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Richard Ford: America could fail. I have never felt this way before

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america at the crossroads: US exceptionalism is a myth, but unfortunately authoritarianism is very real

As a novelist, I doubt I see the world very differently from any other reasonably engaged, even halfway well-informed citizen. I certainly don’t know more than anybody else. If there were a distinction of views between me and a plumber or an insurance salesman or a first-grade teacher – and I may be wrong here, too – it’s that as a writer of made-up stories, I’m dedicated to believing that anything’s possible; that the range of plausible experience is much wider than history or logic or convention ever tell us it is.

I spend most of my days not trying to imagine what logically should or could happen, but what I can make happen and have that be interesting and useful. In writing novels and short stories – and even essays like this one – nothing necessarily ever follows anything, and anything can follow anything. Fortunately (or sometimes unfortunately) this is also true of life – which includes politics.

In the US, as you may know, we will soon be voting to determine who will be our next president. And we will also be voting to find out what kind of country America is now and will be, and what kind of people we are. If this sounds like an uneasy, precarious, possibly momentous and actually quite pathetic state of affairs, that’s because it is. That a great nation should have so much riding on a single, well-scheduled, legally prescribed civic exercise is alarming.

Normally, in an election where one side advances a vision of the country while another side advances a somewhat different vision, the country is served by either side’s victory. This relative lack of drama is boring to some people but not to me. Typically, if my side loses, I think “so be it”, since to vote at all corroborates the country. Both visions, after all, issue from largely undisputed assumptions about the nation, assumptions that originate in the nation’s many foundational beliefs – its origin myth.

In America’s case, these confidences include that the legislature and the judiciary’s obligation is to check and balance the executive’s considerable powers. They include the very right to vote, as well as the venerability of free elections. They include the assurance that the executive will not financially profit from his or her elected position. They include the homely importance of a regular census. There are many of these pledges that operate as foundational institutions, but also act as safeguards against tyranny and other leadership ills such as ineptitude and criminality, which vitiate our public trust.

My country of 76 years seems to exist today at a strange and unnatural distance from me, and not at all clearly

Today in America, I’m sensing a disarming quiet on our land. Even in the midst of a perfect storm of perilous national tumult – a contumacious president stoking public violence and governmental distrust, massive protests in our cities, towering storms and wildfires stealing lives and property, an economy in disarray, a pandemic flourishing unchecked – it is as if we Americans are all just waiting. Waiting to find out who wins – definitely that. But also waiting anxiously to know what will happen to us next.

It is as though a substratum of silent ice now underlies the hectic American crazy-quilt, holding us in our places. Most American voters, after all, have by now made their election choices and don’t much bother with newspapers or monitoring current events on TV. Covid-19 has forcibly altered our sense of time so as to beget one long, eerie present. A steady onslaught of obfuscating executive perfidies has worn down confidence in our sense of self-determination. My country of 76 years seems to exist today at a strange and unnatural distance from me, and not at all clearly. This, as we approach the most consequential election in the lifetime of any American living.

At this perplexing and virtual distance, America feels more like just any other country – any other that could fail. Even in the worst of Vietnam, or in the aftermath of 9/11, I didn’t feel this way.

In other words, it feels dangerous in America today. It feels like we can’t go on this way indefinitely, that we should be doing more to help ourselves but are oddly constrained. Our feet frozen in place.

You might well say that America was founded on the premise of strategic constraints – on a presumed respect for norms and laws, on a belief that 13 – then 20 then 30, then remarkably 50 – distinct geographical entities (our states) could and would seek to accommodate each other across a vast and disconcerting land mass, and thus to affirm a nation; that governing powers would transfer peaceably and on time, and would operate gradually, in a nuanced way, with an appreciation for ambiguity, and patience for the complexity of citizen engagement and the internal stresses occasioned by inevitable disagreements. As the American historian Anne Applebaum has said about us and others, democracies require tolerance.

Those same assumptions and foundational institutions that protect us from tyranny also tend to stay succeeding governments’ hands by faithfully requiring one constitutional sector of government (the legislature, for instance) to act as supervisor and steward to another. Again, we call this teetery business “checks and balances”. It all makes for a rather large, unwieldy and unrealistically positivistic ship of state. But in its ingenious but slow-going ponderousness, our institutions have engendered in Americans a confidence (questionable now) that affairs of state will and should function visibly and predictably while we all happily and safely go about our business. You could say it’s our version of “too big to fail”. But we know how that worked out.

A Canadian friend of my wife’s and mine once joked to us that “You Americans are the only country that took democracy seriously”. (He wasn’t paying us a compliment.) To which I answered quite correctly, “Yes. Well, sort of. I guess. Sure.”

