Beautiful Country Burn Again
by Ben Fountain
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
[T]his book may be read as the record of a developing crisis, one drastic enough to raise the possibility of a third reinvention, which, if attempted, will inevitably meet with vigorous, perhaps violent, resistance from stakeholders in the current order.
On the evening of November 8th, 2016, much of the nation watched in disbelief as Donald J. Trump became the President of the United States. His victory was contrary to predictions of mainstream media, polls, and tools that the political establishment had built up over the years to understand and perpetuate its reign.
In Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution, Ben Fountain tells an alternative story of the 2016 presidential election; Trump understood and connected to a base that had been neglected by both the Democrat and Republican establishments. The book combines a series of articles that Fountain wrote for The Guardian while on the campaign trail – adapted and extended for publication.
Fountain aims to provide evidence for two main theories: that Hillary Clinton represents a class of centrist politicians in the Democratic Party that have abandoned working-class interests and contributed to growing inequality, and that Donald Trump is not an anomaly in the Republican Party, but an inevitable result of the policies it has pursued for the last fifty years.
Below, I have summarized Fountain’s views. If you want additional context, the executive editor of Jacobin interviewed a range of political scientists to debate recent shifts in American populism in this article.
In the aftermath of the 1984 presidential defeat to Ronald Reagan, a new class of politicians rose to transform the Democratic Party. They called themselves the New Democrats and took their ideas from the likes of Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan, developing “their own marginally softer line of laissez-faire policies.”
They claimed that neoliberalism, or “the market” would bring about social good and economic prosperity more so than representative government. This brought the Democratic Party closer to the Right, ultimately serving “as the Republicans’ handmaiden in deregulating banks and financial markets, gutting antimonopoly laws, and encouraging globalization through trade agreements such as NAFTA.”
Bill Clinton’s presidency was the culmination of these neoliberal policies. What were the results? “[T]he average real wage for workers during Clinton’s presidency, at $13.60 an hour (in 2001 dollars), was 2 percent lower than under Reagan and Bush, and nearly 10 percent lower than under Carter.” The party of the American Left, now transformed by this new brand of politician, “represented more backward movement for workers. The $5.15 wage in force when [Clinton] left office in 2001 was 35 percent lower in real terms than in 1968.”
Along came the 2016 elections and “by now it’s clear who neoliberalism’s big winners are. The One Percent’s income has skyrocketed since the late 1980s, and their power and influence have grown accordingly. Neoliberalism’s losers – the poor, and the working and middle classes that were once the Democratic Party’s natural, now nominal, constituency – have seen their incomes barely budge in real terms during that time.”
In spite of this, the Democratic National Committee threw all their weight behind Hillary Clinton, unaware that “a fiercely disillusioned and pissed-off electorate” lurked outside their window.
The American people were well aware that the economy of the New Democrats worked for the few, not for the many, and that it caused “income inequality, stagnant wages, wholesale offshoring of American jobs, and massive concentrations of wealth.”
When news broke that Hillary Clinton had received obscene amounts of money for speeches at Goldman Sachs – a company that received billions of dollars in tax-payer funded bailouts in 2008 – the Democratic establishment covered their eyes and ears and crossed their fingers. Fountain sets the record straight. “God help us. $675,000 for three speeches, three hours of “work,” more or less. It’s not real.”
As sanity required, the Sanders campaign publicly acknowledged the absurdity of these transactions. Clinton accused Sanders of attacking her character, claiming that she could not be bought or influenced by Wall Street, as if we, the American people, are “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.”
Clinton and the Democratic National Committee dug their heels in. They could not have an outsider – Sanders or any other liberal, progressive candidate – represent their party. They rigged the primary campaign in Clinton’s favor, shown “in the hacked emails of, among others, DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, proof so blatant that the party suffered the humiliation – “embarrassment” doesn’t do this train wreck justice – of its chairwoman resigning on the eve of the convention.”
All of this goes on top of the DNC’s invention of superdelegates – “the seven-hundred-plus unpledged delegates who come to every convention free of any duty to heed the millions of primary votes cast by their fellow Democrats” – and Super Tuesday – “ the stacking of Southern primaries early in the cycle to thwart the emergence of more liberal candidates.”
It is natural then, that in 2017, Sanders supporters introduced a lawsuit accusing the DNC of election fraud. “In response, DNC attorney Bruce Spiva argued in open court that the party was under ‘no contractual obligation’ to conduct a fair and open presidential nominating process.”
The failure of the Democratic Party to conduct a fair, transparent, and equitable primary election for its most ardent supports only makes it easier to understand its failure in the presidential elections.
