American Identity in the Age of Trump with George Packer


(robotic dinging) (light, upbeat music) – I’m Dylan Penningroth, I’m a
professor of law and history, and I’m Chair of the Jefferson
Memorial Lectures Committee. These lectures were established in 1944 through a bequest from Elizabeth Bonestell and her husband Cutler L.
Bonestell of San Francisco. The Bonestells cared
very deeply for history, and they hoped that the
lectures would encourage students, faculty,
scholars, and area residents to study the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, and to explore values inherent
in American democracy. Past lecturers, including
Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, Senator Allen Simpson,
Senator Elizabeth Warren, Walter LaFeber, and
Archibald Cox, have delivered Jefferson Memorial Lectures
on early American history, about Jefferson himself,
and on American institutions and policies in politics,
economics, education, and law. Any event like this is a group effort, and the Committee, which is
composed of Mark Brilliant, Paul Pierson, Wendy Silver, Karen Tani, Christopher Tomlins, and
I, joins me in thanking Ellen Gobler, who you’ve
seen up here a minute ago, for her deft and tactful
handling of all the logistics, it is a big job. (audience applauding) We’re pleased, along with
the Graduate Council, to present this year’s speaker in the Jefferson Memorial
Lectures series, George Packer. Before I let him up on stage,
I wanna ask you a question, how many of you have read The New Yorker? That’s an easy question. (audience chuckling) How many of you have started
reading a New Yorker article and forgot what you
were doing a minute ago? (audience laughing) How many of you realized a half-hour later that you still have a lecture
to write for tomorrow morning? (audience laughing) How many of you realized
half an hour later that you forgot to pick up the kids? (audience laughing) I’m not gonna say whether I did that. I’m sure you can relate when I tell you that I have lost many an
hour to that magazine, and the absolute worst, the worst, were the articles by George Packer. (audience laughing) Curse you, George Packer. (audience chuckling) What makes him so good? One reviewer of his latest
book, The Unwinding, quoted one of his characters
as believing that quote, “There were two kinds of journalists; “the ones who told stories, “and the ones who uncovered wrongdoing. “Mr. Packer is both,” the reviewer said, “and he has written something close “to a non-fiction masterpiece.” I would put it this way; Packer has a rare gift
for evoking something of the spirit of an era
in the story of a life, a town, or a family. He puts that gift to
work on big questions, like what has the lure
of unregulated capitalism done to America’s democratic values? His writing has kaleidoscopic sweep, yet is ruthlessly precise,
and he does it all day long. Not only is he a Staff
Writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for The
New York Times Magazine, Dissent, Mother Jones, and
Harper’s in his spare time. He wrote two novels, an
award-winning play, Betrayed, and five non-fiction books. One of those books, The
Assassins’ Gate; America and Iraq, won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award, and
an overseas club book award. His most recent book, The Unwinding, won the National Book
Award for non-fiction. He is currently working on a
book about Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American Century. And for his Jefferson lecture
he turns from recent history, I think to our present
moment, in a talk entitled, American Identity in the Age of Trump. Please join me in welcoming
George Packer to Berkeley. (audience applauding) – That was so nice, thank you. (audience applauding) Oh man. Dylan, thank you so much for that, I can’t wait to talk about your work after this is all over. Enough about me. And thank you Ellen, for all
that you did to bring me here, and to the Committee that brought me, it’s an incredible honor to
be asked to give this lecture, and hearing my predecessors makes my spine go a little bit cold,
I’m gonna do my best. I will talk a bit about recent history, because you can’t talk
about the age of Trump without going back a bit,
but first I wanna say, it’s great to be back in the Bay Area, which is where I grew up. (audience applauding) It’s also weird to be at
Cal during big game week, because I grew up at Stanford, when you were the enemy. (audience chuckling) So almost 10 years ago I
set out to write a book about what happened to
America over the generation that coincided with my adult life. That was a large subject,
and large subjects are best approached through small dramas. I wanted to create a
portrait of the country through the stories of
a handful of Americans. It was the depths of the Great Recession, I began traveling around the country, sometimes as a New Yorker magazine writer, more often on my own dime, mainly to out-of-the-way places that the media tend to overlook; the tobacco and textile region of the North Carolina Piedmont, the decayed industrial
city of Youngstown, Ohio, the new subdivisions around Tampa Bay, which almost overnight had
become ghost subdivisions. I met people in this places
who became what writers call characters, meaning the
subjects of stories. They weren’t famous, they
thought of themselves as so ordinary that some
of them couldn’t understand why I was interested. But they let me spend
months following them, asking them impertinent questions, getting to know them in a deeper way than a single interview would’ve allowed. I liked listening to them, I liked them, and they knew how to hold my attention, plus they were willing to put up with me. Their stories allowed me
to get at my bigger theme; the decline of America’s
democratic institutions. In a way it’s always satisfying to have one’s preconceived ideas upended. While I was doing my reporting,
I kept meeting Americans who didn’t match the
familiar Red-Blue scheme. They might be white,
Southern country people, but they hated corporations
and big-box stores, as well as the federal government. There was the lawyer who kept
imagining, almost welcoming, an apocalyptic vision of armed citizens turning to political violence. There was the black community organizer who talked down the
mentality of victimhood, and there was the ex-lobbyist
who wanted to punish Wall Street executives
with sweeping legal reforms and jail sentences. They followed the Tea
Party, but sounded a little like Occupy Wall Street, or visa versa. They were loose molecules,
attached to no party hierarchy, more individualistic than Democrats, more anti-business than Republicans. Now, the Left-Right division wasn’t wrong, there was no centrist silent majority waiting to elect Michael
Bloomberg president. Americans, aided by cable
news and social media, have sorted themselves
geographically and mentally into mutually-hostile and
incomprehensible worlds. By some measures, political
polarization is wider, and fiercer, than at any
time since the run up to the Civil War, and
political scientists have taken to estimating the chances of
a second one breaking out; some of them give it about 30%. If you graph this polarization, using data like voting
patterns in Congress, it tracks quite closely with
two other major phenomena of the past 40 years; rising levels of inequality, and rising levels of immigration. These trends start to increase
in the mid to late 70s, and continue right up to the present. It’s an important task to figure out what the trend lines have
to do with one another. Why was postwar America,
with a broad middle class, wider distribution of wealth,
stronger institutions, more ethnic homogeneity, and higher levels of political participation less polarized than America today? The simple answer, I think,
is that a smaller pie divided into less and less equal slices among people who look less and less alike, drives them towards cynical
and hateful extremes. My point for now is that the Red-Blue map could be redrawn in a new
way that would explain the political landscape differently, and perhaps more accurately; up-down. From this point of view,
the affluent on each side of the partisan divide have
more in common with one another than they do with the voters below them. A network systems administrator, an oil and gas company vice
president, a journalist, and a dermatologist hire
nannies from the same countries, dine out at the same Thai restaurants, travel abroad on the same
frequent flier miles, and invest in the same
emerging market’s index funds. They might have different political views, but they share a common interest in the existing global
order and its survival. For those in the lower
