In 2021, almost nothing is harder to write than a fresh take on the multiple crises confronting post-Trump America. But with this sharp, short new book, that is exactly what George Packer has given us, confirming his place as one of our most valuable journalists.
Like his hero (and mine) George Orwell, Packer never holds back with a harsh diagnosis – or his insistence that his own side should live up to their own principles. Here is his first snapshot of modern America:
Look outside. Our bridges are buckling, another factory has closed up, badly ventilated schools are failing to educate another generation of children, hospital beds are overflowing again, local shops are posting out-of-business signs while Amazon delivery trucks fill the streets, our thought leaders sound like carnival barkers, our citizenry seems to be suffering through early-stage National Cognitive Decline, and the common skeleton is unknitting and likely to fall apart in a heap of bones for future archaeologists to study with furrowed expressions of puzzled sadness.
The engine that powers this behemoth is cutting out, but the vessel keeps moving ahead on the momentum of its own mass and speed.”
Packer is particularly good on the disastrous effects of the politicization of Covid: “Nothing Trump did was more destructive than turning the pandemic into a central front of the partisan war.”
By turning mask-wearing into a political act, Trump probably caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. His supporters had “their own facts as well as their own principles, which came down to their constitutional right to risk getting people killed … Technological prowess and individual sacrifice were no match for national incoherence”.
Trump, he says, was “a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, and an authoritarian”. But Packer also understands the mysterious appeal of the New York charlatan to millions of rural Americans: “He articulated the essence of his people’s condition, which was resentment. Its taste was in his mouth, too … he had a reptilian genius for intuiting” their emotions.
Packer only needs a single sentence to eviscerate the coalition of “business interests and downscale whites” which has made up the Republican party since Ronald Reagan became president: “By 2010 it was like a figure in a hall of mirrors whose head and body have been severed but continue to move as if they’re still attached.”
Journalists pour large amounts of unpaid time and effort into sucking up, piling on, and showing off on social media
But he never ignores the other causes of our national meltdown, from “endless vituperation” in the media to a national “mood of cynical exhaustion, with no vision of shared identity or future”.
Deep and persistent economic inequality is Packer’s number one culprit for our current circumstance. But he is clear about the lubricant which has done more than anything else to dissolve our republic: an internet which “gives everyone all the reality of their own that they could want”.
Once politics “becomes an identity clash or tribal war, a death spiral can set in that’s very hard to escape”. This has produced an “epistemic rupture” more powerful than “personal experience” or “monetary interest.” Democracy “depends on what happens inside our skulls … the destruction of a shared reality does more damage than economic decline or impeachable acts”.
He is also appropriately harsh about the way the internet has changed the way too many reporters do their jobs:
Journalists pour large amounts of unpaid time and effort into sucking up, piling on, and showing off on social media in the endless pursuit of followers and likes. The psychological difference between certain blue-check Twitter accounts and the invaders livestreaming selfies as they strolled through the Capitol rotunda is smaller than it seems. The masters of technology make anxious narcissists of us all.
To counter all of this gloom Packer reminds us of the essential political fact of our time: although 74 million Americans voted to re-elect Trump, there were “81 million who voted him out … I want to keep in mind … the poll workers, election officials , secretaries of state, judges and reporters who exhibited civic virtue by simply doing their jobs.” Democracy survived – “by the skin of its teeth”.
Packer offers more hope by using the last part of the book to remind us of the power of extraordinary individuals to bring about positive change.
He gives us brief portraits of Horace Greeley, the abolitionist editor of the New York Herald; Frances Perkins, the extraordinary social warrior who was Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and the author of about half of the New Deal, including social security; A Philip Randolph, who pressured FDR into issuing an executive order banning discrimination in the federal government (though he failed to get the armed forces integrated during the second world war); and his young lieutenant, Bayard Rustin, the great gay civil rights leader who was the mastermind behind Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963.
We will need a dozen new leaders of their caliber to accomplish Packer’s other goals – a reinvigorated anti-trust policy to break up the tech giants, a revival of American unions and a new generation of journalists more like their muckraking predecessors in the 20th century.
Packer believes “hostility to free expression has taken root” in too many young journalists today.
“Lacking the power to censor, some use the power to shame, intimidate, and ostracize, even turning it on their colleagues. But in essence they are asking for their own destruction.”
That is the kind of insistence that his own side live up to their own principles which makes Packer’s courage the closest we have to Orwell’s.
Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal is published in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux