BOOK REVIEW: When America Stopped Being Great | Nick Bryant 

The outcome of the US election will soon be known. It won’t matter who becomes the next President of the USA. That once great country is in an irreversible decline according to Nick Bryant, author of ‘When America Stopped Being Great’ in which he argues that the US has become a country beset by chronic and irreconcilable division.

Nick Bryant who now lives in New York, is a senior foreign correspondent with the BBC. He spent decades in Washington but also lived in South Asia and Australia. He first arrived in the US from Britain in 1984 and fell in love with the country. However, he now sees it as a country where philistinism and anti-intellectualism pervade national life, where politics is broken, there is lack of corporate responsibility, chronic racial division, an ever widening gap between the super-rich and the poor, an opioid crisis and poor governance. He argues that the US has gone 25 years without a proper functioning government and that political polarisation stems from economic polarisation. He predicts that politics will only become more polarised and extreme.

Bryant dates the decline back to the Reagan years in the 1980s when he first arrived on US soil, and sees each consecutive president contributing to the rise of Donald Trump, a man he says has made the Presidency uncouth and less trustworthy. His descriptions of Trumps truth twisting and revisionism are on-target. For example, Trump played to white resentment and xenophobia by accusing China and immigration of killing off jobs but failed to mention that robots and other technologies killed off 88% of manufacturing jobs between 2006 to 2013.

Ronald Reagan normalised the idea that a show business personality could become President and he was adept at bringing celebrity and power together. He was a conservative who despite rarely going to church, aligned himself with the Religious Right and NRA. Bryant says he dumbed down the Presidency. His trickle-down economics, an idea still popular with conservative governments today, led to a massive redistribution of wealth upwards.

While Bryant seems to admire the first George Bush as a statesman, he recognises that Bush’s lack of showmanship is not rewarded in modern politics. He won the election with gutter politics using Fox News Roger Ailes as his chief image maker. By the time of the Clinton impeachment, stoking anger and outrage became Fox News’ business model.

Bryant says Bill Clinton normalised bad behaviour and the advent of fake news came about during his Presidency. It was also during the Clinton years the the Republican Party (GOP) became the ‘Party of No’, constantly blocking legislation. That is now the GOP modus operandi.

Financial deregulation in the Clinton years led to the 2008 GFC and online companies destroyed large swathes of the economy. The second George Bush Presidency led to a budget deficit of $1.4 trillion dollars thanks to the post 9/11 Iraqi war. China held $1 trillion of that debt. Bryant says that healthy economies rely on a prosperous middle class and points to the vanishing middle class when he states that ‘America’s broken politics was tied to America’s broken economy’.

Obama was stifled by Rebublicans fillibustering bills and obstructionism. In 2009 the Supreme Court allowed corporations unlimited spending power in elections without requiring politicians to disclose their donors. Now 2/3 to 3/4 of all money donated to the Republican party comes from 100 super-rich donors whose aim is to make the Republican party even more conservative. Bryant states that Obama was poor on foreign policy and if he had retaliated against Assad in Syria the refugee crisis would not have been as bad. He states this was largely responsible for the Brexit vote and growing xenophobia worldwide.

Bryant’s description of an America where people are defensive not hopeful, where there is lack of aspiration, where income inequality means that the top one per cent of Americans have accrued more wealth than the bottom 90 per cent, where one fifth of New Yorkers live  below the poverty line and where there is a power shift from America to Asia is sad and despairing. He offers little hope other than a post-COVID America may lead to the US embracing a fairer universal health system. However depressing, this is an important book that accurately maps the decline of a once great superpower.

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