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Review of ‘Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury’ by Evan Osnos – Foreign Policy

Journalists misread the rise of Donald Trump in 2015, partly because we misinterpreted the events of that year’s tumultuous summer. We were amused and bemused by what happened on June 16, when the New York tycoon descended on his golden escalator to announce his bid for the presidency. Yet most of us, I suspect, thought that June 17 would end up being a more consequential date. That was the night the white supremacist Dylann Roof terrorized a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot dead nine worshippers, all of them African American.

In the tumble of events that followed, we watched the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capital in Columbia, a ceremony that felt like the final surrender of the U.S. Civil War. Barack Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of shooting victim Clementa Pinckney, perhaps the most emphatically African American moment of his presidency. Afterward, the president returned to a White House bathed in the colors of the rainbow, celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision earlier that day that made same-sex marriage a right nationwide. It was tempting to interpret these milestone moments as the triumph of progressivism. While far from being universally accepted, these breakthroughs nonetheless seemed irreversible. The corollary, many Democrats predicted, was that America’s first Black president would hand the torch to its first female president.

Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, Evan Osnos, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp., , September 2021 Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, Evan Osnos, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp., , September 2021

Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, Evan Osnos, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp., $30, September 2021.

Journalists misread the rise of Donald Trump in 2015, partly because we misinterpreted the events of that year’s tumultuous summer. We were amused and bemused by what happened on June 16, when the New York tycoon descended on his golden escalator to announce his bid for the presidency. Yet most of us, I suspect, thought that June 17 would end up being a more consequential date. That was the night the white supremacist Dylann Roof terrorized a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot dead nine worshippers, all of them African American.

In the tumble of events that followed, we watched the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capital in Columbia, a ceremony that felt like the final surrender of the U.S. Civil War. Barack Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of shooting victim Clementa Pinckney, perhaps the most emphatically African American moment of his presidency. Afterward, the president returned to a White House bathed in the colors of the rainbow, celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision earlier that day that made same-sex marriage a right nationwide. It was tempting to interpret these milestone moments as the triumph of progressivism. While far from being universally accepted, these breakthroughs nonetheless seemed irreversible. The corollary, many Democrats predicted, was that America’s first Black president would hand the torch to its first female president.

Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, Evan Osnos, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp., , September 2021

Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, Evan Osnos, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp., $30, September 2021.

What we were truly seeing that summer, it became evident in hindsight, was the start of a white nationalist blowback, a force that helped propel Trump all the way to the presidency. Evan Osnos became one of the first journalists to describe that rebellion in detail. By happenstance, he was midway through researching a piece on the rise of far-right racist groups when he was assigned to cover Trump’s nascent campaign. Having noticed that America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, the Daily Stormer, had been quick to endorse the reality TV star, Osnos realized these projects should be conjoined. Late that August, the New Yorker published what turned out to be a seminal essay from Osnos on how Trump’s nationalist coalition, “a confederacy of the frustrated,” was taking shape. For those who thought that the billionaire’s early domination of the Republican race was merely a summer silly season sensation, Osnos’s reporting suggested otherwise: that America had entered a parallel political universe.

Osnos had already made a name for himself as the New Yorker’s China correspondent and as the winner of the National Book Award for Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. What was striking about his initial dispatches from Trumpland was that he covered his homeland as if he were a foreign correspondent. Returning in 2013 after more than a decade overseas, he struggled to recognize a country that “had spun so far out of balance that it had lost its center of gravity,” he writes in his new book Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury. In Wildland, he takes the reader on a quest for understanding as he familiarizes himself with a nation that had become in his absence so unfamiliar. As Osnos notes at the outset: “Coming home always holds the promise of a new way of seeing.”

After settling in Washington, D.C., he noticed, for instance, that Brooks Brothers now displayed suits with U.S. flag pins attached to the lapel, the kind of detail any observant foreign correspondent would seize upon, because it lends itself to such inviting extrapolation. The practice was intended to advertise suits made in America, but Osnos also discovered that it had been introduced by the company in 2007, the year Republicans assailed Obama for not wearing a flag pin.

