Novelist Ben Fountain’s new book of reportage and essay isn’t fiction, maybe because if he’d presented our 2016 election season that way, nobody would believe it. The reality of US politics outdistanced the wildest extravagances of imagination a long time ago, which is only one of a hundred deft, discomfiting points Fountain makes. In today’s superheated political climate, fairness and perspective are hard to come, but Fountain manages to take a relatively measured view.
The chapters are interleaved by monthly “Book of Days” sections, running from January through December, reaping tidbits from the news for a fusion of Harper’s Index with the human interest reporting of Paul Harvey. In such a collage, it’s easy to use choice and arrangement to tilt the machine (Harper’s Index is quite obvious in doing that), but Fountain’s selections aren’t obviously slanted; you can parse the wind’s direction for yourself.
He covers the winter campaign in Iowa as a series of performance reviews, taking the reader into front-runner rallies with a kind of oh wow, look at that attitude that seems just a tad more ingenuous than it probably is. That politics has turned into entertainment is not news, but by confining his opening sally to evaluating candidates as players on a stage, he avoids open commentary on persons or programs, and enhances his air of impartiality.
Underpinning Fountain’s account is a long, slightly Howard-Zinn-flavored view of American history. By him, alongside the ideals of the Declaration of Independence has always been this semi-secret formula: “profit proportionate to freedom, plunder correlative to subjugation.” The latter was first expressed by slavery, more recently by the herding of an ever-increasing percentage of Americans into a permanent underclass. Fountain sees two seismic changes in our society, Emancipation and the New Deal. He points out how closely the crisis of 2008 resembles the one in 1929. Germany picked Hitler; we picked FDR. In this third crisis, we made the opposite choice.
Fountain doesn’t blame Trump for being a demagogue and a transparent fraud, however. We have him because a lot of us wanted somebody like that: “What is it about the American character that allows the long con of our politics to go on and on, electing crooks, racists, bullies, hate-mongering preachers, corporate bagmen and bald-faced liars?’’
For many, a vote for Trump was a wrench thrown in the gears of a rigged system. Fountain’s take on the political machine’s evolution is blistering. Lyndon Johnson, in supporting civil rights legislation, knew he risked surrendering the South to Republicans “for a long time to come.” Richard Nixon was the first to win the region with a technique that made racism “suitable for prime time.” In 1980 Reagan preached states’ rights not far from the dam where the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers had been found 20 years before — it was, according to Fountain, “a dog whistle that blew out the eardrums of every racist reactionary within three thousand miles.”
In 2016 Trump “threw away the dog whistle” and “rode the rage” to victory “by coupling easy-to-digest populist rhetoric — the system is rigged! — with bare-knuckle racism, the most reliable play in the American power-grab book.” Throughout, Fountain is especially good at teasing out the strand of racism that runs with next to no interruption from slavery to the impunity of police killings of black citizens in the present day.
To counter Reaganism, which was on its way to dismantling the social protections of the New Deal, a squad of youngish Democrats (the Clintons prominently among them) embraced “the faith-based free-market orthodoxy of the ‘Chicago school’ of economics,” producing iterations of neoliberalism like the “New Covenant” and “third way,” blending social justice with unfettered corporate capitalism. Bill Clinton’s presidency juiced the economy — at the long-term cost of “income inequality, stagnant wages, wholesale offshoring of American jobs, and massive concentrations of wealth — and the outsized political influence that comes with it . . . in addition to a fiercely disillusioned and pissed-off electorate.” Fountain’s take on Hillary’s gilded romance with investment banks (“her relentless hoovering of every dollar in sight” ) is as scalding as anything he says about Trump.
The unregulated tendency of free-market systems is to drain the pockets of the middle class and concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. Today’s Democrats are fully complicit, though they make “things worse a little more slowly than Republicans.”
Fountain takes a long view of the result: “By virtually every measure relative to other rich nations, the US has lost ground since the 1970s. We’re shorter (height is a prime indicator of social conditions), we don’t live as long, more of our babies die before their first birthdays, wages and educational achievement have stagnated, and inequalities of wealth and opportunity are higher than at any time since the late nineteenth century.”
What Fountain finds necessary to solve the current crisis is a 21st century version of the FDR who “reinvented the American social contract . . . by working within the bounds of a constitutional democracy.” There’s not much sign of such a man, or such a movement, on our darkening horizon. Instead we have a drift toward a permanent oligarchy and (worst case!) the most violent and repressive forms of fascism. “Down at peon level, the pursuit of happiness comes across as a bad joke. ‘It’s called the American dream,’ George Carlin once cracked, ‘because you have to be asleep to believe it.’ ”
By Ben Fountain.
Ecco, 448 pp. $27.89Madison Smartt Bell’s most recent novel is “Behind the Moon.’’