flaunting his exquisitely-modulated sensibility on racism, which looms monolithically as a skeleton key to understanding Trumpism – little more than a paroxysm of racial animus stoked by a nationwide "Southern strategy" that set millions of crypto-racist hearts aflutter.

But it seems eminently debatable that racism is the sole animating impulse behind Trumpism

But it seems eminently debatable that racism is the sole animating impulse behind Trumpism. It certainly belies Fountain’s analysis that the Clinton administration played to working- and lower middle-class voters’ racially-tinged pieties (welfare reform, tough on crime) while abandoning their economic interests in embracing deregulation and globalisation.

This set the course for US polity since. And these constituencies found themselves shafted by stalled wages, job insecurity and spiralling incidences of suicide and substance abuse. Little wonder they’d be “drawn to a thug candidate who states plainly that the system is rigged rotten and he alone can fix it”.

But the will to understand is fleeting, noxious and unregenerate. Trump voters are otherwise consigned to Hillary’s “basket of deplorables”.

In Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society, essayist Thomas Frank demurs from progressive orthodoxy that "[T]he Trump movement is a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race hatred".

“ . . . [W]hat happened in 2016 deserves to be taken seriously . . . In addition to the ugly gusher of bigotry that Trump tapped, there swirled perfectly legitimate concerns about deindustrialization, oligarchy, the power of big banks, bad trade deals, and the long-term abandonment of working-class concerns by the Democrats.”

Frank is an old-fashioned person of the left, interested in “labor and work and exploitation and economic power”. Delving beyond the insult highlight reel, he finds trade was Trump’s number one talking point. He spoke in part at least to neoliberalism’s casualties.

Frank also engages with Trump voters. Those he encounters in Missouri evince ambivalence – their votes cast in the spirit with which Trump notoriously canvassed black voters: “Whaddaya got to lose . . . ?”

“In walking around these small towns,” he reports, “it occurred to me that nostalgia must come naturally here. The greatness of the past and the dilapidation of the present are obvious with every step you take: the solid, carefully constructed buildings from the Benjamin Harrison era . . . now crumbling . . . There is nothing unprogressive about wanting your town to thrive.”

It goes without saying Trump is an arrant mountebank, but with the wind to his back economically and levers of power at his right hand, Democrats must “rediscover their roots as the tribune of blue-collar America”, Frank counsels, if they are serious about forestalling the unthinkable in 2020.

War perpetuates itself . . . All the money pissed away on wars could be used here to take care of the needs of people

Besides Frank's fieldwork, homo trumpus has been thoroughly poked, prodded, pathologised and taxonomized. The most catalogued specimen: Rust Belt Trumper, many of them erstwhile Obama supporters. In The Forgotten: How the People of One Pennsylvania County Elected Donald Trump and Changed America, ex-Boston Globe deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee jnr embeds with the locals of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. It is two hours' drive from New York City but a world away, where Trump trounced Hillary and gained much of the edge with which he won this "battleground" state.

The most striking aspect to Bradlee’s elicitations is the sheer whiplash-inducing miscellany of beliefs comprising Trump’s big tent. The sentiments veer from progressive to outrageous. Ed Harry’s position on militarism could have issued from the mouth of Sanders himself: “War perpetuates itself . . . All the money pissed away on wars could be used here to take care of the needs of people.” Conversely, he “embraces the unfounded theory that liberal billionaire George Soros paid Black Lives Matters $30 million to protest in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.”

It’s a reminder of how Trump shredded assumptions about the importance of ideological fidelity to Republican voters. But it also points to something more disconcerting: the soft pull of Trump, or Trump as religious experience.

Beliefs seem almost beside the point, interviewees speak in rapturous terms of validation by Trump.

“People fall in love with their therapist because they want to be heard . . . ” remarks Tiffany Cloud. “I think people felt Donald Trump heard them without judgment.”

