If you only have time for one political book this season, I have just the one for you: Ben Fountain’s Beautiful Country Burn Again. It’s the boldest, bravest and most bracing book about politics that I have read this year. Fountain has a solid following for his fiction. Both his novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — which received the National Book Critics Circle Award — and his collection of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, were best-sellers. In 2016 The Guardian asked him to cover the presidential election, a new experience for him. From the roadkill express of the Iowa caucuses to the spectacle of Donald Trump’s victory, he tracked the strange mutation of American politics that surely has George Orwell turning in his grave and our founding fathers wishing for a second chance. Here is a feast of sparkling prose, picturesque profiles, historical perspective, sharp insights, and eureka moments — Donald Trump taking down Senator Ted Cruz for the latter’s smarmy dismissal of “New York values,” for example. But here, too, is a finely spun analysis of how the two major parties lost their way, opening for an outlier like Trump the opportunity of a lifetime. Fountain has given us an original, informed and deeply felt take on the forces and stresses bearing down on America. He came up to New York from his home in Dallas recently, and I talked with him about Beautiful Country Burn Again. I have edited our exchanges for continuity and clarity.
Bill Moyers: There’s an emotional current running through your book that makes me want to know what you were feeling as you followed the candidates across the country in 2016.
Ben Fountain: I was feeling what I think a lot of Americans were feeling — equal parts confusion, frustration and anger, and at times hopefulness. But mostly confusion. Why were things happening the way they were? How did we get to this point? We were in uncharted waters. Donald Trump was doing and saying things no conventional candidate would have been able to get away with. So I had a lot of questions. And when The Guardian invited me to do a series on the election, I jumped at the opportunity. Now I had the excuse to dive as deeply as I could into the why of all this. Is this an aberration in American history and culture? Or is it the logical culmination of certain veins of American life?
I knew your work as a writer of fiction but was not aware of your interest in real-time politics. With this book you have reality reading like a good novel.
Well, I’ve just done what I’ve always tried to do in writing, and that is to be as disciplined and rigorous as I can in seeing the situation for what it is and finding the language to portray accurately what I’ve seen.
Were you entirely on unfamiliar ground as you started tracking the candidates?
When you launch into a book, you discover that you know things you didn’t know you knew. In a way, you’re digging into your own past, your own memories, your own experience. I come from a family that’s been involved in politics in North Carolina for several generations. My grandfather was in the state legislature. His brother was lieutenant governor. One of my cousins was in Congress for 30 years, and others were judges, county commissioners, and the like. Their wives were political wives, and they were at least as savvy as the men. So politics was in the air I breathed growing up.
Was there anything about national politics in 2016 that made you think of the politics you remembered in North Carolina?
The role played by religion in 2016 — the way it was used and abused to manipulate the electorate. And the role of money — especially money under the table, dark money. I call it black money (LAUGH). But like everything else now, politics on a national level has been blown up to cartoon proportions. The media show. The lights, bells and whistles. Highly refined professional expertise. The millions — I mean, billions — of dollars. It has exceeded human scale.
Why the title — Beautiful Country Burn Again?
I was reading excerpts from Joan Didion’s very fine book South and West and came across the line “Beautiful country burn again,” which I think she wrote in reference to that season’s wildfires in California, and it struck me as a kind of lament. And I thought, Oh, that’s it — that seems like the right title for a book about our current situation.Later I found out Didion had borrowed it from her fellow Californian Robinson Jeffers, from his poem “Apology for Bad Dreams”:
…Beautiful country burn again, Point Pinos down to the
Burn as before with bitter wonders, land and ocean and the
Those words captured my mood, my feeling about what was happening in 2016. I felt that if America wasn’t yet literally burning, we might be on the cusp of its burning.
What made you think of fire as a metaphor for America today?
