There may be no writer alive today who better captures the manic, fevered, paranoid style in 21st-century America than Ben Fountain. His award-winning novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about an ambivalent Iraq War grunt whose platoon will soon be celebrated at the Thanksgiving halftime performance of a Dallas Cowboys game, both captured and skewered the ballpark patriotism of a country whose citizens pay little mind to the endless wars fought in their name halfway around the world, and to the young men and women who fight them.
Fountain’s new book, Beautiful Country Burn Again (out today), is every bit as powerful. This time, however, he approaches his subject as a journalist and a citizen chronicling one of the most surreal chapters in American history: the 2016 presidential race. “2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest,” he writes. “Screens, memes, fake news, Twitter storms, Russian hackers, pussy grabbers, Hillary’s emails, war, the wall, the wolf call of the alt-right, ‘hand’ size, lies upon lies upon lies and moneymoneymoney — the more money, the more lies, is this politics’ iron rule? — they all combined for a billion-dollar stink of an election.”
In Fountain’s hands, the story of what happened in 2016 reads anew, fresh, alive, told with a historian’s rigor and a satirist’s wit. From his evisceration of Ted Cruz on the stump in Iowa to his depiction of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones as a deranged amusement-park gondolier steering a boatful of people high on mushrooms, Fountain writes brilliantly about the spectacle of the last election. At its best, Beautiful Country Burn Again sits alongside Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 and Joan Didion’s coverage of the 1988 presidential campaign as some of the best political writing of the past 50 years.
Rolling Stone spoke with Fountain from his home in Texas about the roots of Donald Trump, trying his hand at journalism, the collapse of the Democratic Party and revolution in America.
Beautiful Country Burn Again is journalism, history, memoir. What was the big question or questions that you were trying to puzzle out with this book?
At the end of the summer of 2015, after Trump had done and said a number of things that would have cratered any conventional candidate, when he came out of the summer stronger than ever, I felt two conflicting things. Number one, we had moved into uncharted waters in American politics, because he was defying all the conventions and not only surviving but thriving. There was also, parallel with that, this sense of it’s all entirely logical. If you allowed a certain vein of American life, a certain strand in the American character to flourish, and be encouraged, and develop, Trump is what you’re gonna get.
Those two things seemed to conflict, and when The Guardian said, “Do you want to write about this election in the coming year 2016?” I said, “Absolutely, yes.” [Portions of the book originally appeared as essays for The Guardian.] Because I wanted to explore both of those things for myself — the notion of, yes, uncharted waters, but also in some respects entirely predictable.
How did you reconcile those two conflicting notions?
Trump did not come out of a vacuum. A lot of things were produced from the obstinate racism in American life, and the constant tendency towards white supremacy. I mean, that’s almost the center of gravity in American life. It is the center of gravity in American life. White supremacy. I think the country naturally rolls toward that center, and so in some ways Trump is entirely predictable. You get a situation where a critical amount of people in the country are financially and psychologically beleaguered, the result of 40 years of neo-liberal policies, and they’re going to default to what seems safe and secure and right for them.
So, there’s that part of it, white supremacy. Trump spoke to very real grievances that are alive in the country. I think the poor, the working class, the middle class in this country, they feel like they’ve gotten the shaft, and they have for the last 40 years, by both parties. And he spoke to that in a very visceral and real way, an authentic way. He’s a great demagogue. He forges these great connections with audiences in his personal appearances.
And it’s not a hidden part of our history. Richard Hofstadter provided great analyses of this strand of American character and American political life in essays like “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt” and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It’s always been there. Hofstadter goes back to the 1820s in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” and he charts this persistent strain of American life, and he takes it up to the 1950s. As of the 1950s it was fringe, with the John Birch Society and organizations like that, but it’s always there.
One thing that I enjoyed so much about the book, as someone who reads and writes about politics every day, was the language you use. So much of political journalism is tired tropes — on one hand and on the other, but to be sure, all that bullshit. You are largely a fiction writer. Why did you pick nonfiction here?
As far as the style of the book, the language of the book, it’s not me trying to write fancy, or write literary. It’s me trying to find the language that will portray as accurately as possible what’s going on.
The American language, it’s a wonderful language. It can be twisted and torqued and stretched to accommodate a lot of weight, and as a writer, why not use it? If I’m having an extreme reaction to something like Ted Cruz, I’m searching for the language that is calibrated to the nature of my reaction. If I think he’s one of the biggest phonies to come along in American politics in several generations. I’m looking for the language that will convey that in as accurate a way as possible.
You devote a long chapter to the Democratic Party and the Clintons. That chapter may be the most brutal of them all, and you end it with a mic-drop moment: “Now a demagogue lives in the White House. The Democratic Party helped put him there. If the party can’t transform itself into an instrument of genuine resistance and renewal, let it die and make way for the necessary new thing.”
