Ever since Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, bookstores have been flooded with volumes attempting to explain America’s unraveling.
George Packer’s Last Best Hope, published earlier this year, provided one of the best diagnoses. But this new volume by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos offers the most personal and the most powerful description yet of a country “so far out of balance that it [has] lost its center of gravity”.
To tell a story bookended by the attacks of 9/11 and the assault on the US Capitol on 6 January this year, Osnos travels to three places in which he has lived: Greenwich, Connecticut; Chicago; Clarksburg, West Virginia. His subjects range from the decline of local newspapers and the opioid crisis to the tremendous hidden costs of idiotic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the leitmotif of the book is best captured by a phrase he cites from the great liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who described “one of man’s oldest, best financed, most applauded, and, on the whole, least successful” quests: “The search for a truly superior moral justification for selfishness.”
Osnos’ book is replete with ghastly statistics. The three men – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos – who have “more wealth than the entire bottom half of the US population combined”. The CEO salaries which spiraled from 20 times as much as a frontline worker in 1965 to 278 times in 2019. The fewer than 200 companies with Washington lobbyists in 1971 to the 2,500 that had them just 11 years later.
But what makes the book come alive are the personal stories. Billionaires, coal miners and soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress, and all the evidence Osnos offers of failure to control excess at the top or provide meaningful help at the bottom.
Above all this is a story of how mega-rich Americans have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to give themselves the power to pillage the earth, destroy the air and corrupt democracy in a thousand ways without ever being held to account.
Lee Hanley is a perfect example. A Yale graduate and Greenwich resident, in 1980 he dumped George HW Bush for Ronald Reagan. Osnos’ keen eye provides a crucial detail about how Hanley’s wife, Allie, pinpointed Regan’s greatest flaw before presenting him to the Connecticut gentry: “He had on a brown tie and it was ghastly. When you go to a different part of the country, the most important thing you need to do is dress like they do. So I ran to Bloomingdale’s and bought four ties.”
Reagan “wore them in all the posters after that”.
Hanley spent millions more than his wife. In alliance with Richard Scaife, Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers, he trained “a generation of Republicans to adhere to ideological orthodoxy” with “a string of historic political investments”.
“He saved the conservative publisher Regnery with an infusion of cash, he founded a Connecticut affiliate of a network of think tanks to advocate for low taxes and small government, and he became the principal backer of a political consulting firm formed by Roger Stone, Charlie Black and Paul Manafort, whose early clients included Rupert Murdoch and Donald…