The partisan divide has become so stark, you can imagine a conflagration is coming. Working people and middle-class people in America are feeling more beleaguered than they have since the Great Depression. It’s harder to make ends meet. It’s much harder to get ahead and achieve some measure of financial security and psychological security. It used to be middle-class denoted a certain level of security. If you worked hard, played by the rules, applied your time and talents, then you could reasonably expect a decent living wage, educational opportunities for your kids, and a secure income in old age. That was the social contract. The last 25, 30 years, that social contract’s been shredded. The working and middle classes are working harder than ever and falling farther behind. Meanwhile, corporate profits soar, the stock market soars, and the one percent gets an ever-bigger slice of the pie. That’s not a situation that can be sustained long-term in a genuine democracy. Something’s got to give.
What Is Behind Trump’s Triumph?
You write of the election: “This wasn’t Democrats versus Republicans as much as the sad, psychotic, and vengeful in the national life producing a strange mutation, a creature comprised of degenerate political logic.” A Frankenstein?
(Continues reading) “The logic of this politics requires ultimately that the monster turn on its maker. It would be hard to devise a more spectacular conflict than this high-functioning creature of American schizophrenia versus the very system that brought him to power.”
Yes. Trump was elected — whatever you want to say about Russian bots coming from St. Petersburg, or Russian operatives possibly colluding with his campaign, 63 million Americans voted for Trump. He was duly elected according to our system. He’s a creature of our electoral system and our politics. And by every indication so far, he certainly seems capable, certainly willing to do extreme damage to our constitutional system in order to stay in power.
How do you think that might play out?
Obviously if Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation is allowed to continue to its rightful end — if we learn Trump broke the law or there was collusion or some kind of conspiracy with foreign elements to influence the election — will he bow to the law or will he use all the power at his disposal to defy the law? And that’s the very essence of our constitutional system. As we know, the founders were suspicious of concentrations of power. Will this president take more than his constitutionally allotted share of power going forward? In other words, will he defy the law? And what will Congress do if he does? Congress isn’t even doing its basic job of routine oversight at this point. And if a criminal case arises from all this, and comes before the Supreme Court, will the Supreme Court rule according to the law or to partisan politics?
So, yes, I think Trump potentially represents an existential crisis to the constitutional order. We aren’t there yet, and we may not get there. But I do not see him going quietly. This guy fights like a Comanche when his power and privileges are challenged.
You make it clear in the book: Donald Trump did not come out of nowhere.
That’s right. He’s not an alien. He’s homegrown. American politics and culture produced him.
So you write: “The scorched-earth tactics of the campaign, the wholesale retreat into fantasy, the daily outbreaks of absurd and disturbed behaviors, it seemed the only proper way to view these was as symptoms of tremendous stress. [And] whatever the trajectory of the forces and stresses in play, it seemed certain Trump would deepen and accelerate their trajectory.” What were the sources of that “tremendous stress”?
First is something I indicated a moment ago: the tremendous disparity in income and wealth that’s come about in the past 40 years and the basic, pervasive sense that the system is not fair. Fundamental fairness has been lost. When Trump — and Bernie Sanders, for that matter — said, “The system is rigged,” that rang true for great numbers of Americans. It spoke to their absolutely legitimate sense of grievance. And when you speak a truth like that, and say it over and over with what seems like real sincerity, well, that’s powerful stuff in politics. Millions of Americans are living precarious lives, and they’re looking around for the reason.
Second, white America — mainstream white America — has had its way for most of the history of the United States. In the last 50 years, as we have all seen, things have begun to change. Powerful voices are setting the historical record straight, making clear the degree to which American prosperity has rested on the backs of people of color, and at their expense. Uncomfortable truths are being presented to mainstream white America, and that’s bound to present a challenge to some people’s identity and sense of personal integrity.
We’re finally scraping the whitewash off our mythologies, and that’s painful for those whose lives were framed by those mythologies.
Yes, the paradigm of what it means to be an American is changing, and it needs to change if we’re going to have a realistic idea of ourselves and our history. There’s the old paradigm of mythic whiteness — John Wayne, on his horse: the big white guy who tames the frontier. Well, the reality was — is — much more complex and problematic than that. But a lot of white folks have felt demeaned and put-upon, especially by so-called “elites” — educated opinion, the intellectuals, the scholars and writers who are bringing historical truths to light and insisting that they be reckoned with. Not only do a lot of white people feel threatened by this, they feel insulted, condemned. That’s a fraught psychological state to live in.
People want their John Wayne back.
