George Packer is one of the nation’s most eloquent writers and most perceptive observers. In his books, from The Unwinding to Our Man, he has chronicled the disintegration of America’s social fabric and the polarization of its politics. In his latest book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, Packer argues that the country is now being torn apart by four competing narratives: Real America, Smart America, Just America, and Free America.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and George Packer discuss the nature of historical progress, ponder the long-term impact of the Trump presidency, and debate whether a rebirth of civic patriotism can help unite the country.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I guess the first question I have is: Where does the presidency of Donald Trump, which thankfully has now been over for about a third of a year, leave us? Where should it leave our faith in or fears for America?
George Packer: Well, first, we really need to stop and take in the achievement of getting rid of Donald Trump. No other country with an elected populist, demagogic leader has managed to get rid of that leader; they seem to have a way of just sticking around through a mix of popular support and despair and coercion. And the American people got rid of Donald Trump. It was incredibly close. And it was in the middle of a pandemic, and I don't think he would have lost if it had not been for the pandemic; I think we would be in a second Trump term. So that is an achievement and is one ray of light to not lose sight of, because there's always reasons for despair.
But his presidency is going to be with us for the rest of our lives, in a sense, because it just exposed something that perhaps we'd have a glimmering of, but it had not been obvious until we saw how far we could sink in the Trump presidency. And I resist the idea that Trump is the fault of half the country. Yes, half the country elected and almost reelected him. But in a sense, the whole country produced him. A failure on that scale required the whole country. And by that I mean different social groups, different trends, different political habits all gave us a situation in which someone like Trump could emerge as a powerful figure and even as president.
Mounk: You make this point about half of America and all of America in your latest book, Last Best Hope. Tell us about what you think Trump revealed about these two halves of America. What does it reveal about the thoughts and flaws of half of America, by which I take it you mean the half that voted for Trump, but then also the thoughts and flaws of the half that didn’t necessarily vote for Trump, but that you think is also in some larger sense responsible for making this phenomenon possible?
Packer: Well, don’t get me wrong, I blame the 74 million Americans who, knowing everything we've learned about Trump during his presidency, nonetheless voted to reelect him. I put a tremendous amount of responsibility on them, and also the three quarters of them who insist that he was reelected and that the election was stolen. From that lie has planted a kind of toxic, radioactive something that will be with us for years and years. It will not go out; it’s going to continue to burn away. And that is the responsibility of the people who have been credulous and who have been insistent and who were in some ways shaped by Trump's 30,000 recorded lies. Those lies, I think, are the longest-lasting effect of the presidency of Donald Trump. They’re like an isotope that will just never die out. So put the blame where it belongs, whether it’s the hatred or the credulousness or the indifference—a kind of a nihilistic shrug of the shoulders—or the despair or all of the above of the people who voted for him, or even a kind of just desire for entertainment. I think Trump just left people mesmerized in some ways by the nonstop performance, and some people just wanted more of it, and it made them feel good.
But we’re all in some ways to blame because I think the country had reached a point in which we were so mutually antagonistic. And there was so little mutual trust between different groups, different parties, different social classes, different races, that we drove each other into extreme corners; we became self-caricatures, almost. Whether it’s the professional class, with its sense of moral and intellectual superiority as well as its economic security, that looks down on the non-educated—the working class, those who seemed like they were the lumpen—and vice versa. So I feel as if we reached a point in which different groups were in a ferocious competition for status and for revenge. And Trump saw that and just played into it every day of his presidency, including throughout the pandemic, by setting groups against each other. And it turned out we were easily set against each other. Why was it so easy to turn Americans against one another?
Mounk: Let me ask you about that. That social distance at this point feels much bigger, much larger than it does in Germany, where I grew up, or in Italy, where I've spent a lot of time as well, even than it does in England, which is a deeply class-based society. I have two questions. One is, I don’t know that I know America’s history well enough to know whether this would have been different 50 or 60 years ago. So do you think that this mutual inability to understand and mutual disdain has grown over time? Or has it always been there? The second question is, if it has grown—if it is worse as a problem today than it was 30 or 60 years ago—what’s the reason for that?
Packer: Well, to answer the first question, I think this is a 50-year phenomenon. Fifty years ago, we were divided and mutually antagonistic in other ways—above all by race, because really, 50 years ago we were just beginning to make black Americans legally full citizens after hundreds of years in which they were second-class or worse. And then women were also second-class citizens 50 years ago. So were other minority groups. I think the big change of the last 50 years in one direction has been to make hitherto disenfranchised groups more equal, more empowered, more a full part of American life. Not fully, and there is more to do. But that has been an important, really a crucial trajectory.
