So, how does a race-baiting, philandering vulgarian, with no political experience, a penchant for falsehoods, and a skein of bankruptcies, end up in the White House?
That question still baffles many Americans and is the unstated premise of Evan Osnos’s diligent and deeply researched “Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury.” The title refers to California’s dried-out forests that needed only a spark to erupt into a raging inferno — a fitting metaphor for the Trump era. Years of institutional rot had strewn the country’s landscape with mounds of dry tinder. The former president simply struck the match.
Osnos is an award-winning staff writer for The New Yorker who spent years reporting abroad, mainly from China but also from Egypt, Iraq, and North Korea. Accustomed to defending American values while reporting in oppressive lands, Osnos returns from his overseas assignment in 2013 and becomes a roving correspondent in his own country. “Wildland” is his effort to explain the fractured nation he discovers.
In doing so, Osnos taps into many themes that will be familiar to anyone who follows the news: economic inequality, systemic racism, double standards in criminal justice, the power of the donor class. But Osnos sees himself as a literary heir to John Gunther, another laureled foreign correspondent who returned to America in the 1940s, traveled the country, and published his epic “Inside U.S.A.,” with exhaustive detail on the personalities and places of every state. Osnos carries a copy of “Inside U.S.A.” as he roams America, writing stories for The New Yorker and gathering material for “Wildland.” He homes in on three separate communities in which he has personal ties: There is well-groomed Greenwich, Conn., whose superrich live behind “stately walls of chiseled stone” and where Osnos grew up. There is Clarksburg, W.Va., the heart of despairing Appalachia, exploited by rapacious financiers and opioid makers and where Osnos took his first newspaper job. And there is Chicago, gilded, segregated and strife-riven, where Osnos worked at The Chicago Tribune and where he interviewed Barack Obama in his first congressional race. (Obama lost. Osnos recorded over the interview.)
“Wildland” is heavy on context, as Osnos supports his narrative by citing scholars of every stripe — economists, novelists, political scientists, sociologists, biologists. He quotes Emerson, Dreiser, Jefferson, Mao, Lincoln. One paragraph describes Trump. The next invokes Aristotle. You want to know about “air rage” among plane passengers? Osnos cites a study.
“Wildland” is at its best when Osnos offers intimate portraits of the men and women in the three communities on his radar. Even the scoundrels are depicted with sensitivity and empathy. Chip Skowron was a hedge fund manager in Greenwich who was arrested for securities fraud, but in Osnos’s telling, he was part of a Wall Street culture that prizes greed over responsibility and rarely holds its rogues to account. At least Skowron served prison time and, upon his release, cofounded a Christian outreach group.
Maurice Clark grew up in poverty on the South Side of Chicago, joined a gang, and cycled through prison; but according to Osnos, he was “denied the luxuries of impunity” given to affluent whites, including the financiers who took his mother’s home through racist lending practices. “In a country that prided itself on the gift of reinvention,” Osnos writes, Clark “had received less than his fair share of redemption.”
“Wildland” is written in first person, which often gives the book a satisfying immediacy. To understand why far-right groups support Trump, Osnos travels to Cincinnati in 2016 and watches a Republican presidential debate with white supremacists and neo-fascists. The group’s leader is called “the Little Fuhrer,” and Osnos, the curious, bookish grandson of Jews who fled the Nazis’ invasion of Poland, sits next to a Web developer who is sipping coffee adorned with a swastika. “I think [Trump] is an intelligent businessman who identified what people want to hear,” the neo-Nazi calmly informs Osnos.
Sometimes Osnos tries too hard to make the story personal. He tells us that in 1905, his great-grandfather was shot twice on the streets of Chicago. A 16-year-old gunman was arrested for the crime. More than 100 years later, Osnos tracks down the gunman’s granddaughter and informs her of the horrific act committed by her beloved grandfather. Osnos even sends her the prison records. Awkward.
Osnos delivers a vivid if dispiriting portrait of West Virginia, where coal companies pollute the water, vulture investors make out like bandits, and workers are abandoned. In 2016, candidate Trump promised to “put those miners back to work,” though he had no plan to do so. West Virginians tell Osnos that they knew Trump was spouting gibberish, but they still voted for him overwhelmingly because he validated their cultural and racial grievances.
West Virginia lost 6,400 coal mining jobs when Trump was in office, but in 2020, he still won the state handily.
Osnos wrote “Wildland” in real time, meaning he didn’t know how the book was going to end, and my sense is that Osnos is conflicted about his own story. Whatever hope he may have had for an optimistic conclusion is overrun by events. The attempted insurrection by Trump’s rampaging supporters, accompanied by Trump’s efforts to subvert the election results, showcase the narrowing divide between America and the authoritarian states from which Osnos once reported.
But Osnos also writes that in 2020, some progressives in West Virginia won down-ballot races by focusing on local issues. America’s growing diversity bodes well for its future politics. And Osnos himself seems too driven, too idealistic to give up on the America that he once promoted on his travels abroad.
But as he makes painfully clear in “Wildland,” the underbrush is still parched, and a mere ember could set it ablaze.
WILDLAND: The Making of America’s Fury
By Evan Osnos
480 pp., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30
James S. Hirsch is an author living in Needham.