Oh man, do they. I saw it everywhere on the campaign trail: Trump gave a huge swath of white America back to itself. Gave them psychological, emotional affirmation as an antidote for all the anxiety, all the resentment they’d been feeling. He told them: “You aren’t bad; you’re good. Actually, you are the real America.” That kind of affirmation is powerful medicine in politics.
The Ghost of George Wallace
Backlash thrives on it. Think of the backlash after the emancipation of the slaves. Demagogic politicians rallied a defeated and sullen South to put the chains back on black people — all those segregationist laws of Jim Crow. Lynching that continued into the 20th century. Statues erected to Confederate warriors to preserve the memory of the “Lost Cause.” And then the backlash in our time against the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate the schools, against passage by Congress of civil rights and voting rights legislation, against the struggle and victories of the civil rights movement. Whites fled to the suburbs, opened private religious schools, created federal housing policies that institutionalized segregation on economic grounds.
And you were around when George Wallace [governor of Alabama] ran for president on a blatantly racist platform: “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” Literally blocked the door to black students trying to enroll in the University of Alabama. He was a major force in mid-century American politics, and both parties had to figure out how to neutralize or even co-opt his considerable support.
George Wallace blocking the doors of the University of Alabama, June 11, 1963. (Library of Congress)
Wallace ran for president four times — someone called him “the most influential loser” of the century. The backlash he both fomented and exploited became the core of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy in 1968, inviting disenchanted whites to make their new home in the Republican Party.
And then Trump comes along some 40 years after Wallace’s last campaign, and rides Wallace’s message all the way to the White House. Who would have thought he’d be the guy to take up Wallace’s legacy? A guy from up north, a classic “Yankee,” in Southern parlance, a loudmouthed, swaggering, abrasive New York City real estate tycoon. But somehow he took up Wallace’s “Lost Cause” and became a hero to the South. You and I remember that for generations, Southerners had it in for Yankees. One of the worst things you could say about someone in the South was “He’s a Yankee. Come down from up north.” But early in his candidacy, in August of 2015, this Yankee filled a football stadium in Mobile, Alabama, with 30,000 to 35,000 supporters. In August, in Alabama. Can you imagine what the temperature was like that day? (LAUGH) Yet 30,000 Southerners came out for Trump, the guy from Sodom and Gomorrah!
He had a message: “You were wronged. You were right. Let’s go back and make the South great again.”
Variations on themes from the past. You know I don’t like facile comparisons of Trump to certain historical figures, but sometimes the parallels are basically hitting you over your head, you just can’t ignore them. Look at the history, the psychological state of Germany that prepared the way for Hitler. Ever since losing World War I, Germans had walked around in something of a daze, asking each other, “Why did we lose? Were we weak? Or were we betrayed by our leaders?” There was this very real existential crisis in the German psyche. Then along comes this powerful, charismatic, spellbinding demagogue who told them: “You didn’t lose the war. You weren’t weak. Your leaders betrayed you. Real Germans are strong and good. And you are real Germans.”
Donald Trump used the same psychology, and he coupled it with one of the oldest plays in the American power-grab book — blatant racism. Well, often blatant, usually thinly veiled, but everybody knew what he was talking about. Trump was only slightly less open in his racist rhetoric than Wallace.
J.R. Comes Home
So he’s less an aberration than a culmination —
— Of a certain strand of American life, yes. Well, several strands. We can’t discount the con man strand, for one. I found myself wondering how many tricks Trump poached from J.R. Ewing [the star of the TV series Dallas in the ’70s, played by Larry Hagman]. The creators of that hit saga had intended for J.R.’s “good” brother Bobby to be the star, but J.R. — a snake and bastard who cheated on his wife — stole the show. The man truly did not give a shit about anyone else. Yet the audience took to the villain — loved him. You can imagine Donald Trump watching J.R. and thinking, I can work with this. Just be myself. People loved J.R. not in spite of his nastiness and greed but because of it.
Donald Trump plays Donald Trump. And the applause meter goes bonkers. Being nakedly who he is — and winning — seemed to liberate him in his own mind from the contempt shown him by Manhattan snobs. He could be — to use your term — the “consummate New York asshole” and still win primaries. Still win the nomination. Still win the presidency. Why mask his real nature behind good manners when meanness pays off? Take that, Goldman Sachs!
