Review of “When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present by Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is a British writer for the BBC who spent many years in the United States covering the American political scene from the Reagan presidency through the Trump years. He has watched what, in his view, has been the decline of American prestige from being the unchallenged hyper-power of the 1991 Gulf War to something of a pitiful, laughable, rudderless former giant under Trump. He observes, “Were this a different country on a different continent, we would be speaking in terms of a failed state.”

To Bryant, the biggest problem facing America is the extreme polarization of the populace. The Cold War of the 1950s and 60s had given the country a sense of unity in its rivalry with communism and the Soviet Union. But that unity began to fissure with the rise of far right populism after Goldwater’s stunning defeat in 1964. Bryant observes:

The Lazarus-like tale of how right-wing Republicans turned the most humiliating defeat in the party’s history into a takeover of the conservative movement doubles as the foundation story for the polarised state of modern-day US politics.”

Bryant sees the seeds of America’s decline planted in the Reagan years and coming to fruition in the polarization of the country under the stewardship of the Republican Party. With Reagan, the president became more of a performer than a technocrat. He was one of the founding fathers of America’s polarization and changed the qualities and qualifications that the American people looked for in their president, “and not for the better.” Bryant writes:

The final 16 years of the twentieth century could be seen as a time of American dominion. The first 16 years of the twenty-first century could be looked upon as a period of rapid American decline. In 2026 Trump could be construed as a product of the dissonance between the two, a protest candidate for the millions of voters who mourned a future that never happened and a past that looked sunnier by the day.”

The Democrats do not escape blame in Bryant’s chronicle. Bill Clinton’s amorality and indifference, if not outright hostility, to the truth gave ammunition to critics on the right. For example, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he was quoted as saying, “We just have to win.” Indeed, his chief pollster Dick Morris conducted a secret poll to test whether the president should lie or tell the truth, which to Bryant was “the quintessence of Clintonian cynicism.”

American presidential elections are no longer exercises in efforts to persuade the undecided middle; rather they are efforts to motivate the already committed. As a result, we are in the midst of a cold civil war, and the country has gone 25 years without a properly functioning federal government.

Bryant provides much more detail that I can in a relatively terse review. His judgments, although provocative, are soundly reasoned. The culmination of his musings is rather pessimistic:

Is it too much to yearn at least for an American pageant that nurtures once more a sense of commonality and inspires global awe? Not a summertime of American resurgence. Rather, a season of American unification. Alas, I fear more American carnage.”

Evaluation: This very readable assessment of recent American politics is full of interesting anecdotes and astute insights about the powerful and those who support them. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Bloomsbury, 2021

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