Ben Fountain’s new book of essays chronicles the ascent of Trumpism with a keen eye for the past, present and future.
The rise of Donald J. Trump repeatedly confounded political scholars, reporters, pundits and campaign operatives alike. Time after time, those who closely follow politics failed to see what was right before their eyes: a guttural cry from the heart of white America. Election Day, inevitably, has been followed by a ceaseless churn of new books on the greatest electoral upset in American history, as writers and publishers look to cash in, cover their asses, issue a mea culpa or all of the above. But until now, an election that always seemed to border on fiction has hardly gotten the novelist’s touch it deserves.
After 18 years struggling for his break as a writer, longtime Dallasite Ben Fountain was sent on a meteoric rise at the age of 48 in 2006 when he penned the story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. That debut won him awards, a glowing New Yorker profile and the burdensome label of literary genius. He won the National Book Critics Circle Award six years later with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a piercing critique of the Iraq War centered on a small-town Texas veteran. While fictional, both works are soaked with social and political commentary.
Fountain’s new book delves into a subject more bizarre, extraordinary and instructive about American society than perhaps any plot a fiction writer could dream up. Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution is an expansive series of essays that, while anchored in Fountain’s campaign trail reportage for the Guardian, expertly stitches the day-to-day twists and turns of the 2016 election into the historical fabric of this country.
Fountain begins in January 2016 during the presidential caucuses in Iowa, where he provides a novelist’s treatment of campaign rallies for Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. He muses on the geological history of the state, its uniquely shitty smell and the German architecture of the event hall where Clinton hosts a rally.
Eager to give new life to his overwrought characters, he keys in on Clinton’s persona onstage: “With the years has come a kind of dreadnought presence, queen of the fleet, thick armor plating and heavy guns.” He mercilessly skewers Ted Cruz’s voice (“You’d think he gargles twice a day a cocktail of high-fructose corn syrup and holy-roller snake oil”), his looks (“schlumpy fleshiness”; “the little knob of his chin dangling like a boiled quail egg”; “the skin of an avid indoorsman”) and his competitive piety. He riffs on Trump as a blend of J.R. Ewing, the conniving businessman from the TV series Dallas, and the HBO mafioso Tony Soprano, and homes in on his ability to speak directly to the aggrieved id of white people yearning to break free from the yoke of political correctness. And he is fascinated by the revolutionary youth who flocked to the frumpy old democratic socialist senator from Vermont.
Where the book shines is in Fountain’s evocative prose and commentary; he is not only a sharp writer but an astute observer of the human condition. And, it turns out, he’s got a sharp mind for politics and history, too. He writes from a level that soars above the typical horse-race coverage, zooming in close and rising up to higher altitudes as he chooses. This nimbleness prevents his observations and analysis of now well-worn events — two years after the election — from feeling tired.
Fountain takes us into the manic 2016 summer months with essays from the National Rifle Association convention in Kentucky and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He expounds on Lincolnian Republicanism and American exceptionalism, and on his time as a young associate at a Manhattan law firm, where he first encountered the Trump brand. Ingeniously scattered throughout the book are 12 “Book of Days” chapters in which, for every month of the year, Fountain chronicles several pages’ worth of political, domestic and international news. This reminds the reader of the daily pot — police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests, ISIS attacks, Colin Kaepernick first taking a knee — in which the stew of Trumpism was stirred, seasoned and perfected. Refreshing the reader on the contemporaneous environment, which seems now like a distant and feverish haze, is a useful service.
Fountain’s thesis is clear throughout: The election was the result of an unchecked, corrupt political system that has aided and abetted decades of regressive economic policy and racial revanchism. In order to continue on as a “plausibly genuine constitutional democracy,” Fountain writes, the United States must reinvent itself on a scale that it has achieved only twice since its founding. The first time was the abolition of slavery, and the second was the passage of the New Deal. Both were dramatic, albeit deeply imperfect, redistributions of freedom and wealth.
Fountain contends that today’s widening gaps in wealth, opportunity and power require equally drastic measures. “The beautiful country was burning: literally in the first instance, thankfully less so in the second,” he writes. “One wonders what manner of burning awaits us in the time of Trump.”
The challenge of blending campaign coverage with an ambitious political thesis sometimes makes for muddled and meandering reading from essay to essay. Fountain’s assessment of American society and politics isn’t uniquely provocative; he’s covering well-trodden ground. But the book is a captivating read — often humorous, infuriating and depressing all at the same time. He pulls no punches in his critique of the modern Democratic Party, laying the ascendance of Trumpism in part at the feet of a party and a candidate captured by big business (though he fails to fully acknowledge the large role that outright misogyny played in Trump’s victory). And he ably traces the evolution of the Republican Party into a vehicle for plutocracy, with a veneer of race-baiting, small-government hucksterism. All of which culminates in its seemingly inevitable conclusion: Trump.
“This wasn’t Democrats versus Republicans so much as the sad, psychotic, and vengeful in the national life producing a strange mutation, a creature comprised of degenerate political logic,” Fountain writes.
If you’re ready to revisit 2016 and want to avoid the tired tell-alls, Beautiful Country Burn Again capably takes you through those 12 hellish months, with style and wit to boot.