Since Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, bookstores have been inundated with volumes attempting to explain America’s collapse.
George Packer’s Latest Best Hope, released earlier this year, provided one of the best diagnoses. But this new volume by New Yorker writer Evan Osnos offers the most personal and powerful description to date of a country “so unbalanced it [has] lost its center of gravity ”.
To tell a story interrupted by the September 11 attacks and the assault on the US Capitol on January 6 of this year, Osnos travels to three places where he has lived: Greenwich, Connecticut; Chicago; Clarksburg, West Virginia. His topics range from the decline of local newspapers and the opioid crisis to the huge hidden costs of the silly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the leitmotif of the book is best captured by a line he quotes from the great liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who described “one of the oldest, best-funded, most applauded and, overall, quests. the least successful “:” The search for a moral justification truly superior to selfishness.
The Book of Osnos is full of appalling statistics. The three men – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos – who have “more wealth than all of the bottom half of America’s combined”. CEO salaries have risen from 20 times more than a frontline worker in 1965 to 278 times in 2019. The less than 200 companies with lobbyists in Washington in 1971 to the 2,500 who had them only 11 years later.
But what makes the book come alive are the personal stories. Billionaires, coal miners and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and all the evidence Osnos offers of failure to control excess at the top or provide meaningful help at the bottom.
Above all, it’s the story of how the mega-rich Americans invested hundreds of millions of dollars to give themselves the power to plunder the earth, destroy the air and corrupt democracy in a thousand ways without ever being held responsible.
Lee Hanley is a perfect example. A Yale graduate and resident of Greenwich, in 1980 he dumped George HW Bush for Ronald Reagan. Osnos’ keen eye provides a crucial detail about how Hanley’s wife, Allie, identified Regan’s biggest flaw before presenting it to the Connecticut nobility: “He wore a brown tie and it was horrible. When you go to another part of the country the most important thing you need to do is dress like them. So I ran to Bloomingdale’s and bought four ties.
Reagan “wore them on all the posters after that.”
Hanley spent millions more than his wife. In alliance with Richard Scaife, Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers, he trained “a generation of Republicans to adhere to ideological orthodoxy” with “a string of historic political investments”.
“He saved the conservative publisher Regnery with a cash injection, he founded a Connecticut affiliate of a think tank network to advocate for low taxes and small government, and he became the principal backer to a political consultancy firm formed by Roger Stone, Charlie Black and Paul Manafort, whose early clients included Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump.
Rarely has a handful of smart investments done more damage to more people.
In West Virginia, where Osnos once worked for the Clarksburg Exponent Telegram, he offers a nuanced story of the transformation from a state from a hard-core Democrat to a reliable Republican. A West Virginia think tank funded in part by the Kochs made a moving argument against mine safety regulations – “Improved safety conditions lead to lower wages for workers” – then asked, ” Are workers really better off being more secure but earning less income? “
Then-governor Joe Manchin asked the study’s author to brief his cabinet and a joint session of the state legislature’s finance committees.
Juxtaposed with the many successes of lobbyists are heart-wrenching tales of environmental catastrophe spawned by coal companies removing mountain tops. Osnos also reminds us of Manchin’s first major contribution to the national political debate, when he ran for the Senate in 2010: an advertisement in which he fired bullets through climate change legislation.
“For decades candidates had been photographed with guns,” Osnos writes, “but this was the first time anyone had murdered a bill on film.
Four years later, an Arizona Republican “upped the ante” by shooting the Affordable Care Act with “a handgun, a rifle and a semi-automatic.”
There is so much more to this book, including the gruesome fact that America has 310 million private firearms, the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world.
“The second highest,” Osnos writes, “was Yemen, which barely had half the rate. “
The story of how Democrats took the House in 2018 and the White House and Senate in 2020 is one of the only hopeful sections of Osnos. The right has spent so much to end government regulation and buy elections, especially since the disastrous Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United, it’s astonishing that American democracy has survived.
America’s richest “launched a set of financial, philanthropic, and political ventures that changed American ideas about government, taxes, and the legitimacy of the liberal state,” Osnos writes.
“In every element of his business and political personality, Trump was the culmination of this project… Above all, of course, he upheld the belief in unbridled personal enrichment, and on that basis some of his most distinguished supporters were ready to neglect ”anything else disgusting about it.
Osnos says the assault on Capitol Hill reminded him of an observation from Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward: “There has always been just enough virtue in this republic to save it; sometimes none to sell.
My hope is that everyone who reads this great book will be enraged enough to redouble their efforts to undo the damage done by the greedy and to reclaim America for its honest citizens, once and for all.