Richard Ford: ‘I have not drunk any of the Kool-Aid, and I feel bestilled and slightly disoriented and angry – at myself.’ Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty
Richard Ford: ‘I have not drunk any of the Kool-Aid, and I feel bestilled and slightly disoriented and angry – at myself.’ Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

“Sort of” because along with these graven, enlightenment certainties came a deep, colonial-inherited suspicion of government. Also a concomitant obsession with property rights, as if only the ground could be trusted. Also, and relatedly, a distrust of mutuality, a rampant and endemic xenophobia, a cloying and unpersuasive religiosity and a belief that complex human problems could (and probably should) be “solved” by simply moving somewhere else, since there was a lot of somewhere else to move to.

Independence, which began for America as a mantra with which we freed ourselves from British oppression in order that we be freer to affiliate more fruitfully with the wider world, over time has ossified to become a buzz word for un-splendid and benighted isolation. Is any of this sounding familiar? Are you seeing a human face materialise out of the bubbling chemical bath?

We tend to take our sovereignty, stability and rectitude rather delusively for granted. (A great many Americans still think we won the Vietnam War!)

Democracies, of course, can and do fail. Read Cicero, as our founding fathers did. Still, though, a great nation’s decline shouldn’t be easily achieved. But America is a young country untested by time, and in most ways not very self-critical or self-aware. Only four wars – one of which we savagely waged against ourselves, and two against our closest neighbours – have seen battles fought inside our boundaries. (We tend not to count the genocidal wars whites waged against our indigenous predecessors.) In this inattentive way we tend, with our freedoms and vast unequally distributed wealth, to take our sovereignty, stability and rectitude rather delusively for granted. (A great many Americans still think we won the Vietnam War!)

Our delicately counterpoised, foundational materials make for a grand country when they work well and everybody buys in, knows and follows the rules (less government plus more freedom equals happiness – the great American experiment). But those same geometries become precarious and susceptible to dystrophy when they are not faithfully attended to. As they are not now being faithfully attended to.

European friends often tell me – somewhat disingenuously, I think – that they “look hopefully to America”, as if they looked upwards and reverently to John Winthrop’s now famous city upon a hill. However, they say, they worry now that we are coming into jeopardy. But to the extent that their worry is not just about trade deals, tariffs and reruns of Happy Days, I question their concern. Not that they wish us ill – necessarily. It simply seems that they have quite enough to worry about in their own countries without looking appraisingly towards mine. But also, that they may actually have drunk the Kool-Aid of “American Exceptionalism” and probably have not read all of Pastor Winthrop’s sermon.

To his Puritan flock in 17th-century Massachusetts – the putative residents of the city upon a hill – Winthrop went on to preach that “the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” Said in more secular terms: you must not think that we are exempt from the calamities others have faced and fallen victim to. Right.

The American story has always been a rickety novel in progress, with an uneasy and highly provisional certainty about where the plot’s leading, and ever in need of a lot of things to go right, and not many big things to go wrong so that it not veer away from some basic optimistic premise. Most of us believe this errant quality is good. But there are other views.

Sometimes the strange quiet I detect around me and all of us in America seems like the silence preceding a battle. This sounds melodramatic. And I would like to be wrong

In the pre-apocalyptic mood of the moment, it’s fashionable to wonder aloud and in print what historians will say about this time in our nation. As though historians would finally get the due they’ve always longed for, and be declared the ultimate truth-tellers and funerary celebrants to the mess we’ve made of things.

What I think historians could in retrospect say about these icy, shadowy days in my country is:

“Huh. America didn’t really last all that long from the point of view of eternity, did it? Or even compared to its worst enemies. It had a lot of problems, though. Slavery being a biggy. Also a failure to read history. [Naturally they’d say that.] Also a failure to look outward at what was happening in the world, which America was an important part of for a while; that, coupled with a failure to look inward at what was happening in plain sight. And of course near the end it got real bad. Citizens didn’t even know how the government worked or why, and their leaders selfishly sabotaged many of the normal mechanisms of governance. And all those guns – it wasn’t safe. The natural environment turned toxic. For a ridiculously rich country many people were actually starving and sick. The schools were no better than schools in Uzbekistan. It’s really not that strange that America should fail – when you look at things as they really are.”

That’s what many of us are doing over here in our chilly waiting period. (Let’s pray it’s most of us.) We’re trying to see things as they really are. It’s often not that easy, or else we still don’t take our citizenship seriously enough. The old complacency again.

