George Packer, The Unwinding (2013)
This post is part of a series based around the New York Times’s list of “books to understand Trump’s win.” Rachel of Hibernator’s Library suggested doing a readalong of these six books, and I thought it was a great idea. So did several other people, and I hope that we’ll see some interesting and enlightening discussions coming out of this dark time.
Right at the outset I would like to say that my purpose is much larger than just understanding a single election or political movement. Forces are at work that are pushing humanity in directions that are ultimately self-destructive, and we need to stand up against them. How did we come to this point, and where do we go from here? How can we penetrate through the delusions that pit us against one another? How do we see clearly the sickness that lives within our culture and each one of us, and learn to speak a language that heals rather than divides? Voters of all persuasions are welcome here, as long as the discussion can be civil.
The first book on the list was The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer, which tells the story of disintegrating social, political and economic structures in America from the 1970s to today. It’s a gigantic and unwieldy topic, but Packer deals with it brilliantly, focusing on a few individuals and places whose stories encapsulate common experiences of decay, hope, disillusionment, betrayal, and rebellion. There’s a lawyer and sometime Washington politico, a working-class single mother from the Rust Belt, and a “think-and-grow-rich” entrepreneur — ordinary people whose hopes and mistakes and achievements and failures can cause us to think about the shape of our own lives and how it fits into the biography of our country as a whole.
We also spend some time in Tampa, Florida, where rampant real estate speculation and banking fraud are destroying a city; in Silicon Valley, where eccentric, antisocial tech millionaires plot how to save their own skins while playing the world like a video game; and on Wall Street, where the initially inspiring Occupy movement fizzles to a disappointing end. Interspersed with these ongoing narratives are brief profiles of prominent figures — Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, and Oprah, for example — who bring out key aspects of American life during this period. Unlike the more lengthy portraits, through which we get to know the subjects from the inside, these are biting and critical, which brings a jolt of piquancy that helps to enliven the complex and lengthy narrative (though sometimes they seem a bit unfair).
The Unwinding was all the more fascinating to me because it covers pretty much exactly the span of my own life. During this time boredom and disillusionment have caused me to avoid politics and economics as much as possible, with the result that I’m massively ignorant in these realms. It’s embarrassing to admit how many people and events in this book I knew next to nothing about, but Packer’s storytelling method made learning about them effortless. I’m still not sure what I can personally do to counteract huge disasters like the housing bubble or the corrosive influence of big money in Washington, but knowledge is perhaps the first step to action. Certainly, remaining in ignorance can’t do much good.
Packer’s narrative is so well-constructed, and feels so sweeping and comprehensive, that it’s easy to see it as the definitive word on the subject. But however much one puts into a book like this there’s still even more that has to be left out. Packer’s focus was very much on money, on the quest for dollars as the American dream. Some of his people have lots of money and are showered with even more, some lose the little they have, some go through cycles of riches and bankruptcy, but money is always there, defining and shaping their experience. Whether they are haves or have-nots, their ideals are cramped by it, their higher purpose is lamed by it.
This made me realize that to the extent that money is all we Americans really care about, Trump is actually the perfect president for us. He is a golden idol, a god for his supporters, a fetish that they touch in the hope that they will acquire what he has — though even if they became billionaires overnight it would never be enough, for this is a lust that feeds on itself. Those of more moderate or even progressive views are not immune from it either. Even if we campaign for a socialist utopia, with free health care and higher education for all, isn’t it still worldly comfort and material prosperity that we seek?
But what is the deeper meaning of this obsession? What is the real hunger that is masked and obscured by it? What do we truly value, and how do we stop mistaking the symbol for the thing? Packer doesn’t overtly touch these questions, but I think we have to start asking them, or our nation will continue to cannibalize itself and go on to devour the world. We cannot look wistfully back to the age of postwar middle-class prosperity, as Packer tends to do — that growth was built on the spoils of war and the rape of our natural resources, a Ponzi scheme that cannot continue indefinitely. America cannot be great “again” if we’re always looking back to a golden age that never really was. We have to move forward into something truly new, which is what terrifies those who cling to the old order of things.
But as a start, it’s good to look with clear eyes at where we’ve been, and for me reading The Unwinding was a first step on that path. I hope you will read it too, and please let me know your own thoughts.