As a recent returnee, Osnos instinctively found himself drawing international comparisons, something that more inward-looking Beltway reporters often fail to do. He was shocked to discover that a child born in Washington, D.C., in 2016 would have a life expectancy four years less than a child coming into the world in Beijing.

Like any good boots-on-the-ground reporter, Osnos also extended his gaze beyond the northwest quadrant of the American capital, the comfort zone where so many journalists live and work. (I myself rented a place in Georgetown for years.) Washington’s poorest streets were home to some of the highest levels of unemployment in urban America, which helped explain why the average white family in Washington was 81 times richer than the average Black family.

As he embarked on this book, Osnos’s literary touchstone became John Gunther’s Inside U.S.A, a travelogue published shortly after World War II in which an author who in previous titles had tried to make sense of Europe, Asia, and Latin America scrutinized his own country. After visiting all 48 states, Gunther was struck by his country’s knack for “the rational approach, reason, the meeting of minds in honorable agreement after open argument.” As Osnos explains, “my project was an attempt to understand how we had lost that talent and how we might recover it.”

More so than Gunther, Osnos reminds me of another gifted prose stylist, Theodore H. White, the author of the Making of the President series and a correspondent who spent years covering China before returning to cast his eye over the American political scene. But what makes Wildland such a fine book is not just the sense of divorcement he brings from his interlude abroad but the skills Osnos learned earlier in his career as a local reporter. It is a tour de force of old-style, shoe-leather reportage.

To illustrate how the United States descended into a state of disunion and dysfunction, he retraces his own steps. To Greenwich, Connecticut, where he grew up. To Clarksburg, West Virginia, a small Appalachian city where he first got his start in journalism at a charmingly named local newspaper, the Exponent Telegram. To Chicago, where he joined the metro desk at the Tribune. Through the lens of these three communities, he offers a portrait of America.

In Greenwich, he notices the walls between the properties are now much higher. “‘Fuck you’ walls,” a local describes them as, symbols of “power and seclusion.” Greenwich’s Golden Triangle neighborhood of super-expensive mansions should be the acme of the American dream, but Osnos portrays his hometown as it were some financial terrorist cell. This onetime haven of corporate virtue is now a hub for vulture capitalists, tax dodgers, white-collar criminals, and the architects of the subprime mortgage crisis. Here, we are shown the destructive power of hedge funds, the shift in boardroom values toward the shareholder capitalism that metastasized during the Ronald Reagan years, and the income segregation that has become such an accelerant of political division. “As the wealth in Greenwich soared,” he notes, “American inequality was reaching a precarious new height.”

Also in Greenwich we witness the rightward lurch of the Republican Party, away from the moderate Republicanism of the town’s onetime resident Sen. Prescott Bush, toward a “new concentration of libertarians.” They are ideological allies of the Koch brothers, whose aim is to destroy the one entity with the power to regulate their moneymaking: the government. While the town’s carefully pruned yards did not end up being peppered with Trump signs, Osnos was nonetheless surprised by the number of lace-curtain locals who supported such a vulgarian. Moreover, Trump’s unorthodox presidency heightened his popularity. In 2016, he won the Golden Triangle district by two points. In 2020, he led Joe Biden by 13.

Clarksburg enables Osnos to tell the story of the hollowed-out communities of the Coal and Rust Belt, the post-industrial landscape that provided the seedbed of Trumpism. As “other pillars of the Clarksburg economy were crumbling,” residents placed more faith in the coal industry and thus became more susceptible to the siren call of Big Coal lobbyists to support mountaintop removal, despite the toxic collateral effect on the environment.

From this “Jewel of the Hills,” young people left to fight America’s endless wars. “The price of freedom is visible here,” reads a sign outside the local veterans’ hospital. The town even has a statue of the Confederate Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, a monument that became a fault line when the George Floyd protests reached West Virginia.

Chicago, similarly, serves multiple narrative purposes for Osnos: to chronicle gun violence, mass incarceration, and the subprime mortgage crisis from the foreclosure end of the market. Back in 1999, he was assigned to cover “an obscure young law professor” making an audacious bid for Congress—Osnos regrets taping over an early interview with Obama, who aides dubbed the “Kenyan Kennedy.” As well as being the cradle of Obama’s political career, Chicago was the crucible of the Tea Party. The CNBC pundit Rick Santelli sparked the movement into life by broadcasting a rant from the city’s Mercantile Exchange that instantly went viral. As the historian Frederick Jackson Turner had stated at the turn of the 20th century, Chicago was the city where “all the forces of the nation intersect.”

