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The Fire Next Time?

George O’Brien

Beautiful Country Burn Again, by Ben Fountain, Canongate, 433 pp., £12.99, ISBN 978-1786892003

Preachy, conflicted, apocalyptic, inflammatory? A line from Whitman, from Ginsberg, from Dylan? Whatever might be thought of Ben Fountain’s title (actually, as his epigraph tell us, it comes from a poem called “Apology for Bad Dreams” by Robinson Jeffers), its imperative tense and balance of elements are sufficiently arresting to assure the reader that, from the word go, this book is not exactly one more survey of current affairs (Stormy or otherwise), or one more scream of shock and awe at the gorgon that is Trump, or yet another name-and-blame screed on what has happened America in the last two or three years. Using a title that’s as off-beat, lacking in catchiness, and challenging as Beautiful Country Burn Again raises the stakes, promises the reader something different, indicates that the author has to follow through unless he wants to be dismissed for letting his reach exceed his grasp.

Such a title – so far from a fake or any other kind of news headline ‑ is a challenge. The book’s English and American publishers seem nervous about it though, each adding its own catchpenny subtitle – the nugatory “Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution” in the American case, while the English edition has “Trump’s Rise to Power, and the State of the Country that Voted for Him”, suggesting that the book is all about the tangerine nightmare in the White House, which it isn’t (and of course it was the electoral college that secured his win, not the popular vote). With its echoes of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and its implicit dissent from the vacuity of making America great again, Fountain’s wording gives the reader plenty to be going on with. That’s a risk, perhaps, but Fountain’s point, in part, is that this isn’t a time for pulling back, soft-pedalling or attempting to make signs of the times more easily digestible. He’s already expressed that point, in a way, in his novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Here, he’s doubling down on it. 

More power to him. Maybe he falters here and there but by and large Beautiful Country Burn Again does very ably fulfil its promise to speak and see in ways that we’re no longer used to in American writers (indeed, it might be said that keeping that promise is a small instance of what the book’s critique is all about, namely, the failure of America to keep its promise – to its citizens, to its institutions, and to the self-described liberating potential of its ideals). When Norman Mailer, Baldwin, and Hunter S Thompson were in their prime this type of writing was alive and well, calling to account the complacencies and evasions endemic to public life and official pieties, and thus infusing the intellectual and moral tone of the country with valuable oppositional energy. But since the Reagan years, it seems, it’s been bedtime for gonzo. Mailer’s barb that “stupidity is the American disease” (which Fountain quotes), rather than being a provocation, has become a truism applicable equally to the polity and the culture – a vindictive sort of truism at that. The kind of unsettling journalism pioneered in the late 1950s and fortified in its ideological tendencies by bona fide public intellectuals such as Dwight Macdonald, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin and many others has yielded over the years to a right-leaning Kulturkampf manned by evangelical pastors, free (though, in practice, merely freewheeling) marketeers, neo-con warmongers, media rabble-rousers and a world-wide web patrolled by fantasists, fabricators and fascists. In this intellectual landscape, literalism rules, particularly in the case of the Bible, the Constitution, or Ayn Rand (regarded as the fountainhead of the best that has been thought and said by those who seem never to have dreamt of reading a book of any length until they picked up one of hers). Such ranters and ravers, dummies and dystopians have, between them, seen to it that the word has been made crap.