half, or two-thirds, globalization doesn’t
have much of an upside. It might lower prices at Walmart, but it will give their job to a robot, or a foreigner, or
eliminate it altogether. The Americans I met in these
ranks were unorganized, unheard, unspoken for, and
they were sinking, alone. They were part of a
trend toward geographic and social immobility in
towns and rural areas. Isolation was a common condition. Among all the people I wrote about, the only one with a network of relations that could provide help when she needed it was an Indian immigrant in Tampa who managed to save her
motel from bank foreclosure thanks to her extended family in Florida, England, and Gujarat. The native-born Americans
were pretty much on their own. Another family in Tampa, the
Hartzells, who are white, had no support of any kind from friends, or family, or institutions. They were always on the
edge of homelessness, and in fact, eventually they were living with their two children
in their broken-down car in a Walmart parking lot. Since most of the stores
in their neighborhood were owned by Asians and Latinos, the Harzells clung to the
belief that immigrants received seven years of government benefits after arriving in America, an unfair advantage, they thought. Danny Hartzell was
trapped by the uncertainty of part time work in a Target stockroom, with a schedule that
changed from day-to-day at the company’s convenience, and sometimes reduced his weekly hours to the vanishing point. In Studs Terkel’s oral history Working, written in the early
70s, people were trapped in monotonous jobs they hated that turned them into numbers and cogs; today that looks like enviable security. The people I wrote about believed that the middle class was gone, that the game was rigged for
the powerful and connected, and that their children were screwed. They saw money going to the
top, or out of the country, or to the undeserving down below. There was a pervasive fear of scams, and a longing for simple explanations, and these feelings can
easily turn to anxiety, nostalgia, and an impulse
to blame the other; black Americans, coastal urban
elites, Muslims, immigrants. The institutions of a
middle class democracy, government, business,
media, university, bank, union, church, civic group, were remote and seemed geared for the
benefit of those who ran them. And no institution has been
guiltier of this abandonment than the two political parties. Over the course of the 20th century, and I’m really going to oversimplify here, the Democrats were the
party of the fair shake, the Republicans the
party of getting ahead. They represented respectively, the interests of workers and business, and this continued all
the way into the late 60s, and then two big changes happened. On the Democratic side,
after the ’68 Convention, reform shrank the power of
unions and urban machines, and increased the power
of what was then called the New Politics, which was more concerned with the rights of disenfranchised groups and issues like the
environment, militarism, and government corruption. Then came the Atari Democrats, I think they’re the subject of a book that someone who invited
me here is writing, and that led to Bill Clinton and the 90s, when the party embraced globalization as the way of the future,
and education as the key to personal and national success. In 2000, at a White House
conference on the new economy, Clinton said that the internet
would be the greatest engine for reducing poverty in
the history of the world; things didn’t quite turn out like that. And on the Republican side there was also an immense change in the 70s. Beginning then, and
preceding in the years since, it’s had an increasingly shaky marriage between the interests of the
rich and downscale whites, many of them evangelical Christians. From being the boring party of Babbitt and conservative order,
Republicans were seized with a new populist energy. Beginning with the
Civil Rights Act of ’64, surging with the Reagan
Democrats of the 80s, and culminating in the
most recent election, the Republican Party became
a kind of worker’s party, but only white workers,
and led, strangely enough, by the Koch brothers. For a long time it seemed
like a winning coalition with a powerful ideology,
but it was stained by annihilism that came from the top and sludged downward to the grassroots. It fed on rage, and the spectacle
of celebrity pop culture. Media demagogues like Limbaugh, Drudge, Brietbart, Coulter,
Hannity, came on the scene with all the viciousness
of the 30s radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin. Republican office holders
found the will to deploy every available weapon;
investigation, impeachment, Supreme Court, filibuster,
government shut down, conspiracy theories, and even
implied threats of violence to secure power and destroy
their political enemies. So the most important
political development of my adult life has been
this descending nihilism of the Right. In the Fall of 2008 I was
reporting on the election in a little town called Glouster, Ohio. I sat down with a group
of women who were excited by politics for the first
time in their lives. The reason was named Sarah Palin. She’d fit right in with us, they said. Something new had happened
in Republican politics, populism had taken over. Being a Wasilla Walmart mom
had become a qualification for high office; for some,
the main qualification. Palin’s campaign appearances
turned working class whiteness into identity politics. She strutted on stage to the
beat of Gretchen Wilson’s Redneck Woman, she even had a pregnant, unwed teenage daughter. In her proud ignorance, her
contempt for institutions, her infatuation with her own celebrity, and her unrestrained narcissism, Palin was John The
Baptist for Donald Trump. (audience murmuring and chuckling) I didn’t mean for that
be an applause line. What happened to our institutions? In brief, they stopped
meeting the aspirations of those at the bottom,
while those at the top stopped believing in interests
larger than their own. We can’t live without
elites, for better or worse, but elites with no sense of responsibility are the worst case scenario. They didn’t used to be better people, human nature doesn’t change,
but they were held in check by certain taboos and social constraints. Today our elites and the
institutions they lead have largely been replaced by celebrities. Celebrities dominate
ordinary people’s lives like household gods. In times of widespread opportunity the distance between these gods and ordinary mortals
closes; the monuments shrink closer to human size,
and the lives of America, celebrities are gossipy diversions. But they loom larger in times like now, when inequality is high,
trust in institutions is low, and the normal paths of
upward mobility are blocked. Extreme celebrity worship
speaks of a weakening of ordinary people’s
faith in self-government, it’s a symptom of democratic decay. Our celebrities all live
by the Hacker’s Code, ask forgiveness, not permission. They obliterate old distinctions between high and low culture, profit-making and philanthropy,
business and politics, leading to the phenomenon of
being famous for being famous. The inevitable next step
is for Kim Kardashian to sit on the board of a tech startup, host a global poverty awareness event, and write a book on popular neuroscience. (audience laughing) Or, for Donald Trump to
be elected president. Given the landscape I’ve described, it should not have come
as a complete surprise when millions of Americans
were suddenly drawn to a crass, strongman who
tossed out fraudulent promises and gave institutions and
elites the middle finger. My book certainly didn’t predict Trump, but it described the early warning signs of something like Trumpism. The fact that so many informed,
sophisticated Americans not only failed to see him
coming, but kept writing him off throughout the campaign, and
in a sense still regard him as a ludicrous aberration,
is itself a sign of a democracy in which no center holds. Most of his critics are too reasonable to fathom his kind of politics. Some don’t know a single Trump supporter, but to fight Trump, you have
to understand his appeal. During the campaign, I
interviewed a steel worker outside Canton, Ohio. He was on a picket line
as a result of a lock out, facing months without a paycheck, possibly the loss of his job, and he talked about the
end of the middle class, which had become a familiar subject to me. He struck me as a decent, thoughtful man, but he found Trump’s
endless insults refreshing, even exhilarating. The ugliness was a kind
of revenge, he said, it’s a mirror of the way they see us. He didn’t specify who they and us were, but maybe he didn’t have
