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 campaign trail—feels only loosely joined to the second, a pained cry from the heart about the many decades of history that have led to the pickle we’re in. But in different ways both halves are dazzling.
The novelist’s gifts that so inspired Billy Lynn are on full display. Here, for instance, is Fountain describing Cornel West warming up a crowd for Bernie Sanders:
Tonight he is dressed in his trademark three-piece black suit with dark scarf, white shirt, and black tie, the French cuffs of his shirt sticking out so far and bright they might as well be sodium flares. In that suit, with his gray-streaked Afro and facial hair like Spanish moss, he looks less like a man of the twenty-first century than a fire-and-brimstone preacher and part-time potion doctor hurled out of the 1890s….
“Brothers and sisters of all colors in Iowa are you ready to make history on Monday n-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght!” he thunders like God’s own MC…. The kids go nuts….
The kids have never seen anything like Cornel West with his flailing arms and incandescent French cuffs and the rock-drill delivery of his voice, every syllable banging home with the hard ratta-tatta of a speed bag or a Gatling gun. He could be Great-Granddaddy Hip-Hop, the original guy up there in the pulpit from whom everything and everybody flowed, blues, jazz, soul, skiffle, R&B, rock & roll, funk, punk, rap, ska, and whatever comes next. The root of it all.
Fountain applies the same zestful paintbrush everywhere. On Hillary Clinton: “With the years has come a kind of dreadnought presence, queen of the fleet, thick armor plating and heavy guns. She can take the hits—has anyone in American politics taken more these past thirty years?—and plow ahead.” On her and Bill: “If every marriage is unknowable from the outside, theirs is the Mariana Trench of marital mystery.” On Reince Priebus: “The thousand-yard stare of a mall cop whose Segway is in the shop.” On Alex Jones of Infowars: “A chesty fellow with a booming depth charge of a voice reminiscent of the pro-wrestling school of public speaking.” On the Democratic National Convention: “Ten hours or more a day of droning and soaring.”
Fountain lives in Dallas and spares nothing in evoking his fellow Texan Ted Cruz. When bettered in a debate, “Cruz, blushing, could only smile with a pants-around-his-ankles sort of squinch to his face.” He speaks
in urgent, breathy tones of preacherly sanctimony, his voice dropping as it nears the end of every thought, digging for the tremble, the hushed vibrato of ultimate virtue. You’d think he gargles twice a day with a cocktail of high-fructose corn syrup and holy-roller snake oil. His tone and cadence take after the saccharine blather of the great Christian pitchmen of radio and TV, the hucksters who mastered the catch in the throat, the tremulous quaver and gulp, because as every pro knows that’s where the money is…. There’s a schlumpy fleshiness to him, a blurring of definition in his face and neck, the little knob of his chin dangling like a boiled quail egg. His skin reads soft, smooth, the skin of an avid indoorsman.
And then, of course, there’s the tanned man with the orange hair himself, with his “reverse raccoon eyes, circles of white around his orbital sockets like a pair of headlights stuck on high beam,” “the seamless weave of silk and steel in his pitch,” and “his smile as toothy-wide as TR posing with a slaughtered animal. He sucks up the free-floating energy of the crowd, what’s static in them becomes kinetic in him and he’ll be riding high for the next rally, a man like this won’t run out of gas till the day he dies.” Trump’s speech accepting the nomination is
the rhetorical equivalent of suburban sprawl. ISIS was here, murderous migrants over there, political correctness, the rigged system, and “international humiliation” plunked down there there and there like strip malls scattered about a mishmash of housing developments. You could have moved chunks of the speech around like so many interchangeable parts or even reversed the order entirely with no noticeable effect.
Why did more than 60 million Americans—many of them good people, people wise in other aspects of life, people who should know better—vote for him? “What is it,” Fountain asks, “about the American character that allows the long con of our politics to go on and on…? We must, on some level, want what they’re offering.”
