Trying to Understand Part 1: The Unwinding

Posted January 22, 2017 by Lory in reviews / 42 Comments

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.

Trying to Understand Part 1: The UnwindingThe Unwinding by George Packer
Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2013
Format: Hardcover from Library

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42 responses to “Trying to Understand Part 1: The Unwinding

  1. I’ve been seeing this book around for awhile and this post just convinced me to read it. It sounds incredibly prescient and not boring at all. Heading over to check out my library’s hold list.

    • No, not boring at all. Some of the publicity quotes that describe it as “sad” makes it sound like a depressing read, but I didn’t find it so. False hope and easy optimism can be greater obstacles to change than seeing the hard realities that are before us, as I felt that Packer was trying to help us to do.

  2. This book is something that I should read. It concerns itself with issues that I have been trying to wrap my head around for decades.

    Though I do not agree that money is everything that Americans care about, money and what it represents is connected to almost everything.

    I may be too disturbed at this moment to read this particular book. Hopefully at some point I will be able to read these things again.

    • I think you should definitely read it, Brian. You will probably be more knowledgeable about things that it discusses than I was, but it puts them in a different perspective.

      I don’t agree either that money is all that Americans care about, but as you say, it’s tangled up in everything. I think we need to do some work there.

  3. Lory, first of all, I think you are such a good writer. I will continue to read yours and others thoughts on these challenging times, because I am scared and confused as to how this all happened, how we got here and what it means for the future.

    That Trump, the billionaire, who grew up in a millionaire family somehow became a symbol of “the people” is strange and bizarre to me. That millions of conservative Christians disregarded his immorality, his lack of religion (he said himself he doesn’t pray or go to church), his disrespect for women and marriage, and his ‘Me First’ way of creating his life (because I do believe money motivates him), and voted for this “man of God,” makes feel like I am in an alternate universe where 2+2=7.

    I am most worried about this attitude about information and facts and how we have gotten to calling everything fake. The fact that so many Trump supporters have decided the government lies about everything and that Trump is the only standard of the truth, upsets and frightens me more than I can say….When a crisis occurs somewhere in the world, as it is bound to, who will we go to for the truth? And how will we know what is truth if we are so suspicious now? Ack…I can barely articulate this.

    Anyway, keep it up. I look forward to more. Thank you.

    • Exactly, it’s like there is an alternate universe being created and we have got to find our way back to reality. It is scary, but the alternate reality is itself created because of fear and made of fear. I believe that where we are able to confront our fears and truly meet one another, there we will find what is real. And in that meeting, there is Christ, beyond all the doctrines and judgments that divide us. We are not alone in the struggle.

    • Recent events have stunned all us right-thinking people around the world — how has a narcissistic self-serving liar been promoted beyond his competence, and how can so many have seemingly been taken in by his ridiculous attempt at rhetoric, his blatant demagoguery and his outright falsehoods? When the beautiful truth and true beauty are held to be worthless we are all left speechless. Let this be our low point: the only way now is up.

  4. It’s interesting, all the many points you bring out here, Lory, and the responses. Particularly so is Brian’s qualifying comment — “money and what it represents is connected to almost everything” — because from a European perspective that’s the impression we get from across the pond. Read any North American health or diet book, for example, and in amongst the mostly persuasive science is advice to buy particular supplements or follow a specific medical regime, the products for which are exclusively available from … a sister organisation or an associated company of the author’s own set-up.

    I know that there is altruism in the soul of the US though it is not much to the fore right now — and from this analysis may not have been for many decades. I take heart though from the grassroot demonstrations that we’ve seen in the last day or so that it may finally making a comeback. I hope so, anyway.
    This is only

    • There absolutely is much altruism and many, many good people in America, and not everything is tainted by money. My husband is from Europe and I know that it is sometimes hard to see that part of the picture, and it makes me sad.

