George Packer’s incisive, deftly argued book about the moral and political quandary of the United States begins and ends with his declaration: “I am an American.” The statement is self-evident but also self-congratulatory: Americans regard their citizenship as a spiritual credential, a gesture of faith in the country that has always claimed to be the last, best hope of beleaguered mankind. Packer’s native land, however, no longer deserves to be quite so certain of its exceptional virtue or its automatic pre-eminence. Early in the pandemic it had to accept charitable handouts from Russia and Taiwan, and Packer sadly accepts a new, reduced reality by calling America “a beggar nation” and even “a failed state”. After this he twists his title from a boast into an abject plea: “No one is going to save us. We are our last best hope.”
The need for salvation became urgent before the election last November when Packer, having moved his family from Brooklyn to a Covid-free rural retreat, noticed a sign beside the road on a neighbouring farm. His car headlights flashed across a red rectangle branded with five white capital letters. Even here, Packer realised with a shudder, he was not safe. He doesn’t need to say what the letters spelled out: they were as succinctly satanic as the number 666 – the mark of the beast in the Book of Revelation – which made Nancy Reagan alter the street address of a house where she and the retiring president were due to live in Los Angeles.
Superstitiously refusing to name Trump when he reads the campaign sign, Packer eventually recognises his “reptilian genius” – a talent for sniffing out and then stoking up the grudges of voters in the “terra incognita” that lies between America’s shining seas. A self-accusing shock follows. As the election draws near, Packer sees shop owners fortifying their premises. “Millions of people were arming up,” says this impeccably liberal urban man. He then adds: “I wondered if I should do the same.” Of course he decides not to, but the damage is done: his panicked reaction testifies to the collapse of the trust in others that sustains democracy. The problem, Packer acknowledges, is “not who Trump was, but who we are”. The first verb in that sentence is happily in the past tense, but the second remains in the troubled present: the populace empowered the vicious populist in the first place, and may yet allow him to revive his lawless, larcenous, nepotistic sideshow.
Packer – who as well as contributing to the New Yorker and the Atlantic has edited collections of George Orwell’s essays – goes on to attempt something close to the ideological fables in Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four. He dramatises a “cold civil war” between four incompatible versions of the US: the Free America of libertarian Reagan, the Smart America of Clinton-era technocrats, the Real America of Trump the bottom-feeding demagogue, and the Just America of #MeToo and BLM. Each has its own narrative, abhors the others as existential enemies, and regards compromise as betrayal.
“I don’t much want to live in the republic of any of them,” Packer concludes. He smirks about customers at Walgreen drugstores and members of Rotary clubs in the heartland, snidely notes Sarah Palin’s post-political career as an “autographed merchandise saleswoman”, and even derides the “sagging bellies” of the marauders who invaded the Capitol on 6 January, as if their obesity was the worst thing about them. But all these alien groups have to be included in democracy’s gathering of “We the people”: Packer’s sniffy attitude is a symptom of the problem he defines. An “epistemic rupture”, he says, has made Americans “profoundly unreal to one another”; lacking a shared reality, they have burrowed into partisan encampments or sealed themselves in digital ghettoes, echo chambers of angry prejudice.
The relevance of this depressing analysis extends across the ocean. Disaffected American activists in red and blue states fantasise about secession; here a fraying union is much more likely to fall apart. Packer believes that his country’s dualistic political parties have in effect changed places, with the Democrats now “the home of affluent professionals, while the Republicans… sound like populist insurgents”. Hasn’t the same switchover happened with Labour and the Tories? Packer calls Trump “an all-American flimflam man”; Boris Johnson is our homegrown equivalent, the embodiment of all that is bogus, smug and sloppily amateurish in this country – though at least Trump transmitted a sulphurous “dark energy”, whereas Johnson mainly gives vent to verbal flatulence. Trump, Packer says in passing, “levelled everyone down together”: that exposes Boris’s blather about “levelling up” as an empty, opportunistic play on words. Commenting on an American meritocracy whose sole merit is its luck on the stock market, Packer predicts: “As with any hereditary ruling class, political power will fall into the hands of increasingly inferior people.” To prove his point locally, I nominate slick Sunak, shifty Hancock, Patel the bully and Williamson the schoolroom dunce.
Packer is still able to cheer himself up at the end by reiterating: “I am an American and there’s no escape.” After our own disastrous epistemic episode, what can we say? We’re no longer Europeans, and only foreigners call us Brits, which they generally do while rolling their eyes in exasperation. Belonging by birth to none of the UK’s four tribes, I sometimes feel like a stateless refugee holed up in the republic of my house. Although America suffered through what Packer calls “a near-death experience” with Trump, it has had many such crises and has recovered from them all: a nation founded on a messianic idea can always redeem itself by reaffirming first principles, as Joe Biden seems determined to do. The UK lacks an originating myth or mission, and thus has no sense of purpose, no means of renewal, and nothing to look forward to but pitiful decline. Despite imperial puffery, we may never have been the best, but we used to be better than this. Now we seem doomed to be last, and there’s no hope anywhere.