to, maybe he included me among the they. Maybe he believed, he was
far too polite to say it, that people like me didn’t give a shit about people like him. Maybe he didn’t care that
Trump’s friend and advisor, Carl Icahn, was responsible for the loss of hundreds of factory jobs in Canton, resulting from leveraged buyouts; what mattered was that
Trump spoke for him. “I am your voice,” Trump declared at the Republican Convention. Democrats scoffed, but
it was powerful stuff. The lower Trump’s language
and behavior sank, and the more he was vilified
by the media and other elites, the more he was celebrated by his tribe. Trump is the leader, and
the leader can do no wrong. During the election we learned that lots of Republican voters are not constitutional originalists, members of the Federalist Society, or devout readers of the Wall
Street Journal editorial page; they actually want
government to do more things that benefit them, as
opposed to benefiting people they see as undeserving. Party leaders should have
anticipated Trump’s rise, after all, he was created in
their laboratory of populism before he broke free and began
to smash everything in sight. Trump showed that the Republican party hasn’t been truly conservative,
or truly Christian, for many years. Its most energized elements are not trying to restore stability or institute virtue, they’re driven by a sense
of violent opposition against changes in color
and culture that appear to be sweeping away the
country they once knew, against globalization,
which turns out to be a political program, as
revolutionary and threatening as the politics of the Jacobins and the anarchists once were. None of this happened in isolation; the populist impulse that
brought Trump to power has taken hold throughout Europe and the rest of the democratic world. From Spain and Britain
to Sweden and Poland, from Germany’s Alternative fur
Deutschland, to India’s BJP, from Hungary’s Orban to Turkey’s Erdogan. This global reaction against globalism is described in the work of the Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk. He writes that the failure of democracies over the past generation to
provide rising living standards, along with mass immigration and the advent of weaponized social media, have split apart what seemed
like an inseparable idea, liberal democracy, into
two kinds of polity, both of them harmful to the
values of self-government. On one hand, undemocratic liberalism, such as the European Union and international trade agreements, which protect individual rights, but are unresponsive to the popular will. And on the other hand,
illiberal democracy, such as the governments
of Hungary and Turkey, where the people vote for
leaders who trample the rights of individuals and minorities,
marginalize free media and free speech, and opposition parties, and ultimately become autocrats. People in Europe and
elsewhere have a history with this kind of politics. At it’s most virulent in the 20s and 30s, it took the form of Fascism. But in spite of Joe McCarthy,
and The Plot Against America, and It Can’t Happen Here, we Americans really don’t know it very well. Democracy has always been our creed, and even the two times when it came under existential threat
during the Civil War and the Great Depression, we
continued to hold elections with the usual political
parties, and we amended rather than discarded our Constitution. No one ever got very
far in American politics by trashing democracy, until now. No one cause explains the 2016 election, it was too monumental for
that, it was about many things. It was about race; after eight years under a black president, Trump won in every
category of white voters regardless of income,
education, age, or sex. It was about immigrants; they
were Trump’s favorite target. He didn’t do well in places that have a long experience of
immigration, he did best among white Americans in
places that are experiencing non-white immigration for the first time. He did terribly in Los
Angeles and in Queens, but he crushed it in northwestern Iowa. 2016 was about gender;
the level of sheer hatred directed at Clinton continues
to defy all explanations of personality and emails. The election was about the
vast urban-rural divide, and it was about economic anxiety, not necessarily economic hardship; Trump supporters had a
slightly higher average income than those who viewed him unfavorably, but they had low levels of education, of social capital and
mobility, and of hope. They saw their communities going down, and their children and
neighbors struggling, and they didn’t believe
that the political elites would, or even wanted,
to do anything about it. A great deal of effort and argument has gone into weighing and
measuring these different factors like a contest to declare the winner. I’m not even going to try, I’d only say they tend to go together, and
they reinforce one another. Eight and a half million Americans who voted for President Obama in 2012 voted for Trump in 2016. He beat Clinton because
he did better than Romney, and she did worse than
Obama in key counties of the upper Midwest, North
Carolina, and Florida. The voters who swung from Obama to Trump were whites without a college degree. Altogether the election
was about alienation. This alienation goes
beyond whether you’re for or against Obamacare, it
actually has very little to do with policy. I interviewed Hillary Clinton
a month before the election, and she laid out numerous ideas for making the economy more fair, and bringing back manufacturing jobs, and forcing corporations
to be more responsible, and breaking up monopolies. As Clinton spoke I remember
thinking two things; first, why haven’t I
heard more about this? And second, none of it will
matter on election day, it’s not going to get through. The wind is blowing too hard and wild, she’s an incrementalist
and an institutionalist in a hostile climate. In 1945 George Orwell
described nationalism as quote, “the habit of identifying
one’s self with a single nation “or other unit, placing
it beyond good and evil, “and recognizing no other duty than that “of advancing its interests. “Nationalism is inseparable
from the desire for power. “The abiding purpose of every nationalist “is to secure more
power and more prestige, “not for himself, but for
the nation or other unit “in which he’s chosen to sink
his individuality,” unquote. Orwell called nationalism the
strongest force in the world; stronger than religion, or
socialism, or one-worldism, and it still is. Today American nationalism
has come to resemble the ethnonationalisms
on the rise in Europe and around the world. We still don’t know the
extent and effectiveness of Russian meddling in the campaign, but one thing is already clear; the Russians knew us better
than we knew ourselves. They understood how divided
and cynical we’d become, what easy pray to fake news stories and ginned-up outrages,
what shallow playthings of Twitter and Facebook. The Russians understood
how the tech giants, lulled by their own success and narcissism into believing they were
unique forces for good, that an open and connected
world was the best of all possible worlds,
how easily these companies could be used against our democracy. The targeting was clever and precise. Russian saboteurs and their
online American collaborators knew exactly how to freak
out white Christians in the small towns outside Detroit by inventing a strident local
campaign against Islamophobia. By the way, the same thing
happened just last month in the Catalonian independence referendum. Some of the divisions
in Catalonia were fueled by Russian-inspired fake news. It turns out every society is fragile, every society can be torn apart by forces nihilistic enough to try. The Russians understood there
was nothing very exceptional about Americans after all. We were becoming more
and more like Europeans, and the weapons of information war that were already succeeding in Ukraine, and Hungary, and France could also be used in
Arizona and Wisconsin. The Russians somehow
intuited that our attachment to democracy had grown dangerously weak. Trump has driven some of this, but all the trends pre-dated him. According to Yascha Mounk,
Americans born in the 1980s are twice as likely to consider democracy a bad form of government
as those born in the 30s. Less than a third of Millennials
consider it essential to live in a democracy,
and all age groups today are more in favor of rule by a strongman than they were 20 years ago. And our attachment to
liberal values is weakening along with our belief in democracy. Other research shows that
many Americans are ready to get rid of various freedoms; three quarters don’t think that fake news should be protected by
