As we emerge from our COVID cocoons, after all the endless hours spent doom scrolling and anguishing, despite having a new administration, it sometimes feels like not much has really changed. We’re still fiercely divided, as we have been since the 21st century began. Even out of office, Donald Trump stokes the xenophobic right’s passionate intensity while the left lacks all conviction over how to use their meager legislative edge. Maybe we’ve all fallen in love with the drama, gleefully living out our vicarious political grudges within the anonymity of cyberspace. It’s high time to take some sober stock of the state of the nation.
George Packer is a journalist as well as a fiction writer, and these two disciplines inform how he interprets America. Instead of just crunching numbers or mounting a soapbox, Packer analyzes the country’s disparate narratives and forensically inspects their roots and contradictions. His most recent nonfiction, Last Best Hope, was inspired by the extended political essays of Orwell and Whitman with a subtitle that aims to address “America in crisis and renewal.” Packer attempts to outline the different contours of American political life, which he calls “the four Americas.”
First, there’s what he calls “Free America,” which relentlessly pushes for every form of deregulation, valorizes the free market, and enjoys massive tax cuts benefiting corporations. Free America’s hero is the avuncular Ronald Reagan, who regularly let Wall Street greedheads and corporate raiders get away with financial larceny while genially explaining that the scariest words in the world were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Reagan’s administration didn’t care very much about overbearing government when it suited their various unconstitutional agendas, but that’s another story.
Free America has developed an unlikely political ally in “Real America,” which is depicted in a million soft-focus political ads touting the simple joys of rural and small-town American life, with its fetishizing of piety, hard work, common sense, and family values. Packer,…