For Donna Kowalczyk, a post-election Trump rally was like the band getting back together. “It was so cool. Vice-president Pence, Kellyanne, and the whole gang were there. No matter what anyone says, if you listen to Trump talk, you think you can conquer the world.”

Lynette Villano tricked out her car as a Trump-mobile replete with “dashboard console” primed to ping on receipt of Trump tweets.

Hard to imagine some regular wonky politician ticking through their talking points inciting such ardour. Ideas you can argue with but feelings and faith . . .

From Trump-addled ex-Democrats to hard-bitten racists: in Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist by Washington Post journalist Eli Saslow, the rise of Trump and the alt-right softens the blow felt by ex-Klansman Don Black, founder and webmaster of Stormfront, the internet's foremost hate site, after his son renounces his ideological patrimony.

Derek Black was a racist prodigy like Tiger Woods was precocious at golf. Indoctrinated from infancy to spout anti-immigrant invective and holocaust denial, his credentials were impeccable: besides being Don’s son, he was the godson and mentee of another ex-Klansman, and near-miss Louisiana governor David Duke.

Decamping for college, his parents considered him inoculated against liberalism's blandishments

"We attract too many sociopaths," lamented Don (this is charitable; his own initiation into white power's sodality came at 16 on a road trip. His fellow travelers: Duke and future mass murderer Joseph Paul Franklin). Derek would be the fresh face to carry the cause to America's mainstream. Removed from the harmful multiculturalism of public education, he was hermetically home schooled using the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1914 edition, deemed to comport with family values for its description of the KKK as a "fraternal organisation". Decamping for college, his parents considered him inoculated against liberalism's blandishments.

Instead, he finds himself stealthily calling into his racist radio show seated next to his Jewish sorta-girlfriend. To pre-empt exposure, he attempts to out himself, planting a magazine profile (Derek Black: The Great White Hope) in the gym. As a student in the 1960s Duke had steeled himself to proclaim his racism at a campus speakers' corner, forcing himself to be loud and proud. But Derek is more monk scholar than rabble rouser. Eventually he's rumbled by a classmate who finds his name online.

Here, Saslow dramatises a fault line cleaving America's left: hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner versus shun and/or barrack them. Derek feels the lash of opprobrium but also love. Two Orthodox Jews and their housemate adopt him as a project. He abjures white nationalism and embraces full-blown apostasy, warning in the New York Times of the cover given his former beliefs by Trumpism.

Amid a backsliding America, the redemption is strictly personal. Bereft at his heir’s defection, Don perks up at Stormfront’s Trump bump of spiking traffic. And as for politics in the time of Trump, he’s lapping it up. “To be a white nationalist,” writes Saslow, “had always meant rooting for chaos and delighting in upheaval”.

Seeking to rise above the fray in Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal, never-Trump Republican Ben Sasse ascribes America's state of disunion to a decades-long decline in civic engagement, coupled to fallout from cultural and technological upheaval. Filling the "void" indignation merchants on cable news and the internet, peddling "polarization [as a] business model" and fake salve to national anomie.

Sasse is equal opportunities in apportioning blame, not least to right-wing cable TV ratings leader Sean Hannity, non-pareil purveyor of “polititainment” whose Fox News show abounds in “ ‘Hey-can-you-believe-this shit?’ messaging”– “something that makes him mad enough to emote . . . to let others participate in a collective experience of catharsis”. Elsewhere, he skewers “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” mindset of Republican students, making common cause with provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to goad campus liberals – “ . . . sometimes the enemy of your enemy is just a jackass”.

America is a place for those who believe that fallen humanity . . . is so often in error that we are reticent to use force

Sasse owes his renown to his own "enemy of my enemy is my friend", standing among Democrats as an implacable Trump foe considered a possible challenger to him in 2020. But this should not be conflated with ideological squishiness. Them is unapologetically conservative.