He gives a marvelous portrait, for instance, of “Pappy” O’Daniel, a Texan of the 1930s who charmed radio listeners with gospel readings, country music, sentimental poetry, and commercials for his company, Hillbilly Flour. (Filmgoers may remember Charles Durning playing him in the Coen brothers’ 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?) In 1938 O’Daniel was elected governor on the campaign theme of “Pass the Biscuits, Pappy.” His platform? “The Ten Commandments, no sales tax, and a guaranteed pension of $30 a month for every Texan over the age of sixty-five.” He plugged Hillbilly Flour at every stop, and sales doubled during his campaign. Once he was in office, however, he pushed for a sales tax, an amendment to the state constitution to freeze taxes on oil and gas extraction at rock-bottom rates, and spent his time attacking Communists, Nazis, and “labor leader racketeers.” The oilmen and bankers who had backed him got what they paid for, but working-class people continued to vote for him in such numbers that in a special election for the US Senate in 1941 he defeated a candidate who might have served them better, a youthful New Deal backer, Lyndon Johnson. Remind you of anybody?
What are such bait-and-switch con men offering? Above all, messages, once overt, then coded, today starkly overt again, about race. Fountain has a lot to say about this, as, in a more muted and academic way, does Sarah Churchwell in Behold, America. Her study of the changing meanings of the “American Dream” and “America First” has the aura of too much time spent in the searchable databases of old newspapers now temptingly available to us, and too little listening to the voices of real people, whether on the campaign trail or anywhere else. Nonetheless, despite a sea of quotations from everything from the Corvallis Gazette to the Wichita Daily Eagle, it’s clear where Churchwell’s political passion is, and her detailed genealogy of “America First” becomes, indirectly, something of a history of twentieth-century American racism.
Before Trump picked it up, the most common association of the phrase was with the America First Committee, a curious amalgam of pacifists and right-wingers that, before Pearl Harbor, opposed American entry into World War II. But the phrase had been used by many a politician before then, often with racial overtones. In 1920, for instance, Senator James Reed of Missouri praised “our Anglo-Saxon fathers” when he addressed an America First Thanksgiving rally in Madison Square Garden. And most significantly, the words were embraced by the Ku Klux Klan as it came back to life after a long hiatus. “The ABC of the Klan is America First,” began a Klan circular widely distributed in 1921, a few years before the organization reached its all-time peak of political influence.1 The Klan was still using the slogan—emblazoning it on commemorative coins, for example—in the 1960s and 1970s.
“For the Klan,” writes Churchwell, “‘America first’ offered a fig leaf: a xenophobia that was socially and politically acceptable was covering for a vigilante racism that was (at least officially) not.” But everyone knew what the fig leaf covered. At least four thousand black people were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950. Not all of them were in the South. In 1922, a black man seen kissing a white woman barely escaped being killed by a mob in midtown Manhattan.
Where, then, does this deep American racial fury, so skillfully manipulated by Donald Trump’s jut-browed scowl, come from? Churchwell reminds us of how white Americans, no matter how poor, have long been compensated with what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “public and psychological wage” of being white. “White laborers,” he wrote, “were convinced that the degradation of Negro labor was more fundamental than the uplift of white labor.” Fountain quotes another distinguished black writer, James Baldwin, making essentially the same point: “The contempt with which American leaders treat American blacks is very obvious; what is not so obvious is that they treat the bulk of the American people with the very same contempt. But it will be sub-zero weather in a very distant August when the American people find the guts to recognize this fact.”
It is Fountain who gives the most extensive and deeply felt account of how politicians have so long blown on the coals of that fury. “The GOP and a certain kind of Democrat,” he writes, “claimed to have the backs of racially aggrieved white voters, then busily filled those backs with knives when it came to money matters,” by giving tax and regulatory favors to the wealthiest. The second half of his book is basically a survey of just how this happened. He begins in 1948, the year Harry Truman ended segregation in the US armed forces and the Democratic National Convention adopted a strong plank against all forms of racial discrimination: “That 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.” Some southern Democrats bolted from the party, and their Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond won four states in that fall’s election. The national Democratic Party was cowed, but then came the 1950s: the Brown v. Board of Education decision, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Freedom Rides to desegregate bus stations, a reborn civil rights movement. “Devil stamped his feet, sniffed the air,” writes Fountain.
Racism then boiled over at the 1964 Republican National Convention: black delegates were shoved, cursed, and spat on, and Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the civil rights bill emboldened the party’s Southern Caucus, which nicknamed its convention hotel “Fort Sumter.” With Goldwater as their candidate, that fall the Republicans for the first time won the votes of a majority of white southerners.
