Easy Chair — From the April 2018 issue

Forget About It

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The United States of Amnesia: true to form, we don’t remember who coined the phrase. It’s been attributed to Gore Vidal and to Philip Rahv, though it also appears in a syndicated column from 1948. But more than forgetfulness is at work in our ceremonies of innocence repeatedly drowned. And while it’s tempting to chalk up these rituals to a native simplicity or a preternatural naïveté — a parody of a Henry James novel, in which you get soiled by crossing the Potomac rather than the Atlantic — even our most knowing observers perform them.

The distance of a decade, for example, was all it took for Philip Roth to completely rewrite his experience of the Nixon Administration. There was a “sense,” Roth said of those years,

of living in a country with a government morally out of control and wholly in business for itself. Reading the morning New York Times and the afternoon New York Post, watching the seven and then again the eleven o’clock TV news — all of which I did ritualistically — became for me like living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky. . . . One even began to use the word “America” as though it was the name not of the place where one had been raised and to which one had a patriotic attachment, but of a foreign invader that had conquered the country and with whom one refused, to the best of one’s strength and ability, to collaborate. Suddenly America had turned into “them.”

That was in 1974, when Watergate and the Vietnam War were not yet a memory. In 1984, with Reagan straddling the horizon, Roth recalled the era differently: “Watergate made life interesting when I wasn’t writing, but from nine to five every day I didn’t think too much about Nixon or about Vietnam.” And while Roth had been unsparing about Nixon in 1974 — “Of course there have been others as venal and lawless in American politics, but even a Joe McCarthy was more identifiable as human clay than this guy is” — in 2017 Nixon had become, for Roth, a benign counter to Trump. Neither Nixon nor Bush

was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.

Donald Trump is making America great again — not by his own hand but through the labor of his critics, who posit a more perfect union less as an aspiration for the future than as the accomplished fact of a reimagined past.

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