In Beautiful Country Burn Again (Ecco, Sept.; reviewed on p. 79), novelist Ben Fountain reports on the fierce 2016 presidential campaign and its roots in America’s political history.
In Iowa you went to Clinton rallies, Cruz rallies, Sanders rallies, and Trump rallies. Did you get swept up in them?
Oh, yeah! These are exciting situations, and I could definitely feel myself getting caught up in the headiness of it. You feel like you’re in the middle of things, and there’s no other place to be. I would sit down at my desk and feel this compulsion, like, “I need to get back out there!” The Bernie rally was full of students on a Saturday night, so it was a hell of a party. They had great music and lighting, like a concert, with the fluorescent things and the beach ball bouncing around. Bernie’s a politician, and he knows how to ride that energy. He gave a serious speech about the state of things, bringing everybody down to a sustainable level without killing the energy. Sometimes that hall was dead quiet: he was talking to them in a very real way, and they were listening.
The book includes essays about politics in the past. Is Trump a departure from tradition?
On the one hand, I felt like he was a new phenomenon in modern politics. When Trump said things that would have destroyed any conventional politician, he seemed stronger than ever. I thought then that there was something new afoot in the land, that we were in uncharted territory. On the other hand, Trump was the predictable result of a certain strain of American politics. I write about W. Lee O’Daniel, a Texas governor in the 1930s. Pappy O’Daniel mastered the Twitter of his time: radio. He broadcast his show from a station just across the Mexican border, so he could blast out at a gazillion watts without American regulations. He was a populist mass-media celebrity very much like Trump.
What is Trump’s appeal?
American society built on white supremacy has been challenged the last 40 years. A great many people feel threatened by that. When you combine the economic hardship that the middle and working classes have endured with this sense that “the culture has moved beyond me; I feel alienated from it,” that’s a powerful thing. Trump took that energy and combined it with racist, tribalist appeals, which are also powerful.
Are we too quick to dismiss the political substance behind his victory? Are there legitimate anxieties about immigration, trade, and globalization?
Absolutely. Trump spoke to legitimate grievances. As Franklin Roosevelt recognized, the only power that can compete with corporate capitalism is government, and government has abandoned people and ceded ground to corporate capitalism. But to resolve matters like the loss of jobs overseas or immigration takes thoughtful action and cooperation. I don’t see Trump offering that.