Sasse links the fraying of America’s social fabric to the decline in traditional families. And US exceptionalism is a tough sell these days no matter how mild. “America is a place for those who believe that fallen humanity . . . is so often in error that we are reticent to use force. We would prefer to extend the debate . . . ” Meanwhile, amid national soul-searching about racial discrimination and inequity, Sasse’s fine words on America’s original sin – “The history of injustice in America does not invalidate our core principles; no, our resolve against injustice is an affirmation of the living force of those principles.” – will strike many as just that.

It would be a shame however if Them were discounted. This is a thoughtful book about the need to recover "real, local in-person communities" as ballast against wrenching change and dyspeptic TV hosts and politicians.

One of the joys of Steve Kornacki's The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism is its evocation of a simpler, happier time. America in the 1990s appears today as a belle epoque telescoped into 10 heady years. The economy was going gangbusters, the first stirrings of the web set off a land grab in cyberspace and, abetted by the nascent web but not yet blown apart by it, mass culture reached peak vibrancy.

At the close to the century that bore its name, America was finishing strong. Still, there’s no mistaking what was left in 2000. Buried in the tumult of the Florida recount, and George W Bush’s nanoscale victory, lay a deeper truth: the redrawing of America’s electoral map. Rural, largely white, religious America was the redoubt of Republicans; Democrats had sewn up urban, browner, secular America. It’s a crude characterisation but it captures a dichotomy that’s largely held to this day.

Kornacki traces this rift to the machinations of sundry figures, but a smack talking ex-academic steals the show. Newt Gingrich’s impact on congressional Republicans approximates that of a corporate raider on a distressed business. Inured to minority status, the party cut an abject figure, thought Gingrich who set about purging it of behaviours that did not redound to electoral success.

To avoid the hostility we say things and then begin to do things designed to gain the approval of those who are hostile toward us

In place of co-operation, he practiced obstructionism, fomented theatrical confrontations, and like any good turnaround merchant was resourceful in wringing shareholder value from obscure places – an after-hours slot for speechifying in the House of Representatives televised by cable network C-Span afforded an opportunity to kvetch about Democrat misrule to the masses (unseen by viewers, thanks to the camera angle: Gingrich and his acolytes were typically addressing a deserted room). Emphasising maximal “contrast” with Democrats, he led the GOP out of the wilderness in the 1994 mid-terms.

Incoming Republicans skipped the customary bipartisan conclave at elitist Harvard, hunkering instead at the Heritage Foundation. Here, shock-jock Rush Limbaugh delivered the following ode to comity: “ . . . sometimes to avoid the hostility we say things and then begin to do things designed to gain the approval of those who are hostile toward us. I want to warn you against it. I want to warn you: you will never ever be their friends.”

Mobilising what amounted to a shadow presidency, Gingrich enumerated a raft of legislation for the Republican-controlled Congress to enact. But forced now to “spell out all the ugly details” of the bitter medicine he’d prescribed to shrink the “liberal welfare state”, the Democrats glimpsed an “opening”.

President Clinton split the difference between his party’s left and Gingrich’s proposals – generally regarded as “unconscionable” by polite opinion – to axe free school lunches and consign children to orphanages. It didn’t hurt that moderates were spooked by Gingrich’s fringy fellow travellers: gun nuts, whacked-out conspiracy theorists and evangelicals on fire for the Lord.

For Republicans, there was no way back. Its establishment attempted a reboot, fielding Bush, an avatar of “compassionate conservatism” with an affable if dim personality that was the antithesis of the grandiloquent Gingrich, in 2000. But he was forced to tack right to muster votes, further alienating moderates.

It cut both ways. Democrat Al Gore couldn’t carry his home state of Tennessee. The Clintons knew which way the wind was blowing, writes Kornacki. On leaving office, they did not return to Arkansas but hightailed it to New York.

