10 Dec 2023

US journalist George Packer on Trump, Biden, and an America in crisis

From Sunday Morning, 6:05 pm on 10 December 2023
Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal by George Packer - cover and author composite

George Packer believes class and education are still the central divide in America. Photo: MICHAEL LIONSTAR/Penguin

US journalist, novelist and playwright George Packer is best known for his work in the New Yorker and The Atlantic regarding US foreign policy, and for his book The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, also won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

In his latest book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, Packer diagnoses America's slide into a failed state, and envisions a path toward overcoming injustices, paralyses, and divides.

He told Sunday that in simple terms, if Trump does get re-elected next year it will be because of the price of petrol.

"It will not be because people want to return to the chaos, the erosion of democracy, the violence, the vulgarity of his first four years - it will be because people think Biden has not managed the economy well and inflation remains pretty high."

Most American voters remembered Trump's presidency as one of economic prosperity, he said, and although current polling showed Trump just ahead of Biden, once the election drew nearer Biden's "abysmal" ratings would rise.

Packer posits in his new book that the US is a failed state, facing unrest and disorder not seen since protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War in the late Sixties.

In recent years, there had been a serious lack of solidarity and social cohesion in America, which paved the way for a "demagogue" such as Trump to set Americans against each other "over anything, (like wearing) a mask during the pandemic".

"The lack of social trust was just deadly - literally deadly, with Covid ... - and with politics, and it remains deadly. We still have this sense that 'those guys' - the other side - are not real Americans, they want to destroy the country and we have to do everything we can to keep them out of power."

Mora asked Packer if this sense of a divided nation was something new in his lifetime and would become the permanent state of American politics.

The schism started in the Seventies, he said, with the end of the industrial economy, and the beginning of the information and finance economy, and the job losses that followed. It worsened the geographical divide between cities prospering with tech and finance and rural, traditional manufacturing areas that were dying.

The second factor was the "huge shift in complexion, literally, of Americans" with the rise of the Black middle class and mass immigration "from everywhere".

"Those two things together gave a fairly large number of Americans - many of them in the white working class - the feeling that they no longer counted, that they had lost their place at the heart of things... so the [political] centre couldn't hold."

It was noteworthy that Trump had started to poll more strongly among Black and Latino working-class communities, he said.

"The class divide between those with a college [university] education and those without is the fundamental divide in this country, and determines so much of your view of culture, and of social issues, and politics."

Dissent and unrest was becoming increasingly common not just in the US but in developed economies across the globe - so was the digital age partly responsible for that?

The digital age had accelerated the change, he said.

"Think of how much daily life is different today than in, say 1995, and that causes huge unease and discontent and division.

"It's a bit like ... the turn of the 20th century when suddenly cities and cars and airplanes and radio and electricity began to accelerate life ... and to change the structure of the family and the workplace.

"The beginning of the industrial age and the beginning of digital age are both enormous revolutions and we human beings cannot keep up with our own inventions - we cannot adjust to them adequately."

We still hadn't figured out how to make tech work for us, instead of "becoming [its] slaves, which is how I often feel with my phone sitting here beside me", Packer said.

"I think it's just an incredibly fast pace of change [that] has displaced human beings ... We are no longer certain of our place at the centre of things, which we'd always assumed."

AI is a good example of this dilemma, he said.

"We are rushing into AI without knowing ... what dangers it might hold.

"It seems to offer us a solution to the ailments of being human - we no longer have to decay physically... we no longer have to be stumped by complicated problems - we can outsource it all to this machine."

In Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, Packer divides America into four broad groups:

  • "free America", which celebrated free market capitalism and eschewed regulations - a way of thinking dominant since Reagan's presidency through to Obama's regime
  • "smart America", where education is the key to social mobility and success in the new economy
  • "real America", which was the belief that "real" Americans are the people - often white Christians - who live in small towns, "work with their hands, fight our wars, grow our food", and epitomised by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. She was a kind of "John the Baptist" figure who paved the way for Trump.
  • "just America", which was focused on race and identity. Like "real America", it was a populist movement, but on the Left, Packer said, and could be seen in social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter. It viewed America as split between the oppressors and the oppressed, and had overthrown the meritocratic thinking of "smart America".

The last part of Packer's book argues that the political divide in the States is still one of class, and that society and economy needed to be reformed so that large groups of people weren't left behind "or for dead".

He points to groups equally in crisis such as young, Black, poorly educated people in urban areas, as well as young white voters addicted to opioids in rural communities.

"There is this despair among young people that crosses over all these lines. If our political groups could see where class interests lie and where coalitions might be built based on the economy... based on wanting more equality... it would be a less toxic environment.

"Because identity is permanent... we're being defined by these qualities that we didn't choose."

Packer said America's society would ideally be closer to the New Deal era of the 1930s, where "workers had more power and more money... where corporations ... were broken up. Politics would be less of a death match between groups than it would be an argument in which there is some possibility of a common good."

These days, however, politicians were more interested in their public brand than backroom, cross-party deals - and this was no different to other countries, he said.

"There was this ... idea that (America was) exceptional, that history did not apply to us: we created a society out of nothing, we created a democratic constitution, that there could only be democracy on these shores."

Now, though, America was going the way of populist politics like Poland, Brazil or even Russia, he said, "with an unhappy ageing population and a drift toward authoritarianism".

This was because the States had "grown complacent and allowed things to drift to a point where suddenly all it takes is one election, and then a second election to lose some precious things".

America's passion for equality - "which is the desire to be as good as anyone else" - had led to individualism, which "doesn't necessarily lead to solidarity", he said.

Still, "there's things you can build on those bones [of a passion for equality] because they really do still define us".