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Ben Fountain's new book looks at the 2016 political inferno that threatens to burn America to the ground

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"Beautiful Country Burn Again" by Ben Fountain.
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BOOK REVIEW: Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain (Ecco) 2018

Gonzo journalist and American treasure Hunter S. Thompson may be gone, lo, these 13 years, but his spirit lives on, in the writings of insightful, Dallas, Texas-based writer and intellectual Ben Fountain.

Because early on in his new book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, a collection of essays written for Britain's Guardian newspaper (because what newspaper in America would take a risk with such spot-on, intellectually honest reporting?), primarily during the 2016 presidential campaign year (designated month-by-month – “Book of Days” style – with a rundown of major events in each month of the year) and Fountain’s wry observations and incisive deciphering of the political and cultural landscape, warts and all.

And so it was with great interest that I absorbed this book, which begins in the Hawkeye State of Iowa, home to the caucuses (which I covered in 2016 as well) and a distinctly foul odor of Big Ag operations and cornfed rubes who have long felt that America finally gives them attention once every four years because rural whites still call the shots in USA!! USA!!!

A whizbang sorta writer who captures the moment like a Polaroid, his observations of the second coming of Benito Mussolini - Donald Trump, Ted Cruz (the rubbery-faced, “Thomas Kinkade” of candidates who is “an avid indoorsman”) , and Hillary Clinton (a supremely self-involved politician favored by Goldman Sachs types).

Yes, you sense Hunter’s spirit in Fountain’s words. The absurdity of the candidates and the rabid fans of said people. Hunter captured this in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, setting the standard that others have tried – and failed – to match. Fountain, though, does an admirable job in capturing the zeitgeist of our troubled times and what that may mean for the future. After all, America fell in love with primetime baddie J.R. Ewing on Dallas some 40 years ago. Why would they feel any different about a crook from Queens pitching everything from steaks to flimsy diplomas? America loves a good con, right?

For instance, in a chapter titled “American Crossroads,” Fountain references Delta bluesman Robert Johnson’s spooky blues classic “Cross Road Blues” as a way of informing the reader that yes, we as a nation – with Trump at the helm – are truly at a crossroads, just as we have been in the past, with the American Civil War and the Great Depression. But it’s also Fountain’s way of indicating that America, with its past of white supremacy, has made a Faustian bargain of sorts, particularly the Republicans, and it has taken us to a very dark place, at least since the days of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s dog-whistle campaign speech in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi – where three “Mississippi Freedom Summer” civil-rights activists were murdered in 1964.

“Goldwater discovered it; Nixon refined it; and Reagan perfected it into the darkest of political arts,” writes Fountain of the not-always-so-veiled racist “Southern Strategy” embraced by the GOP for over 50 years. Perhaps there is a reason why GOP strategist Karl "Turd Blossom" Rove, a protege of Lee Atwater, chose "American Crossroads" as the name of his Super PAC. A deal made with the Devil, Mr. Rove?

That fact had not been missed by me either. And while the "Never Trumpers" act as if they are above the undignified chaos of the current president, they (Nixon, Reagan, Bush), set the stage for what we see today - a nation as divided as ever with no relief in sight. They played on America's fear and loathing, which has been there since its founding. 

We get alt-right fanatics at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio (which this online newspaper covered as well) and when Fountain writes "A man dragged a big wooden cross through the crowd and no one batted and eye. Then Alex Jones took the stage, and suddenly we weren't in Cleveland anymore," you know things are gonna get weird. And as Thompson famously said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." Truer words were never spoken.

And really, it’s America facing this ugly political and cultural truth that has led us to the Era of Trumpism and the far-right’s embrace of the NRA. In fact, just as I did in 2017, Fountain goes to Louisville, Kentucky, Hunter S. Thompson’s hometown, to get a sense of the gonzo genius and that Ohio River soil that bred a deeply anti-authoritarian man who loved guns and justice as much as he hated the blizzard of shame that was Richard Nixon and the land-rapers and greedheads and loathsome swine that loved him and emulated him. The Republicans are not about public service, he writes. They, like Trump, serve as a wrecking crew for the elite and powerful. They take pleasure in blasting the better angels of our nature off of our shoulders with an AR-15. Don't tread on me?

Hunter Thompson. American genius. The synchronicity seemed perfect: I would go to Louisville and hang out with the NRA, and in my downtime seek out traces of America’s prose laureate of fear, loathing and firearms.” You had me at “synchronicity,” Mr. Fountain. And we know Hunter loved his guns. 

As a side note, Johnson’s music, particularly “Cross Road Blues,” has been resonating strongly with me and, in addition to Fountain’s references to my favorite journo, Hunter S. Thompson, I have been thinking about, writing about and listening to Robert Johnson a great deal in 2018, even going so far as visiting Clarksdale, Mississippi earlier this autumn. Something is in the air. A match has been lit and the smell of smoke is getting heavier and thicker. Ben Fountain can smell it. And he has warned us about the coming blaze in Beautiful Country Burn Again, a book that all Americans should read and take to heart.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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