“We dodged a mortar shell”: George Packer on America in Crisis | Books


When the pandemic struck, George Packer moved his family out of town and upstate to the countryside.

The move forced one of America’s most famous and decorated non-fiction writers, famous for his reporting, to stand still for once – and contemplate what was happening in his country.

The result is an extensive essay, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, a meditation on the crippling division of the nation into irreconcilable political tribes, to which Packer added some thoughts on emerging from the quagmire.

“I felt immobilized as a reporter,” Packer said. “It seemed like an essay was the right thing to do – just drop a bunch of awakening thoughts when you sit in one place for a long time, looking intently at yourself and your country. So it was a Covid book for sure, making the most of a bad situation. “

In some ways, this is a long epilogue from an earlier book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, for which Packer won the National Book Award in 2013. It was a deeply reported tale from the shredding the social fabric. Last Best Hope is a balance sheet two presidential terms later, after the rise and fall of Donald Trump, whom the author sees as the inevitable symptom of national fraying.

Instead of getting in his car and driving across the country, Packer ordered a small stack of tests that did what he was trying to achieve, a diagnosis of a nation in crisis. One was a brochure by Walt Whitman titled Democratic Vistas, “An Exciting and Wonderful Book”; another was Drift and Mastery: An Tentative to Diagnose the Current Unrest, by journalist Walter Lippmann in 1914.

George Packer. Photography: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Packer has also looked abroad, re-reading George Orwell’s essay on Wartime Britain, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, as well as Strange Defeat, a reflection by the French historian. Marc Bloch on the chronic failures which gave Hitler his easy conquest in 1940., published after the execution of its author by the Nazis. Packer sees a parallel between France’s shock of being routed with America’s humiliation at Covid-19.

Next to these shorter works in Packer’s rural retreat was Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, an observation of the country and what made it different, written by a French observer a little over half a century ago. after its foundation. Packer describes it as “a masterpiece of sociology, observation and political analysis”.

He finished writing Last Best Hope at a time when the democracy Tocqueville described had barely survived a direct assault, the Jan.6 insurgency on Capitol Hill aimed at overturning the election result.

“I think we dodged more than a bullet – a mortar shell,” Packer said, noting that while Republican election officials in Georgia and Republican-appointed judges across the country had made the call for offers from their president and their party, and annulled the election, the battle was said to have spilled over into the streets in blood. And if Trump hadn’t been so incredibly incompetent in handling the pandemic, Packer believes he would have won easily.

“I saw the foreshadowing of something I never expected to see, that I never imagined, which is the end of our democracy,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot of bad political times, but it never seemed to be on the horizon.”

On closer inspection, American democracy might not have dodged the bullet or the mortar shell, after all. He may have been seriously injured.

Packer says he sees the courts, state electoral machinery, and all the institutions that pretty much held up in 2020, as “a patient who gets up after a very long illness and just has the strength to cross the room “. The analogy raises the question of whether the patient will have the will and the vitality to do the same in 2022 or 2024.

“The Republicans are administering poison to the bedridden patient right now,” Packer said. “They sneak into the room and inject toxins in the form of voter suppression laws, conspiracy theories and lies. So yes, it is a real question whether a democracy can survive if nearly half of the country has adopted an undemocratic worldview. That’s kind of the question we’re facing right now.

Real America, just America … and more

One of the side effects of Packer’s departure from the Covid-led city was that it brought him closer to people who saw the nation through a very different lens. He describes the night he first saw Trump lawn signs in the backyard of polite and friendly neighbors.

“Five white letters spanned a panel,” he wrote. “The garish shade of this red instantly told me what the five letters were saying.”

His visceral reaction to Trumpists led to soul-searching into the roots of these emotions and what they implied nationally.

“My attitude had something to do with my luck,” he wrote. “My savings were doing pretty well. I was comfortable and scared, and that frightening security shut down my imaginative sympathy. No wonder they resented me as much as I despised them.

One of the central propositions of Last Best Hope is that the American political firmament has shattered into four rival narratives, crossing the old red-blue divide. There is America free from conservatives with a small government, who place the freedom of the individual above all else; the intelligent America of an arrogant and comfortable intellectual elite; the real America of white Christian nationalism, the driving force behind populism; and there’s Just America, built more and more around identity politics and critical theory.