I had some sense of the neo-liberal drift of the New Democrats. But I didn’t appreciate how destructive it had been. Destructive in the sense of it hurt a lot of people. It cut loose and ignored a lot of traditional Democratic constituencies that had relied for several generations on the goodwill and the fighting spirit of the Democratic Party.
It hurt a lot of people but also it hurt our politics. A critical mass of people in the United States felt sold out. And they had nowhere to turn. Certainly, the Republican Party wasn’t going to fill the gap for them. And the Democratic Party had become, basically, Republican-like. There are obvious differences between the Republican Party and Democratic Party on social issues. But on economic policy, the Democrats moved closer and closer toward Reaganomics.
Without a place to turn to, people opt out. They get cynical, justifiably so, about politics and they tune out. There’s nothing there for me. My basic circumstances are not going to change for the better regardless of who is there.
It turned out to be a much longer chapter than I thought it would be. The deeper I got into it, I felt like, “Well, this has to be reckoned with. This has to be acknowledged.” I tried to give Hillary credit where it’s due. She’s done a lot of good things. But, on balance, I think she and the New Democrats have done a lot of damage too.
You’ve got these interludes between the chapters. They’re several pages long, a kind of stream of consciousness recitation of newsworthy events, political or not, for every month of 2016. Book of Days, you call them. I feel like modern technology sort of scrambles our brains about how we get information and how we remember things. We remember things happened, but we don’t remember when.
We do forget really quickly. Partly that’s human nature and also it’s very much the nature of the times we’re living in. Last week is ancient history.
Looking at the year , writing about it, how do I convey just how intense and dense with events that year was? Outlandish, outrageous events. And extremely disturbing events, like the police shooting in Dallas. Six police officers shot dead on the street protecting a Black Lives Matter protest. So I thought, well, I’ve got to give it its own space and just try to convey the sheer weirdness and confusion of the year.
By September, October, November, I feel like the Book of Days chapters got longer. The events began to blur together.
There was definitely a sense of things accelerating. And in the moment, there is no breathing room to step back and say, “What does this all mean? And is there a through-line through all this? Is there a larger meaning here?” And just seeing those Book of Days chapters get longer, and seeing all the things that happened, I had to put the book down and think about that for a second. “OK, how am I trying to make sense of this world?” Because it’s just getting more packed with events in those chapters. And yet, I’m not making space for that sort of breathing room, that thinking to make sense of it all.
One of the big themes in Beautiful Country Burn Again is this idea of reinventions, these pivot points you identify in American history. You call the Civil War and emancipation the first reinvention, Roosevelt and the New Deal the second. You raise this question of whether we are nearing — or arrived at — a third reinvention. How did you come to the idea of these reinventions? Are we at one? What could that look like?
I started looking at it in terms of not so much wealth distribution, but in terms of freedom and rights, and how that relates to economics. Who has the freedom, who gets the money, who prospers, and on whose back does that prosperity rest? And it just seemed to me that the more freedom you have, the more prerogative you have vis-a-vis your fellow citizens. The more likely it is that you’re going to prosper, and they’re going to be relegated to some incarnation of servitude, serfdom, slavery, whatever you want to call it, whatever degree it is.
And so emancipation, obviously that was a tremendous shift in the values of the freedom-profits-plunder equation. And the Great Depression and the New Deal resulted in a similar redistribution of freedom. In the last 40 years, in my view, poor people, working class, middle class people have lost freedom with respect to big commercial enterprises, institutions in the United States. You can see it reflected in the wealth inequality. You know, profits proportionate to freedom.
I don’t think it’s a situation that can be sustained long-term, because something’s going to break. Either we’re going to continue as an arguably genuine constitutional democracy or we’re going to become something else, a minimalist democracy where we have the external trappings of democracy, elections, campaigns, blah, blah, blah but nothing really changes.
A third reinvention — does it happen fast? Does it happen slow? Does it require crisis?
My sense of it is that it will take an existential crisis, if a genuine third reinvention that puts us back on track to being a genuine constitutional democracy is to happen, I think it’s going to take an existential crisis. And I thought 2008-2009 was going to be it because it looked like the wheels really were coming off. But Obama was capable enough that he shored up the situation and saved it. But nothing fundamentally really changed coming out of that.
I don’t think these things happen without an existential crisis. Look at the Great Depression. It started in October of 1929, and Roosevelt was elected in 1932. He starts his New Deal agenda in March of 1933. It looks like a blip in history, three and a half years, but living through it must have felt like an eternity. A tremendous crisis where people’s lives were fundamentally changed, and then some sort of movement or candidate emerges that’s transformative and that offers people what they’re looking for and what they need.
Reading about the New Deal, it’s interesting how many historians look at it and say, “This was the rare example of peaceful revolution.” By and large, it was a bloodless revolution. And so that gives me hope that it doesn’t have to be this physically violent upheaval. That maybe American institutions are robust enough and elastic enough that this kind of change can happen peacefully. It’s going to be hard.