TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, George Packer, has been writing about the presidential election for The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. His latest article is titled "Hillary Clinton And The Populist Revolt." It reflects on the questions - how did the Democrats lose the white working class? Why did many of these voters move to the Republican Party? And can Hillary win them back? The article revisits some of the themes in Packer's 2013 book, "The Unwinding," in which he chronicled the political and economic changes in the U.S. around the time of the last presidential election.
George Packer, welcome to FRESH AIR.
GEORGE PACKER: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: So you write that the Trump campaign has made the white working class a self-conscious identity group. What do you mean by that? And why are you singling out white people who are in the working class?
PACKER: Right. It used to be that the working class, broadly speaking - Americans who worked with their hands, who worked in factories, who were not in management - were an interest group, a political interest group. And their main spokespersons were the Democrats. Their platform was the Democratic Party. And that began to change after the 1960s. Not for black or other working class Americans, but for white working class. That particular group drifted toward the Republican Party. And this year we see it more dramatically than ever in the numbers who support Trump. That is his base, working class as to say non-college educated white Americans.
So you have to make it both a race and a class category because working class doesn't describe it. But white doesn't describe it either, since more educated white people actually seem to be moving toward Hillary Clinton in numbers larger than they moved toward Barack Obama in 2012. So it really is a quadrant that has emerged as Trump's base. And it's - by a self-conscious identity group, I mean he's appealing to it as an interest group. He isn't using the word white but we all know what he means. We all know who he's talking to. When he says make America great again, we know whose America that is. And in a sense, whites who were always sort of the unthinking majority who didn't think of themselves necessarily as one among many interest groups but is simply the dominant group, now as whites become - are close to becoming a minority of Americans, are becoming a political interest group. And that's what Trump is playing to. And it's a really dangerous, volatile game.
But that's - that is the - maybe the biggest story of this election is that group has become a group of self-conscious voters. And it started, I think, in 2008 with Sarah Palin. That was when white identity politics first emerged, when she would come on stage to the tune of "Redneck Woman" and her clothing and her accent and her glasses all said this is the group I belong to. And now Trump has kind of consummated it.
GROSS: So what do you think are the most important examples of how Trump is speaking to the whiteness of the white working class and to the fears of those white people about people who aren't white?
PACKER: I mean, it's in his stigmatizing of immigrants, especially Mexicans, of Muslims. The way he talks about the problems of black Americans as a kind of separate group who are not part of his audience but he's kind of reaching over his audience or behind his audience to black Americans, saying what have you got to lose? As in you might as well join me because the Democrats haven't done anything for you. But joining me means joining this group that already supports me.
When Trump in one speech said I love the poorly educated - which was a remarkable thing to say - he was saying those are my people. And when he yells at his supporters to throw somebody out of the hall - and usually that somebody is brown or black or often is - that means he's galvanizing a kind of mob spirit, which is also a racial mob spirit.
GROSS: It seems that the KKK and the alt-right have been more outspoken and visible in this election than in any campaign in recent memory. And I'm wondering if you think that's because the press is shining more of a light on them and they're more active on things like Twitter so, like, we see it more or whether they're just actually more active in this campaign than in recent campaigns.
PACKER: I mean, we focus on that really repulsive minority of racists. But then there's a continuum that goes all the way to, you know, what used to be called the white backlash or to, you know, the feelings of some white people that they're losing out and that the jobs and power and sort of the culture is drifting away from them and toward people who don't look like them, who don't - who they don't know very well. And that's not necessarily - I don't equate that with the hardcore ideological hatred of self-identified racists.
But Trump has created a kind of big tent that extends all the way from one to the other. And I think that bias is not a fixed thing. It's not as though some people are biased and others are not. It ebbs and flows. It can be manipulated. It changes according to a person's circumstances. And what Trump is showing is how dangerous it is when a leader doesn't immediately reject it, but plays with it. And that gives a kind of license to people to let their - the worst angels of their nature out. We all have a dark side but we keep it in its place because it's destructive. And Trump has said, no, no, bring it out because that's the energy we need in order to reverse all these horrible things that have been happening in our country.