A woman holds up a sign at a pro-Trump rally in the Iowa capital on November 7 last year.
A woman holds up a sign at a pro-Trump rally in the Iowa capital on November 7 last year. Photograph: Jack Kurtz / ZUMA Wire / REX / Shutterstock

His contempt for the latter, which he sees both as elitist and a rejection of Enlightenment ideals, is the main point of contention in his leftist book.

“Just America embraces an ideology of rigid identity groups that holds the professional class in its upper place, divides workers and has little to do with the reality of an increasingly multiracial and mixed society,” Packer writes.

His description of the Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City in the summer of 2020 as “disproportionate white millennials with senior degrees earning over $ 100,000 a year” was cringe, to say the least.

Critics accuse Packer of underestimating the fury of black Americans at having to live in constant fear of deadly police brutality, and their agency in driving the BLM movement and the Biden campaign, helping it succeed. where Hillary Clinton failed. Packer argues that this presents a distorted view of the foundations of Biden’s victory.

“I take issue with the idea that – let’s call it – the ‘identity left’ drove Biden across the line,” he said. “I think a coalition of groups has overtaken Biden, including commuters, including Never-Trump Republicans, including working class, black and Latino voters who voted for Biden in the primaries, who have him earned the nomination, when they could have gone for someone more closely identified with the left.

He sees Biden as occupying a space outside of his Four Americas grid, a throwback to the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, and powerful and respected unions. The packer approves.

“It really makes sense for the workers and for the job. And I think he understands that you are not advancing the cause of equality by talking to Americans as if they are members of monolithic identity groups that are somehow in perpetual conflict with each other. others.

To the extent that Packer has a cure for America’s ills, it lies in the reaffirmation of that trait identified by De Tocqueville in the 1830s: a commitment to equality. And this, he argues, can only be achieved through the unification of the working class.

It all sounds a bit anti-American. For decades, the overwhelming majority of the population identified with the middle class, the class that nearly all aspiring politicians still appeal to. But this ambitious self-image has been shattered over the decades by the greed of the global economy and the elites that benefit from it.

Protesters gather in front of Manhattan City Hall.
Protesters gather in front of Manhattan City Hall. Photograph: Ron Adar / SOPA Images / REX / Shutterstock

“They don’t have the dignity that society once bestowed on them,” Packer said. “They fight, drown, receive abysmal wages, without a union to represent them. And now they’re completely gone because we have one-click shopping. So the working class is something we never have to think about because we don’t see them. “

The pandemic has, however, brought the working class back into the limelight, albeit temporarily. “Knowledge workers” and opinion-forming elites stranded at home suddenly depended on essential workers who powered virtually the entire economy with services and deliveries.

Perhaps, Packer says, this moment of renewed appreciation can be harnessed under Biden in a real improvement in the standard of living of this virtually invisible majority, of the four Americas.

“Chimerical dreams, distant plans, eccentric ideas”

Some of the prescriptions at the end of the book, to restore equality and the “art of self-government,” seem somewhat fanciful, like calling on Americans to turn off Twitter and Facebook and do one year of national service, so the followers of the four stories should spend time in the company of one another.

“The last few pages are full of chimeras, long shots, wacky ideas,” Packer admitted bluntly. “I’m not a political agent, so I don’t think it’s my job to figure out how to get it through Congress. But I felt the need to set a direction – this is the way we need to go.

The key word in the title of the book is “hope” and it is reminiscent of a much older book on the American condition of the working class bard, Studs Terkel. Terkel’s book was Hope Dies Last. For Packer, this is as much a necessity as it is a conviction.

“First of all, I have children, and it’s almost psychologically impossible not to keep hope,” he said.

He believes the Biden administration has a window where it can indirectly tackle some national divisions, demonstrating the power of government to change people’s lives for the better.

“It won’t happen with a speech or with an open hand or with a plea, because the divisions are so deep and corrosive. It almost has to happen unconsciously, ”Packer concluded. “I think we’re actually going to go in that direction, very slowly, with a lot of dangerous obstacles ahead.”


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