Sometimes I think Uzbeks and Ugandans and citizens of Ireland may see what’s going on in America better than most Americans, who see things close-up. We badly need to use that perplexing distance I’ve been experiencing as a wider but clarifying lens and sensor. Because sometimes the strange quiet I detect around me and all of us in America seems like the silence preceding a battle; and the odd, cotton-y haziness surrounding even the simplest facts of human existence seems similar to the fog of war.

This sounds melodramatic. And I would like to be wrong about this because I am an American patriot. But as Tolstoy and every great war chronicler make marvellously clear, all wars are engaged well before the guns go off and smoke confuses the battlefield.

I don’t know much about proto-fascist authoritarianism – only what I read in books – though the words themselves frankly frighten me. But unlike my suspicions about American exceptionalism, I know authoritarianism is not a myth, and that one of its first sinister and subversive characteristics is that it doesn’t announce itself as what it is. Instead it announces itself as a direct and quick and rational and inevitable solution to everything that ails a people and a country.

In that way – and in many other ways, too – authoritarianism functions in the opposite way from a democracy, which requires time and patience to operate at its best, values tolerance, forbearance, postponement of gratifications in order that as many as possible take part, have a say, be served and protected.

Many of us believe that authoritarianism is now at the door of our rather delicate American democracy, which tends to bend and bend, but in its suppleness (usually a virtue) can also allow the beast into the room unbidden. There are just too many signs, and they are in plain sight – if we’ll only take our eyes off our spreadsheets, or off our mirror wherein things may not be going just precisely right for you today.

Indeed, authoritarianism, the pseudo ideology in which all power and intelligence and public intention flows from the top down to its mere citizenry – usually from some messianic, male despot-actor – seeks to misidentify and suppress and thus “remedy” the feelings of dissatisfaction we all experience as humans. It does so with a spew of misinformation about what causes what in the world, with a toxic bombast of blaming unfamiliar others for society’s woes; with a false pledge that an indistinct past was a better time than now; with the absurdity that law is for others; with the effrontery that the diction and grammar we use and that help bind us as a nation actually means the opposite of what we thought it meant. That blatancy is honesty. And that the civilisation we have made and sustained ourselves in – as faulty as it might be – is shallow and inauthentic and in need of being razed. All that just so that the despot can keep his job.

Yes, I’m afraid. That’s what this is coming down to. I have not drunk any of the Kool-Aid, and I feel bestilled and slightly disoriented and angry – at myself

Again, I must ask, does any of this sound familiar? Does a human face now begin to disclose itself out of the orange-y liquid? Does that face make us understand that the man behind it thinks absolutely anything can follow anything just because he says it? If it doesn’t make us think that, maybe we’re not paying close enough attention.

So, yes, I’m afraid. That’s what this is coming down to. I have not drunk any of the Kool-Aid, and I feel bestilled and slightly disoriented and angry – at myself. Feeling this way makes me empathetic with what citizens of Third World countries experience when they walk for three days out of the bush just to cast a single ballot to unseat a strongman who’s been holding all the cards for decades. I also think about what an immense and unlikely chance it was that America got invented in the first place – how many stars had to move into alignment, how many magical personalities and intellects and spirits had to be assembled, how much history learned, how much foresight marshalled. How much optimism and imagination and restraint exerted. We can’t remake that now if we let it go away.

Donald Trump (You’ll notice, this is my first mention of him), whether he’s a proto-fascist or any of the other things he might be – an evil child, a Frankenstein stumbling around in a dark, unfamiliar room (That would be America), or just a Covid-addled, oxygen-deprived, old roid-rager – Donald Trump is really, of course, just an unhinged and befuddling symptom of a deeper American malaise fuelled by anger, frustration, disappointment, fear, a violent history, serial powerlessness and even dislike of the America we have all of us made.

We citizens do not all feel all of these sensations all of the time. But at any given moment we may feel some of them. It’s just that most of us can manage these feelings without wanting to tear the whole country apart. When I wrote at the beginning that we are now waiting apprehensively to learn what kind of people and country we are, I meant that we are waiting to learn how we are to manage what we and our country cannot any longer ignore.

I await my day to vote and again to engage in our great experiment. We’ll have to get lucky this time. That’s for sure

The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who knew the young America, wrote in 1838 that the “health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens”. I write here as one of the specimen private citizens. There are more who believe what I believe than there are of the other guys. So I hope de Tocqueville may still be right, as I await my day to vote and again to engage in our great experiment. We’ll have to get lucky this time. That’s for sure.

Remember, again … nothing necessarily follows anything, and anything can follow anything. We’ve made a proper dog’s breakfast of things over here. I must trust it’s not too late to mend it.

Richard Ford won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Independence Day in 1996. His latest collection is Sorry for Your Trouble

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