You might think that something called “the great unsettling” involved movement of some kind: the abrupt uprooting of communities and traditions, or the migration of the dispossessed across a continent. But in the opening salvo of the Washington Post’s pompous, turgid, and epically portentous account of Election ’16 and What It all Means (a.k.a. “Looking for America,” parts one through four) the main unsettling action is curiously static. Here is how series authors David Maraniss and Robert Samuels lay it all out:
Each presidential campaign has its own rhythm and meaning, but this one unfolded with dizzying intensity, an exaggeration of everything that came before. It felt like the culmination of so many long-emerging trends in American life. The decomposition of traditional institutions. The descent of politics into reality-TV entertainment. Demographic and economic shifts quickening the impulses of inclusion and exclusion and us vs. them. All of it leading to this moment of great unsettling, with the Republican Party unraveling, the Democrats barely keeping it together, and both moving farther away from each other by the week, reflecting the splintering not only of the body politic but of the national ideal.
Come again? In the weird, inverted social topography of earnest campaign reporting, sweeping and world-shaking upheavals in our common life are chiefly the prelude to a moment of dread polarization within the two-party system. Things are so dire they cannot be rendered in complete sentences—and even then, billow out uncontrollably into nonsignifying abstractions: shifts, both demographic and economic, somehow double as impulse-quickeners in what appears to be a glorified socioeconomic gloss on the old Dr. Seuss fable of the Sneetches: “inclusion and exclusion and us vs. them.” And it all adds up to . . . the incomprehension among and between Team Republican and Team Democrat. Because, gentle reader, no greater specter of doom stalks this land than that of failed bipartisanship.
This mode of reporting is also incessantly eager to wring wrenching symbolism out of the smallest campaign set pieces. A seventy-year-old “elder stateswoman” of the Iowa Republican Party who has thrown in with the Trump insurgency leads a crowd in a pledge of allegiance to a flag that’s not even there. A younger, much more ardent Trump organizer on the ground in Hawkeye caucus land is her understudy, gearing up to coordinate his first-ever caucus. And, just in case you might otherwise miss it, here is the moral:
He was the new guard of the party in Dubuque and the two poles had converged on one common thought: The principles that made them American were becoming as elusive as the imaginary flag they were saluting. They hoped a new president might restore them.
It goes on like this, in early primary state after early primary state, as our dutiful scribes stalk the strange, “angry” mood of the 2016 electorate across what feels like nine million column inches. There are heavily indebted New England college students canvassing for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. There are Latino union organizers caucusing for Hillary Clinton in Las Vegas. There are wounded, disillusioned veterans stumping for Marco Rubio in South Carolina (including Rubio’s own wounded-vet older brother, Mario). There are even—be still, my pundit heart!—pissed-off retired union workers in Macomb County, Michigan, epicenter of the legendary explosion of Reagan Democrats onto the national scene back in 1980. (They’re still pissed off, we learn, and they turned out for Trump this time around.)
As a lifelong American myself, I’d like to hope that it means that the country is good and sick of these formalist exercises in banal national self-definition.
But much like the vision of the great unsettling, these, too, are strangely inert glimpses into a truly raucous primary process. And that’s largely because, instead of identifying and teasing out specific issues and policy debates in the agoras of actually existing political debate, Messrs. Maraniss and Samuels have filtered all of this cycle’s campaign tumult through the singularly unedifying and drearily recursive question of “What it means to be an American.”
As a lifelong American myself, I’d like to hope that it means that the country is good and sick of these formalist exercises in banal national self-definition. It’s not that the American identity is a proposition bereft of content, exactly—but it is utterly beside the point in sussing out the nature of the Trump uprising, the hollowing out of the major-party establishment, the surprisingly broad appeal of the Sanders insurgency, or just about anything else having to do with our present electoral-cum-civic distress. And tellingly, when one of their informants comes close to letting on that he or she’s more interested in confronting, you know, the sclerotic and money-drenched state of the public weal, they’re firmly sidestepped in favor of the great narrative conceit of lost or impaired intraparty communion.