But bedtime doesn’t last forever, and as though to underline the point, Beautiful Country Burn Again includes a visit to the birthplace, in Louisville, Kentucky, of Hunter Thompson, Grandaddy Gonzo himself. In paying his respects not only to the style but to the social function and utility of Thompson’s brand of journalism, Fountain is also tacitly reminding the reader of a venerable tradition of American letters, one that perhaps was inaugurated by Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience (1849) but which thrived when infused with the vernacular of the undeceived as found in the fiction and especially the non-fiction of Mark Twain, the reflections in a Chicago-Irish bar of Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr Dooley, and the high-toned scorn poured upon the class he dubbed “the booboisie” by HL Mencken – who, among his other accomplishments, prophesied that “on some great and glorious day the plain folk of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron”. The roster of writers in this vein is, thank goodness, by no means as short as this sketch suggests ‑ Gore Vidal, for one, shouldn’t be overlooked. Even this small list, though, is a reminder that there is a dissenting America, and Fountain does well to invoke, however incidentally, a lineage of alternative voices, all the more so when matters of speaking, of documenting, reporting, informing and communicating have become so contested, yet one more crisis invented and fomented by the regime in power, and one of the most straightforward instances of how it understands and applies its power.

In the light of such pollutants of public speech as Trump’s “Birther” campaign, when “private equity multibillionaire Steven Schwarzman” can compare “President Obama’s tax policy to the German invasion of Poland”, and a wrongly addressed email from upstate New York politico and “Trump ally” Carl Paladino lets it be known that he wants Barack Obama to die of mad cow disease, and would like Michelle Obama to “return to being a male and let loose in the outback of Zimbabwe where she lives comfortably in a cave with Maxie, the gorilla”, it’s worth remembering oppositional voices, those that don’t just take diabolical liberties but which speak with a freedom that reflects some sense of values. With such matters in mind, it seems appropriate to mention that as far as direct influences on the type and quality of Ben Fountain’s utterances and outlook, I wouldn’t mind betting that Molly Ivins, who blazed away during the 1990s in one of Fountain’s local Dallas newspapers, may be the one closest to him. She didn’t bat an eye in saying of George W Bush that he was “a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America” or that “it is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America”, the latter a thought Fountain definitely appears to share. Ivins’s nerve and verve still seem to be alive in the style and sting of Fountain’s zingers – when he describes Ted Cruz’s skin as that of “an avid indoorsman”, for instance (his filleting of Cruz is worth the price of admission alone), or Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention as “the rhetorical equivalent of suburban sprawl”, or, in connection with the National Rifle Association: “fear is the herpes of American politics: the symptoms bloom and fade, but the virus never dies”.

Antidote to debased and debasing language Beautiful Country Burn Again may be, and that’s no small thing. But that’s just by the way. Fountain isn’t much concerned with artistic refinement, and that’s all to the good too, up to a point, at any rate, since this is a book in which form must defer to content, seeing as the latter deals with no less than the state of the union – or, even, you could say, whether there is, in any more than a formal sense, a union any longer – and, in consideration of which, how various unchecked or contrived fissures, imbalances, inequalities and injustices, came to be the ostensible order of the day, persisted in and insisted upon even when the resultant damage to the body politic was plain for all to see. In that sense, Beautiful Country Burn Again may be read as an account of a civil war, a conflict between a plutocracy that’s a law unto itself and a populace whose worth and significance to the social contract has become increasingly diminished as a result of a combination of neo-liberal capitalism and neo-liberal social policies, both of them implementing policies and practices typified by deprivation and heartlessness. The realm of the citizen is booby-trapped by such familiar phenomena as wage stagnation and how grudgingly raises in the minimum wage are given (or more often how readily they’re denied), the strain of wars evidently without end on a volunteer army and its unconscionable counterpart in poor veteran care, the treatment of health care as a political football, the spectacle of a generation wasted on opioids that drug companies keep pushing regardless. Mass shootings, environmental destruction, homelessness, a spiking suicide rate. And no end in sight, because there’s only the now, there’s only today, unimproved and unimprovable, to be either disturbed or distracted by. “Profits proportionate to freedom; plunder correlative to subjugation” is how Fountain formulates his view of a society whose centre is failing to hold. And however it’s phrased, it’s pretty plain that there is a deafeningly audible degree of cognitive dissonance between government by the people and government for the people. 