      But overall, as a culture, we have to acknowledge that our nation was built as a commercial enterprise founded on the exploitation and oppression of other human beings — my recent reading of New England Bound and Mayflower has reinforced that. I do not think that we have faced this “shadow” side of our national character, but have repressed and whitewashed it. We need to do some Jungian integration here, but I’m not quite sure how.

  5. This book was a DNF for me, but I hope to join in with reading some of the other books on the list.
    You make a good point about looking forward. I think that we must, but I hope to do so in a way that doesn’t mean leaving civility, manners, and REAL acceptance for others behind. This new civil rights movement, especially the women’s causes, has stepped all over the rights of the women who don’t agree with their every stand, which is the opposite of what the agenda was in the beginning. This is just one example where I keep looking back. I was raised by all women, and there was a time when I was proud of the movement and stood strongly behind it. Now, I just look back and wish.

    • I hear you about the liberals needing to listen to voices that disagree with them. I can see a lot of defensiveness and narrow-mindedness cropping up there too, and it does not help. Our ideals should not harden into dogmas. Yet wishy-washy “everyone’s truth is different” thinking is going to splinter us into a million different alternate realities. Where can we meet? How can we talk? Certainly, the bitter, uncivil ranting is not getting us anywhere.

      • That’s what I want to know too. I tend to lean pretty big-tenty, believing that we do not have to agree on everything in order to work together on the things we do agree on. But that doesn’t always work either….

        • We can’t always agree on everything — we are not robots. But it’s starting to feel as though there are two sides that can’t agree on ANYTHING, including what direction is up or down. This is rather disorienting.

    • It was a DNF for me too. I didn’t feel like the author could possibly be going to make a good, general point based on a few anecdotes and since I was expecting a book that would provide some answers, I found that very disappointing.

      • Interesting how our expectations shape our reading experience. I hope you might give it another chance, because I don’t think the aim was to provide answers or make a single general point, and while there is a place for that kind of book, there’s also a need for us to learn how to live with muddle and messiness. If you get through the whole book I think a kind of picture will emerge, but it’s dynamic and complex, and every reader will likely see it somewhat differently. However, I hope you will find the answers you seek elsewhere…please share them with us!

  6. Our library has it so I just put a hold on it. It sounds interesting and I’d like to have a look at it. I’m an American living in Australia (almost 30 yrs) and we are just as bothered by what is happening in America as everyone else in the world is. How on earth did this ever happen? I wonder how many people across the USA who marched voted.

    • I would be surprised if they had not voted. Remember, Trump lost the popular vote by more than 2 million. Still, the electoral college system allowed him to win.

      How on earth did this happen? I think it’s revealing the dirty underside of our country, above all the ingrained, endemic racial prejudice that has been poisoning us from our very beginnings. It’s incredibly painful to look at, but maybe seeing it can be the first step to change. I think many of us have been shocked out of our complacency, and that can actually be a good thing.

  7. Deb

    Your description of this book is great, and really makes me want to read it. I’m only planning on reading a couple of the books for the readalong, but this sounds like a compelling and informative read (and one that is less dry than it sounds). I’m glad you liked it so much. I appreciate your thoughts about looking forward, not inventing a past utopia that either didn’t truly exist for most people, or that can’t exist today. Also it makes sense that “the people’s” infatuation with Trump is not because he’s somehow like them but because of his wealth and status. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the other books in the readalong!

    • Because it is completely told through narratives, I did not find it dry at all. Yet there was a lot of important information woven through it. I hope you will give it a try and also share your thoughts.

  8. New York Mag had a really good article today about the danger of becoming cynical and disengaged — they were talking about how life is in Russia and how nobody resists the excesses of the government because they’ve become cynically resigned to them. I don’t want that to be our fate! So it just really reenergized me to educate myself and stay active. This book sounds terrific, thanks so much for writing about it. You’re the best! <3

    http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/01/lessons-from-putins-russia-for-living-in-trumps-america.html

    • Wow. That is quite a sobering article.