What’s incredible is that this “consummate New York asshole” became the hero of the heartland. Southerners, Midwesterners, rural Westerners, they felt something genuine in Trump. He was giving them easy-to-digest explanations for why they felt so bad and beleaguered, why they’d been falling behind economically for years. Cultural explanations, in addition to the “system is rigged” line. He never missed a chance to rail on “political correctness,” and he loaded up that phrase with a tremendous amount of baggage — university professors, policy wonks, people of color, Black Lives Matter, Hollywood, eastern liberals, and so on. A real grab bag of bogeymen who’d been tearing down the “real” America for the past 20 or 30 years. And of course Hillary Clinton got lumped in there as well, and you could feel the anger and resentment toward her that Trump was able to channel. Those chants of “Lock her up!” — he was doing some powerful cheerleading there.
And the crowd roars back — in your words — “like Romans watching lions sink their teeth into Christian flesh.” You say this may be the most powerful medicine in politics, the leader who delivers a man to his natural self.
And his supporters loved him for it. There was tremendous confusion and angst coming to a boil in America by 2015, 2016, and Trump tapped into it with amazing instincts. The way he spoke to it, harnessed it, that became the most important thing about him. Anybody who cared to look could see he was the most blatant kind of phony in so many respects. Talked family values, quoted the Bible, all that, and he’d made his career as one of the most flamboyant libertines of our time. Divorces and affairs that were front-page news. His use and abuse of women. Genius business guy, but then there were all those bankruptcies in his past, all the partners and employees he’d left high and dry, and that $900 million loss he took on his taxes one year. Big on the military, but he ran as hard as he could from the Vietnam War. Big patriot who loves Vladimir Putin — how do you explain that? And he held himself out as a champion of working people, but he was offering nothing concrete that would really help working people in terms of wages and unions and secure, affordable healthcare.
And none of this was hidden.
It was all right out there — right in our faces, so to speak. And people, a critical mass of the American people, bought it. It makes you wonder about the state of our collective psyche, how easily we’re taken in when we’re hearing what we want to hear. Classic con man dynamic, that’s definitely at work here. But the bond he created with people at his rallies had a lot more to do with emotion and raw attraction than anything that might be called rational thought. He came across as authentic in spite of all the obvious contradictions in himself. He could brag and spew insults and swear and spout the most outrageous sorts of lies; they gave him a pass on it. It made him seem real. This wasn’t politics as usual, and what a huge relief that was for millions of people. Politics as usual the last 20 or 30 years certainly hadn’t done them much good, but here was a guy who seemed to be offering something different.
Yet 63 million people voted for him.
Yes. Yes. He certainly managed to convince millions of people that he really does care about them. And apparently they very much wanted to believe. They focused on the things that gave them a reason to believe and let everything else fall to the wayside.
There’s something else at work here — what you call the Fantasy Industrial Complex, the FIC. You say it “challenges our grasp of reality as nothing ever has.”
Well, (SIGH) humans have always had a talent for fantasy and escape —
— And a talent for distraction.
Yes. To daydream, imagine, and these days to project ourselves inside the fantasy lifestyle we see in all the advertisements and commercial propaganda touting expensive fashions, homes, resorts — all that. But I’m convinced that all these screens that surround us everywhere going 24/7 with movies, TV, internet, email, texts, tweets, news, ads, celebrities, politics and all the rest, I think the overall effect is that it numbs us out and dumbs down. It’s always been hard enough for humans to grasp reality as it is, but with the Fantasy Industrial Complex saturating our lives it’s harder than ever for us to see and understand the world as it actually is. Facts, lies, fantasy, reality — it’s all the same to the maestro of our mighty Fantasy Industrial Complex. Where does one begin and the other end?
Yeats got it right: “We had fed the heart on fantasies / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”
That says it all. Well, Yeats had the modern age vibed out before anyone else, didn’t he. Fantasy has become the air we breathe. And when the FIC kicks into high gear, with all the corporate power that’s behind it, all those resources and money, all that brainpower, it takes a supreme effort of will on the individual’s part to distinguish advertising and propaganda from facts, from the truth of a situation.