Fountain does much more than repeat a formulation of course – after all, he’s not a politician. Indeed, the main virtue of Beautiful Country Burn Again is how it branches off into history, economics, race relations, political science and other approaches, infusing each of these with a keen, consistent sense of their human dimensions. Thus a book that originated in a series of articles covering the 2016 presidential campaign, and which can be marketed as well as analysed as a worthy contribution to that non-fiction sub-genre, acquires not only other discursive layers as it goes on but additional moral weight and intellectual value – and enters that realm where a book takes on the nature of a public action. The actual campaign coverage is first-rate, with highly enjoyable set-pieces of candidates’ various performances – a Bernie Sanders rally at the University of Iowa, Republicans at their convention in Cleveland, Hillary and, of course, Bill (who is quoted as crediting his wife with saving the peace in Northern Ireland), with, for good measure, an account of the National Rifle Association convention, which is what has brought Fountain to Louisville. As he walks through the “eleven acres” of weaponry in the Kentucky Exposition Centre – a “casual mashup of stone-cold lethality and sleek retain culture, a Mall of Death” – he recounts that between 2001 and 2015, over four hundred thousand Americans have died in “non-terror incidents involving firearms”. It hardly bears thinking about. So nobody really does, at least not to any effect other than trauma and mourning. 

This figure is obviously an extraordinary statement of social failure, as graphic a revelation as anyone could require of a more general condition known to political science as nautonomy. Fountain cites a definition of this condition given in Democracy and the Global Order by David Held, published in 1995: “the asymmetrical production and distribution of life chances which limit and erode the possibilities of political participation”. The citation goes on to argue that inequality of this kind results in “democracy becom[ing] a privileged domain operating in favour of those with significant resources”, so that while ostensibly the electorate retains the freedoms it has currently been granted – the right of assembly, the franchise, free speech – using them is not a manifestation of citizens’ power; on the contrary, “real power resides elsewhere”, where the money is basically. And, as Henry James pointed out in The American Scene (1907), “money is the shortcut” – to whatever is sought; and still those who think James is objecting remain very much in the minority. With that in mind, Trump’s projection of himself as the friend of the miner, the fireman and all the other Joe Lunchbuckets out there, beggars belief. “To call Donald Trump a hypocrite insults the scale of the thing.” That holds good for any yardstick attempting to get the measure of him.

But there was Hillary, wasn’t there? Because Fountain is reporting the campaign, not looking back on it, he doesn’t have much to say about how Hillary lost. He does have a fair amount to contribute, though, on the question of whether she – or the Democrats – deserved to win. And money is the crux of this question (as it is of Trump’s election, though perhaps that’s not so surprising in the case of somebody whose values seem driven solely by dollars). Hillary, however, spent her life as a policy person and has always projected herself as somebody for whom policy was an expression of principle, or at least of trying to do the right thing. She might not have been the most heart-warming of public figures, but her earnestness seemed an acceptable substitute. Well, it turns out, and here Fountain speaks almost as much in sorrow as in anger, that Hillary had plutocratic longings too. She took the money, and the large serving of ideological cool-aid that came with it. This was money from the big boys, the banks, the corporations, various and sundry Daddy Megabucks. In one of the Democratic debates she was hammered by Sanders for taking $675,000 for three talks she gave to Goldman Sachs employees. Later, she defended herself by saying “That’s what they offered.” Over half a million bucks for three hours’ “work”? That kind of beggars belief too. As Fountain remarks, “It’s not real”; or rather it belongs in a reality where “Bill Clinton could pull down $15 million in five years as an ‘adviser’ for the investment firm Yucaipa Global, just one of the many corporate glad-hander gigs he landed.”

