Ahead of the Presidential Election on 6 November, our man in the US – Ben Fountain, celebrated author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – shares his thoughts and attempts to explain “the weirdness of American politics”
I have a friend, a good ol’ Texas gal whose drinking game for the first presidential debate required her to take a shot every time the defence budget was mentioned. It made for a dismal evening. She took two – count ’em – two shots – one for each time Romney promised to increase defence spending. By choosing “jobs”, “the economy” or “the middle class” she would have ended the debate roaringly drunk and found solace on a night when the race was Obama’s to lose – when he may have done exactly that.
But about that middle class? “Stupidity,” said Norman Mailer, “is the American disease,” but I wonder if he wasn’t talking about numbness instead; the dulling of our wits thanks to the 24/7 media feed, that non-stop blizzard of images and chatter and celebrity news that reduces US consciousness to a flickering sludge. How else to explain the weirdness of our politics? Our habit of bovine indifference to political obscenity, even when it’s happening right before our eyes?
The outing of Mitt Romney’s surreptitiously taped “47 per cent” speech caused a stir that closely resembled intelligent life, but to take him truly at his word, in his own unguarded terms, is to confront a world-view that is openly hostile to nearly half the population.
Arrogant, crude, with no allowance for complexities of experience and circumstance, his was as brutal a statement of class prejudice as you’re likely to find by a major candidate these days. Call it the US version of Tory talk.
A sentient body politic would have howled Romney off the national stage as soon as the video went public. “It’s not elegantly stated,” Romney later said of his remarks. Well now, Governor, please: feel free to put it elegantly. After studying Romney for the past several months, James Lipton of Inside The Actors Studio interpreted the candidate’s character as that of the boss who gathers his employees around him and tells lame jokes, which everyone laughs at because they’re terrified of him. He wants to see you smile, and he’ll fire you in a heartbeat. “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” the candidate famously said.
As for those 47 per cent of Americans who are, in Romney’s view, “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them”, you get the feeling he’d happily fire them if he could, dismiss them from the ranks of right-acting Americans.
If there was a rough kind of genius in the Occupy movement, it was its maddening refusal to follow the corporate script. It appointed no leader, put forth no statement of demands, tactics that annoyed and irritated the mainstream culture – hierarchical, bullet-pointed, efficiency-minded, goal-oriented; in other words, corporate culture – to sputtering distraction.
Of course, no president – Romney or otherwise – can fire us from citizenship, but he could do the functional equivalent. Humiliation, degradation, marginalisation – history shows these are effective strategies for dealing with domestic enemies.
And as for foreign enemies? Recall that my friend got two drinks out of that first debate, after all. With President Romney, there will be war. Count on it. The conservative movement in US politics over the past 40 years has marched hand in glove with religious fundamentalism, bonding over a militant belief in the US as the Christian God’s chosen land, its goodness and purity beyond dispute, its brief no less than extending our “values” across the globe.
It’s God’s work, the American Empire, and every Republican president since Reagan has embarked on a major war (if you’re tempted to give Reagan a pass, have a look at Central American history of the Eighties). Mormonism, the US homegrown religion, is nothing if not fundamentalist, with an extensive, quite literal (care to rule your own planet?) cosmology where God and Satan are active agents in human affairs. When the angels pick sides, you can be sure it’s not Islam.
As the poet William Carlos Williams said, “The pure products of America go crazy.” One shudders to think: fundamentalism on steroids, and no lack of fields to till.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is out now