the First Amendment. Almost half of Republicans
think the government should be able to revoke
a broadcast license if it says a story is false. 40% of Millennials believe
that the government should ban statements that are
offensive to minority groups. Half of Democrats think
government should pass a law requiring Americans to
use the preferred pronoun of transgender people, and
more than half of Republicans believe that burning the flag should cost you your citizenship. 40% of all Americans don’t
think that religious freedom should apply to all religious groups, it just depends on which
tribe you belong to. Now, I don’t wanna sound sentimental, but all of this makes me sadder
than I can express to you. The essence of American
politics today is tribalism. By that I mean something
close to Orwell’s nationalism; fierce attachment to one’s group, a constant sense of embattlement, and us against them in
the struggle for power, a susceptibility to
confusing truth with lies, merging ends with means, a readiness to submerge
individual judgements and deviations to the
interests of the group, a contagion of mob thinking
that’s greatly strengthened by social media, and
a longing for a leader who has simple answers for the aspirations and resentments of the group. So by tribalism what I really mean is the opposite of liberal democracy. Richard Rorty the philosopher
foresaw much of this back in the late 90s, in his
book Achieving Our Country, whose title comes from
a line by James Baldwin. Rorty described of the growing gap between the educated elite
and the old working class, and then he wrote, “At that point, something will crack. “The non-suburban electorate will decide “that the system has failed,
and start looking around “for a strongman to vote for,
someone willing to assure them “that once he’s elected,
the smug bureaucrats, “tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, “and post-modernist
professors will no longer “be calling the shots. “One thing that’s very likely to happen “is that the gains made
in the past 40 years “by black and brown
Americans, and by homosexuals, “will be wiped out. “Jocular contempt for women
will come back into fashion. “All the resentment which
badly educated Americans feel “about having their
manner dictated to them “by college graduates
will find an outlet.” That was in the late 90s. After the election, this
passage enjoyed a brief fame for being posthumously prophetic. Now in the same slim volume,
Rorty also wrote this; “Nations rely on artists and intellectuals “to create images of, and to tell stories “about the national past. “Competition for political
leadership is in part “a competition between different stories “about a nation’s self-identity, “and between differing
symbols of its greatness.” So the stories we tell about the past create an idea of who we are as a nation. There’s never been a single
idea of what that means, politics is a contest of narratives. The traditional old party
divide between the fair shake and getting ahead has broken up. Today, instead, I see
four dominant narratives. For one reason or other, none
of them gives us what we need, they all keep us in the hole we’re in, they all turn away from the
heart of liberal democracy. The first narrative of American identity is Libertarian America. It imagines a nation of
individuals responsible for their own fates, its key
texts are The Federalist Papers and the works of Friedrich
Hayek and Milton Friedman. Its watchword is freedom, its ultimate aim is the nation without the state. This was the idea behind
the Reagan revolution, and in his words it had
the power of uplift, and transformed the political landscape, replacing what I call
the Roosevelt Republic with a vision of limitless opportunity, and creating a new political majority. Like all of the narratives I’m describing, Libertarian America has some
validity to its critique. In the 70s government seemed to fail at almost everything it tried. The growth of the regulatory state gave unelected bureaucrats
great power in people’s lives in ways that could be stifling. It’s a version of that Yascha Mounk calls Undemocratic Liberalism. In his Libertarian tract By the People, Charles Murray reports
that the number of pages in the code of federal regulations grew from 22,877 in 1960 to 174,545 in 2012. That’s the kind of thing a
progressive wouldn’t even think to keep track of. (audience chuckling) In Murray’s narrative everything
started to go off the rails in 1937, when the Supreme
Court, for the first time, upheld parts of the New Deal. According to Murray, just about everything the federal government has done since then is unconstitutional. His Golden Age was the
presidency of Grover Cleveland. (audience chuckling) In the past few decades,
Libertarian America turned into the ideology
of the Republican Party, a dogma of market fundamentalism that transferred wealth
and power to corporations, and to a tiny slice of
individuals at the top who are well organized and willing to pay for political influence. The Libertarian narrative
has little to say about economic inequality,
or the effects of technology and globalization on ordinary people who don’t benefit from them. In its extreme form, it’s
adopted a destructive attitude toward the normal functions of government, a willingness to see the
whole structure collapse on the single-minded
path to gaining power, which has become an end in itself. This extremism has found its way into the center of power in Washington. In American history, beginning with the founding of the Republic,
the settling of the West, the end of slavery, the
taming of industrialism, the struggle against economic collapse, Fascism, and Communism, the National Transportation System, the fight for equal
rights, the space program, environmentalism, even
the digital revolution, all of these national projects
depended on the existence of a strong central
government, visionary leaders, active citizens. But the Libertarian idea
regards Americans as consumers, entrepreneurs, tax payers,
everything except citizens. It has no vision of
self-government as the answer to people’s actual needs. This is why Paul Ryan is
willing to let Donald Trump trash our democracy for
the sake of tax cuts for rich investors. Since the election, Libertarian America remains politically alive, as a class of Republican
politicians, and donors, and think tankers, who continue
to function in Washington with no real connection to
the party’s voting base, it’s a head without a body. The second narrative I wanna talk about is Cosmopolitan America. This is Silicon Valley’s America, in which you have to be a lifelong learner and work for the startup of you, and the transnational
flow of goods and capital, information, and people benefits everyone. I imagine many people in this room are citizens of Cosmopolitan America. It’s the home without a home
of educated professionals, who, more than any other
group, are at ease in the world that modernity has made. For many of us, in the last decade or two, the surface of life has
gotten a lot more pleasant and interesting; think
of HBO, Lipitor, FedEx, eTrade, Mileage Plus Platinum, (audience laughing) organic grass-fed beef,
cold brewed coffee, and Amazon Prime. Cosmopolitan America comes
with a breezy ideology of flattening hierarchies,
disrupting systems, discarding old elites, you
find this strain of thought in all the important
sectors; politics, business, finance, tech, even culture. Think of the writer and
the reader in the age of Amazon’s self-publishing
platform with Jeff Bezos promising the end of all gatekeepers. Think of the professional reporter in the age of the citizen
journalist on Twitter and Reddit, but across sectors, the
result is always the same; when you tear down old
structures, wealth and power become concentrated in
the hands of fewer people. In a way, Cosmopolitan America is the progressive counterpart
to Libertarian America. Cosmopolitan Americans are right to say that those old jobs aren’t coming back, that a college degree
is the key to success, that it’s better to be open and tolerant than narrow and parochial. But in its optimism about
technology and the future, it has missed something important. In 2004 the political
scientist Samuel Huntington published his last book, Who Are We?; The Challenges to America’s
National Identity. It was a very troubling
book, because it presented American democracy as
a product of European, specifically Anglo-Protestant culture. Like warnings 100 years ago
about Southern and Eastern European immigration, it
argued that certain immigrants, especially Latin American
Catholics, are not natural fits for America’s identity. The argument had an