But at the same time, economically, we’ve become hierarchical, a class-based society in a way that maybe hadn’t been true since the beginning of the 20th century, since the Gilded Age, or the “robber baron” age. That continues relentlessly—no matter who’s president, no matter whether the economy is doing well or badly, no matter whether we’re at war or at peace. That has been the core phenomenon of the last half century: economic inequality growing, and based more and more on education. Of course, there’s a 1% that has benefited greatly from tax cuts, deregulation, the whole menu of Reagan-era economic policy, but I think, more importantly, there’s a top 10% or a top 15% who have done very well because of education and professional jobs that have been the winners in the economy in the last, say, 30 or 40 years, and they’ve passed it on to their children.
It's called the meritocracy: Your talents and abilities and effort will generate your reward. But it’s now an inherited meritocracy. In other words, it’s a kind of aristocracy where your talents and abilities are almost with you at birth, because there’s so many walls and so many barriers to advancement if you're not already born into a family that is on that track of professional and academic success. So that has created a class which I would call a “class of special privileges.” And that has warped everything because it has created resentment, mutual scorn, mutual hatred, and, yes, a certain snobbery among the educated class for those who are not, because they see them as failing. Because the meritocracy says it’s your own fault if you don't make it. Everyone has a chance; if you don’t make it, it’s on you. And that personalizes failure and losing in a way that I think has created a tremendous amount of social friction.
Mounk: As you describe in the book, you have a tremendous amount of empathy with and sympathy for the [2020 racial justice] protests. And obviously, we’re both horrified by the injustices that underlie it. You also seem to have a certain amount of skepticism about how that energy has been transmuted in the wake of those protests: how it transformed from a broad-based social movement—as you say, the largest protests in American history—to something that seemed to be a preoccupation of elite, often white America. The way in which the focus of some of these discussions now is in elite private schools or in affluent foundations or in universities. Explain that shift and that concern to us.
Packer: This is another example of a kind of collective failure, because it’s a subject that Americans don’t really know how to talk about, let alone how to address or solve—and less so now, maybe, than 50 years ago. Instead, we’ve shifted the focus. Not completely: There are reform efforts going on around the country and in Washington. But somehow police reform and all the conditions in black communities that create the injustices, which are then dramatized by these videos of police brutality—all of that somehow got shifted away. And it became almost a religious phenomenon, a secularized religious phenomenon in which white people were in some ways seeking to confess and to repent and to be absolved. And that took place much more in the world of professionals than it did in the communities where the violence is worst. And it seemed almost like the bigger the critique, the more systemic the critique, the more symbolic the answer: the more it came down to language, to gestures, to learning the right terminology, to making the right display of repentance and asking for absolution. It had a kind of, in some ways, puritanical quality to it. And to me, that led to a kind of dead end for what could have been a movement that was, in some ways, the successor to the civil rights movement.
I don't think we are that society anymore. We don’t have that amount of cooperation and trust. And we don’t have institutions that are responsive to the things that the civil rights movement insisted on and forced responses to. We don’t have coalitions. So all of the institutional and social weaknesses also showed themselves in what became of the protest movement, as it did with the pandemic. And so in some ways I think it’s a missed opportunity, and maybe a tragedy to some extent, that it seems to have everyone just tied up in knots, rather than working together in a way that can construct something new.
Mounk: You’ve located two really interesting things here. The first is that, in a way, our inability to make real change [on race] has this resonance with our inability to deal with things like the deep economic and class divide in America, our inability to deal with the pandemic. They sort of stem from a similar lack of ability for collective action, and so on. I think that’s really astute. The second thing that I take from what you said is that there’s a temptation for those who are horrified by injustice to emphasize its total nature, to claim that America today is not really any better than America was 25 or 50 years ago.
Packer: I mean, skepticism about progress is embedded in the theory that we’re talking about, which upends the Enlightenment values that liberalism is built on: reason, objectivity, due process, equality, and freedom of the individual. All of those things that people my generation maybe grew up believing without too much questioning have been challenged, if not subverted, by a theoretical onslaught that has become the education of an entire generation. So partly, there’s an intellectual reason for this. But there’s also a reason in people’s lives, which is that the elites have screwed up again, and again, and again—whether in the post-9/11 wars, the financial crisis, the recession, Trump. How is a young person born around 1980 and 1985 supposed to accept without questioning the narrative of a gradually improving, more and more intermixed, more and more tolerant multiracial democracy?
