US Politics

Heroes of the Fourth Turning 

by
28 March 2022

Not long into Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning a character brings out an acoustic guitar and is asked to play a song. He chooses Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin’’, a melancholy ballad pulled from the annals of American folk music. When it was released in 1971, many assumed it represented Van Zandt’s struggle with drug addiction. In fact, as he explained two years before his death, the song was inspired by Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a novel banned by the Catholic Church in 1955 for representing a Christ figure prone to human fallibilities.

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The reverberations from 6 January 2021 continue. On that day, two thousand or more protesters stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, intending to overturn the formal ballot electing Joe Biden as president of the United States. Waving phones, livestreaming their moves, some called for the execution of politicians, notably Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. For the first time, a Confederate flag was waved on the floor of the Congress, while a man wearing horns and waving a ‘Q sent me’ sign became the global image of the invasion. The mob was eventually pushed out of the building, but five people died during or after the assault, and four police officers caught in the mêlée later suicided.

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Landslide by Michael Wolff & Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

by
January–February 2022, no. 439

The Trump presidency (2017–21) has generated more books across its four years than most presidencies have across eight. It is ironic that an avowedly anti-intellectual president, who advertises his dislike of reading, has had such a profound impact on political literature. These two books – Landslide and Peril – will likely remain the most read of that growing collection. As their titles suggest, each is a chronicle of the chaos that consumed the United States during and after the 2020 election campaign.

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Surely it wasn’t meant to be like this. In early September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was set to attend a lavish ceremony in Washington to mark the seventieth anniversary of the signing of the ANZUS Treaty. On the same trip, he was due to sit down in person for the first time with his US, Indian, and Japanese counterparts, fellow members of the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’, or ‘Quad’, a gathering primed to be a regional counterweight to China.

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Writing this review of John F. Kennedy’s formative years soon after the end of the Trump regime has evoked some surprising parallels between these two one-term American presidents (and perennial womanisers). They were both second sons born into wealthy families dominated by powerful patriarchs. Against the odds, they emerged as their fathers’ favourites and were groomed for success. Thanks not just to their wealth but to their televisual celebrity and telegenic families, they managed to eke out close election victories at a time when just enough disenchanted voters were looking for a change of direction in the White House. Despite their administrations’ profound disparities in competence and their differences in political outlook, they shared a deep distrust of senior bureaucrats and military officials, as well as an inability to work effectively with Congress. Bullets and ballots, respectively, ended Kennedy’s and Donald Trump’s presidencies, but not the cults of personality they had inspired. In the space of just over half a century, they have tilted the trajectory of American democracy and diplomacy from the tragic to the tragicomic.

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The events of January 6 shocked the world. In this episode of the ABR Podcast Samuel Watts reads his article 'This Is America' and offers a historical perspective. As Watts notes, 'To view the assault on the US Capitol as the climax of a dramatic, but brief, period of authoritarianism in the US is a potentially dangerous mistake. This attack was just the latest iteration in a long-lasting tradition of anti-democratic, white supremacist violence that has plagued the Republic since, at least, the Civil War.'

Samuel Watts’s article ‘This Is America’ is one of a series of commentaries funded by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.

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On the morning of 6 January 2021, President Donald Trump addressed a crowd of his supporters outside the White House for more than an hour. The president urged protesters who had already begun gathering along the National Mall to go to the Capitol Building where both houses of Congress were about to start the process of certifying the results of the electoral college, formalising Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election. The election had been stolen, Trump told them: it was time for them to take it back and march on Congress: ‘You will never take back our country with weakness,’ said the president. 

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Serious observers of American presidential politics will not have missed the rapid rise to national prominence of Pete Buttigieg, the thirty-eight-year-old former mayor of the small Midwestern city of South Bend, Indiana. Within a year of announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination, Buttigieg had made history as, in his words, ‘the first openly gay candidate to win a state in a presidential nominating contest – doing so as the first out elected official to even make the attempt’.

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On 4 November 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. The former radio announcer, Hollywood actor, and governor of California (1967–75) beat Jimmy Carter by four hundred and forty electoral college votes. No contender had beaten an incumbent by that much since 1932, when in the midst of the Great Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt triumphed over Herbert Hoover. And much like FDR’s victory, Reagan’s win in 1980 permanently altered the course of US politics. The welfare state that had existed under both Democratic and Republican presidents was diminished, if not entirely dismantled. The religious right, previously a nonentity in American politics, gained major clout. And the economic tenets of neo-liberalism, dismissed as fringe ideas in previous decades, took centre stage.

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John R. Lewis, who died in July 2020, was an extraordinary man. Born poor, the son of tenant farmers in rural, segregated Alabama, Lewis was one of America’s most prominent civil rights leaders by the age of twenty-three. He spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, when Dr Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.

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