Mentioning these sums, however, is only part of Fountain’s point. The other part has to do with what such amounts say about their recipients. And one thing they say is that nothing really was said. Unlike Obama, as Fountain cogently points out, Hillary herself showed no awareness that there might be some sort of moral and political cost to being paid such wages – “If you’re looking for the phony in American politics, just follow the money.” And what’s just as unacceptable as phoniness to Fountain is that, rather than express doubts about whether following the money (never mind following it assiduously, cravenly, and in a sense credulously) was the best, much less the only, way to be a player in the electoral game, Hillary pleaded poverty. She wasn’t sorry, she wasn’t embarrassed, she didn’t see a problem, she didn’t think differently, she wasn’t savvy. So, plausible and even persuasive as she might be when digging into the details of how her policies could work, she wasn’t trusted. As Fountain puts it: “It’s as if we’re supposed to believe that the company one keeps, and how one makes her money, are somehow distinct from the personality that would be sitting in the Oval Office twelve or fifteen hours a day doing the work of governing.” And when you put that unawareness together with the fact that, after the election, the Democratic party claimed in open court during a case brought against it by Sanders’s supporters that it had “no contractual obligation” to conduct a fair and open presidential nominating process (party by-laws notwithstanding), it doesn’t look very good for democracy, we-the-people, and all that good stuff. Bernie was stranded, Hillary somehow didn’t seem genuine not just because she was the conventional candidate but also because of her unquestioning affirmation of the adequacy of the conventional – “no revolution for Hillary … and if it seems her bad luck to be running as a status quo candidate in a year of manifest outrage at the status quo, one might locate an element of personal responsibility here”. And so the country was entrusted to “the bog monster of the American id”.

Fountain is as stunned as anybody by this turn of events, but though at times there does seem to be an undertone of hand-wringing in his outlook, this is more than offset by his moral and intellectual engagement and his seemingly un-American interest in looking beyond the present moment to trace its historical origins. One finding that emerges is that Trump is far from being the self-made political winner he so admires himself for being. Fountain even unearths a Trump avatar, a Texas flour magnate called Pappy O’Daniel who had a radio show to broadcast the message “Pass the biscuits, Pappy”, with musical contributions from his house band, the Light Crust Doughboys, featuring briefly Bob Wills, subsequent inventor of Western Swing). He promised all sorts, was elected governor, then – surprise, surprise – passed the buck instead of the biscuits. “Let the record show,” Fountain sourly observes, “the American people are a bunch of suckers.” How in the world can they consider such creatures, then and now, to embody the authenticity they correctly seek? How come they’re so blind to their needs that they continue, despite the life as citizens so many of them labour under, to vote against their interests? Or, in Fountain’s words: “What is it about the American character that allows the long con of our politics to go on and on, electing crooks, racists, bullies, hate-mongering preachers, corporate bagmen, and bald-faced liars? Not always, but often. The history is damning. We must, on some level, want what they’re offering.” Or it could be too that the electorate is continually in an unappeasable state of desperation.

Gerrymandering, the dilution ‑ to put it mildly – of voting rights, the manipulations of social media in 2016, the brazen blaring of Fox News under the expert supervision of the dark knight of propaganda, the late Roger Ailes are together thought to have secured Trump’s success. The emphasis this view places on technology ‑ from voting machines to troll farms – overlooks the historical and ideological elements at work. Bearing the latter in mind will reveal that Trump is as much the culmination of certain powerful tendencies in mainstream American politics as he is an outlier, much less a new departure. True, his outsize endowment of bigotry, crassness, ignorance, mendacity, shamelessness and bullying do lend him a certain uniqueness. But if the policies he preaches seem to have been conceived solely in terms of those unlovely characteristics of his, the reality is that he is merely making explicit the repressive and reactionary character of Republican platforms down the years, those which were successful at the time and those further to the right which had to wait until another era for their electoral reward.

