April 14, 2021

All British foreign correspondents who live in America for more than a few years write a book about it. It’s compulsory. They are invariably fuzzy focus takes on road-trips in which our charmed modern-day de Tocqueville meets a range of characters chewing corn dogs in the sun and declares that America, while barmy, and without a functioning health service, is still quite fun.

I wrote two of them, both hugely optimistic about the place. One is literally called Have A Nice Day. I hailed Americans’ sobriety and the gentle virtues of their system of government. It was published in 2009. How was I to know they were about to get high on Fentanyl and elect Donald Trump?

Anyway, it is with some annoyance that I have to tell you my friend Nick Bryant, the BBC’s New York correspondent, has written the antidote to all these vapid takes, mine included. Nick comes across on the news as a bit of a lad — actually he is a bit of a lad — but he is also a historian with a deep understanding of what makes America tick. And When America Stopped Being Great is an absolutely belting achievement for a hack, and an Englishman to boot. It is, as the title suggests, an elegy for a lost nation and a lost cause. The Washington Post gave the book a long and favourable review, calling it, “riveting, often revelatory, crammed with facts, occasionally personal, and almost always depressing”.

It is also wrong.

Not in its description of modern-day America, which Bryant knows well and captures superbly. The inequality, the intellectual poverty, the extremism, the mass shootings, the end of civility in debates on abortion or guns or anything. But he is wrong about the constitution. He points out — rightly — that it’s under pressure from modernity. A good example: Democrats can win the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, but the Republicans have nominated 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court justices. “That is why,” Bryant writes, “talk of a reboot or a reset of the current obsolete operating system is so misplaced.”

Really? Tinkering could sort things for another hundred years or so. Fixing the Senate to reduce the impact of the rural minority won’t be decorous or easy, but is it impossible? Might an America that conquered the empty(ish) spaces in the first place not manage to reinvigorate them, repopulate them with businesses no longer tethered to coasts — or physical places at all — and so rebalance political power?

Others have also thought the place was going to the dogs. I mean properly believing the system to be broken. So perhaps the answer to the current crisis, as Dennis Rasmussen suggests in his thought-provoking book Fears of a Setting Sun, can be found in the fears of her founders. The men who invented America mostly thought their invention a disaster, a mess from the start. As Rasmussen points out, even in George Washington’s time hatred poisoned everything: “The two main parties saw and treated each other not just as opponents who advocated the wrong policies, but rather as enemies of the Constitution who actively sought to subvert the basic principles of the Revolution… Newspaper polemics included ‘some of the ripest vituperation in American literary history’, in the words of one scholar. Cries of treason entered virtually every political debate, fears of foreign plots abounded, and physical violence was lamentably commonplace.”

Perhaps we became too used to the idea, in the post-Watergate era, of America as stable. A nation always there, indispensable, wise, mostly well run. But it was not in its early years and it has not been oftentimes in its history. Nevertheless: hey, it survives. And, with a few twists and turns, it prospers.

Rasmussen’s book is important because it reminds us not only that the founding fathers were disappointed with their creation but that they had reason to be. It really was a basket case (a “shithole country”, to use Trump’s terminology). With the notable exception of James Madison, Rasmussen writes, all of America’s early leaders, including Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, were pessimistic that the American experiment in republican democracy would endure. They thought that Americans were too venal or stupid to cope with politics. They thought the federal system would buckle. They thought factions would bring the whole edifice down.

“The founders,” Rasmussen tells us, “frequently predicted that the republic that they had established would not last beyond their own generation — that the union would soon be sundered, that a new constitutional convention would have be to called, or that the government would gradually lapse into a hereditary monarchy.”

They also thought foreigners would interfere with American elections and affect the results. Ok, not Russia, but still, the idea of “intrigue” from abroad is not new. Nor is the idea of hereditary rule — of the kind that pits Trump children against Biden children or Clinton children or perhaps even Obama children into the distant decades. Adams predicted it; he thought it inevitable. He would not be delighted by the news that Rudy Giuliani’s son Andrew wants to be New York state’s next Governor, but he would not be surprised.

And on and on the jeremiads go; down the ages they echo. Even Jefferson, the most optimistic of the founders, succumbs to disillusion in old age. Only Madison stands up for America and thinks it might work out alright, and he does so because, Rasmussen says, he compares the place to other regimes, not to some idealised perfect system of government.

Perhaps that is the key.

So how are they doing now, the Americans, post Trump? Better or worse than China on freedom; than Russia on state sponsored crime; than the EU on technological achievement? America is indeed badly governed and horribly divided, but is it moribund, as Nick Bryant argues, or merely troubled? Bryant suggests that if his young daughter wanted to see the most thrusting nation in the world, China might be the place to visit — though he hopes she would recognise the cruel authoritarianism of its system. Otherwise she could go to Australia for its lifestyle, an Asian mega-city for a glimpse of the future.

These places all have their strengths — though China will strike many as a pretty unconvincing role model — but none is anything like as vibrant as America, where everyone has come to play. America, where anything might happen — from a school shooting to the conquest of cancer. A nation that can combust with coronavirus but then invent and manufacture multiple vaccines and distribute them in huge numbers. A nation that can delegitimise government and then (perhaps, under Biden) rediscover its importance. A nation often deranged, but seldom stumped for long.

Madison’s other gift to modernity was a belief that politics could be a constant, unending argument without any shared understanding of the common good — but still work. He saw all America’s bipartisan talk as nice to have but unnecessary. Perhaps America was never meant to be united, free from factions, common in purpose. Perhaps it was always best seen as a herding of political cats, hissing and fissiparous from the start.

Seen through that lens, Donald Trump looks less frightening. As Rasmussen suggests of the modern era: “We no longer face repeated, serious threats of secession and civil war. Political violence is far less common today … No contemporary election can compare with the presidential election of 1800 — a contest between Jefferson and Adams, two of our most revered founders — in terms of sheer viciousness. Today’s much-maligned ‘mainstream media’ is in reality far more responsible and fact based than the newspapers of the 1790s.”

America’s problems are more intractable but less existentially threatening than many suppose. They were there from the start. They are there today. And tomorrow?

I am not betting against the place. Nick Bryant says he fears more American Carnage, to use Donald Trump’s memorable phrase from his inaugural speech. It is true that some on the American Right have given up on their fellow citizens — particularly those with darker skin who have more recently arrived. It is also true that plenty on the Left have done the same thing, with rural white folk, whose “deaths of despair” can feel rooted more in lost status than lost life chances. It is true, too, that too many people are shot — or shoot themselves — though you have to be careful here. Most American lives are free of violence and the number of households with guns — around 42% — is not much changed from decades ago: they just have more of them.

Neither Rasmussen nor Bryant reach firm conclusions. This is wise. There is no American denouement in the offing. Any properly terminal decline, or reset towards revivification, will be imperceptible at first, and argued over forever. That’s always been the point of the place. The argument about the best path to political progress is not always edifying but is always, and forever, worth having. And America, forever, will be the place to have it.