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Land of the free? How Trump has put America’s identity in peril

As the midterm elections approach, Ben Fountain argues white voters should know that a real democracy can only survive if there is true equality for everyone

By Ben Fountain | The Guardian | September 23, 2018


Some 20 months into his term Trump has been pretty much the president we expected: loud, boastful, bullying, reckless, ruder than the worst-bred minor royalty, tetchy as a wolverine in heat. The main thing to note is the very most main thing: he’s still going.

The juggernaut that was launched off the down escalator at Trump Tower back in 2015 rolls on, strewing bodies and busted parts in its wake and one hell of a nasty stink, yet roll it does with undiminished vigor.

Is there anything left to say that would stop it? Think of the hundreds of millions of words that have been thrown at him the last three years, every kind of rhetorical tool and tack has been brought to bear, and still he powers on. Fact-based argument, rational analysis, empirical proofs haven’t stopped him, nor have stark demonstrations of his laughably obvious lies. Appeals to Christian morality as expressed in the Beatitudes haven’t worked. The dry language of the law has been just as useless, the sworn testimony, the jury verdicts, the admissions of guilt from disgraced former advisers and operatives. Satire, derision, insult, scorn, all these bounce off his bones of steel like so many ping-pong balls.

It’s not even that he’s Teflon to all this; he thrives on it. Trump is a new breed of political Superman who eats kryptonite for breakfast; his enemies pile it on and he just gets stronger.

The country is caught in a kind of spell, which is a florid way of saying we’re in the throes of a dire psychological phenomenon whose precedent goes at least as far back as the Salem witch trials. Closer to our own time we can look to the mind magic of Senator Joe McCarthy, or more localized warlocks like Pappy O’Daniel of Texas, spellbinding demagogues whose stories call into question the premise of the entire democratic project. Do we really want to be free? Are we up to the job of exercising our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with meaningful individual agency?

Donald Trump greets the crowd as he arrives for a rally in Billings, Montana, on 6 September.

Donald Trump greets the crowd as he arrives for rally in Billings, Montana, on September 6. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Taking it as a given that “meaningful individual agency” requires applying our brains, our experience, our memories, and requires as well making a sustained, good-faith effort to inform ourselves of our reality. This could be as profoundly simple and radical as going to the library every few weeks, checking out a couple of books on history, and reading them, as opposed to taking every post that Google and Facebook steer our way as the gospel truth. Not that books are sacrosanct by any means, but they’re quiet. They allow us the mental space to absorb, reflect, evaluate at our own pace. Learning essential stuff is as much a discipline as going to the gym or sticking to a diet, and an excellent antidote for the modern condition of being numb and dumb.

We, America, elected Trump. Putin didn’t do it, nor the trolls in St Petersburg with their zillions of busy bots. They may well have plucked certain strings in the national psyche – played us like a dimestore ukulele – but we were keen to be plucked.

Ben Fountain.

Ben Fountain. Photograph: handout

But give Trump this: he offered one fierce, consistent truth over the course of his campaign. The system is rigged! And God knows Hillary Clinton was probably the least likely Democrat in the land to fix it, but then and now many millions of Americans seem perfectly willing to consign their fates to the billionaires and centi-millionaires who spent the past several decades rigging the system, which included corralling us into wage peonage in the name of the almighty free market.

We didn’t have to be corralled. Rare is the army or police force strong enough to force that. For it to happen we had to revert to the psychology of the serf who’s too brainwashed or lazy to conjure something better.

The defining accomplishment thus far of Trump’s fake-populist presidency has been enormous tax cuts for corporations and the 1%, triggering enormous stock buybacks that further benefit the 1%, and the rest of us hardly at all. It’s strong magic indeed that can sell this as a boon to working people while good, affordable health care, a living wage, collective bargaining, and a system of higher education that doesn’t sentence the country’s youth to years of debt servitude, get lost in the swamps of Trump’s voodoo mind-meld.

What will break the spell? Time – ripeness is all. The accumulation of one too many realities. Joe McCarthy had his army hearings; there will come a similar moment that shocks the country into mass loathing for Trump, but until then many lives will be lost and many more permanently wrecked.

“It will be as if Obama had never been president,” one commentator predicted after Trump’s victory, a haunting prophecy that’s come a long way toward being fulfilled. The Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, relations with Cuba, financial regulation, fuel efficiency standards, power plant emissions, methane emissions, student debt relief, the Keystone XL pipeline decision – all these and more have been reversed, and Obama’s single biggest achievement, the Affordable Care Act, survives by the grace of a dead man’s vote.

Barack Obama.

