Sunday, August 1

George Packer’s Last Best Hope Review: Crafty Analysis of America’s Breakups | Politics books


GRAMGeorge Packer’s incisive and cleverly argued book on America’s moral and political dilemma begins and ends with his statement: “I am an American.” The statement is self-evident but also self-indulgent: Americans regard their citizenship as a spiritual credential, a gesture of faith in the country that has always claimed to be the last and best hope of besieged humanity. Packer’s homeland, however, no longer deserves to be so sure of its exceptional virtue or automatic preeminence. Early in the pandemic he had to accept charitable donations from Russia and Taiwan, and Packer sadly accepts a new and reduced reality by calling the United States “a beggar nation” and even “a failed state.” After this, he changes his title from a boast to an abject plea: “No one is going to save us. We are our last and best hope. “

The need for salvation became urgent before last November’s election, when Packer, who had moved his family from Brooklyn to a Covid-free rural retreat, noticed a sign by the roadside on a neighboring farm. His car’s headlights flashed through a red rectangle marked with five white capital letters. Even there, Packer realized with a shudder, he was not safe. You don’t need to say what the letters spelled – they were as succinctly satanic as the number 666, the mark of the beast in the Book of Revelation, which caused Nancy Reagan to change the street address of a house where she and the retiree were. The president was to live in Los Angeles.

By superstitiously refusing to name Trump when he reads the campaign sign, Packer finally acknowledges his “reptilian genius,” a talent for sniffing and then fanning voter grudges on the “terra incognita” that lies between the shining seas of USA. A commotion of self-accusation follows. As the elections approach, Packer sees the store owners strengthening their facilities. “Millions of people were arming themselves,” says this impeccably liberal urban man. Then he adds: “I was wondering if I should do the same.” Of course he chooses not to, but the damage has been done: his panic reaction testifies to the collapse of the trust in others that democracy sustains. 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 turbulent present – the populist empowered the vicious populist in the first place, and may still allow him to relive his lawless, thief, and nepotist sideshow.

Packer, who in addition to contributing to the New Yorker and the Atlantic edited collections of George Orwell essays – he continues to attempt something akin to ideological fables in Farm or 1984. It dramatizes a “cold civil war” between four incompatible versions of the United States: the free America of the libertarian Reagan, the smart America of the Clinton-era technocrats, the real America of Trump, the bottom-feeding demagogue, and the America fair of #MeToo. and BLM. Each has their own narrative, loathes others as existential enemies, and views engagement as betrayal.

“I don’t really want to live in the republic of either of them,” Packer concludes. He laughs at customers of Walgreen Pharmacies and members of Rotary clubs in the heart of the country, sarcastically observes Sarah Palin’s post-political career as an “autographed merchandise salesman” and even pokes fun at “saggy bellies.” of the marauders who invaded the Capitol on January 6. , as if their obesity was the worst of them. But all these alien groups have to be included in the democratic gathering of “We the People”: Packer’s sarcastic attitude is a symptom of the problem he defines. An “epistemic break,” he says, has made Americans “deeply unreal to one another”; Lacking a shared reality, they have taken refuge in partisan camps or sealed themselves in digital ghettos, echo chambers of angry prejudices.

The relevance of this depressing analysis extends across the ocean. Disgruntled American activists in the Red and Blue states fantasize about secession; here a frayed joint is much more likely to crumble. Packer believes his country’s dualist political parties have switched places, with Democrats now “home to wealthy professionals, while Republicans … sound like populist insurgents.” Hasn’t the same change happened with Labor and the Conservatives? Packer calls Trump “an all-American flimflam man”; Boris Johnson is our homegrown equivalent, the embodiment of all that is fake, smug, and amateurish careless in this country, though at least Trump conveyed a sulphurous “dark energy,” while Johnson primarily indulges in verbal flatulence. . Trump, Packer says in passing, “leveled everyone together” – that exposes Boris’s talk of “leveling up” as an empty and opportunistic pun. Commenting on an American meritocracy whose only merit is its luck in 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 sneaky Sunak, sneaky Hancock, Patel the bully, and Williamson the classroom idiot.

Packer can still cheer up at the end by reiterating, “I’m an American and there is no escape.” After our own disastrous epistemic episode, what can we say? We are no longer Europeans, and only foreigners call us British, which they usually do while rolling their eyes in exasperation. By not belonging to any of the four UK tribes by birth, I sometimes feel like a stateless refugee hiding in my home republic. Although the United States suffered what Packer calls “a near death experience” with Trump, it has had many of those crises and has recovered from all: a nation founded on a messianic idea can always redeem itself by reaffirming first principles, as Joe seems. Biden. determined to do. The UK lacks a myth or mission behind it and therefore has no sense of purpose, no means of renewal and nothing to look forward to other than an unfortunate decline. Despite the imperial swagger, we may never have been the best, but we used to be better than this. Now it seems that we are doomed to be last and there is no hope anywhere.

Last best hope: America in crisis and renewal by George Packer is published by Cape (£ 14.99). To support the guardian Y Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply


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