Ben Fountain on Beautiful Country Burn Again
In his new book, the author lights up 2016 to make sense of that crazy, intense year
How the hell did we get here?
That was the question on a lot of minds on Nov. 8, 2016, the night Donald J. Trump was elected president. Not least among the questioners was Ben Fountain. The author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk had written a series of essays about the presidential race over the course of the year, following the billionaire's rise and rise, and even he wondered how the nation had placed this Janus in the White House. After all, he writes, "To call Donald Trump a hypocrite insults the scale of the thing. Move far enough along the hypocritic spectrum and eventually you cross into schizophrenia, and nothing less than psychopathy serves to illustrate the magnitude of Trump's achievement." We needed answers, so Fountain went after them, taking deep dives into American history and politics and culture, and resurfacing with the events and actions that explain our national journey. The result is a breathtaking review of 2016 – and the century preceding it – titled Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution (Ecco, 448 pp., $27.99). Prior to his appearance at the 2018 Texas Book Festival, Fountain met with the Chronicle to discuss what he'd learned.
Austin Chronicle: So much of what people have been asking since Trump took office is, "How did this happen, and how do we make sense of this?" You answer that by showing us what's gone on over the last 40 years, and even trace its roots back to the New Deal, the Progressive Era, the Gilded Era.
Ben Fountain: I felt like even though Trump was taking us into uncharted waters in American political territory – he was doing and saying things that would destroy a conventional candidate – he's the logical culmination of a lot in American history. If you allow certain strands and veins of American culture and politics to effloresce, this is what you're gonna get. If things broke a certain way, a person like Trump was going to rise to the top. And he did.
AC: I love your idea that Trump was predicted by J.R. Ewing. Anyone who watched TV at the time remembers how J.R. seized the country's attention and became that villain we love. So many of his character traits – the wealth, the deals, the lying, the cruelty, the ego – are what we see emerge in Trump.
BF: And J.R.'s father Jock was a hardscrabble guy who built the family fortune by sharp elbows, and so was Fred Trump. This guy was tough. And he knew how to work the system. And he built an empire and was very diligent about setting his children up to continue it. So I thought, Trump, J.R.
AC: Your book covers so much ground. Was there any section where you felt, "Man, if only one part of this hits home with the reader, I want it to be this."
BF: "The Long Good Deal," where I look at the history of the New Deal, the way it changed the country, and what a radical change it was. It really was a revolution. And I think we've lost a proper sense of just how dire the emergency was. Also in the political sphere, fascism and communism were really competing with liberal democracy in the political mainstream of America, and voices like Republican U.S. senators and Barrons, the Wall Street publication, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were all floating this idea of, "Well, maybe we need a dictator. Maybe somebody like Mussolini is the way to go. Maybe liberal democracy just can't deal with the problems created by industrial capitalism." So Roosevelt, he saved the economy, he instituted a structure to government that could deal with the problems imposed by industrial capitalism. In other words, he found a way to restructure society so individuals would not necessarily be flattened by the huge forces of industrial capitalism – big finance, big banks, big railroads, monopolies. And he saved capitalism along the way. The big-time capitalists bitched and moaned and pissed and slagged on him every step of the way, but he saved their ass.
And there's a focus on Texas in that chapter, showing how medieval and difficult life in the Hill Country was without electricity. Then electricity came and made a huge difference in peoples' lives. So now you've got tea partiers and libertarians, people saying less government is better, and how are they conveying that message? Well, they're on the internet in their homes, and they've got electric power and clean water coming in through their pipes, and when they want to go to their meetings, they get on the roads and the roads are paved, etc., etc., etc. So I think the New Deal was so successful that it became invisible. People just take all these things for granted, the good things of progressive government. That's not to say progressive government is perfect by any means. It's always a work in progress, but it's been so successful that people lost sight of the radical change for the better that it made in American life.
AC: You take a critical look at the Clintons and the evolution of the Democratic Party and how that negatively affected the working class. Did you know that story going in?
BF: I didn't have nearly the proper appreciation for that story. I thought it'd be 12 to 15 pages, and it kept growing and growing and growing. And I kept fighting it – you know, as a writer, you're like, "This is getting out of hand. Am I going down a rabbit hole?" But I reached a point where I thought, it's going to be as long as it needs to be. Because the story goes deeper and it's a more cynical story and a more troubling story than I realized. And the only way to tell it properly is to do it step by step, to lay it out as clearly as I can because it's a serious thing. It's like when somebody from your own family stabs you in the back, it hurts a lot more than if it's your enemy.
AC: One reason it stood out to me is that when all is said and done, the protagonist of the book is the Beautiful Country, and for us to truly appreciate where we are, where the Beautiful Country is, that story needed to be fully told. The Clintons are usually made out to be either Democratic saviors or liberal Satans, and there's a lot going on between those extremes – a lot of gray where they hurt the very people they were trying to help.
BF: They both did a lot of good things. You look at Hillary's early career, it was always political but her pre-public career, the trench warrior stuff she was doing, like going door-to-door in South Texas registering voters and advocacy for juveniles in the penal system – that's not the glory work. That's the slog work, and it has to be a powerful thing in you [to do that work]. Obviously, she and her husband are very ambitious people, and to some extent it's disturbing how ambitious they are. You probably have to be on that line between healthy and unhealthy ambition to get where they did, but at critical moments they always threw in their lot with Big Money.
But the Beautiful Country. I'm a desperate writer, I'll go down any lead I can if I think it might help. So I found myself coming across people who seemed like guides: Walt Whitman. Henry James. Hunter Thompson. Joan Didion. Abraham Lincoln. It really is a beautiful country. I mean, any country that can produce figures like that and wonderful political rhetoric that speaks to the human condition, that's a beautiful country. The founding words in the Declaration of Independence – all men are created equal; certain inalienable rights; the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – there had never been a country like that before. And there were gross contradictions present at the beginning between those words and even the person who wrote them, Thomas Jefferson, but still there was the moral potential in those words that was extraordinary and is still extraordinary.
Ben Fountain will appear with author Amy Chozik (Chasing Hillary) in the Texas Book Festival session “America on the Fritz: Reporting 2016” Sat., 1pm, in the C-SPAN 2/Book TV Tent. For more information, visit www.texasbookfestival.org.