Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Review - When America Stopped Being Great


Outsiders are often in a better position than resident nationals to understand trends in a nation's political culture. In the case of Nick Bryant, a Bristol-born Brit writing about the US political scene, this is clear to the reader. This is a revealing, frightening, and thought-provoking work. 

His 2020 account of the rise of Donald Trump explains and rationalises the most recent developments in the USA and plots the rise of a new kind of politics, a phenomenon that he claims originated in the Reagan era.

He ought to know what he is talking about. He has studied politics at both Cambridge and Oxford and has a doctorate in American politics from the latter.

His view of recent events in the USA is negative - almost dystopian. He sees the widening gap between rich and poor, the festering racial divide, and government incompetence at all levels as drivers of Trump's election, and recent violence.

He writes (convincingly in my book) that the beginning of this decline can be traced back to the way in which Ronald Reagan fundamentally changed American understanding of the office of President. He posits that Reagan dumbed the office down and transformed it into a celebrity performance rather than a leadership and governance role.

He writes that Reagan was very much a part-time president who relied on speechwriters and assistants to do the actual work of administration and made up memes that were usually based on a scripted narrative often separated a great distance from reality. Reagan then played his starring role.

One example of this was his use of the story of Martin Treptow, a soldier of Cherokee heritage who was killed in World War One on the Western Front. The whole point of Reagan's address, delivered at Arlington National Cemetery, was that it was delivered over Treptow's tomb. The fact that Treptow was actually buried in Wisconsin was not allowed to detract from the narrative. The script was what mattered, not the history. Pat Buchanan, White House Communications Director under Reagan, summed him up pretty well -

For Ronald Reagan, the world of legend and myth is the real world. He visits it regularly, and he's a happy man there.

In that, Trump resembles Reagan, in that he invented a narrative all of his own, anchored in reality TV, which he proceeded to sell to his audience. The problem in this, of course, is that the myth requires little encouragement to develop a life of its own, and we saw the culmination of this on January 6th, 2021 at the Capitol.

It is possible to fool some of the people some of the time using a fictional narrative, especially in the USA. Orson Welles' famous broadcast is historical evidence of this, as is the contemporary QAnon phenomenon.

Bryant walks the reader through the Bush Senior and Clinton eras, using his thesis about the underlying and developing malaise in American culture as the thread that ties the history of their administrations together. His explanation of Bush senior's one-term presidency is convincing. The reader begins to understand how a dignified and competent President loses out to a narrative spun by individuals like Buchanan, ultimately delivering a slick Southerner with a penchant for interns to the White House. The story becomes so strong that it crosses partisan lines. An important aspect of this progression is the separation between the scripted meme and the performance in office of the President, a trend that continued through the Obama era, and which made the election of a snake-oil merchant like Trump to the White House almost inevitable.

Bryant's writing style is journalistic, personal, anecdotal, and punchy, and this adds weight to his conclusions. He writes that if America was ever great, it was fleeting greatness. It has been hampered by confrontation, nihilism, and corroded by racial tension and inequality.

The last sentence of his last chapter is not encouraging -

Alas, I fear more American carnage, regardless of who occupies the White House.

I hope he's wrong.

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