So in a way, they were primed to be skeptical, if not outright hostile, to those ideas, but the problem is when you get rid of them, or when you just challenge them nonstop: Number one, you disarm yourself; you no longer have the ability to motivate either yourself or others to believe that progress is possible, and therefore that action for progress is worth taking. And progress is not only possible, we see it all around us all the time. You have to really ignore a whole lot of evidence about life getting better for a lot of Americans if you want to say that there is no progress and to talk of progress as hurtful, which is something that I’ve heard from time to time.
The other problem is: You really do need a moral identity as a member of a community in order to do anything. And the largest community that we can identify with is the country. The world is too big to identify with. If you want to do anything on a really large scale—whether it’s in global warming, or stop racism, or to reverse inequality, or empower people or restore democracy to health—you have to have a narrative that appeals to people’s desire to fix it, which means some love of that community, some attachment to it, some attachment to the other members of it. That’s something I don’t see in the protests, or in the generation that is so skeptical of progress. In fact, any talk of America as a place worth sacrificing for, trying to make better, even confessing some love for—that’s not going to get you anywhere. But unfortunately, without that, you yield the ground to the worst narratives of the country, which are the racist narratives, the militaristic narratives, the exclusionist narratives. And that is part of what’s happened. And what’s become clear in the last year is that without patriotism, to call it by its name, you keep ending up in a ditch, in the dead end.
Mounk: There is something very strange about the way in which the desired locus of identification has shifted on the left, even over the course of my lifetime. When I grew up—and this was partially perhaps the function of Germany in the postwar period, but it was a broader phenomenon, certainly in Europe, and to some extent, the United States—what was in vogue on the left was a kind of cosmopolitanism. It was the claim that we should have the same amount of solidarity and the same amount of fellow feeling with anybody in the world, wherever they are.
I agree with you, that was ultimately unrealistic. I’m somebody who’s lived in many different countries, and many different places. And I certainly have more than one country, more than one city, that I care about deeply. But I care more deeply about various places where I’ve spent time, in countries from which I have friends, in which I have traveled, than other no less deserving places in countries where I haven’t had the chance to meet a lot of people, where I haven’t had a lot of chance to spend time. Because there’s just something natural about the fact that when you know something, when you’ve been somewhere, when you’ve grown up in a place, you have a deeper identification with it.
Packer: I think most people, especially younger Americans, don’t feel that sense of solidarity with people on the other side of the country or from a completely different group. They feel alienated from one another. They don’t have that sense of any national identity. But all you have to do is go abroad, or meet someone who’s just come from abroad, to realize that there are fundamental things that make us American. James Baldwin wrote about how when he went to Paris in the ’40s, to get away from the prison house of race in America, the first thing he discovered was how American he was. And he discovered it when he met other white Americans. He said in one essay, “I was as American as any GI from Texas.”
All of these [shared characteristics of Americans] describe what Tocqueville called “the passion for equality,” that we all want to be on the same level. And that doesn’t mean we want everyone else to be on the same level with us because, of course, there’s a terrible history of inequality. But we want to be on the same level.
So “equality” is one of the key words of the book, and the desire for it as an animating force, and how that shows up, and how it can then lead to inequality. If we’re all at the same social level, there’s no connection between us. And so our individualism runs rampant and inequality [too] as a result. My feeling is that, when we become as unequal as we are now, the idea of a shared citizenship collapses, and self-government itself becomes difficult, if not impossible. We need that feeling of equality in order to feel as if we have something in common, some shared identity, some shared value, which is the basis for self-government.
Mounk: What role should [these shared cultural scripts] play in our patriotism compared to a civic element?
Packer: I’ll answer that, but one thought I have is that you could say the pandemic was the final blow to American exceptionalism. There have been many over the last, say, 20 years. But there was no longer any way you could claim that we were exempt from the brutal forces of history, and that we are a shining light unto the nations and all the other ways in which American exceptionalism, for better and worse, has defined us in our own eyes and in the eyes of a lot of people around the world. In the book, I quote a woman who said, of her own husband and children, “They are not the people I would have chosen to be quarantined with.” And we can say that about ourselves as Americans. But in a way, it was a sobering and enlightening experience, because it gave us a long view of ourselves. We had to stand still and look, and we never stand still.