Fountain focuses on the right’s gathering strength in the postwar period, though obviously he appreciates that American politics and society always contained such a rightward tendency, the forms and expressions of which are not all that different from their modern iteration (Trump would make an exemplary member of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party of the 1840s). An important initiating gesture in postwar politics was the formation of the so-called Dixiecrats, a group of Democrats which broke with the plank in the main party’s 1948 election platform which stated that the party “commits itself to continuing efforts to eradicate all racial, religious and economic discrimination”. The splinter group formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, echoing Confederate justifications of secession and calling civil rights “totalitarian” and so on (the abuse of language is striking here again). And with this group too the fear factor again comes into play, invoked by “the security bully” – which the racist typically is, not to mention figures such as Senator Joe McCarthy, and organisations like the John Birch society. The Dixiecrats’ initiative ignited “a slow burn” that eventually flared up in the Sixties under the nourishing hand of Richard Nixon (whose first appearance on the national scene was as a McCarthy apparatchik; later he gave Roger Ailes his start). It didn’t have to be this way. Lyndon Johnson, “a man born and formed in one of America’s most enduring sinkholes of racism” could yet envisage what he called “a great society”. In doing so, however, he inevitably supplied the grounds for a reaction. Nixon seized the opportunity, the so-called Southern strategy, recruiting still nominally Democratic Dixiecrats to the Republican colours. 

These voters, the strategy went, were the salt of the earth, real Americans, the silent majority who went to church, worked for a living, raised families, and thus were clearly much more authentic, and thus much more deserving, than the protesting blacks, refusenik students and unwashed hippies of the day. Yet what had such stalwarts to show for having played by the rules? As the journalist Pete Hamill wrote at the time: “Nixon practiced the politics of resentment as they had never been practiced before.” Sound familiar? Reagan took the strategy and, in all senses of the word, ran with it (Fountain has a very telling few pages on Reagan’s speech about states’ rights at his first campaign stop, which he happened to give in a place in Mississippi a bare few miles from where the bodies of three civil rights workers, murdered in 1964, had been found, not that Reagan said the first thing about them or their last end). Reagan and his “government is the problem” mantra, his “welfare queens” insult. As for that nice Mr Bush, RIP, he had his right-hand man, the late Lee Atwater, refine the art of the racist dog-whistle for him, just as George W had Karl Rove. Yes indeed, what we have now has been a good while in the making.

Wait, though – what about Clinton? One short answer to this question is another name, Newt Gingrich, who among many other affronts to democracy originated the tactic of government shutdown, declaring that Democrats were “the enemy of normal Americans” and that nothing other than a civil war (not only on cultural grounds – evangelicalism, anti-academia, condemnation of women’s rights, and general othering, but also on the identity grounds of chosen-people whiteness laid out by Nixon) – “fought with a scale and duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars”. Clinton had his faults God knows, but how did he earn this kind of hostility? Interestingly, although Fountain doesn’t mention it, the animus came in part from the perception of Clinton as a Black man, a view first put forward by Toni Morrison. Thought at the time to be a congratulatory statement earned by Clinton’s prowess on the saxophone, it was in fact, as Morrison later had to explain, more that Clinton only had to be inaugurated to be considered suspect, wrong, morally alien, somehow, if not a perpetrator then one who very soon would be, profiled in the very same way as Black men are. From the word go, Clinton was tainted with criminality, and the various pre-Lewinsky investigations he inspired were much more like exercises in divisiveness than anything else. As to the Lewinsky matter, by the way, Gingrich, as Speaker of the House, was a key player in securing impeachment, while at the same time himself adulterously dating a congressional aide twenty-three years younger than him. The woman in question became his third wife. She is currently America’s ambassador to the Holy See.

