Thursday, January 13, 2022

Wildland: the Making of America's Fury (The Book)


Journalist Evan Osnos writes for The New Yorker and is a fellow at Brookings. Before that, however, he spent a decade reporting first from the Middle East and then from China. (His first book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith, in the New China won the National Book award in 2014). In 2013, he and his wife returned from China, and he set out to investigate how America had changed in the 21st century. There are many books - many good books - about the Trump era, but Osnos' analysis stands out precisely for his highly personal approach, which focuses primarily on people in three particular locations - wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, where Osnos grew up, Clarksburg, West Virginia, a small but once thriving Appalachian industrial town where he worked his first newspaper job, and Chicago, Illinois, where he became a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune

Wildland: The Making of America's Fury (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) presents Trump's presidency less as the primary cause of our deep national divide but rather as the fruit of developing divisions into separate and significantly unequal components. In many ways the beating heart of his account is the stories of characters encountered along the way who personify what has happened to America in this century. There are parallels in the experiences of the characters, all of whom in varying ways embody some element of isolation from the larger society, but also radical difference due to our increasing economic inequality and America's perennial problem of racial disparities.

On a macro-level, this is an account (another account) of how wealthy Americans have used the system to advance themselves at the expense of society, and of the failures and complicities of our supposedly democratic political system - the same system that empowered Republican senators representing a mere 14.5% of the country's population to acquit the impeached President Trump. With an acute appreciation of immediate relevance (aided by his familiarity with West Virginia), he highlights the problem posed by someone like Senator Joe Manchin, who famously shot at climate-change legislation in a campaign ad when he ran for the Senate in 2010. "For decades, politicians had been photographed with guns, but this was the first time anyone had assassinated a piece of proposed legislation on film."

Literarily, the book is a treasury of memorable phrases describing an America "losing a habit of mind, a capacity to envision a common good." Trump's fans are "a confederacy of the frustrated - less a constituency than a loose alliance of citizens who were breaking faith with the institutions of American politics and economics." Trump's "ideas were riven by contradiction ... yet that was a reflection of voters' often incoherent sets of convictions." Trump "mastered the national iconography of politics and divorced it from the actual conditions on the ground." Trump's rise was less "a hostile takeover," than "a joint venture, in which members of America's elite accepted the terms of Trumpism as the price of power." Trump "exposed the personal ambition that drove so many in Washington." Then came the pandemic "revealing the full scope of America's institutional disrepair - the cruelties of the economy, the disparities of systemic racism, the skittering, malleable minds of a public trained to doubt the 'body of fact'." The country's failure to confront the pandemic was "a malfunction of elite imagination." Meanwhile "a mutant definition of freedom fueled a resistance to social distancing." The mob on January 6 "was a maskless congregation of the rebellious, the devout, the bored, and the bitter." Trump's departure on January 20 was "like his presidency, a hasty, fractious improvisation."   Some of "America's most powerful people" shared "a blindness to the ways in which we had supercharged our capacity to do harm."

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