You don’t necessarily need an ethnic or religious scapegoat to be a thuggish strongman, but it sure helps. Narendra Modi rose to power in India in a party that has long demonized Muslims—and after doing conspicuously little to stop a massacre of them while running his home state of Gujarat. Viktor Orbán in Hungary has variously attacked Jews, Gypsies, and Arab and African refugees. And where would Donald Trump be without his fusillade of invective against Mexicans, Muslims, and black Americans?
Barack Obama’s two terms as president allowed too many of us to think that the worst, at least, of the dark current of racism in America had run its course. But the election of the man who opened his campaign with an attack on Mexican “rapists” has made us realize otherwise. This is someone who, after one Latino and four black teenagers were arrested in 1989 and charged with assaulting and raping a white woman in Central Park, took out full-page newspaper ads urging the death penalty for such crimes. And who, years later, after DNA tests and someone else’s confession cleared the five, declared them still guilty. The Trump presidency’s decades-long roots in race-baiting have at least had the virtue of shocking several new books into being, one of them superb.
Anyone who has read Ben Fountain’s previous work knows him as one of the boldest voices in American fiction. His 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is a hilarious, excoriating, brilliantly structured send-up of the madness and hype of George W. Bush’s wars. It takes place entirely during the halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys football game, seen through the eyes of a teenaged, traumatized, sex-obsessed soldier as he and his squadmates, between stretches of combat in Iraq, are used as part of the show. An earlier volume of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, probes our national psyche in a different way. Almost every tale is about an American who, through idealism, bravado, or naiveté, manages to get in over his or her head in some part of the global South.
Fountain’s new book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, based in part on his reporting of the last presidential campaign for The Guardian, is about an entire country that got in over its head. A meandering, shaggy monster of a book, it’s too long (skip the interchapter month-by-month summaries of the news events of 2016), and its first half—brilliant reporting from the…
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