The American Crisis is a 500-page collection of the best of the Atlantic magazine in the age of Trump. With contributions from three dozen marquee names in US journalism, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Anne Applebaum, Angela Nagle, Franklin Foer, Adam Serwer, George Packer and Megan Garber – plus some notable non-journalists like Lin-Manuel Miranda – it bulges with great writing and reporting.
In an era when the public square has been degraded by the mob violence of Twitter, the amoral algorithms of Facebook and the dubious scribblings of Drudge, Breitbart and the Daily Caller, this collection arrives at the perfect moment to affirm the promise of the Atlantic’s founders in 1857: to fight with the forces of “freedom, national progress, and honor, whether public or private”.
The hot-off-the-presses aggregation includes articles first published as recently as June. Since then, the magazine’s string of scoops has continued unabated.
Just in the past few weeks, the editor Jeffrey Goldberg reported the president’s contempt for America’s bravest (“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers”); Barton Gellman seized the attention of the political world with a deep dive into Republican plans to hold on to power regardless of results at the polls; and almost simultaneous to publication, Mike Giglio weighed in with a terrifying profile of Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, who have recruited 25,000 members, including police officers, soldiers and veterans who sound eager to unlock the safeties on their assault weapons if things don’t go their way on 3 November.
In How to Destroy a Government, the great Packer, who jumped from the New Yorker to the Atlantic, is brilliant on the Republicans’ “nihilistic pursuit of power at all costs”. He focuses on the evisceration of the departments of state and justice, highlighting the naivety of the “adults” in the permanent government, who deeply underestimated Trump’s ruthlessness.
“A simple intuition had propelled Trump throughout his life,” Packer writes. “Human beings are weak. They have their illusions, appetites, vanities, fears. They can be cowed, corrupted or crushed.
“A government is composed of human beings.”
Coats is equally good on The First White President, writing: “To Trump, whiteness is neither national nor symbolic but is the very core of his power.” Foer contributes the best profile of Paul Manafort I have ever read.
Adam Serwer’s piece, The Cruelty is the Point, is one of the shortest in this collection but also one of the most powerful, under a title that immediately went viral. He pierces the reader with examples of extreme cruelty that before Trump had become almost unimaginable in America – at least since the end of routine lynchings, which Serwer also describes.
“We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era,” he writes. “There were the border patrol agents cracking up at the crying immigrant children separated from their families, and the Trump adviser who delighted white supremacists when he mocked a child with Down’s syndrome who was separated from her mother … Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit.”
I also loved Applebaum’s A Warning from Europe, an excerpt from her latest book, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. It describes the gruesome disappearance of democracy from Poland and Hungary, with fearful lessons for the US.
Amid so much gloom and doom, Miranda provides what passes for lighter reading in a collection like this. In What Art Can Do, he reminds us all art is political – even the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The saccharin Sound of Music also includes “the looming existential threat of Nazism”. The rich melodies of South Pacific never camouflage the internalized racism of Nellie Forbush.
There isn’t much here to give the reader hope that American democracy will evade the inferno. But Applebaum returns at the end of the book to celebrate the pragmatism and even the humanity of Teddy Roosevelt, who besides being a Rough Rider was also an antitrust advocate and the father of conservation in America. Above all he was opposed to violent change – after succeeding to the presidency because of the assassination of William McKinley.
She concludes with these words of hope: “Theodore Roosevelt … once described optimism as ‘a good characteristic’, but warned that ‘if carried to an excess it becomes foolishness. We have found this middle ground before, between optimism and foolishness. We have found the ability to make deep changes without destroying those elements of our system that are useful and good. And if we did it once, we can do it again.”
In exactly 31 days, we will learn if there is any basis for that kind of optimism.