You said in The Guardian recently that Trump’s presidency has been pretty much what you expected: loud, boastful, bullying, reckless, ruder than the worst-bred minor royalty, tetchy as a wolverine in heat. But the main thing to note, you wrote, is the very most main thing: He’s still going.
Yeah, no matter what his opponents throw at him, he just keeps rolling. They go high, they go low, nothing works. He’s a kind of new breed of political Superman; he eats kryptonite for breakfast and just gets stronger.
He’s brought the Republican Party to its knees. And he owns it now. Lock, stock and barrel.
So much of the news coverage portrayed his campaign as a challenge to the establishment of the Republican Party, the way the Republican Party had conducted itself the last 50 years. But, come on, he was simply doing the same thing, talking the same game Republicans have been doing for years, but he did it better. He’s absolutely a virtuoso of the politics of paranoia and racism, cultural resentment, xenophobia, misogyny and all the rest that the GOP has prospered on for the past 50 years.
What IS a New Democrat?
Yet he would have lost, I’ll wager, if the Democrats had kept their house in order and their priorities straight. Your take on how both parties paved the way for Trump is tough and true, but your account of how the Democrats piled on the people they once represented is one for the ages, in no small part because of your eye for details. Your chapter “Hillary Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is wicked in its particulars. You might have painted a big mural on the wall — and there is an impressive scope to your story — but it’s the pimples of guilt that are most revealing. Like how establishment Democrats, seeing Republicans raise so much money from the oligarchs, set out to tap into the loot by developing close relationships with big donors and big business. For one thing, they organized an outfit called the Democratic Leadership Council [DLC] with an “executive council” that included corporate behemoths such as ARCO, Chevron, Merck, DuPont, Microsoft, Philip Morris, Koch Industries. Among the trustees would eventually be the longtime chief political operative for Charles and David Koch. His nickname was “the Pirate.” I might think you had made that up if I hadn’t seen note 11, page 255.
Thank you. But let me make this point: In one sense the so-called New Democrats of the Clinton years were traditional Democrats in that they were still strong for civil rights, for cultural diversity, sensitive to sexual orientation and ethnicity. But in terms of rock-bottom economics, of all those people really hurt, even ruined, under globalization and the reckless financialization of the American economy, establishment Democrats became more and more like Republicans: They stopped making the case for government. Republicans were perfectly happy to wage class war against the constituencies Democrats nominally represent. Democrats didn’t exactly become pacifists, but — well, let me put it this way: Those eight years of Bill Clinton’s New Democrats served the party’s traditional constituency of the working class, the middle class, minorities, the poor and immigrants about as well as the second coming of Herbert Hoover.
One might say Democrats pulled up their roots on Main Street and repotted them on Wall Street, where Hillary Clinton plucked plenty of posies before and during the 2016 campaign.
Just as Bill Clinton left office in January 2001, Hillary arrived in the Senate to continue the work. She continued to be a star speaker at DLC events — even led its American Dream Initiative, which called for a strict pay-as-you-go budget process in Washington.
Watching her campaign in 2016, what was your impression?
Well, I was constantly reminded — her campaign made sure of that — that she’s done a lot of very good, genuinely good things for people. Starting with her early working life, she was a trench warrior on behalf of progressive politics. She was one of those young women who went out and knocked on doors to register voters in South Texas. She did advocacy for juveniles in South Carolina’s prison system. She went looking for underprivileged kids in Boston, trying to get them into the school system. That is not showboat work. That is work that comes from the heart. But (SIGH) you have to balance all those good works with the overriding fact that she has consistently aligned herself with big money, big corporations, big banks. And you have to lay the increasing economic insecurity of working and middle-class people to that same corporate elite. She didn’t understood why people might resent her earning millions of dollars for speaking to Wall Street firms. In her book What Happened, she said she never thought people would think that she would “sell out” a lifetime of principle and advocacy by making speeches for the one percent. But what she failed to see was that people viewed those speeches not as Hillary “selling out” but as Hillary doing business as usual. She was prospering — obscenely — in a morally bankrupt system that she played a large and active role in creating.
