In his landmark novel American Pastoral, Philip Roth coined the term “indigenous American berserk,” by which he meant that America has always had a deeply ingrained capacity to go bonkers. If you think of America as a nation of contradictions, a place as capable of losing itself as loving itself, Roth’s description is not only apt for this hellish moment, but for all time.
A former colonial outpost of Great Britain that violently severed its ties from what was once the world’s most powerful empire, America has been nothing if not defiant, audacious and often visionary. An experiment in representative government whose ideals date back to ancient Rome by way of English and French Enlightenment philosophers, America has been on a two-and-a-half-century quest to square its liberal aspirations with its reactionary and often racist impulses.
In the era of Donald Trump, questions abound not only as to what America is, but who we are as a nation. For better or worse, these questions cannot be adequately answered in terms of ideology or electoral politics. I view these questions more as cultural, even spiritual; as Roth might himself have put it, these questions are also too “berserk” to warrant succinct answers. At a time when something akin to a mob mentality paralyzes our national discourse, when our unique yet complicated nation spins on an Orwellian axis, the questions may be indeed more important than the answers.
I previously wrote for The Clyde Fitch Report from 2014 to 2016, so please allow me to reintroduce myself. Since 2016, I’ve earned a Master’s degree in American Studies from Brown University. And what is American Studies exactly? Often defined so broadly as to render it nearly impossible to define, I used my coursework to closely examine our politics and its relationship to American literature and popular culture. I came away with a gimlet-eyed portal through which to tackle that ever-elusive question: What does it mean to be an “American”? Henry James once observed, “It’s a complex fate to be an American.” If this is true, then I hope that my forthcoming stories here on CFR will generate less heat and more light as to why a country as optimistic as America, more often than not, surrenders to moments of deep and existential panic. In part through this prism, I will attempt to tackle themes of national identity, the relationship of politics to culture, the Trump phenomenon and the 2020 presidential election. Perhaps equally important, I will also look at how our cultural imagination — film, theater, TV — can operate as its own kind of political authority separate from government. Since graduate school, I’ve become a liberal political commentator on Fox, which makes me either a unicorn or a masochist. The Fox News effect notwithstanding, sanity no doubt feels archaic in our own time.
America is nothing if not an idea, and in these corrosive times, the ideas found in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — “a government of the people, by the people, for the people” — feel like a dream deferred. Lincoln’s Republican Party, founded in 1854 as a means of barring the expansion of slavery into newly admitted states, has morphed into a noxious gaggle of cultists; today’s Grand Old Party regularly sows racial discord and disdains the FBI and the Justice Department. It sees foreign interference in our elections, though galling, as a largely benign form of transactional politics. And while Trump’s ascendance feels like a full-throttle descent into fanaticism, he’s far more symptomatic of a malignant populism deeply endemic to the American body politic. Since Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” borrowed copiously from racial antagonist George Wallace, Republicans have been happy to stoke and exploit racial panic and division in an attempt to solidify the white working-class vote.
Today, though, the age-old Republican schtick about the rule of law, “family values” and national security — a rhetorical façade that seldom bore any relation to reality — has been unmasked. In their craven, amoral obsession with using business deregulation to serve the plutocratic class, Republicans have been willing co-conspirators to Trump’s lawlessness, venality and autocratic wreckage. Our nation does not have a parliamentary system, with multiple parties coalescing to form a majority. Rather, we’re a two-party republic consisting of three co-equal governmental branches each one designed to put checks on itself. When constitutional mockery eclipses ideological differences, the words “we the people” therefore cease to be worth the parchment they’re written on. It’s precisely for this reason that the framers enshrined an impeachment clause in our Constitution. It’s also what James Madison meant in Federalist 51 when he wrote “Ambition must counteract ambition.” As the House of Representatives prepares to launch the fourth impeachment inquiry of a president in US history, the system is arguably working. Or is it?
Roth’s “indigenous American berserk” might feel prescient about Trump, but the novelist’s purview unveiled a burble of discontent that has always lurked right beneath the surface of American life. It is also true of much of American literature that there have always been two Americas. There is the seemingly rational America of constitutional government, consensus, rights and republican ideals. And there’s the America gone mad, the irrational, often violent America depicted in Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Toni Morrison. Our country’s finest fiction (Roth being one of its most perceptive practitioners) dramatizes the anxieties, the losses, the pain and the tragedy that have always been at the core of our national narrative, even when we’ve taken great pains to deny it. If America’s political language revels in myths, it’s literature reveals our lies, our evasions, our sins. Berserk or not, the Trump era is nothing if not a time to rethink this notion of a national “romance” — the false assurance that our institutions, our values, can withstand not only a president’s lies, but the ferocious delusions that fuel them.
Roth’s idea of the “indigenous American berserk” may be more revealing about our country than the constitutional design of the framers or zealously charged debates on immigration. If questions of nationhood are indeed more spiritual than political, then Roth’s terminology tells us what’s fundamental not only to our nation, but to ourselves. Americans have long been entranced by its “exceptionalism,” by Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” by an inherently promising New World that leaves behind violence and lunatic nationalism in old Europe. Roth understood this madness, this heart of darkness, close to the surface of our national fabric. In the Trump era, it is no longer a question of who we blame, but rather why we fear. And what hath that fear wrought.