American Wreckage

Thomas Paine, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Saint Augustine, and Thomas Hobbes all agreed: A house divided against itself cannot stand. In this election season, the massive fault lines of gender, race, and class—snaking deep underneath the foundation of American democracy—have been revealed for all to see.

In many ways, Campaign 2016 has been one long series of seismic quakes, laying wreckage to any semblance of a shared national identity. And the Big One, Trump has teased/threatened, is possibly still to come — a contested election that spills out into the streets.


Gordon Matta Clark, Splitting (1974)

We’re joined by journalists Sarah Smarsh and Matt Taibbi. Smarsh’s recent article in the Guardian takes the media to task for their monolithic presentation of the white working-class, particularly in her own state of Kansas. Taibbi, Rolling Stone contributor and fierce Wall Street critic, envisions for us a scenario in which the specter of Trump continues to exert enormous influence long into foreseeable future of U.S. politics. He takes the long view ahead: how Trump might end up being the best thing to happen to Clinton (and her friends in finance and the pentagon) — acting as an instrument to suppress dissenting voices of any stripe. As Taibbi writes:

Trump ran as an outsider antidote to a corrupt two-party system, and instead will leave that system more entrenched than ever. If he goes on to lose, he will be our Bonaparte, the monster who will continue to terrify us even in exile, reinforcing the authority of kings. If you thought lesser-evilism was bad before, wait until the answer to every question you might have about your political leaders becomes, “Would you rather have Trump in office?”

More than Hitler or Mussolini, Bonaparte may be the most apt comparison for Trump. Even if he loses, he will continue to be an imminent danger (conveniently, for some in the Establishment) to democracy.


Illustration by Susan Coyne. Main photo by Julie Dermansky/The Atlantic.

Guest List
Ron Suskind
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist of A Hope in the Unseen and Confidence Men.
Matt Taibbi
author of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap and Rolling Stone Magazine journalist
Nicco Mele
director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School
Sarah Smarsh
journalist and author of the forthcoming In the Red
Sarah Leonard
senior editor at The Nation
Vanessa Williamson
fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings Institute

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  • plaintext

    At least Bonaparte was a winner, well, I guess that depends on how you do the scoring.

    Exile sucks, but the return from exile really sucks.

  • Pete Crangle

    As always, an excellent conversation. Thank you Chris and team ROS.

    “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step” — attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte

    I hope that Ron Suskind is given an opportunity to come back and pick over the wreckage of his grand narrative theory (or, I’ll post my crow eating before I’m hauled off to a bigly, beautiful, fantastic, gorgeous Drumpf gulag … law & order is too precious to allow Pete Crangle to remain unshackled). He, and the likes of Joe Klein, MoDo, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman et al. will never pierce their bubbles. They are pathologically welded to BS and conformity — it serves their corporate masters.

    But hey, I’m not the puppet, they’re the puppet … they’re the puppet … they’re the puppet …

    Regarding Matt Taibbi’s theory, I look forward to lugging around my deplorable basket like a neon cruciform. I admire and enjoy Mr. Taibbi’s work, yet I do need to ‘believe’ he’s wrong on this one. He probably isn’t. Which means the world provides the never ending requirement for Drunk Uncle dissidents. This will be a suitable role for yours not so truly.

    We are in a madness making, psycho drama moment. Perhaps evolution, or some mythic personal savior, will send us an angel and get us a 45 degree angle out of the wreckage. It’s happened before. We are stuck in the bog of ignorance and unfettered base passions. I remember living through this during the Vietnam war era, though I was but a wee lad observing the meltdown. I just wanted to be an astronaut, and couldn’t understand why folks were lobbing Molotov cocktails at Bank of America while The Hells Angels, Oakland PD, and California Highway Patrol were dispatched for riot and crowd control. I was but seven years old when I was accidentally swept into one of these riots. If you’ve never been sucked into a raw bloodbath in your childhood, you don’t fully appreciate how carnage works. It’s one reason why #BLM and the refugee crises cut deep, and across various class struggles.

    As we ponder the fates and furies, with the prospect that US democracy may or may not be tottering on possible exile, allow me to pour out a glass of Retsina. A toast then, to Mr. Drumpf. Thank you, sir. You’ve crashed the little party. You’ve explained to us so well why Greek city states cut each other throats, until dysfunction and Roman legions sacked them, and gave us the Roman Greek era. You’ve accomplished what many usurpers have failed to do: murder the American prospect for optimism, and sweep our hopes and dreams into the tiny hands of demagoguery. I am doubtful our political acumen will ever recover — though it has always been an exercise in venting our spleen and blowing our whistles. Let us hope that the vengeance you’ve cultivated will bring peace to your grandfather’s restless soul.

