The Age of the 'American Berserk'
In his landmark novel, “American Pastoral,” Philip Roth coined the term, “The indigenous American berserk,” by which he meant that America has always had a deeply ingrained capacity to go bonkers. If you think of America as a nation of contradictions, a place that’s as capable of losing itself as it is loving itself, Roth’s description isn’t only apt for our own hellish moment, but for all time.
A former colonial outpost of Great Britain, which violently severed ties from what was then the world’s most powerful empire, America has been nothing if not defiant, audacious, and often visionary. A 233 year old experiment in representative government whose republican ideals date back to ancient Rome by way of English and French Enlightenment philosophers, America has nonetheless been on a two and a half century quest to square its liberal aspirations with its more reactionary, and often racist impulses.
In the post-Trump era, questions abound, not only in regard to what America is, but more specifically, who we are as a nation. For better or worse, these questions can not be adequately answered simply in terms of ideology or electoral politics. I view these questions as more cultural, even spiritual, and perhaps, like Roth, too “berserk” to warrant succinct answers. But at a time where something akin to a mob mentality, both on the left and the right, has paralyzed our national discourse, questions about this deeply Orwellian moment, may indeed be more important than the answers.
America is nothing, if not an idea, but in these corrosive times, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which extolled “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” feels like something of a dream deferred. Lincoln’s own Republican Party, founded in 1854, as a means of barring the expansion of slavery into newly admitted states, has morphed into a noxious gaggle of conspiracy theory cultists, white nationalists, kooks, clowns, authoritarians, and Trumpian foot soldiers. And while Trump’s ascendancy felt like a full throttle descent into fanaticism, he’s far more symptomatic of the malignant populism so deeply endemic to the American body politic. This malignant populism issues forth from a well of rage, at once righteous and antagonistic. It spews like lava out of the volcano that is the Trump led Republican Party, replete with lies, misinformation and grievances galore.
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