Goldwater lost, of course, but that just meant that “what was needed was white backlash with a kinder, gentler face,” what today we call dog-whistle politics. Fountain quotes Republican consigliere Lee Atwater summing it up: “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.” This worked brilliantly for Richard Nixon.
Then along came Reagan, who “knew that devil well; knew him and paid him court on his home turf.” This happened when, for his first major speech as the 1980 Republican nominee, Reagan chose the Neshoba County Fair, near Philadelphia, Mississippi. This was a mere five miles away from the spot where, sixteen years earlier, three civil rights workers had been kidnapped, shot, and buried, one of them still alive, by a Ku Klux Klan posse that included the county sheriff. Reagan spoke about “states’ rights” and never mentioned the martyred trio or said anything for or against the battle for justice in which they died. “That screaming silence, that was a dog whistle too.”
And so the devil got himself happily embedded deep in the heart of the Republican Party. Whenever needed, there would be another toot on the dog whistle—for example, George H.W. Bush’s notorious Willie Horton campaign commercial in 1988. And when Trump appeared, he gave no more sly whistles but a string of all-frequencies blasts: from lambasting as un-American black football players protesting police killings to praising “some very fine people on both sides” at the clash over the 2017 rally attended by Klan members and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Scarcely a week goes by now without something we can add to the list. Trump has circled the wagons around the white tribe.
One of the strengths of Beautiful Country Burn Again is that it spares nothing in showing how the Democrats, too, making use of hints and code words, have danced with that devil. Some of this is familiar territory: Bill Clinton’s campaign to “end welfare as we know it,” or the way he and congressional Democrats tried to outdo the Republicans in being tough on crime. One episode is particularly stunning, and Fountain not only tells the story but illustrates it with a photograph.2 In his 1992 primary campaign, just before southern states voted on Super Tuesday, Clinton did something just as blatant as Reagan’s Mississippi speech. He and three Georgia politicians appeared at the state’s Stone Mountain Correctional Institution, standing in front of a mass of inmates, almost all of them black, lined up in formation in all-white prison uniforms like a regiment of captive chefs. (“He’s saying,” commented Jerry Brown, “we’ve got ’em under control, folks.”)
But this was far more than a tough-on-crime photo op. For the granite face of nearby Stone Mountain bears giant bas reliefs, larger than the carvings at Mount Rushmore, of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. It is also the spot where, in 1915, a giant cross was lit to mark the rebirth of the Klan. No wonder that, in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King said, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.” What would he have thought of Bill Clinton dog-whistling from that spot three decades later?
An eerie sidelight to American devilry comes from Hitler’s American Model, James Q. Whitman’s study of people who didn’t bother about dog-whistling. The Nazis were nothing if not legalistic, and as they were crafting anti-Jewish measures during their first few years in power they looked carefully at the United States for models of race law. The American example was referred to repeatedly in a 1934 meeting—Whitman quotes the transcript—devoted to planning the Nuremberg Laws, the basic Nazi legislation about race. The following year a delegation of forty-five Nazi lawyers, headed by Dr. Ludwig Fischer, who later would become governor of the Warsaw district in German-occupied Poland, went on a “study trip” to the United States. (The lawyers ignited an angry demonstration when they were seen giving one another the “Heil Hitler” salute in their midtown Manhattan hotel.)
The visitors studied several features of the American legal landscape. An important one was the laws against interracial marriage in no less than thirty states, laws that sometimes also provided severe criminal penalties for any such couple. The Maryland statute, for instance, set a prison term of eighteen months to ten years. These laws were described both in Nazi legal treatises and in propaganda for the German public. They were relevant, of course, to criminalizing marriages between “Aryans” and Jews.