undeniable streak of racism. Huntington expressed
anxiety about the weakening of national bonds in contemporary America, he wanted a country of patriots
who shared the same culture and loved their country, and
were willing to fight for it. In my own magazine,
Huntington was roundly mocked by our reviewer, who wrote, “If the world is becoming more
porous, more transnational, “more attuned to the
same economic, social, “and informational frequency,
if the globe is more global, “which means more
Americanized, then the need “for national cultural homogeneity
is lesser, not greater. “The stronger societies will
be the more cosmopolitan ones.” A decade later how do things look? Whatever you think of
Huntington, he had a clearer view of the forces shaping the
near future than his critic. The passage is like a
time capsule from a period when progressives thought
that globalization was making national identities obsolete. The blind spot of cosmopolitan Americans is that they always underestimate ordinary people’s
attachment to their country, because they’ve lost it in themselves. As a result, they often fail
to foresee the direction politics is likely to take. Nationalism can be turned to
positive or negative uses, but it’s a force that never
completely disappears; in the last few years we
should’ve at least learned that. The third narrative of national
identity is Diverse America. It sees Americans as members of groups, whose status is determined
by the story of oppression, past and present. During the later Obama years, it came as a necessary
corrective to the naive illusion that equal rights for
all was a settled matter in this country. As a struggle to give all
Americans a place at the table, based on human rights
and universal values, the narrative of Diverse America is a force for immense good, but in our moment it’s becoming a dogma among cultural elites,
one that dominates media, schools and universities,
foundations, and the arts, it’s become an end in itself. But even the just cause
of inclusion is a dead end if we can’t answer, included in what? What is the vision of national identity that is the sum of all these parts? The narrative of Diverse
America is fostered in schools from a young age. I see it in my son’s public
elementary school education in New York, where he’s learning about all sorts of cultures,
from African and Chinese, to Mayan and Native American,
but hasn’t been taught the origin story of his
own American republic. He knows something about it
from listening to Hamilton, and my kids are obsessed with Hamilton, they could tell you all about the fight over the establishment of a national bank. Hamilton’s greatness is not
just its music and language, but its vision of inclusion that affirms a common American identity
of its characters, its performers, and its audiences. But Hamilton is not a
replacement for civics class, which no longer exists. Diverse America has replaced
it with an education that celebrates difference
without teaching the concepts and the
history, good and bad, achievement and failure, that underlie the struggle for equality. King demanded that America live out the true meaning of its creed. The most powerful voices today claim that the creed itself is foul, the very notion of American
identity is taken to be a coercive whitewash. The narrative of Diverse
America gets codified in universities, particularly elite ones, where students receive their first and most decisive instruction
from diversity officers; on many campuses this is the
true and only core curriculum. I understand the value, but I also understand the side effects. It can become a weapon against
the open exchange of ideas, and even speech, which
Brown University now defines as speech that makes all
groups feel included. The focus lately has
been on controversial, sometimes hateful speech, efforts
on campus to shut it down, you know this better than I do. But I’m actually less
concerned by the tired ritual of attention-seeking charlatans and the crowds that confront them than I am by the subtle
daily intellectual chill in college classrooms, the fear that keeps students of good will from participating in discussions that could land them on social media or in the campus paper. This chill is real enough
that my professor friends will talk about it only if I assure them that they’re off the record. And it’s all unfair the students; the products of the
educations are less able, or less willing, to think in terms larger than their own group. It’s a kind of intellectual narcissism, which means they can’t find common ground or effective arguments
that can reach people of different backgrounds and views, instead they’re taught to
explore and affirm the contours of their own group. Here’s a recent story
from Diverse America. Kirkus is a famously
stingy old book review with a lot of influence. Like Publisher’s Weekly, it
reviews books anonymously before they’re published. A month ago Kirkus reviewed
a new young adult novel called American Heart, a dystopia about a near future America
with Muslim registries and internment camps. The narrator, a white
teenage girl in the Midwest, slowly discovers the
horror of this system, and helps an Iranian immigrant
woman flee to Canada. The author submitted her
novel to Muslim friends from multiple sensitivity reads, and then Kirkus added another
level of sensitivity screening with a new rule of assigning its reviews. Quote, “Because there’s no
substitute for lived experience, “as much as possible, books
with diverse subject matter “and protagonists are assigned to quote, “‘un-own’ voices reviewers,
to identify both those books “that resonate most with cultural insiders “and those books that
fall short,” unquote. By this rule, cultural
outsider Saul Bellow would be prohibited from
raving about diverse novelist Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Cultural outsider Zadie Smith
would have to be called out for writing on beauty as an homage to cultural insider E.M. Forster. But in keeping with its rule,
Kirkus assigned American Heart to an observant Muslim woman of color. But somehow these layers of screening did not prevent a political mistake from slipping into the final product, because the reviewer loved American Heart, and she gave it a rare starred review. Almost immediately, one of
the many mobs on social media, the subgroup of hyper-vigilant
young adult fiction police, yes, it exists, denounced
the book and the review for failing to see that a white writer had no business portraying
a non-white Muslim character through the eyes of a white protagonist; it was the Huckleberry Finn mistake. Kirkus caved in and
withdrew its starred review, and compelled the reviewer
to reconsider her praise. The Editor in Chief, Claiborne Smith, posted a statement in place
of the withdrawn review. Quote, “We’ve removed the
starred review from kirkus.com “after determining that while we believe “our reviewer’s opinion
is worthy and valid, “some of the wording fell
short of meeting our standards “for clarity and sensitivity, “and we failed to make
the thoughtful edits “our readers deserve. “The editors are evaluating the review “and will make a
determination about correction “or retraction after careful consideration “in collaboration with
the reviewer,” unquote. Those sentences would be right at home in a communique from the Central Committee announcing the purge of
Comrade X from the politburo. This is language that’s trying
not to say what it means; it has something to hide,
and it seems driven by fear, and like most frightened
thought, it ends up in the arms of an absurdity. By Kirkus’ own standard,
the privileged white male, Claiborne Smith, who
runs the organization, is the cultural outsider, yet he forced the Muslim woman of color to correct her mistake. When the review was reposted,
it no longer had a star, and it include a new sentence; “it is problematic that Siddath is seen “only through the white
protagonist filter.” Apparently this language
brought the review up to Kirkus’ standards for
clarity and sensitivity. I’ve told this story at
length because it contains so much that we’ve come
to accept as normal; a soft cultural separatism, tyranny of the majority on
Twitter, self-censorship, and an attitude toward
diversity that ends up embracing the essentialism that it
started out rejecting. I realize that this makes me sound a little like a conservative. In my own mind, it makes me a liberal. Diverse America is reacting to Trump, and he’s making it more extreme. He shrewdly sees it as his ally. It sounds more and more
like the progressive echo of America First. This brings me to the fourth
narrative of national identity, the one that prevailed
in last year’s election. America First is the most
