Until this fall, readers knew Ben Fountain almost exclusively as a well-decorated fiction writer. His debut short story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara (2006) garnered a PEN/Hemingway Award and a Whiting Award. His first novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk (2012) earned him a National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist nod for the National Book Award, and in 2016 it was adapted into a feature film by Ang Lee. That’s quite the résumé.
But Fountain’s latest book is nonfiction, and in it he has plenty to say about America. Beautiful Country Burn Again (2018) examines the sleazy underbelly of American politics that has led us to our current moment: a cold civil war that, thawed too long in the microwave of fear-mongering and ignorance of the past, threatens to blow its top and leave a mess all over every kitchen in the country. Its title, taken from a Robinson Jeffers poem, refers to “those 80-year cycles of crisis and reinvention” that Fountain finds us going through again today. First the Civil War, then 80 years later the Great Depression and the New Deal, and 80 years further on to 2016 — the year when, as he writes in his prologue, “all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest.”
The book is, as one would expect from Fountain, dazzling in its prose. It’s full of dark, gallows-ish humor in the form of one-liners (“fear is the herpes of American politics”) and devastating descriptions (of Ted Cruz: “You’d think he gargles twice a day with a cocktail of high-fructose corn syrup and snake oil”). Kaleidoscopic scenes of crowds — at the Republican and Democratic conventions, at a gun show in Louisville, Kentucky, and others — are Fountain’s forte, and he brings them alive with mad, rollicking sentences. In its quieter moments the book reveals a historian’s steady eye that is not satisfied to merely observe the present, but wants to dig back into our past toward the roots of all our ills.
Beautiful Country Burn Again is a must-read for those who want to know what has brought us to this tipping point in American politics — and especially for those who have the stomach to watch as Fountain strips the country’s sacred cows of the trappings that make people find them holy. We corresponded via email immediately after the 2018 midterm elections.
STEVEN WINGATE: Let’s start where you live. You’re a Texan and witnessed Beto O’Rourke’s “close but no cigar” moment up close. What does this moment — both his rise to national awareness and his ultimate fall back to reality — mean for Texas and the nation?
BEN FOUNTAIN: Well, he’s a hopeful development in several ways. He came closer to winning statewide office than any Democrat since the early 1990s, and he did it by running a campaign which deliberately, systematically emphasized the distinctions between the progressive Democratic agenda he espoused and the party-line GOP agenda of free-market fundamentalism, low taxes, low regulation, and shitty quality of life championed by Ted Cruz. For several decades we’ve seen promising Democratic candidates here in Texas get reined in and tamped down by “experts” from the Democratic establishment coming down from Washington to advise on their campaigns. Wendy Davis is a prime example of this, a promising candidate with some real fire in the belly who got turned into milquetoast, i.e., Republican-lite, by the Democratic industrial-election complex, to the point where she wouldn’t even say whether she’d voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012. Stand for something, dammit! If you’re going down, at least raise a few consciences while you’re doing it.
Another hopeful aspect of O’Rourke’s campaign was his refusal to take PAC money, and he was still able to mount one of the best-financed Senate campaigns in recent history. I say “still,” but maybe it’s because he refused PAC money. Enough regular people took note of the authenticity of that gesture — a confirmation of his progressive politics — and decided this was a candidate worth supporting financially and otherwise. And a third aspect — O’Rourke busted his butt going to every single county in Texas, including the very reddest places in the state, and forcefully making his case. Part of the job of a campaign is to educate, to raise awareness, and to give people a real choice. The Democratic establishment’s triage strategy of the past 40 years has been disastrous not just for the party, but for the country, too, the party ceding large swaths of the rural midwest and the south to the Republicans. Beto went everywhere, and didn’t cede anything.
Okay, bottom line is, he lost. He was up against an extremely well-financed, extremely disciplined candidate with a high-functioning campaign, and an incumbent at that. For O’Rourke to win, one of two things would have had to happen. One, Cruz needed to make a major mistake, and Cruz doesn’t make many mistakes of any kind, much less big ones. Or, O’Rourke needed to turn out massive numbers of new voters. It looks like he made significant gains there, but not enough. But his example gives liberal candidates a template going forward on how to run a campaign that stands for something, that finances itself in the right way, that gets a lot of mileage out of grassroots campaigning, and that generates unprecedented support in deep-red territory.
The book doesn’t let Democrats off the hook. At one point you say: “If the party can’t transform itself into an instrument of genuine resistance and renewal, then let it die and make way for the necessary new thing.” How are Democrats doing on that front after this midterm?