A German commentator also noted that America’s Naturalization Act of 1790, passed by the first Congress, opened the possibility of citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person.” German scholars were further interested in how the US dealt with the distinctly non-Aryan inhabitants of the Philippines and Puerto Rico after seizing these territories from Spain in the Spanish-American War, taking note of Supreme Court rulings that such people could be American nationals but not American citizens. A series of bills severely constricting Asian immigration also drew Nazi attention, one legal scholar writing in 1933 that they represented “a carefully thought-through system that first of all protects the United States from the eugenic point of view against inferior elements.” The same writer also approved of the 1924 American immigration law, whose quota system overwhelmingly favored immigrants from places like the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia. In 1934 a Nazi author was pleased to find another American law that offered a model for Nazi legislation against intermarriage, the Cable Act of 1922. Until amended eight years later, it provided that an American woman who married a noncitizen Asian man thereby lost her American citizenship.
“The bottom line is this,” Whitman writes: “When the leading Nazi jurists assembled in early June 1934 to debate how to institutionalize racism in the new Third Reich, they began by asking how the Americans did it.”
When we talk about how this devil has stuck his pitchfork so deep into our national soul, the key question is not, Is Donald Trump a racist? We waste millions of words on this daily. Yes! say the attackers. Look! He called Omarosa Manigault Newman a “dog”—what’s more racist than that? No! say the defenders: He loves Kanye West! Tiger Woods! Ben Carson!
The ayes have it on that question, but the far more important one is something else: Whose interests does the devil serve? And here, a long time ago, Du Bois and Baldwin both nailed it. As Trump and his fellow billionaires see their taxes go down and regulations evaporate, it’s painfully clear that all the charges about traitorous black athletes or terrorists who have to be walled off at the border are a smokescreen masking an enormous ongoing transfer of wealth. The same is true where other Trumps reign around the world. The tycoon friends of Modi and Orbán are doing very well indeed these days, thank you.
That transfer of American wealth from the poor to the rich has been going on for several decades. The basic facts are all too familiar: executive salaries and corporate profits soaring, union membership and power plummeting, real wages stagnant or declining for decades for the poorer 40 percent of our people. And those losing ground feel increasingly precarious and angry. But Fountain tells the tale well, reminding us sadly that, despite Barack Obama’s personal decency, there was no interruption of this pattern under him. During his first term (in the first half of which the Democrats also controlled both houses of Congress), none of the major figures who caused the 2008 financial crisis was punished, no big banks were broken up, and 95 percent of income gains went to the country’s wealthiest one percent.
Also painfully clear is the way Hillary Clinton’s tone-deaf campaign and her coziness with Goldman Sachs and Clinton Foundation donors held forth no alternative vision to ever-greater inequality. “Hillary couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” Fountain writes, “due to the elemental fact that she was one of the trees.” She was the culmination of thirty-five years of policies that made the Democratic Party become “not so much the champion of the working and middle classes as the party that made things worse a little more slowly than Republicans.”
Fountain quotes Justice Louis Brandeis: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” In search of hope, he goes back to someone else who felt the same way, despite being a man of considerable wealth himself, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The most glowing pages in Beautiful Country Burn Again are about what FDR tried to do with the New Deal, which Fountain believes transformed life in this country more than anything since the Emancipation Proclamation: “The roads, waterways, bridges, sewers and water mains, courthouses, libraries, and power grids.”
He gives a particularly searing portrait of life on the vast majority of American farms in the early 1930s, which had no electricity to light the house, power a refrigerator to keep food from spoiling in the summer heat, pump water from the well, and much more: “That we’re alive and well today, walking and talking and in some cases making a career out of bashing the government, it’s because Great-Grandpa didn’t die from cholera or typhoid back in the day.” He might have added something else: the New Deal years were completely free of racial dog whistles from the White House, relatively free of race riots, and the number of lynchings dropped precipitously. For once, Americans were largely focused on something other than race. But imagine if a Trump-like figure had been president during the crisis of the Depression.
The New Deal is a far from perfect model. It didn’t significantly rein in corporate power, southern Democrats amended important programs to exclude blacks, and it didn’t put most of the unemployed back to work—unfortunately, that required World War II. But it showed a government trying on all burners to help those suffering most, create jobs, enlarge the rights of labor, extend Social Security and other parts of a safety net, and build public works that could benefit everyone. Until we have something like that again, the tens of millions of Americans who continue to fall behind economically will be looking for someone to blame—and demagogues will be only too happy to conjure up the traditional devil of race and tribe. No new Roosevelt is yet on the horizon, and we’re now stuck with the first American president in history endorsed by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.