superficially nationalistic of the four, but its
nationalism is shallow, static, pessimistic, and brittle. It’s convinced that the country has lost its traditional identity because of contamination and weakness. The contamination of
others, foreigners, Muslims, the weakness of elites who have
no allegiance to the country because they’ve been
globalized; they eat sushi and attend conferences in Dubai,
and vacation in Australia. The elites have betrayed
the true patriots. This nationalism isn’t based on the ideas in the Declaration of
Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation, but in the blood and
soil of the heartland. That’s where the real America is found, among the common people; the
white, Christian inhabitants of the towns and farms. Now, one thing to notice about
the idea of America First is it sounds kind of foreign, it actually sounds European. In July Trump gave a speech before a rapturous crowd in Warsaw, in which he named the enemies
of Western civilization, they are radical Islamic terrorists and government bureaucrats. Trump declared, “Americans,
Pols, and the nations of Europe “value individual freedom and sovereignty. “We must work together to confront forces “whether they come from inside or out, “from the south or the east,
that threaten over time “to undermine these values,
and to erase the bonds “of culture, faith, and tradition
that make us who we are.” He led the Polish crowd
in a chant of we want God, which meant the Christian God. I picture Trump in a white uniform with a red sash and gold braiding. He sounds more like a fascist wannabe than like James Madison. Culture, faith, and tradition, not self-government, not democracy. His rhetoric isn’t even in the
conservative American grain, it’s reactionary; this is the meaning of Make America Great Again. Though the phrase invokes
nostalgia for an imagined past, it has nothing to do with
the past, it’s a radical call to sweep away the established order. It even has something in
common with its arch enemy, political Islamism, which is also obsessed with conspiracies, treacherous elites, purification, and an imaginary Golden Age. It’s built on the myth of
the people, the true folk, or better yet, the volk, who
do the work and fight the wars, and are betrayed and forgotten
by the decadent rulers in the imperial center. This narrative comes with
an autocratic character, and contempt for liberal
values and democratic norms, it personalizes power,
it routinizes corruption, it destabilizes the very idea of truth, it’s the greatest threat
to American democracy in our lifetime. I realize there are other
ways to discuss the question of American identity today,
but these are the narratives that strike me as the strongest. Most Americans, without
thinking about it much, subscribe to one or another. One thing to notice is
that all of them create winners and losers. In Libertarian America the
winners are the makers, and the losers are the
takers, Mitt Romney’s 47%. In Cosmopolitan America the
winners are the meritocrats, and the losers are the poorly
educated so loved by Trump. In Diverse America groups
fight for their claims against the claims of others, including the soon-to-be-minority
majority group. And in America First it’s the true people against the elites and aliens. Each narrative pits tribe against tribe, each tribe imagines that
the others are illegitimate, and will somehow disappear by
being defeated at the polls, or overtaken by demography, or walled off, or just by dying off. None of them has much
conviction in the values and institutions of American democracy. It’s always fallen short of the ideal, what’s new is a sense
that the ideal itself might not be worth the effort. I would like to leave you
with another narrative, but I don’t have one, not yet anyway. If you do, please let me know. (audience chuckling) What I have is a bunch of
worries and an aspiration. By now you know about the worries, so here’s the aspiration; let’s recognize that you can’t avoid the
struggle to define our identity. If you do you’ll abandon the field to the ugliest version available, because people still feel
attached to their country just as they do to their family. So instead of wishing
national identity away, we should define it in the
most inclusive terms possible, terms that get as far away
as we can from tribalism. The most inclusive category
I know is that of citizen, but it can be a hollow
category for Americans who are shut out because of who they are, or where they live, or how much they make. The first step is to
remove those barriers, and then again, and again. A second is to restore civics
to our children’s education. I don’t just mean how a bill becomes a law and what’s in the Constitution,
although it would be nice if more than a quarter of
Americans could identify the three branches of government, and if more than half could
name at least one of the rights in the First Amendment. I mean we should teach our children that democracy requires citizens. By all means let’s teach them the critique of American democracy, but
let’s also teach them the ideal so that they know what
it is we’re critiquing, and in what way we’ve fallen
short, and why that matters. Being citizens sounds
namby-pamby; it isn’t, it’s hard work, and it
often feels like failure. I am not saying to tone
it down, be more polite, pretend we can all agree, for in fact there are fundamental values at stake that Americans will never agree on. I’m saying that we
should be more militant, not for my tribe or yours,
but for our democracy itself. Thank you. (audience applauding) – [Audience Member] Thank you Mr. Packer, I think I speak for the crowd
when I say that was brilliant, so thank you.
– Thank you, thank you. – You alluded to this a bit in your talk, but over the course of this summer, Ta-Nehisi Coates took a shot
at you fairly or unfairly, in a pretty remarkable piece. So I’d just like you to speak, since your theme was largely
on alienation, tribalism, how has your thinking shifted, since you wrote The Unwinding, on race? – That’s a great question,
because although The Unwinding has one of its three main characters, a black woman in Youngstown,
it really isn’t very much about race, and she didn’t
talk very much about race, she talked about jobs,
and about her community, and about what had happened to Youngstown when the steel mills left, and
her own job went to Mexico, and it was more about class. And in a way, I wrote that
book between 2009 and 2012, when class was, for me the overwhelming, class and inequality,
and the fate of Americans who were being crushed
by the financial crisis and the Great Recession, that
was the overwhelming concern. And then the book came out
and Black Lives Matter, and Ferguson, and Trayvon Martin, and other calamities followed, and then Ta-Nehisi wrote Between
the World and Me in 2015, and the entire conversation had changed. So in some ways The Unwinding is, all books are product of their moment, and The Unwinding is the
product of a moment that, although it hasn’t disappeared, it was in some ways overshadowed. And I would have to say yeah,
it’s a bit of a blind spot in that book, because it’s
not the fundamental category in which people are living their lives, it wasn’t the way they
presented themselves to me, because in that book, they have the word, that book channels their
language, their ideas, their narratives into stories, so it’s not my own control over it, it’s their way of presenting themselves. But I think I missed something, or at least something came up
that reminded me and everyone of something more fundamental, I think, than class in America, which is race, and that was Ta-Nehisi’s
interpretation of the election. I think his interpretation was brilliant, rhetorically powerful, I
wrote that in my response, but also too narrow, and too simplistic, it oversimplified the
election to one cause only, and that cause explained everything, and was transhistorical, and
subsumed all individual choices and distinctions between
working class and other into one thing, and I thought, first of all, intellectually
I think that’s a mistake, but politically it’s a
mistake too because it makes, it makes Trump unbeatable,
to be really simple about it, it means that Trump wins. So he and I went back and forth in what some people thought
was kind of a model of civil argument, and I
hope we’re still friends. (audience chuckling) – [Audience Member] Taking this
diagnosis to Trump America, how do you adapt this, or how
do you feel the response is when you take this very clear-headed, and quite objective diagnosis
of the American situation to the very people that
you are critiquing, who you’ve spoken to so much?