“If you’re looking at Republicans or Democrats, you are looking at 10 years of things people don’t trust,” a pro-Sanders University of New Hampshire frat brother named Jon Brown observes. “Before, we could trust our government, but then we had the NSA wiretapping, and while the world is getting bigger, our politics are getting so much smaller and more corrupt.” Having the indelicacy to mention both an actual government program and the rampant state of corruption known as the political status quo, Brown is nudged, by the end of his series cameo, into a more genial sentiment. He and one of his Republican frat brothers are found at the end of the debate-watching party his frat has hosted kicking around the agreeably mushy notion of the Americanness of it all. The Republican—Joe Sweeney, who is also, conveniently enough, a New Hampshire state representative at the tender age of 22—indulgently counsels the choleric Brown with this bit of civic wisdom: “We can have these sorts of disagreements because we were [frat] brothers first and it became easier to respect conversations with each other. I don’t think Americans know each other well, and that’s a part of the problem.”
At this point, our authors break in with a hopeful paraphrase: “In a sense, the thing about America, in Sweeney’s estimation, was that it was really one big fraternity.” And then back to our state rep.–frat boy: “The coolest thing about being American is it’s not a nationality or a genetic thing, it’s more of an idea. It’s a struggle of finding the balance between the collective and the individual, and that’s what makes it hard.”
And the wistful tagline, courtesy of our apparently chastened, no-longer-quite-so-ideological Sandersite: “We’ll find it one day.”
Cue the grandiose Aaron Copland score and slow-motion fireworks display: Here is what it means to be an American, gentle reader: A frat-boy radical and a frat-boy elected official, locked into a tender, sacrosanct vision of future civic hope.
Or, to put things slightly differently: Are you fucking kidding me? With an electorate enraged—justly or otherwise—by forces of economic globalization, capitalist corruption, and ethnocultural and racial anxieties of all description, the Washington Post is telling the nation to join together as one gigantic frat. Has the nation’s political paper-of-record really grown so besotted with the receding vision of civic comity that it’s forgotten what date rape is? Or that the fraternity system is itself a guardian of just the sort of mobbed-up power-elite privilege that the Sanders and Trump uprisings are inveighing against (albeit in wildly different registers)? But then again, this is the same pundit class that helped elevate Yale Skull and Bones pledge George W. Bush to the nation’s highest office, on the grounds that he was the candidate most voters would want to have a beer with.
With an electorate enraged by forces of economic globalization, capitalist corruption, and ethnocultural and racial anxieties of all description, the Washington Post is telling the nation to join together as one gigantic frat.
What makes the Maraniss and Samuels undertaking a civic tragedy in its own right is the genuine lost opportunity at the heart of it. Because back in the days when newspapers were more conscientious in tending to their civic-electoral beat, they actually managed to shed sustained and meaningful light on what was at stake during presidential election cycles. But that was also because they expended more energy on unearthing the institutional, economic, and social trends that actually defined an election than they did on stage-managing the proceedings as an encounter group for misunderstood civic actors. For the 1992 campaign, for example, the Philadelphia Inquirer dispatched two national reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele not to “find America” or to coax some greater identitarian meaning out of the electorate’s angry mood, but to answer the straightforward question “America: What Went Wrong?” And amazingly enough, much of what went wrong in America circa 1992—which was also, you may recall, an election year in the wake of a major recession, featuring a rampaging anti-immigrant protest candidacy on the right led by culture warrior Pat Buchanan, and a third-party “populist” candidacy led by billionaire anti-free-trader Ross Perot—was what ails our civitas today: insanely skewed tax policies that lavished giveaways on investors and corporations; runaway deregulation of Wall Street; the sacking of pensions, unions, and other once-stalwart protections of working-to-middle-class life. (And indeed, Barlett and Steele are mounting pretty much the same argument today, though of course like many accomplished investigative journalists, they’ve long since been cut loose by their paper.)
In other words, what it truly means to be an American—or at least a still-employed national politics scribe at a major newspaper—is to stolidly overlook well-established economic trends of the past quarter century, and to act as if they can be wished away if we could only just stop being so damn angry. It would also help if someone could hurry up and translate that urgent-yet-poignant sentiment into a rousing pledge anthem, already.