Can It Happen Here?

Want an explanation for the Trump and Bernie phenomenon?

Read (or listen) to The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

Without any outright editorial comments, he paints a picture of a fractured America, people pitted against each other in a bizarre Hunger Games race to the bottom – or for a very few, the top.

Newsreel chapters containing snippets of headlines and commentary (an acknowledged nod to John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy) set the tone for smoothly written biographies of representative Americans: mill worker, embittered middle-class housewife, redneck entrepreneur, venture capitalist, Washington insider. To supply the flyover view, he adds capsule biographies of movers and shakers from Newt Gingrich to Raymond Carver to Jay Z.

The book’s approach to its subjects is similar to Studs Turkel’s Working, but more layered and curated. Instead of chunks of interviews, Packer distills them into a cohesive narrative tracing, as one of his “characters” says, the “unwinding” of America.   Based on hundreds of hours of interviews and an extensive bibliography, the book creates a seamless narrative; it’s like a documentary movie without a voice over. And while he definitely slants liberal, the word of the people that he’s interviewed carry the water here.

A quick example of his method are in paragraphs below.  Late in the book he revisits Karen Jaroch, a Florida engineer/housewife and early Tea Party devotee, as she prepares for the 2012 Republican conventions

Gingrich was one of Karen Jaroch’s personal heroes [Earlier, Packer recounts that she was brought into politics through Glen Beck.] Karen had supported him in the Florida primary after her first choice, Herman Cain (for whom she had served as county chairwoman), dropped out. One night during convention week, she attended the Faith and Freedom Rally at the Tampa Theater and heard Gingrich speak, along with other heroes of hers, including Phyllis Schlafly, who was eighty-eight years old but still looked like the firebrand housewife (the same as Karen Jaroch) from the 1964 Goldwater campaign. Karen had made her peace with the party’s Nominee for 2012-“anybody but Obama”-but she didn’t care much for the convention itself, the kind of insider establishment event that had kept her away from politics most of her life. In a way, Karen didn’t need to be there, because in Tampa the fringe had made it to the floor, the podium, and the platform. There was even a plank condemning Agenda 21, the twenty-year-old UN resolution that obsessed opponents of rail.

Karen was working full-time in a new job. At the start of the year, she had become the Hillsborough County field director for Americans for Prosperity, the pro-free-enterprise group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. The week before the convention she opened the field office in a small strip mall in North Tampa, next to a Serbian massage therapy parlor and downstairs from a realty company. Karen was making thousands of “issue” calls, trying to identify potential supporters and direct them to the group’s website. Around the office were empty desks waiting for phones, computers, and volunteers. One night, a group had come to watch a screening of Who Is John Galt?, the second part of a film version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Jaroch hadn’t read the novel-she wasn’t a big reader of books-but agreed completely with its principles. She had found her purpose, now joined to a national organization with bottomless amounts of money, and she applied herself with the unflagging energy of an adherent whose world view couldn’t be disturbed by any argument or fact. Beneath her politics was a basic feeling that she and her husband had always played by the rules without ever cutting corners or asking for help. The job was Karen’s first in years, and although she had vowed not to make a career of politics when she first started the Tampa 9/12 Project, her family needed the paycheck. But she would do it even without one. This is “where my heart is.”

This distillation of oligarchy fueled suburban angst is followed in the next chapter by a final look at Tammy Thomas, a black mill worker from Youngstown, Ohio who returned to college in her 30s/40s and ended up with a job as an community activist.

Tammy was standing in front of a screen, wearing jeans and a long loose synthetic shirt with purple and white swirls. Her hair was cut short and hennaed on top. A couple of days before, she had been at a community center in Cleveland, talking about Social Security and Medicare to a room full of old people, the women listening, the men playing dominoes. She’d had one of her leaders with her in Cleveland, Miss Gloria, who was seventy-one, and Miss Gloria was supposed to talk about living on retirement benefits and how they were under threat, but they couldn’t hear Miss Gloria very well so Tammy had to do most of the talking while she set up the projector she was lugging around in order to show them a video about the Koch brothers, Charles and David, who were shown in a cartoon as two heads growing out of an octopus, and after the video, one of the women, Linda, had asked, “Where did these two Koch brothers come from? Why haven’t we heard of them before?” and another woman, Mabel, had said, “Koch brothers going to make the Negroes pay the bill.”

He draws no other attention to the Koch Brothers here, and instead lets the reader see the contrast.

And finally, there’s this great short passage which distills the methods of the Republican PR machine into two paragraphs:

language was the key to power. His memos included vocabulary lessons: if you discussed your opponent with words like betray bizarre bosses bureaucracy cheat corrupt crisis cynicism decay destroy disgrace impose incompetent liberal lie limit(s) obsolete pathetic radical shame sick stagnation status quo steal taxes they/them threaten traitors unionized waste welfare, you had him on the defensive, and if you described your side with change children choice/choose common sense courage crusade dream duty empower(ment) family freedom hard work lead liberty light moral opportunity pro-(issue) proud/pride reform strength success tough truth vision we/us/our, you had already won the argument. The Gingrich lexicon could be arranged into potent sentences regardless of context, or even meaning: “We can empower our children and families to dream by leading a moral crusade for liberty and truth if only we are tough and have common sense.” “Corrupt liberal bosses cheat, lie, and steal to impose their sick pathetic cynicism and bizarre radical stagnation in order to destroy America.” Thus a whole generation of politicians learned to sound like Newt Gingrich.


And he saw that the voters no longer felt much connection to the local parties or national institutions. They got their politics on TV, and they were not persuaded by policy descriptions or rational arguments. They responded to symbols and emotions. They were growing more partisan, too, living in districts that were increasingly Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative. Donors were more likely to send money if they could be frightened or angered, if the issues were framed as simple choices between good and evil-which was easy for a man whose America stood forever at a historic crossroads, its civilization in perpetual peril. (23)

Ah . . . the vision of linguist Frank Lutz – content and context free floating feel good signifers: plus good double plus good.

Poor guy: Lutz is all depressive now that what he has wrought is coming back to haunt him. The problem with free floating signifers is that they can attach themselves to anything and anyone, including oligarchs with bad hair and no real plan (or demagogues whose own skin seems to reject them and who have a definite theocratic plan) yet want to run for president.

Sinclair Lewis’s satire (?) It Can’t Happen Here seems a natural follow up read.




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