‘Barack Obama was elected on the shoulders of an incipient movement that he allowed to languish once he became president.’ Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

There’s a lesson here for Democrats: go big or go home. Obama was elected on the shoulders of an incipient movement that he allowed to languish once he became president. It started early, even before he took office. Locked in a runoff for the Georgia senate seat held by a Republican incumbent, the progressive Democratic nominee, James Martin, begged the popular president-elect for help. A Martin win would have given Democrats a crucial 60-vote supermajority in the Senate, but even with the stakes so high, Obama, reluctant to spend any of his considerable political capital, limited his support to a single radio spot. Martin lost, and the template was set.

“Obama’s whole approach was to minimize opposition, rather than to maximize support,” said Martin Ganz, a union organizer and Obama adviser, and so it would go for most of Obama’s presidency. His reluctance to take his case directly to the people, allowing his opponents to control the narrative. His muddying of what were in fact sharp partisan distinctions, including his maddening restraint when it came to the politics of class. His tenderness toward Wall Street, which was hardly reciprocated. His feckless pursuit of common ground with the Republican opposition long after their hardcore obstructionism had become painfully clear. It’s a matter of record that the Republicans’ deliberate, unwavering, freely admitted strategy was to destroy the president by thwarting every single measure he put forward, even those previously supported by the GOP. In fact, even those that originated in the GOP; the Affordable Care Act was based on a plan developed by the hard-right Heritage Foundation.

Such was his practice of the politics of moderation that Obama lost even when he won. The “shellacking” that the Democrats took in the 2010 midterms was due in no small part to Republicans’ successful demonizing of the Affordable Care Act. The popular mobilization that twice elected Obama president might have, with sustained, vigorous support and forceful leadership, matured into the kind of mass movement that creates lasting change.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

‘Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been more than willing to risk her nascent political capital on behalf of other candidates.’ Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Image

This is a politics that makes it possible to win even when you lose. It’s a politics of education, raising awareness. Offering people clear distinctions and a real choice. Committing to long-term grassroots organizing that brings disengaged communities into the process, and makes regular voters out of new or occasional voters. Widening the electorate, as opposed to the Democratic establishment’s fetish for granular, data-driven campaigns that obsess over relatively small numbers of swing voters.

Groups like Kansas People’s Action and the New Georgia Project have been showing the way, along with this season’s wave of rookie Democratic candidates who’ve questioned party orthodoxy. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but they’ve furthered the essential debate that Bernie Sanders forced on the party in 2016. The highest-profile of these candidates, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been more than willing to risk her nascent political capital on behalf of other candidates, a display of guts that puts the caution of that long-ago president-elect Obama to shame.

Beautiful Country Burn Again by Ben Fountain.

Photograph: handout

The diversity of these rookie candidates is striking. Muslim, transgender, gay, straight, Christian, black, brown, white and on it goes. The American identity is mind-bogglingly various. In some quarters this variety is viewed as an existential threat to the national integrity. What, in the end, unites us? E pluribus unum says the great seal of the United States, “out of the many, one” – is this impossible, short of some hellish purging of our diversity of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, cultural background? This seems to be the dream of substantial numbers of our fellow Americans.

As a counter to that dream – that nightmare – here’s a proposition: the American identity is at its core a political identity, one based on the foundational principle of equality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” some of our earlier fellow Americans announced in 1776, “that all men are created equal …” Equal in principle, but for the principle to be the lived reality of the country requires equal citizenship stature for all: equality before the law, in other words, the laws of the land as established and revised by genuinely representative government. That is, democracy.

Let us propose that this political identity based on equality is the truest American identity, superior to all variations of ethnicity, culture, language, race, and place of origin. And we might further propose that this American identity, this political identity, requires just as much dedication – dare we say assimilation? – from the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant descendent of Mayflower pilgrims as it does from the Muslim immigrant who arrived from Mali an hour ago.

Sometime around August 1858, Abraham Lincoln scribbled the following on a scrap of paper that was later found in his desk: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”

Lincoln memorial showing sculpture of Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln sculpture at the Lincoln memorial. In 1858 he scribbled: ‘As  I would not be a slave, so shall I not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference. To the extent, one might say, that any of us lacks equal citizenship stature, and so lacking find ourselves living in some form of abasement or servitude, neither equal nor fully free.

But Trump, and figures like Joe McCarthy and Pappy O’Daniel before him, suggest that large numbers of Americans are quite okay with a certain level of abasement and servitude. Do we really want to be free? Perhaps it’s enough for us to be told over and over that we’re free. Or enough to look down and see multitudes below us. Do we care if we’re not free so long as others are less free?

Maybe this is the ultimate question, the American question, the flip side of that American political identity based on equality. Trump has forced the question on us with an urgency that we haven’t experienced since the civil rights era of the 1960s. How the question will be answered is up to us.


Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion and Revolution by Ben Fountain is published by Ecco. Guardian readers can get discounted tickets to see Fountain interviewed live on stage by Malcolm Gladwell in Brooklyn, New York at 7pm on Tuesday 25 September. Books Are Magic is offering tickets at $25 which include a copy of the book. To purchase tickets click here and use the promotional code: guardianticket


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