The salacious report issued at the end seemed designed to inflict maximum humiliation on Clinton

Landing with a leaden clank in 2018 is Kenneth Starr's Contempt: A Memoir of the Clinton Investigation, reliving his investigation into "high crimes and misdemeanors" in the Oval Office that riveted and rended 1990s America, resulting in the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Majority opinion holds that this was a Republican hit job, an inquisition trolling for something, anything, to pin on a Democratic president. Coming up short on financial malfeasance, the discovery Clinton had been conducting an affair with intern Monica Lewinsky about which he'd lied under oath in a sexual harassment suit – instructing Lewinsky to do likewise – furnished a gotcha to press charges of perjury and obstructing justice.

Moreover, there was something unseemly about the spectacle; sure, this applied to Clinton’s conduct, but it extended to the methods employed to entrap him: eavesdropping on Lewinsky’s conversations with “friend” Linda Tripp and pruriently grubbing for sordid details of the dalliance, including forensic proof of that semen-stained dress. The salacious report issued at the end seemed designed to inflict maximum humiliation on Clinton, with scant regard for Lewinsky.

Starr puts an opposing case – a matter in which he’s hardly a disinterested party – with the all-business legal mind that presumably won him the gig in the first place. In his telling, a lawyer of moderate, but staunch, Republican leanings answered his country’s call for an independent official to examine the first couple’s murky financial dealings, sacrificing personal ambition on the altar of public duty. Once installed, he steadfastly discharged the powers invested in him in the face of the Clintons’ serial prevarications.

His reopening of the investigation into the 1993 suicide of Clinton aide Vince Foster was motivated strictly by the desire to categorically rule out foul play and scotch incipient conspiracy theories Foster had been bumped off. As for the peremptory release, in unexpurgated form, of his office’s report on the Lewinsky case that almost broke the 1998 internet, blame giddy House Republicans.

Starr gives the devil his due, hailing Clinton’s “genuine empathy . . . and relational power.” But this seems driven chiefly by a desire to demonstrate how hard done by he is.

“[Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox] was lucky to have the despised Nixon as his target. Two of the major subjects of my investigation, in sharp contrast, were President Bill Clinton, the lovable rogue, and his wife, Hillary Clinton, the copresident.”

Overlook the egregious Watergate comparison and behold the self-pity. It crystallises why this attempt at personal rehabilitation is likely in vain. More fundamentally, though, I fear Starr has misjudged today’s market for a fresh narrative to Clinton’s transgressions. Amid #MeToo, there’s ample demand, but not for what Starr’s selling here – an exculpatory tract relitigating Starr v Clinton for posterity.

There's a tradition in US government of patronage appointments – jobbing cronies into prestige posts

In The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis alights on a topic that were it not for the drifts of fear, uncertainty and doubt deposited daily by Trump would be a scandal: the parlous semi-functioning state, under Trump, of the US federal government.

So much for the chief executive-president elected to lick an inefficient bureaucracy into shape and drain the swamp. Lewis describes a situation in which, almost halfway through Trump’s term, scores of positions remain unfilled and those that are occupied are filled by the rankly unqualified or manifestly unsuitable, industry lobbyists or other swamp dwellers.

There’s a tradition in US government of patronage appointments – jobbing cronies into prestige posts. Perhaps the best-known example hitherto was Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael “heckuva job” Brown, grievously outmatched when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. But Trump is known for transgressing norms and Brown resembles a rocket scientist compared to some of his picks. Notably, a conservative radio personality nominated as chief scientist of the Department of Agriculture before ties to the Russia investigation ruled him out.

Lewis is renowned for delivering rich narrative satisfaction from ostensibly dry subjects. The Fifth Risk doesn't disappoint. Here's his priceless description of the ignominious honorific status of Rick Perry atop the Department of Energy.

“He pops up in distant lands and tweets in praise of this or that DOE program while his masters inside the White House create budgets to eliminate those very programs. His sporadic public communications have had in them something of the shell-shocked grandmother trying to preside over a pleasant family Thanksgiving dinner while pretending that her blind-drunk husband isn’t standing naked on the dining-room table waving the carving knife over his head.”

Welcome to US politics in 2018.