Its credibility was under fire, as if the simple fact of assuming the American Left would vote to perpetuate an emerging American oligarchy was plausible. “Now a demagogue lives in the White House. The Democratic Party helped put him there. If the party can’t transform itself into an instrument of genuine resistance and renewal, then let it die and make way for the necessary new thing.”
One has the sense of having just witnessed a genuine phenomenon. Trump’s absolute ease, the seamless weave of silk and steel in his pitch, and charisma like the unstoppable Blob, absorbing everything in its path. Trump is good, so good that I half expect myself to be taken with him, to feel some glimmer of inclination toward the optimistic view, but the prevailing mood is dread, dread bordering on depression. Then the thought arrives fully formed, without effort, without joy or pleasure either, just this final, crude certainty like a hammer coming down: Donald Trump, plainly and simply, is full of shit.
As many of us were sitting back in our chairs and chuckling at Donald Trump’s antics in the news, he was connecting to a base long overlooked by centrists.
We discarded his proposals as ridiculous or outlandish, but “maybe we’re the clowns and buffoons for thinking we know what’s going on. There might be three or four candidates who could inspire a crowd to wait two hours in ten-degree weather, as fifteen hundred souls did for Trump on a recent night in Claremont, New Hampshire, but how many could draw thirty thousand to an open-air football stadium on a blistering summer day in Alabama, as happened for Trump last August 21 in Mobile?”
His abrasive, sarcastic, and unconventional rhetoric was something we weren’t used to. Centrists reeled back in horror at its bluntness while living, breathing Americans were thrilled to see a political outsider step into the ring.
Trump was new, something we hadn’t seen before in politics. Fountain says that “one would think that Trump threatens a radical departure from the Republican politics we’ve come to know and love – that he’s a force for tolerance and liberalism in the party, as opposed to a virtuoso of the very politics of paranoid rhetoric, cultural resentment, xenophobia, and racism on which the GOP has prospered for the past fifty years.”
Fountain takes a step back to understand how this sort of hostile rhetoric could resonate with the Republican base. He references the Democratic National Convention of 1948 – which sought to eradicate all racial, religious, and economic discrimination – as the beginning of a trend.
He says that the proclamation of justice and equality “was enough to bring the devil howling out of his hole, that foot-on-the-neck-of-the-black-man devil of the Jim Crow, hookworm, lynch-prone South, “the solid South” that reliably delivered its votes to the Democratic Party every four years.”
Southern Democratic governors and senators, known as the Dixiecrats, began to leave the Democratic Party. They were segregationists and sought a faction that backed their interests.
The party of Abraham Lincoln welcomed them with open arms, but in order to do so effectively, it had to change its rhetoric. Fountain cites the Republican strategist Lee Atwater on what came to be known as the “Southern Strategy.”
You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’
The Republican Party extended its reach deep into the south – the home that the Democrats were abandoning. Enthusiastic at first to join a party that represented their interests, working-class Republicans began to realize that their votes were actually going to “country club Republicans who have prospered beyond imagining” as they fared poorly by “pretty much every measure: income, life expectancy, drug addiction, job security, health care, education, and social mobility.”
So just when it looks like the deal is beyond saving? Lo, unto us a Trump is given. It’s no fluke that the loudest and most persistent of the Obama birthers took the Deep South states on Super Tuesday.” Fountain says that if we look at the history of how the Republican Party’s acquired white southern voters, it’s no surprise that Trump resonated so deeply with its base. “Even better, he’s beyond the establishment’s control. Nobody is the boss of Trump, not the Kochs, not Sheldon Adelson, and certainly not Reince Priebus, chief dogsbody of the Republican National Committee.
Are we expected to believe that Trump’s presidency is an abnormality? That it’s some one-off fluke to be replaced by the standard brand of politics that dominated the past fifty years?
Fountain says that people don’t long for the “kinder, gentler verbiage, and the ‘compassionate conservatism’ that started two wars and gutted the net worth of America’s working and middle classes.” The new state of the Republican Party is not an anomaly. The presentation may differ, but “when it comes to the root politics of who holds the power, who gets the wealth? Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”
The social contract has failed and a new one must be written. Fountain echoes the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and GI Bill as examples that could turn our failing political system around, saying that “history shows that by upholding its side of the bargain in education – by investing lavishly in public education over the course of a century or more, especially in the decades immediately following World War II – America made itself rich, and did so without condemning its youth to debtor hell.”
But what we must remember is that with all the good the New Deal brought to America, it completely overlooked African Americans, who were excluded from almost all of its programs. When looking to the future, it’s reasonable to model our government off of these policies, but we must acknowledge the discrimination that was blatant in them as well.
Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution is a well-composed book that is possibly more useful today – going into the 2020 elections – than it was when published in 2018. Fountain succeeds in recording the developing crisis in American politics with fervor and honesty. The questions is now, where do we go from here?