Better, but still not great. The Democratic establishment continues to view liberal candidacies with extreme wariness, if not barely suppressed terror, and for good reason: the agenda of genuinely liberal Democrats threatens the privileges and advantages of the Democratic establishment’s big-money donor class. For God’s sake don’t piss off the rich uncle! Had the Democratic establishment known that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the threat to Joe Crowley that she turned out being, you can bet they’d have come down on her like a ton of bricks in the same way that, say, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sabotaged a promising, talented candidate like Laura Moser, who was running in the primary for Texas’s seventh House district. But at least the Democratic establishment came up with a winning message this time around, and it’s the right message: focus on things that are really going to help working people, like healthcare and lunch-bucket issues. You saw Conor Lamb do it in western Pennsylvania, going hard in defense of the Affordable Care Act and union rights, and there were plenty more like him who had success with that message. The Democratic establishment needs to take note, and not only continue with this message, but hammer harder. Workers’ rights, collective bargaining, fair pay for overtime, fair wages generally, skyrocketing executive compensation, the future of work in the age of robotics, and so forth. If the Democratic Party is going to appeal to large numbers of working class voters — white as well as people of color — it has to speak to their fundamental economic needs in a genuine, systematic, thoughtful way.
What response do you expect from the Trump army now that the Republicans have lost some ground? I don’t mean only the people in politics, but the Trump Troll Army as well.
Well, I’ve yet to see Trump and his supporters get nicer, and I’m not holding my breath now. Exactly the opposite, in fact, and you saw it in Trump’s “warlike response” threat shortly after the election; he has even more incentive to go to the mats, now that the Dems are going to have control of the House. Up to a point, this is just politics as usual, opposing parties knocking heads, but we’ve gone far, far beyond the head-banging of normal politics. One of the characteristics of the last 25 years of American politics is, it only gets meaner, lower, more partisan. How did it get this way?
For some answers, we could take a look at the dismantling under Reagan of the Fairness Doctrine that had governed editorializing on American TV and radio for some 50 years, and the dismantling of rules governing monopoly ownership of media outlets, also under Reagan. From that point forward, tremendous profits — not to mention political advantage — were to be had in plying the fertile ground of rank partisanship, as demonstrated by the booming of fortunes of people like Rush Limbaugh and the late Roger Ailes. The net result for the country has been toxic polarization and tribalism. And Trump.
The current administration has weaponized immigration. First we had “build the wall,” then children in cages, then threats (later reversed) to shoot at the migrant caravan. What have we learned from America’s reaction to this, and what do you see being weaponized next?
What we’ve learned is, first, all too often it works, and second, over the long term it’s tremendously destructive. It degrades not just our politics, but our humanity as well, and it can’t help but corrupt the life of the country. Clearly, Trump’s had tremendous success with this kind of sewage, and he amped it up even higher for the mid-terms, nativist rhetoric raised to hysterics. One of the encouraging things about this election is it looks like significant numbers of people are fed up with it. The suburban congressional seats that flipped from red to blue, the substantial gains that the Democrats made in state legislatures and governors’ races — I expect disgust with Trump helped make that happen. Of course the Republicans picked up seats in the Senate, but for the most part those were hardcore red states where Trump’s immigration hysterics were naturally going to find a sympathetic audience.
As for what’s next? My greatest fear is a new war — Iran or North Korea. The political weaponization of war; there’s ample precedent for that in our recent history. Trump ramping up the war rhetoric to the point that he loses control of it. Or maybe, short of war, it will serve Trump’s purposes to go full-freakout on House Democrats if they take even the most basic steps toward meaningful oversight of the executive branch.
In the book you reference a century-old quote from historian Henry Adams: “Politics is the systematic organization of hatreds.” Will the midterms have any effect on the reorganization of America’s hatreds, or do you think they’re well-defined right now?
Oh, I’d say our hatreds are pretty well organized at the moment.
You call upon a lot of American history in the book, much of it cyclical. Which phase in our history should we be reading about to avoid repeating it?
The 1850s might be illuminating. And the Gilded Age (1870-1900), continuing up through about 1945. The social democracy established by FDR’s New Deal has been so successful in American life that it’s become invisible. Too many people take for granted the tremendous prosperity and opportunity that resulted from the New Deal; you have Libertarians and the hard-right running around bashing government when they might well not even be here if the New Deal hadn’t literally saved their grandpa’s butt back in the day, this same New Deal that led to tremendous advancements in infrastructure, medicine, public health, technology, education, and so forth, and created a stable system of banking and finance, and saved American agriculture. I think it’s hilarious to see Libertarians and Republicans talking anti-government guff into their cell phones, when those cell phones wouldn’t even exist without the tremendous government investments in basic science and technology that followed World War II.
You close by saying the suppression of historical and political consciousness “will destroy the best part of America.” When I look at voter turnout — the highest for a midterm in decades, yet still only 49% — I fear that the suppression is well underway. What will it take to un-suppress that consciousness?
Calamity. Nothing like a reality check to wake us up.