    Out of the ashes … come future ashes made by different explorers, different invaders, and different scoundrels. Are we in the late 1950s or the late 1850s? Or, 1930s Weimar? Some moments are unique even as they embrace their antecedents, no? I will leave off with a quote that goes back to James Burke. It somehow seems wholly appropriate to describe where we are: “Never have so many people understood so little about so much.” James Burke, “The Trigger Effect”, Connections I count myself as an example of those ‘so many people’.

    • Potter

      Pete…Yes especially the last two paragraphs… and thanks for making it shorter.

    • Pete Crangle

      Mr Suskind nailed it. Mazel Tov. Should be exciting.

  • 19battlehill

    The country has been hijacked by corporations and Donald Trump exposes this and represents the people who lost their jobs to factories in Mexico and Asia. Hillary and her cronies are the ones who did this to the American people, that is way Trump always yells NAFTA, and the American people see their lives are getting worse and that is why they are responding to Trump. HE IS TELLING THE TRUTH, Hillary is a liar and that is why no one trusts her.

    • sadly Hillary picked pied piper Trump because he is a born loser who she knew could not be coherent enough to even make the simple case about how horribly corrupt and incompetent she is .

  • ” And the Big One, Trump has teased/threatened, is possibly still to come — a contested election that spills out into the streets.”
    poppycock and fearmongering, it really was not a big deal when Democrats did it, no reason to think it would be now.

  • “More than Hitler or Mussolini, Bonaparte may be the most apt comparison for Trump. Even if he loses, he will continue to be an imminent danger (conveniently, for some in the Establishment) to democracy.”
    This rhetoric is dangerous and absurd. Were Hitler or Mussolini or Napoleon “pied piper” candidates chosen by their opponents because they would be easy to beat because they were the worst fringe candidates offered?

  • A in Sharon

    Oh how the establishment want a return to normalcy! They keep asking when are these Trump people going to go back to watching football and American Idol. Can anyone really predict where we are going? Maybe after November 8 it will become apparent this was all just a show. National journalists can go back to having drinks with politicos without much worrying. Clinton’s team can go back to doling out privilege based on the highest bidder. FOBs may be a little older but I suspect they can still party big time. The establishment GOP can settle in as the opposition while waiting for the inevitable move back to the fiscal right once many of these Millennials get a little older, their tattoos start to fade, and they realize the only way to build true wealth is through the market. On social issues the center has shifted left but all that means is the standard family dramas on network television will now include a family break-up of same sex couples. That’s what the establishment is hoping for and why Trump’s debate-closing comment bothers them so much. That’s why they want Trump to follow the standard script and say, “Hey guys, this was fun. Gotta run. I have a meeting with some network execs!”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this is how we end up, at least in the short term. But, part of me worries deeply we are in for a bad time. World-wide there is a trend towards less centralized government. It doesn’t mean civil war. It can be done democratically. The UK want out of the EU will be followed by the Scots wanting out of the UK. Think of it this way. I can empathize with a Brit from the midlands not wanting to be told what to do by some cosmopolitan bureaucrat from Brussels. It’s the same energy motivating a rural Oklahoman to despise Washington. This is why I think Nicco is on the right track. What we should do is focus locally. Any social contract will break up any when the principals genuinely believe they are better off alone than together. Its the same for marriages and countries. How to make that happen? A good start would be for coastal progressives to cool it a bit with trying to force their values on everyone.

  • Potter

    Ron Suskind again irked me. The last time he was here I thought about what he said ( with exuberance) and then saw his points.This time, no. Trump did not win that debate. I’ll stick with Nicco Mele’s take:Suskind was talking about Trump winning ( as he has all long this season) with the “sliver”- which is why he will lose and why we can take some solace that it’s not enough for him to win though an astonishing number. We have never seen such a despicable person out there asking to be President, not that we should have the usual political hacks. I think of all the mean spirited lies out there that will continue on, that will never be corrected, that would be useless to even try to correct for some, all the harm done by allowing such harbored rottenness to escape,past our (supposedly) “better angels”. I may wind up more bitter than the bitter set I am reading about. The one calming notion is that these people, these Trump voters, (and some are my neighbors here in MA!) need more time to evolve. And I do not say that with any sense of superiority. I am talking about emotions. It’s all about emotions, gaining control of this sense of being left out, of entitlement, of things not being as they used to be, of intolerance, of confusion about government (wanting and needing it and hating it).

    I did not think Trump really wanted to be President. I don’t know what this man wants or needs. Let him be gone already from threatening the Presidency and the country. Let him have his TV channel. He has been our useful idiot. No more. It’s been quite an education: all the articles ( Sara Smarsh, Larissa MacFarquhar on West Virginia, Peter Hessler on Colorado, Arnie Hochschild here and with Tom Ashbrook yesterday ) listening to the interviews about/with so many in that “sliver”. I wanted to know, like so many, who are these people, these Trump people? I have lost my patience.

    • Potter

      Oy! The thinnest of threads: the electors in the Electoral College…they don’t have to sanctify this. What if they do not?