So in a way, the end of American exceptionalism, the pandemic, and the long look in the mirror are all conditions that I think give us this opportunity to see, before we tear ourselves to pieces for the final time, what we would be losing if we continue in the direction we’re going in, which is to think of ourselves as belonging to separate countries. And I think one thing we’d be losing is exactly what you’re pointing to, which is a common culture.
Culture is dangerous because it is actually cultural issues that are the least resolvable and the most divisive and the most core to identity. If we’re talking about something like abortion, or church and state, or the rights of trans people, when those become the focal point, we become more of a divided country. But culture—in the sense of just what makes us what we are, all those qualities I described earlier on—in some ways that goes beyond the civic ideal. But I think it comes from the civic ideal—what [Walt] Whitman called the “fervid and tremendous idea.” This is a phrase he used in his book, Democratic Vistas. He’s saying, “It’s not pecuniary interests. It’s not material conditions. It’s not the pursuit of wealth. It’s the fervid and tremendous idea that holds us together.”
Mounk: So it’s not about the grand past of America, though appreciation of a good part of American history certainly should be some part of it. It is an appreciation of lived everyday reality and the future we’re building together. Secondly, it doesn’t have to come from a claim that American culture is somehow superior. I think you can be a civic patriot without thinking that America’s constitution is somehow inherently superior to the French constitution or to the German Grundgesetz.
Packer: You can be well aware of your family’s deficiencies. You know them better than anyone, and you are more critical of them than anyone. But you are attached to your family, because it's your family. Not because it’s better than other families, and you’ve done a survey of all families and decided that yours is the one that you’re going to stick with. It’s yours.
Mounk: The book you've written is a tough one on the current state of America, an unflinching one. And “Make America Again” is the title of your concluding chapter. You know, it’s common these days to hear people talk about “sick America,” “dying America,” “the end of America.” The thought has crossed my mind more than once. But the same kinds of things were said in 1861 and 1893, in 1933, and in 1968. So how can we have these two thoughts in our minds at the same time: the deep crisis that America is in, but also the hope that we may be able to “make America again,” that there is scope for renewal in this country?
Packer: The election was our chance to avoid what I think would have been really permanent downward decay and self-destruction. Another term of Trump, I don't think we would have recovered from that. I don’t think we could have then come out of it and said, “We're back. We saved ourselves by the skin of our teeth to give ourselves a chance to restore some health to this democracy.”
I see two places where we need to focus our energy, and it goes back to Tocqueville. One is equality and one is self-government. This is all policy. And believe me, I don’t have original ideas. I’m not a policy thinker. These are ideas that are in the air, but there are a lot of policies—and some of them are actually very much what the Biden administration is doing—that can give enough of a foundation to people’s material lives, and enough of a restored sense of opportunity that we can look each other in the eye again, as equal citizens, which we can’t do now. That goes to everything from mending the safety net, to making it possible for parents to raise children while working, to equalizing the tax base of schools, to making it possible for poor children to get a good education and to get into a good college.
We’ve lost the feel for [self-government]; we’ve lost our mastery of it. I put a lot of blame on people like us in the media. I think the media has been, in some ways, a disaster for self-government in the last couple of decades—whether it’s reporting dying out, [or] a form of “enlightened” journalism that has now turned into activism and that actually doesn't really care about the objective world, but rather about advancing a cause, [or] social media, which has all these perverse incentives to create conflict, and to advertise yourself and to dunk on your enemies and to back-scratch with your friends, and really turns journalists into a kind of a noxious clique. So part of that last chapter [of the book] is about how we need to restore journalism, whether financially and intellectually and morally, to the role of a civic institution that works for democracy and not against it.
National service, I think, would be a great way for young Americans to have to deal with one another from across all kinds of divisions for a year and do something for their country, and be rewarded with a scholarship or with a grant or with training. And there are some efforts now to make civics something that we teach—instructing students in how to think about American history and democracy rather than a set of facts and concepts—which I think is the right way because we no longer know how to debate, how to argue, how to persuade, how to disagree. Instead, we either immolate ourselves in endless conflict or we go our separate ways. So all those things are ways to give us back that very difficult aptitude for self-government, which is maybe the hardest thing to do. It is not an easy thing. It requires responsibility. It requires knowledge. It requires self-restraint. Because self-government is also about ourselves: our own character and what’s in us. And so many of the incentives and forces today are driving us away from the ability to govern ourselves, both individually and collectively. So those are my two signposts: equality and self-government. One of them is about material conditions and one of them is about how we think and how we live together.
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