In the middle of the campaign, you pause and reflect on Memorial Day celebrations in a chapter of the book called “Doing the Chickenhawk with Trump.” You have a very moving meditation in the book on Memorial Day celebrations and what politicians say on such occasions. You express your disgust with talking fast and loose in a time of endless war, and what you write is a beautiful reflection on the sacrifice and suffering of our fighting men and women. You invoke one of my favorite all-time journalists, the eccentric and brilliant Ambrose Bierce, who survived some of the worst of the slaughter in the Civil War only to have his skull broken “like a walnut” by a sniper’s ball, and lived to write about combat with horrifying honesty. You quote Ernest Hemingway’s contempt for cant in A Farewell to Arms. You take on the warmongering of Washington’s armchair warriors — some by name — who loosely suggest sending 50,000 American troops to Syria. And you pour boiling water on politicians who have never seen war up close but orate on Memorial Day as if they had repulsed the enemy single-handedly. And during the campaign when Trump, asked in one debate what he would do about Syria, replies that he would “listen to the generals,” you fume: “Screw that. How about we listen to the sergeants, lieutenants, and captains who wore those boots on the ground the past fifteen years. The ones who’ve left the military, who are free to speak their minds and have no stake in the business-as-usual business of American war.”
Well, it’s one of the most profane aspects of our public life, the way the military gets used and abused by politicians to show how tough and patriotic they (the politicians) are, and a lot of these same politicians ran as hard from the military as they could when they were young. The hypocrisy is mind-bending; it’s more a form of schizophrenia than hypocrisy, and Trump is one of the worst offenders. And we get it every Memorial Day: politicians making speeches about courage and country and “the supreme sacrifice” — it’s so hollow it makes you want to puke. I mean, who gave our politicians permission to speak for the violently dead, as I call them in the book? I think we’d do a lot better — have a better chance of understanding ourselves and our history and our wars — if we make the politicians shut up for that one day, at least, and look to writers and poets who experienced war firsthand, then devoted heart and soul to finding the correct words, the true words, for describing the reality of their war. Put aside the fantasy and try for reality, at least on that day. That day of all days.
Is It a Plutocracy Yet?
I must say, you found some of the correct words to sum up the state of our democracy today. You’ve also been searching for “the correct and true words” to describe the state of our democracy today. I sense you want to be honest and call it what it is: a plutocracy.
I think if we aren’t there, we’re very close. Certainly the scale of money in our politics now, especially after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, is astonishing. It’s an ocean of black money floating out there, and they have blocked us from even knowing where it comes from. Certain organizations no longer have to reveal the identity of their donors. How do we ever know who’s giving all this money, who are the politicians working for? There’s no accountability without knowing who’s paying the bills. And where does this leave the everyday citizen?
Since the conservative Supreme Court declared money to be speech, without money they’re left speechless. And unrepresented.
Because these donors score big on the policy outcomes they want. They have access. Influence. They have a lot of money to put behind candidates of their choice, and they have a lot of money to throw against candidates they oppose. For me, the American identity is at its core a political identity, one based on the foundational principle of equality. But for the principle to be fulfilled, 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 — not a government responsive mainly to donors. Equality is the foundational, guiding principle of the United States, and it’s right there in the Declaration of Independence. So how equal can citizens be if they’re not making enough to support a family, despite working two or three jobs, and with so little time to devote to civic and political duties? This is the reality. Does that citizen have equal stature with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? With Sheldon Adelson? Of course not.
Your chapter “The Long Good Deal” prompts the question: Are the assumptions of hypercapitalism — what we’re experiencing today — compatible with democracy?
I think there is always going to be, at best, a real tension there. Can democracy thrive alongside a freewheeling capitalist economic system? Or will these great concentrations of power and wealth overwhelm democracy by virtue of their enormous power and influence?
Trump was right: The system is rigged. Big money, cartels and conglomerates, big media, huge investment banks, giant hedge funds, billionaires — these control so much of what goes on in this country. Ordinary Americans no longer have much agency over their lives. Oh, they can still vote, still say what they want to say, get together to protest. But the real power is somewhere else: Follow the money.
