If you’re one of those, like me, absorbed in the US Presidential election, where do you turn to understand American politics? The problem comes down to this: Americans, like the inhabitants of every country, know their own politics as lived experience. The changing priorities of the parties, the personality of the candidates who they have come to know, the economic reality of life in the US, these are all things which no foreigner knows in quite the same way. It’s the same for outsiders looking at Britain: to me the course of our own politics – from Thatcher, through Blair to Boris and Brexit makes sense – but I know that many Europeans and Americans are perplexed by what’s happened here.
As outsiders, we perforce rely on media commentary which is where the problem lies: our commentators are fallible and often partisan. If nothing else, the election of 2016 taught us that journalists also are susceptible to the herd instinct; the expectation, faithfully reflected in every major British media outlet, was that Hillary would walk it. They misled us. Their error reflected the underlying bias of the mainstream media: the British press corps in Washington were then and are now Democrat sympathisers.
As outsiders, we perforce rely on media commentary which is where the problem lies: our commentators are fallible and often partisan.
Which is why, this time round, despite polling which suggests that Joe Biden has a rock-solid lead and is the clear favourite, the commentators feel obliged to add in those little caveats, that somehow Trump might, against the odds, win again; a prospect which sends shivers down their spines. There is hardly anyone in the mainstream British media who is rooting for Trump. Which means that the version of American politics we in Britain are sold is a very partial, one-sided affair. We have been groomed over the past four years by our media to agree with its collective judgement; Trump is a bad man whom we should despise and fear.
And yet millions of decent Americans will, next week, vote for him. If – admittedly unlikely – Trump pulls off another shock victory, our media will once more have failed us. And that should prompt a search for new sources of insight and understanding.
Luckily, I think there is one to hand.
Over a period of 27 years, from 1973 to 2000, Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, wrote a series of seven novels which he called Narratives of Empire. They are a trove of insights for anyone trying to understand American politics in all its gaudy excess. The first in the series is called Burr and its central character is Aaron Burr who was Thomas Jefferson’s vice president from 1801 – 1805; in the novel, which I have just finished re-reading, Burr recounts his adventurous life from the Revolutionary War of 1776 up to 1840. Burr was the man who shot dead Alexander Hamilton (yes, Hamilton of musical fame) and, if nothing else the novel is a bracing antidote to his portrayal in that show; not so much Hamilton the Hero as Hamilton the vain, philandering, backstabbing plotter.
The second novel in the series, Lincoln, is perhaps the best of the lot; a marvellous realisation of the man and his period which helps explain to any non-American why Abe is such a towering figure in American history. The third novel is called 1876 and it covers, what I would guess, is to most people the least known and least understood era of American history – the post civil war “Reconstruction”. It’s also a book with some contemporary resonance. In the aftermath of Trump’s 2016 victory there was much over-heated media talk about how he had “stolen the election” with the help of Russia’s sinister hidden-hand. Well, if you want to see how an American election really was “stolen”, read 1876 and learn how Rutherford B Hayes cheated Samuel J Tilden out of his rightful victory.
If you want to see how an American election really was “stolen”, read 1876 and learn how Rutherford B Hayes cheated Samuel J Tilden out of his rightful victory.
It would be overstating the case to claim that Vidal’s Narratives of Empire novels are outstanding works of fiction qua fiction; but they are, all of them, at the very least readable and workmanlike with strong characterisation and proper narrative drive. But laying the lit-crit aside what these novels are, taken together, is a marvellous primer in US political history. And the reason they are so good is because of Gore Vidal’s deep understanding of his subject matter. Vidal came from a long-established, deeply political, Washington family; his maternal grandfather was a US senator. Vidal himself was politically engaged: he twice stood for election (as a Democrat) and was twice defeated. Lucky for us, in my view; if he’d become an actual politician we would have been denied his insights as a political novelist.
One should, of course, always treat historical fiction with some caution; novelists, after all, sometimes take liberties with the historical record. To serve the needs of the books, Vidal invents characters and sometimes falsifies the chronology but in his own notes on the works he stresses how scrupulous was his research for each of the novels. And scholars, much better qualified than me, seem to agree; Vidal’s novels, most critics say, are faithful to the known facts. Which has not stopped them being controversial. Even the title he chose for the series Narratives of Empire irritated those Americans who steadfastly deny that America has ever had the ambition, much less the reality, of an empire (Vidal’s publisher, incidentally, preferred the less provocative American Chronicles). But I think Vidal, over the course of the seven books, justifies his choice: America might not have an Empire on the old European model but it certainly has had the reach and power of an empire since 1945. The Pax Americana of the past 70 years (now fraying) is surely the hallmark on an imperium.
These novels, taken as a whole, will probably cure you of the notion that this era, this election, these politicians – Trump and Biden – are sui generis.
Historical fiction can be a very persuasive form of propaganda which works on the substrate of public opinion. Look at Hilary Mantel and her Wolf Hall trilogy; it has persuaded the country that Thomas Cromwell, was not just a cruel and ruthless placeman and willing instrument of a vicious and depraved king, but a figure deserving of respect and even admiration. Mantel – raised Catholic but now determinedly anti-Church – has single-handedly overturned the narrative of a previous generation who, taking their cue perhaps from the film A Man for All Seasons, saw St Thomas More as a hero and Cromwell as a black villain. Mantel’s novel interpretation of events will surely shape opinion for decades to come.
I don’t know if the same dramatic claim can be made for Vidal’s Narratives. I can only testify to the influence it has had on my own views of America. The majestic sweep of the series will open your eyes to the realities of American politics, the ambition and corruption as well as the nobility, heroism and sacrifice. Above all these novels, taken as a whole, will probably cure you of the notion that this era, this election, these politicians – Trump and Biden – are sui generis; that their like has never been seen before. In fact, the history of the US is crowded with extraordinary monsters, corrupt sleazebags as well as saints and noble statesmen. There isn’t time to read them all now before the polls close – but put them on your reading list and by the time the next US presidential comes round in 2024 you will find Vidal has lent perspective to your views.
Robin Aitken was a BBC reporter for 25 years and is now a freelance writer and journalist; his latest book The Noble Liar (Biteback) is now out, in a new edition.
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