None of this means that Fountain lets Clinton off the hook, however. Clinton too played the race card, rather blatantly at that, not only in his campaigns but in his presidency, even though he stepped onto the national stage saying he was going to stop Republicans from using that very tactic. Such pronouncements expressed his political persona, which one minute could legislate against minorities who were alleged to be ripping off the welfare system and the next shout Hallelujah with a gospel choir. A plausible boyo for sure. But in addition to his undoubted political touch, he was also the author of the devastating “three strikes, you’re out” incarceration policies, carried on Reagan’s assaults on the welfare system and inaugurated the hollow ideology of the “third way”, which according to one of its apologists was “the worldwide brand name for progressive politics in the Information Age”. What progressive came to mean is illustrated by Fountain’s observation that “In this brave new Third Way economy of mobile capital, free trade, and fast-evolving technology, the job you had this morning could be offshored and outsourced by afternoon.” Across the board, this supposedly great leap forward proved to be a kick in the you-know-where for those in whose name it was supposedly taken – the electorate. “It’s the economy, stupid” – remember that? Well, we know now who stupid was, remembering too, as Fountain does, that at the time of Clinton’s first presidential campaign, “twelve consecutive years of Republican administration had resulted in one of the biggest redistributions of wealth in history, upward”. In Fountain’s view, this was a great chance to renew by extending the promise of the New Deal. But the chance was missed, and instead ole Bill – “The Man from Hope” himself – ended up where he is today, sitting pretty on his pot of gold like any other plutocrat.

It isn’t only Fountain who finds the way Clinton went to be unforgivable. But the fact that he does so brings us back to his title. The New Deal is one of his burnings, a time of purging preparatory to renovation. The other such time was the Civil War, a literal burning, of course, but also, notably, “a bloodletting that continues to this day”. Analogously, the economic cleansing undertaken by Roosevelt also remains a matter of pressing moment, although some of its legacy still smoulders too, such as the fact that, as Fountain concedes, Roosevelt didn’t touch racial issues. And also, though he proposed a Bill of Economic Rights, it never got anywhere. (In fact, it was left for Martin Luther King to take it up. It was his Poor People’s Campaign, still in its infancy, that brought him to Memphis in support of the city’s striking garbage collectors, where he was assassinated. Poverty remains unchallenged.)

But Americans generally may not be very interested in history, their own or anyone else’s – their country is a place which in certain basic respects is predicated on old wounds being forgotten; another instance of how pervasively white a place it is. They must be aware, though, that

Lincoln and Roosevelt urged the country to a larger sense of itself, a broadening of Jefferson’s principle of equality and what it means for humans to be truly free. The reinventions led by those two presidents can and should be viewed as moral action, but they were supremely practical as well, the survival of the country as a genuine constitutional democracy was at stake.

The force of their moral politics renewed that American Dream, reformulated it so that it could be seen anew as Fountain, the believer, says, to be “one of the greatest inventions of all time … an entirely new order in human affairs. Peasants and proles could aspire to more than mere survival.” Responding to those aspirations is part of the business of government, as the two presidents mentioned clearly recognised. At the start of the Depression, “President Hoover … in effect told America to quit whining and go chew on its moral fibre.” Now, being asked to gnaw on the bone of class and race resentment is hardly any more enlightened – “the street chaos that we saw in Baltimore and Ferguson is dwarfed by the much quieter, more systematic chaos inflicted on those same streets by American institutions”, among the foremost of them the justice system.

It’s been eighty years, we’re told, since the New Deal, and that was eighty years (not quite, but let’s give rhetoric the floor in place of arithmetic) after the Civil War. What burning will transform the country this time? “Trump tapped into the core of the American anthropology, the peculiarly toxic confluence of racism and economics that’s organized life in America from the very beginning.” Is that the greatness that needs to be made again, this time empowered by courts at all levels and a craven, bought-and-paid-for Congress? Is the experiment that is America inevitably always poised on the brink of failure? Fountain’s endorsement (his italics) for “sovereign citizens governing sovereign communities” hardly seems that much to expect, given all that money and machinery have accomplished. Little as it might be, however, it is “the exact inverse of neoliberalism, whose most striking feature may be citizens and communities with no personal sovereignty, subject to the mercy of distant powers and interests”. One of the most salient facts about Trump’s career before politics is that he’s a serial bankrupt. Maybe he is, then, the cap that fits right now. Or will it really be the fire this time instead?

1/3/2019

George O’Brien has lived in America since 1980. He is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University, Washington DC.

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