All you have to do is look at recent history. Start before the crash of 2007–2008. At, say, the deregulation of banks and banking that began under Ronald Reagan, with Democratic support. For 50 years since the Great Depression, there had been no major upheavals in American finance — from the early 1930s to the late 1980s. That was a testament to the soundness of the New Deal structure of banking and finance regulation that Franklin Roosevelt ushered in back in the 1930s — those safeguards that prevented reckless speculation by banks and Wall Street really worked. The 1980s came, and Washington took apart the regulatory structure of the savings and loan industry. Congress passed new rules that made it okay for the S&Ls to invest depositors’ money in very risky endeavors. Guess what? By the end of the decade, there was no savings and loan industry. It had freewheeled itself into oblivion. Boomed and busted all in the space of about six years. Taxpayers were out billions of dollars to make up for the loss.
That should have been a signal to us that the laws and regulations developed under the New Deal worked. They served a real purpose, and they were successful for over a half century in protecting taxpayers and depositors and the stability of the banking system. But under Reagan, deregulation became the mantra. For both parties, it should be noted. Deregulation continued into the 21st century as investment banks and commercial banks made tremendous amounts of money on high-flying speculation. Then we get to 2007–2008 and boom! The crash. The capitalists went too far, as capitalists will always do if they’re left to their own devices. The result? The worst financial crisis, the worst recession, since the Great Depression, and the global financial system was almost destroyed. Yet within a year or two the banks were doing great again, the bankers were pulling down huge bonuses again, while working people were still trying to climb out of the wreckage. So in 2016 Trump and Bernie Sanders were telling the truth: The system is rigged.
You write that Lincoln in the Civil War and Roosevelt in the economic crash of the 1930s had the vision and strength of will to lead the country out of two incarnations of hell. Will we be that lucky next time?
I hope we don’t get there. But if corporate power is allowed to operate unchecked, it will always go too far. The capitalists will overreach, and there will be blowback. History shows us that plainly enough. So I fear we’re due soon for an existential crisis. I think the plutocracy has so much power at this point that nothing short of a major upheaval is going to change things. If anything is going to change, pretty much everything is going to have to change at the same time, much like Roosevelt with the New Deal. There were tremendous changes wrought then in American society in what was a bloodless revolution. And that’s one of the miracles of the New Deal, that it was in fact a bloodless revolution. And, by the way, it saved capitalism. One example: FDR didn’t nationalize the banks; he gave them a holiday. And New Deal initiatives produced much of the infrastructure that we rely on to this day: the roads, waterways, bridges, sewers and water mains, courthouses, libraries and power grids. You could say that the New Deal was so successful that it’s become invisible. So many of the things we take for granted — from electricity to roads to the internet to the technology in our computers and cell phones — had their origins in the philosophy and framework of the New Deal.
Today, corporate power and concentrations of wealth have such a hold over our economic system that for the country to wrest some of that power from them, it can’t be incremental. It will take a political revolution.
“A Deep and Mighty Transformation”
James Baldwin saw a “deep and mighty transformation” as the country’s only hope. At the beginning of your book, you remind us that twice before in our history, the United States has been faced with a crisis so severe it was forced to reinvent itself to survive: First was the struggle over slavery, culminating in the Civil War, and second was the Great Depression, which as you just said led to President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the establishment of America as a social-democratic state. Now you argue that we may be facing a third existential crisis, one that will require a “burning” of the old order as America attempts to remake itself. I failed to mention at the start of this interview that the subtitle of Beautiful Country Burn Again is Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution. Is that what you foresee — and can we get such change peacefully?
Rebellion happens in the streets — barricades, protests, uprisings, all of that. I think revolution takes place first in the mind, with ideas, vision and imagination. Oppressive and manipulative power structures try to limit our imaginations as to what is possible. And I think the American imagination has been stunted the last 40 years by a very aggressive sales program on behalf of free-market fundamentalism and hard-core capitalism. So part of the revolution, a good part, has to happen up here, where we think and imagine. We have to realize there are alternatives, that it wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way.
Thank you, Ben Fountain.
Glad to be here.