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Wildland: History of 21st-century division and dysfunction in the US

Book review: Evan Osnos ties together forces tearing America apart but puts too much faith in Biden

Author: Evan Osnos
ISBN-13: 978-1526635525
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Guideline Price: £20

If it’s true that journalism is the first draft of history, then Evan Osnos’s Wildland is as good a history of the early 21st-century US as we are likely to get for some time.

It powerfully captures the country’s sheer level of rancour, division, and dysfunction. And it richly depicts the lives of individuals caught up in this maelstrom.

Osnos focuses on three very different geographical locations: Greenwich, Connecticut, the hedge fund capital of the world; Clarksburg, West Virginia, a declining small town in the heart of coal country; and the south side of Chicago, populated by African-Americans economically and socially excluded from the city’s thriving downtown.

Wildland is at its best when it draws connections between these seemingly distinct locations. For example, an asset-stripping hedge fund buys a West Virginia coal company and convinces a judge to void its obligation to unionised former employees, depriving more than 10,000 people of their health insurance. Republican donors in Greenwich then seek to capitalise on the very discontent they’ve helped create in West Virginia to shift the state away from Democratic control. After the 2012 presidential election, they look for an outsider candidate who can tap into the frustration and rage they sense in places such as West Virginia.


Wildland culminates with the assault on the US Capitol at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. But Osnos demonstrates that Trump is a symptom of the long-brewing broad dysfunction in American society. This will not disappear simply because he is no longer president.

Wildland will certainly make anyone in Ireland think twice about emigrating to the US

The list of problems Osnos identifies is staggering: an obscene level of economic inequality where three men (Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates) have amassed as much wealth as the bottom half of the American population; the persistence of the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq and the callous treatment of returning veterans; the powerful influence of money in politics that requires politicians to spend nearly as much time raising money as governing; a sclerotic constitutional system badly in need of amendment.

Also: the population’s deep distrust of political elites and of expertise of any kind; a mass ignorance of the mechanisms of government abetted by the widespread closure of local newspapers; the prevalence of misinformation and conspiracy theories such as QAnon (tens of millions believe that American politicians are part of a Satanic cult of child sex traffickers); the growth of right-wing extremism.

Also: a world-leading rate of gun ownership at roughly one gun per person; mass shootings at schools and other public places so commonplace as to be barely remarked upon; shocking rates of mass incarceration (many of those interviewed in the book had been imprisoned at one point); a healthcare system so inadequate that 8 million people have turned to GoFundMe and other sites to pay for medical expenses (though 90 per cent did not meet their target).

Also: the destruction of the natural environment for the sake of profit; the literal raging fires that spread across the west coast with increasing intensity each summer; a culture of extreme individualism that has no morality other than winning at all costs; and a deep loss of a sense of citizens’ obligations to one another.

Wildland will certainly make anyone in Ireland think twice about emigrating to the US.

But Osnos does see ground for hope. As much of a catastrophe as the Trump presidency was, it brought to the surface the myriad problems of American life. It helped galvanise a new generation of activists and led to markedly increased voting in the 2020 election.

Osnos hopes that future Americans will perceive this as a “time when their country lost sight of its moral ambitions and began the process of seeing them again”. His belief in the US’s past moral character is naive given the nation’s founding on the genocide of indigenous North Americans and the enslavement of Africans. Unable to trace some of the longer historical roots of Trumpism, Osnos unconvincingly sees only the re-emergence of an “old gene” of “tribalism” in American history in which “we succumbed to the politics of absolutism”.

He also invests too much faith in Joe Biden, the subject of a sympathetic biography Osnos published last year. Even though Biden’s presidency has pleasantly surprised progressives thus far, it seems unlikely that this embodiment of the political establishment will adequately address America’s deep-seated problems. Rather, Wildland itself suggests the need for politicians who openly confront the concentrated power of economic elites.

Still, after four years of Trump, some American elites are grasping the full extent of the nation’s ills and beginning to promote necessary reforms. One sign of this is Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, with legislation now pending in Congress aimed at improving the lives of working Americans. Wildland, also a product of this trend, will contribute to this deepening awareness of the need for substantial change. It is a step in the right direction, away from the verge of the abyss.

Dr Daniel Geary is an associate professor of history at Trinity College Dublin