A strength of the book is not just that Osnos has lighted upon communities that illustrate America’s slide, but that he has located individuals within them who personify its ills. In Greenwich, we are introduced to Chip Skowron, whose name sounds like it comes from a Don DeLillo novel and whose life story reads like an Oliver Stone screenplay. A Yale University medical school graduate, Skowron ditches hospitals in favor of hedge funds, with calamitous results. In West Virginia, we meet Sidney Muller, a U.S. Marine who suffered the misfortune of returning from active service in Afghanistan “at precisely the moment that Clarksburg was emerging as an epicenter in America’s opioid epidemic.” The unraveling of his life produces some of the most heart-rending passages of the book.

Wildland, then, tells the now familiar story of American polarization in an illuminating and often revelatory way. I did not know, for instance, that in 2011 Washington surpassed Silicon Valley to become the wealthiest metropolitan area in the United States, partly because of the influx of lobbyists and their thriving “economy of influence.”

Nor was I familiar with the later work of the historian Richard Hofstadter, whose “paranoid style” became such an analytical staple of the Trump years. Toward the end of his life in 1970, Hofstadter became fascinated with what Osnos calls the “juncture of democracy and force.” Political violence in the United States, he noticed, rarely involved the poor rising up against the state but rather established Americans turning on immigrants, Catholics, radicals, and labor organizers. This framing helps explain the modern-day intersection of plutocracy and populism: the superrich patronage of grassroots campaigns that have often adopted incendiary and almost paramilitary rhetoric. Hofstadter called it “verbal and ideological violence.”

What is particularly invigorating about Wildland is to see a Washington-based reporter refusing to surrender to the usual Beltway fixations. Osnos leaves to others the job of taking us inside the West Wing rooms where it happens and transports us to communities that make the capital’s political weather. “For all the roiling of daily politics,” he writes, “I was more interested in the sources of the moment we inhabited.” Here is a correspondent who did not have to learn about Rust Belt rage secondhand from the pages of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Here is a returnee who quickly makes up for his years of absence by going down roads less traveled. Here also is a journalist who rushed to Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 to report from the front lines of an American insurrection as if he were covering a foreign conflict—“a culmination of everything I’d come to understand about America’s political crisis since I’d come to Washington in 2013.”

By limiting his geographic scope, there are pieces missing from the Wildland mosaic. Arguably, Hispanic and Latino Americans receive short shrift. So, too, do evangelical Christians. Rarely does Osnos journey into the former states of the Confederacy, although Clarksburg, he suggests, “straddled the line between north and south.” California and what was then the largest wildfire in the state’s history give Osnos the book’s almost biblical opening, but we rarely cross the Mississippi River thereafter.

These, however, are small quibbles, because Osnos has chosen his locations well. West Virginia is the ideal place to explain how a blue state turned red (and also, more topically, to contextualize its Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin). Greenwich speaks to how the U.S. economy is increasingly shaped—and warped—by the finance sector. With Chicago, it helped that the city became a personal obsession for Trump and a regular target of his Twitter rages. Moreover, it is Osnos’s connection with the communities that shaped him and his understanding of the people who inhabit them that make this book such a powerful personal testament and insightful collection of parables.

In the introduction to his end notes, Osnos tells us that the germ of this project came just as he was about to leave China in 2013, from a conversation with his next-door neighbor in Beijing, a woman named Jin Baozhu. “When I told her we were moving home,” he writes, “she put a hand on my forearm and said, with concern, ‘America is rich, but it has many guns.’” Osnos was struck by “the rendering of my country in such stark, simplified lines.” But it got him thinking. “Were we really much better in describing ourselves?” In Wildland, Osnos delivers a rich and nuanced portrait, with the eye of a foreign correspondent, the tirelessness of a local reporter, and the empathy of a concerned citizen confronted by a broken country that may be beyond the point of repair.

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