      The thing is, why did it take such a drastic event to get us to protest — we were already turning a blind eye to lots of things that are so wrong. Lobbying, it becomes clear in this book, is basically pure corporate bribery, and the system is corrupt in so many ways. Where do we even start? It’s about so much more than just one person. I can see getting overwhelmed and discouraged.

      For myself, I have to concentrate on the things I CAN do. Not just activist things like signing petitions and making phone calls, but small things in my personal life that don’t depend on anyone else. Like how I talk to my husband or co-workers, or choosing to pray or meditate. I think that every free deed we do, no matter how small, makes a difference, even if it’s not apparent. Our attitude makes a difference. If we let that be determined by outer circumstances, then the regime has triumphed.

      • We’ve gotten discouraged over a long time, I think. On the whole, we lost faith that politicians were any good, what with Nixon, the 70s…a lot of folks liked the more cheerful 80s but others were scared stiff of Reagan. 89-93 was a time of great optimism in general, I think, what with the sudden and unexpected fall of communism, but pretty soon everybody figured out that those countries were a mess that was not going to get better soon, and organized crime/openly corrupt politicians took over, and the Clinton mess dragged us all into a pit of money scandals, squalid sex, and determined revenge. It’s become ever more clear that our government is all about the money and the entrenched enmity, and hardly at all about running the country well. I guess it’s been a slow slide into a depressing morass that makes most of us feel powerless.

        • This book covers exactly that trajectory. It is depressing, but I think we’ve got to see through it in order to climb out of the morass.

  9. “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…”

    Nail. On. The. Head. Obviously, the financial concerns of many Americans are completely legit but we do have a collective attitude of more, more, more instead of conserve, save, and be satisfied.

    This book looks really good. I’m not sure I’m in the right headspace to be reading about anything related to the current state of America right now, but I will keep this one in mind when I am!

    • We need to live in the material world, of course. And when people are in dire financial straits, they naturally focus on the money because it’s about survival. No blame there. But the inner knowledge that would tell us when we have enough seems to be missing. That’s why I wonder if we’re actually hungry for something else.

      • dangermom

        I think partly we don’t *know* what is enough, which is scary and makes us feel like we need more, no matter what we have. I have enough for my needs now, but what about retirement? How many of us know people who get sick and run through all their savings? The prospect of being out of work and out of money is terrifying, and most people couldn’t hang on through that. We went through two bouts of unemployment, and the long one featured no income whatsoever. That’ll scar anybody.

        I would say that the uncertainty around employment/layoffs, savings, illness, and retirement makes it so that we can never feel like we have “enough,” so we are always worried about it.

        • In the book there was an interesting segment where the lawyer, after some cycles of not very well paid political work, got quite wealthy and realized that it’s possible for the lifestyle at that income level to eat up all one’s gains. You make more, you need more.

          And in the segment about Sam Walton, one could see that insecurity that turns into stinginess, the meanness that now pervades his company. Yet we stingy, cost-conscious Americans have turned it into a huge success, and allowed it to suck the life out of our communities, making us need it even more. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

          But NO ONE needs more than a billion dollars. I’m sorry. This is clearly sick. Are we going to let insecure, stingy, mean billionaires ruin our planet? Maybe the only way is to confront the insecurity and meanness in ourselves.

          • Oh golly, of course a billion dollars is far more than anyone needs. At that point, it’s a power game. I was thinking of us regular folks who worry about paying a mortgage, taking care of our parents, and sending our kids to college all at the same time. The costs of all of those things have spiraled upward far more quickly than any normal person’s income, so it’s worrying.

  10. I agree with Parchment Girl, that comment “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…” has illuminated a lot of Trump’s support for me more than anything else I’ve read. Thank you!

    To pick up one of your points, I live in a society (Belgium) where there is free education (to the end of secondary school) for all and a system of health insurance which is run by non-profit organisations with provision for those who are children, unemployed, long-term sick or retired and thus unable to pay. Everyone is covered. Yes, I agree, it is providing for material comfort, but I think it’s worth highlighting that campaigning for such things is campaigning for everyone, not just yourself. I think that’s an important distinction to make. Perhaps a lot of Americans have swung a bit too far to the individualistic side of things and a bit too far away from the being part of society side of things? (I’m thinking for instance of the hostility to Obamacare, a hostility that Europeans tend to find deeply weird.)