– Yeah, yeah. I’ll tell you, it’s not easy, because we don’t speak the same
language in some ways, and once it’s in the realm
of politics and media rather than of two individuals talking, it becomes saturated
in cliches, soundbites, and hostile categories
that you can’t get past. I like long, long
conversations with people outside of the arena of public life so that I can get to know them
and get past the soundbite that is always their first response. When you read about a small town in Indiana in The New York Times, the reporter doesn’t have
time to do more than talk to eight people for half an hour, and you get the soundbites, and
you never feel as if you’ve, I don’t, that I’ve gotten beyond, I don’t wanna critique The Times too much ’cause they also do
longer and deeper work, but the pressure of a daily
paper means you can’t, and writing a book is a privilege and a luxury because I can. But at this point, when
it comes to things like is pedophilia disqualifying
for a Senate candidate? Or do I trust Vladimir Putin more than the intelligence agencies, or was Trump’s inauguration
crowd the largest in history, these are not, to me, open to debate, and it’s really difficult
to run up against a fundamental disagreement that in my view is not even debatable. And that is the point
that I left you with, where we are all part of the same place, and yet we don’t know how
to talk to each other. I’d say one lesson for journalists coming out of the election
was we need to get outside our own bubbles, and we need
to learn how to talk and listen to Americans who don’t think
like the people we know, and then we can really
disagree vehemently, not condescend to them,
but at least learn, again, how to listen to them. That’s all I can say because it’s a really difficult problem, we’re two countries at this point. Yes sir. – [Audience Member] When
you talk about people who feel left behind, and a government that
does not respond to them, are they aware that one
party is trying to offer them increased minimum wages and healthcare, and another party is trying to deny them both.
– And, I mean, that is such a good, the
other day I was riding in a shuttle van in Ohio with a guy who was mountainous and my age,
but looked 20 years older, and had a long white
beard, and I just knew this guy voted for Trump. So I said, we’re gonna have half an hour in our lives together, just tell me what do you think of Trump? And he sort of liked the invitation, and told me he’d voted for him, and thought that the
media was not fair to him, and I said, “What’s your
most important issue?” and he said, “Healthcare.” (audience laughing) And I said, “Well, do
you think repealing,” I said, “Do you have health insurance?” he said, “I’ve been working
for this company for 15 years, “they never gave me health insurance, “I finally had to buy it
on one of the exchanges, “but my deductibles are too
high,” blah, blah, blah. I said, “Do you think repealing
it would help or hurt?” He said, “Well, that’s
a complicated question, “it depends on what they replace it with.” And we could’ve gone down
that road a long way, but I also sensed that
we wouldn’t get very far because as I said in the talk, policy is not what this is about, somehow the tribes are
immune to policy arguments, this is about identity,
this is about who I am, who you are, what it
means to be an American, and for him, what it
means to be an American is to be a Trump supporter,
regardless of his healthcare, regardless of the minimum wage. That’s why when Hillary
Clinton went down her list of things she’s doing to
help the working class, my heart was sinking
because I was thinking, oh, these are such fine,
slightly small bore, I wish they were more ambitious,
but they’re fine ideas, they won’t matter, our
politics right now is not settled on that ground. Maybe it once was, I
don’t know, but right now we’re talking about tribal identity, and that to me is just a deadly thing. So your question is to
the point, my answer is, I don’t think that gets through, it’s not where people live right now. Yes sir. – [Audience Member] From
the end of your talk, and the emphasis on the word citizen, I guess that you are very concerned about vote suppression.
– Yeah. – [Audience Member] What’s
to be done about that? – Vote suppression, as
a threat to citizenship and what’s to be done. I’d say vote out Republican
state legislatures and governors. That’s where it happens,
at the state level, the federal government
now has a commission led by Mike Pence to
investigate vote fraud, which is the handmaiden
of vote suppression. It doesn’t seem to be
getting all that far, but it’s in the states that it happens, and what Democrats somehow missed out was that during the Obama
years they lost 1,000 seats in Congress, in the
Senate, in state houses, and governorships, and they
forgot about local politics, which is where citizenship
probably should begin. So I would say if you are
concerned about voter suppression vote out Republican state legislatures. Yeah. – [Audience Member] Thank you very much. A lot of ideas that I’ve
been thinking about, and you kinda left it out there, a suggestion for a new narrative, and I’m looking to become
the medium and inspire it, I consider myself a progressive, and I think maybe one of the avenues, just like you’re doing
on a personal level, is to connect with people in a language that they understand. And in culture, faith, and tradition, these are hard things to break through, one of the things that
I’m trying to do is to, like when I hear Tommy
Lawrence say that faith, when I see Faith First, and then I say you rail against social justice warriors, wasn’t Jesus a social
justice warrior Tommy? Pose questions like that, and also do it in a way like Matt Taibbi, I’ve been reading Matt Taibbi, McChesney, which John Nichols introduced me to. Matt Taibbi is funny, he’s irreverent, he is talking to a
language in these people that they understand, so,
oh you’re right, I’m sorry, so the question is, would
a good new narrative moving forward be to connect with people in a language that they understand, in an irreverent, progressive, aggressive, just like you said at the end. Being more militant does that mean just being more irreverent,
like a Matt Taibbi? – Well, I have problems with Matt Taibbi, mainly because of his book from Russia that is disgustingly misogynistic, and he somehow launched
a career on that basis and was only called out on
it in the last few weeks. On the other hand, he’s a great wordsmith, and the image of the vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity jamming its blood funnel relentlessly into anything that smells like money is an unforgettable image, so. (audience chuckling) This gets to writing,
and what is good writing, and I mention, I quoted that
Kirkus passage at length ’cause to me it was an example
of very typical bad writing, which is trying to disguise
what it really means. People know when you’re hiding, people know when you’re doing an Enron, or when you’re condescending to them, and if you speak directly, I think people, there’s an ability, I think, to respect an honest disagreement,
if it’s honestly stated, but if it’s either phony, or if it’s vicious, and viciousness is, I don’t think does very much good either because it dehumanizes people,
and it gives them the feeling that you’ll never be
able to understand them. Yeah, that kinda language
may be a starting point for a better politics. – [Audience Member] Using the crystal ball that you probably have
under the podium there, if current trends continue, where do you think the
country will be in 10 years? (audience laughing) – Great. This is the question I dread. (audience laughing) I am not a prognosticator. But I think we’ll continue to be divided ’cause it’s profound, and
it’s not gonna be resolved by some middle-of-the-road politician who can speak to both sides, these are profound
disagreements of values. I do think that when the
weather shifts politically, and it happens in the most mysterious ways without our political
scientists and journalists really understanding it,
then a movement or a leader emerges who answers an already
new and existing longing. Franklin Roosevelt did that,
Ronald Reagan did that, I didn’t like it, but he did that. I thought Barack Obama
was that leader in 2008, I thought the weather has shifted, and we’re in a new era of progressivism. That turned out not to be true, we were in an era of
deep and ugly division, and Obama’s race intensified it. So somehow the weather will shift. I’m hoping it will shift in a direction where local citizens, and local government starts solving problems
that have been festering for a long time, and that
the national government is incapable of solving, because it’s so Balkanized and tribalized. And then that will spread,
it happened once before in a rather similar era,
the Progressive Age, when we had the robber baron class, we had immigration and
concerns about immigration, and we had profound inequalities and corruption in government. And the Progressive Era started locally, and all over the country
in all these out-of-the-way and diverse places, and
no one saw it as a thing until it began to coalesce. I think Trump is gonna accelerate this because he is such a threat to democracy that unless you’re just a blind partisan, you’re gonna start to
think that we have to find a different way. He’s crystallized things, he’s like an accelerant, an enzyme, but I don’t know how it’s gonna happen, I don’t know if it’s gonna happen, that would be my hope though. Yes. – [Audience Member] Hi. Until about two months ago I
was an American ambassador. Like a lot of my colleagues I’ve left the State Department.
