In early May 2020, the American journalist Luke Mogelson left Paris – for years the base from which he covered strife and pestilence around the world – and went home to report on the accelerated unravelling of the US.
The idea of bringing a foreign correspondent back to write about their own country as if on assignment is not a new one. There is a whole subgenre of returning English reporters producing wry travelogues of the British Isles and their encounters with its quirky countryfolk. Mogelson’s account of his return to the US has a great deal more edge to it, given his experiences in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, and amid horrifying outbreaks of disease in west Africa. There is nothing wry in his description of the United States, in the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency, unable to contain a pandemic that would go on to kill more than a million Americans.
That pandemic is part of what has driven the increasing violence in US politics and society towards a tipping point. Mogelson’s account of these forces, subtitled America on the Brink, makes clear that the two years between now and the next presidential election could determine whether it goes over that precipice into the sort of civil conflict he has been so accustomed to writing about elsewhere.
Fresh off the plane, he drove to Owosso, Michigan. A small barber shop had become the focal point of resistance to a decree by the state governor, Gretchen Whitmer, that “personal care services” should be shut down to help stop the spread of Covid. The sense of affront rippling through the crowd quickly took on extravagant forms, with the restrictions portrayed as a dire threat to the republic and its people. It would later metastasize among a small splinter group into a plot to kidnap Whitmer and possibly to execute her for imagined treason.
Mogelson drives from one flashpoint to another over that febrile summer, from Lansing, to Portland, to Minneapolis, and finally to the scene of the denouement, the insurrection of 6 January in Washington.
Along the way, he charts the evolution of a strange soup of extreme right factions including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and the Boogaloo Bois. He also describes the trajectory of the anti-fascist movement antifa, which emerged from a small circle of activists in 1980s Minneapolis who sought to emulate the British punks who took on the National Front, morphing into a plethora of grouplets determined to confront the far right on the streets.
Like the European leftist movements of the 1930s such as those in Britain that drove Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts out of public spaces, their American descendants reasoned that the mortal threat fascists posed could not be left to the state to resolve and merited direct action. The fact that, by the summer of 2020, antifa was little more than a footnote to the Black Lives Matter movement did not stop Trump and the Republican party depicting it as a pervasive dark force that would come for Americans in their beds if Joe Biden won the presidential election.
Mogelson writes with the descriptive fluency and eye for detail that you would expect of a reporter with his credentials. But what makes this book more than a dystopian travelogue is his ability to tease out connections across history and make illuminating global comparisons.
He dips into his experience abroad, describing, for example, the extraordinary communal response to the Ebola virus in the Monrovia slums in 2014. Local leaders in the Liberian capital designed and enforced their own health measures in the absence of outside help. As a result, fewer than 30,000 people contracted the disease, compared to the 1.5 million that experts had predicted. Mogelson wondered at the time: “How would my country bear up under similar pressure?”
Six years later, he had his answer. Flying in from France, where residents had accepted stringent health measures pretty much without complaint as the price of containing the disease, he saw how in the US, questions of science were engulfed by the country’s all consuming culture wars.
Mogelson digs back through history to expose the roots of the national malaise. When a branch of Wells Fargo is sacked during unrest in Minneapolis, the scene of George Floyd’s death, he notes the significance of the event. In the 19th century, the venerable bank’s subsidiary, Wachovia, regularly accepted slaves as collateral for loans. Long after abolition, Wells Fargo continued to make mortgages available to white people only. The history of capitalism and racism were so tightly intertwined that the “legacy of free market enterprise could not be untangled from that of white supremacy”.
The way Trump and the far right characterise Black Lives Matter and even the Democratic party as a communist menace is a tactic inherited from the Ku Klux Klan. And the struggles of Black America and organised labour have often overlapped. Martin Luther King was assassinated when he was in Memphis to support the city’s garbage collectors in their fight for a union.
In 2020, Trump held Independence Day celebrations at Mount Rushmore, and Mogelson decodes his rhetoric in part by telling the story of the rock beneath his feet. The Black Hills of South Dakota are sacred to the Sioux, and in 1857 the US government signed a treaty guaranteeing them “absolute and undisturbed” dominion over the area. Then gold was discovered, and the promise was forgotten. George Custer was sent in to evict the Sioux, but instead was defeated and killed at Little Bighorn by the warriors of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
The defeat triggered years of Sioux uprising, which resulted in reprisals and ethnic cleansing. With the approval of then-president Abraham Lincoln, 38 Sioux were hanged in December 1862, in what remains the largest mass execution in US history. In 1890, nearly 300 Lakota Sioux were massacred at Wounded Knee.
That was the history Trump – another white man fixated on gold – faced down at Mount Rushmore when he declared: “That which God has given us, we will allow no one, ever, to take away.” He continued: “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” He made no mention of the Sioux. The unseen enemy was amorphous.
In this way the rhetoric of Trump and the far right is one of inversion. In reviving a more than century‑old backlash against Black and Native Americans, it presents white people as facing an existential threat, despite a complete lack of evidence. And an existential threat, however fuzzy, can be used to justify pretty much anything. As Mogelson writes: “There was no limit to the violence that might be perpetrated because there was no limit to the crimes that would provoke it. Both were products of imagination.”
He does not try to estimate the likelihood of an open civil conflict in the US, but points out that if it comes to pass, it would be uniquely bizarre, “a war fuelled not by injury but by delusion”. The problem for Trump and his supporters is that “because the only real thing about their war is their own belligerence, their own fear, they can never win”. Instead, he writes, “they can only rage endlessly against elusive phantoms”.
• The Storm is Here by Luke Mogelson (Quercus Publishing, £25). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.