    I found your review fascinating: I’m not sure that I’ll be reading all the books along with you but I too am questioning what I can do in the world (we may not have Trump here but the Far Right is a growing problem) and so I’m interested in what you discover and what solutions you find… Good luck! 🙂

    • Adding the value of wanting to share the wealth with others makes a significant difference, for sure. But we have to consider not just our country, but the whole world. Our prosperity is dependent on others being kept in poverty across the globe. Is there another way to more justly share resources, to meet one another’s needs?

      I do think that American individualism has grown one-sided and sick. But I think that the movement is being manipulated by extremists who make those voices seem louder than they actually are. I truly believe the majority would support more reasonable policies, but a wealthy, powerful, totally unprincipled minority is working very hard to prevent that. Too many of us (myself definitely included) have just not been paying attention and taking too much for granted.

      • I completely agree with you; it’s the case historically (in western Europe’s case) and currently that the West’s wealth is dependent on keeping other countries poor. And I also completely agree with you that we all need to address that.

        I’m heartened that you believe that the majority of Americans are not ‘extreme individualists’, for want of a better expression. It’s very easy for those of us outside the US to see the news and read the more extreme comments online and fear that they speak for many.

        I try to be optimistic and think that the vote for Trump will spark a reaction that does bring genuine, sustainable change to the US for the better. I have to say, when I look at Brexit, I can’t feel such optimism for my own country, but I suppose we’ll see.

        • It is so hard to see that horrible extremist rhetoric and not get completely discouraged — for us in the US too. And we must acknowledge that they represent a real element of our national character, one that has long been working undercover and now is being revealed in all its ugliness. This is actually a good thing, believe it or not. But the protests last week represented another side, and that is the America I (and many, many others) want to fight for. This is a force, and if we can organize and harness it, change is possible.

          What’s up with Brexit? I hear now it’s going to Parliament for a vote. Is there any hope there, or it is just some kind of token gesture (like the electoral college, blah)?

          • Ach Brexit. Who knows, Lory? The referendum was not legally binding but the government of the time promised to implement whatever was decided, so there’s that. Then again, it was very close – would a second referendum be in order?

            In principle Parliament could vote against triggering Article 50, which would start the exit process, but in practice both the main parties are saying their MPS will vote to trigger it even though the MPs themselves may not be pro-Brexit. It is a moral quandary for politicians – do you vote to enact the people’s decision even though there is a sizeable opposition to it, even if you believe that it’s going to be disastrous for the nation?

            And I’m not even sure if MPs really heeded the great message of rage and dissatisfaction with the political status quo which Brexit expressed. Meanwhile, we’ve managed to end up with a very right-wing government led by an unelected PM and with no strong opposition. That’s not a great situation.

  11. So far, I haven’t gotten past the part about Newt Gingrich, which unfortunately was very early in the book. I don’t like that man, but I probably shouldn’t let that keep me from reading the rest of the book, especially since you liked it so much. At this point, I would be (almost) content if we could just all get back to a point where we can speak civilly to each other. Well, that’s not exactly true, but if we stopped to immediately yell at people with a different opinion (however crazy it may be), then maybe there would be enough space for thoughtful discussions. What scares me the most is how easily people are willing to manipulate and be manipulated by mere words (though money certainly speaks loudly as well). I think you are completely correct that people can’t even agree on what is up or down at the moment. That’s probably why I couldn’t get past Newt Gingrich.

    • Well, I definitely didn’t like the book in the sense of liking all the people and events it portrayed. Newt Gingrich is almost innocuous in comparison to some — wait till you get to Andrew Breitbart.

      But as I said above, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about what has been going on in my own lifetime from different, multiple perspectives, and understand perhaps a bit more than I had before.

      Civil speech? Oh, if only…

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