– Wow, where were you? Can you say, or is it?
– I can, it was the Central African Republic. And obviously a huge debate
in the State Department, and other places in the government, is should I stay or should I go? And whether it’s the military
officers in the White House, supposed-to-be-adults in the room, or ambassadors like myself,
or other people in government, or just plain citizens, should we engage with this
administration and try and mitigate some of its worst tendencies, or does it make more sense to leave? – And you decided to leave, or?
– I decided to leave, yeah. – I can’t say I blame you. (audience chuckling) But, as you know better than I, the foreign service is bleeding, the State Department is
a hollow shell right now, there’s nobody home, so our diplomacy, which was already on its heels, has been completely turned
over to the Pentagon. And foreign countries, foreign, you probably heard this in CAR, I’ve certainly heard it
from European ambassadors, they’re just, what is going on, how long is this gonna go on for, how do we wait it out,
can we just wait it out? Should we take out insurance? I asked one ambassador, “Is this gonna permanently
damage our relations with Europe, “with NATO, with our allies?” and he said, “If it’s one term, it might be remediable, “but if it’s two terms
it’ll be permanent,” that America will cease
to be seen as a partner for rules and rights, and
the global post-war order that we helped to build,
that we essentially built, and that makes me, that’s what my current book project’s about, but that makes me sad to think of that. Anyway, I totally respect your decision, I can’t imagine continuing to
try to serve under a president who makes a mockery of
everything you’re doing. – Thank you.
– Thank you. (audience applauding) – [Audience Member] When I
think of the possibilities of a narrative of citizenship, one of the things that comes to mind is one of the bright
spots you didn’t mention, and that was the Bernie Sanders campaign during the last election. It was a campaign that
was characterized both by serious substance, of content, policy, but also by a certain kind
of form that was non-vicious, non-recriminatory except
for the billionaire class, and it seemed to me to
contain a potential to capture and envelope many of the
tribes that you talked about, I just wondered what
you thought about that. – It’s a great point, I thought
about a fifth narrative, which you could call the
Sanders-Warren America narrative, and there’s an arbitrariness
to the talk I gave, you could cut it a different way. I left it out, and that’s
my tribe, if I have a tribe, that’s the closest I’ve got, I don’t know that it’s
as strong a narrative for a large number of us. It lit a fire for a lot of young people, for people on the Left, and
for some of the working class that ended up voting for Trump, a small part of that I’d guess. But it’s… It’s an economic argument, and right now people seem motivated differently, and that’s why I left it out, I could easily have included it, and I think if I have any hope in a, if not a narrative, at
least in policy answers, that’s where they are, I just wonder if it’s ever gonna get political traction. Thanks. Yeah, last question I guess. – [Audience Member] You
probably read some history, and in this room there’s
probably more than one person who reads history. Could you tell us what you
find useful and interesting in the history that you’re reading, and what kind of history might you imagine would be useful and
interesting in the future? – That’s a great question,
I love that question. My favorites are pretty old fashioned, the academic historians might think I’m a bit of a dinosaur. I love Richard Hofstadter,
who may have been wrong in some ways about the reform movement of the early 20th century,
but who writes so well, and who is so humane and
wise that I just wanna turn to his pages whenever
I’m feeling dismal about our politics. When I was working on The
Unwinding I was reading a lot of fiction. I was reading John Dos
Passos, whose U.S.A. trilogy is a great inventive portrait of the first part of the 20th century, and inspired some of the techniques I used in The Unwinding, and is,
again, it’s about two, the most famous line in
all three volumes is, “Alright, we are two nations,” which is the moment of the
Sacco and Vanzetti execution, that is the epitaph on our own era, alright, we are two nations. And I was reading Edmund Wilson’s journalism from the Depression, the 30s, and the American Earthquake,
these are obscure books, but they remind you
that there’s always been a degree of hopelessness and of division, maybe deeper than now, I don’t know, and of rage, violence even. But there’s also been individuals who… The words I used I chose carefully about American democracy,
those words have a, kind of a charge that animated people, and I hope still animate
people, they mean something, they have a value, and
the value is to be found in our history. Which doesn’t mean we
look at it uncritically, we look at it very critically, but we look at it, and we
look to it for the meaning of why we continue to think it matters to live in a democracy,
that is not a guarantee, that could disappear. If you came away from
my talk with anything, that would be what I wanna
say, this could disappear, it has disappeared, it has taken more hits in the last year than I can count. So it needs us to want it. – Thank you.
– Thank you. (audience applauding) (light, upbeat music)

8 thoughts on “American Identity in the Age of Trump with George Packer

  1. A left-wing goon pushing propaganda down peoples throats!

    Most mainstream media outlets have also to take ownership in helping radicalizing people!

    50+ min of propaganda masquerading as "insight".

  2. Packer is either clueless, a liar and/or delusional. Learn about the Deep State Packer. Watch the frauds of the Right and Left fall and turn on one another in attempts to save their own cowardly asses. Packer, such an idiot intellectual, a useful tool suffering from confirmation bias;
    I could go line by line through this bullshit speech and spell out the lies but he is shoveling nonsense into the minds of those who want that crap anyway.

  3. Mr. Packer's lecture was actually fairly well-balanced. It was something I wasn't expecting after reading some of his articles for the "New Yorker". However, his love for FDR's policies and the Progressives are quite off-putting. FDR might have saved the country from fascism and communism but he also introduced the snowballing effect of welfare. The Progressives, on the other hand, introduced Prohibition, which started the downward spiral of crime and hooliganism that the U.S. has experienced ever since.

    Finally, he fails to recognize that it wasn't the right that started identity politics in the States but the left. Specifically, it was the Abolitionists in the 1830s that started pandering to their (at that time) arrogant SJWs, who were so imbued with righteousness that they were willing to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans to create their vision.

    Frankly, he and his ideological ilk are the ones that created the problems the States is dealing with now.

  4. Thanks for sharing #Teenagers who murdered vulnerable woman apply to extend anonymity – Samuel Koch

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