GROSS: I want to get back to the idea of Hillary Clinton and the populist revolt. You look a little bit about how the Democratic Party has changed over the years. And you say that after 1968, when there were reforms within the Democratic nominating process for president, it kind of shifted some of the power within the party. And you quote Tom Frank as saying that after that, it replaced - the party replaced leaders of workers organizations with affluent professionals. You seem to agree with that. So what does that mean to you?
PACKER: Yeah. I think that Frank's account of that is spot on. I mean, it took a long time for this transformation to take place. Because, you know, Walter Mondale in 1984 remained the candidate of the labor unions. But the labor unions lost power, lost members. The ranks of educated professional swelled as more Americans went to college and more Americans sort of adopted a more cosmopolitan lifestyle and worldview. And as the Democrats were looking for an alternative to the unions who no longer seemed like a large enough base for the party, they found the educated who veered more toward a progressive cultural outlook, who may have had - may have been working in the financial sector, in entertainment, in media, in universities. That became really the rank and file of the Democratic Party over a long period of time.
And I think it was cemented during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who was certainly not a conservative but whose policies moved the party toward the center, toward deregulation, toward an embrace of Wall Street both for reasons of campaign fundraising and also with the belief that Wall Street was the engine of a prosperous economy. And under Clinton we had a roaring economy that looked really good. Globalization looked like it was going to answer all the economic questions of class. Turned out not to be the case. And I think this year we're seeing the reaction to a long trend of the Democrats away from the concerns of people on the lower end of the economic scale and people who don't have college and graduate educations.
GROSS: You know, in terms of the Democratic Party being less represented by unions than it had been before, I think isn't that also in part to the diminishing of unions? I mean, like, President Reagan - this is a few years later, we're talking the early '80s - but he kind of broke up PATCO, which was the air controllers union. When large corporations started moving - you know, multinationals started moving out of America and outsourcing or locating offshore, that diminished union power a lot. A lot fewer - you know, much fewer Americans belong to unions than they used to, at least that's my reading of it.
PACKER: Exactly. I mean, no, the numbers say that. I think in the '50s, the percentage of Americans employed by the private sector who were in unions was above 30 percent. And now it's in the single digits, so it plummeted. And with the plummeting of unions came the weakening of an organized working-class voice in politics.
And - but there was also a sense among some Democrats - and Bill Clinton and Gary Hart, I think, are the key figures here in the '70s and '80s - the unions were sort of throwbacks. Maybe we didn't need that anymore. Maybe those old class issues belonged in the '30s and what we needed was a new third way or centrist way of democratic politics, which focused more on efficiency in government, on policies that helped business to create jobs, on cultural issues, on identity politics, on anything except the old-fashioned class politics, which seem almost embarrassingly out of date. And that - that was a fateful turn that the party took because it turned out there were still a lot of Americans in that group who, for a lot of complicated reasons and not simply because of this turn among Democrats, became the base of the Republicans. It's a dramatic shift, a huge change in our politics over the last generation.
GROSS: You describe educationalist elitism as having taken root during the Bill Clinton presidential administration. What do you mean by educationalist elitism?
PACKER: That was actually a phrase that Hillary Clinton used in an interview I did with her for this article in The New Yorker. And what she meant was an attitude that said you really have to have a college degree in order to be employable, in order to be viable in our economy. And she was using the term in a pejorative way. She said we need to bring back vocational education in high school. We need to support community colleges. We need to make sure that people who are not going to finish college have a job waiting for them and the skills to do the job.
These are all - have become fairly standard Democratic policy positions. But I didn't say this to her - actually, sort of - I kind of did - I said, didn't this sort of happened in your husband's presidency? Because that was when every American suddenly needed a college degree in order to compete in the global economy and the old industrial jobs that only required a high-school education were gone. And instead, we would focus on retraining and lifelong learning and all these cliches of the '90s that turned out to be bitter realities because they didn't deliver because the - it turned out people - either those jobs weren't being created or people couldn't make that transition and go from being factory worker to software engineer or the jobs were just too few because robots were doing them. So it was kind of a false promise of the '90s. And I really do put it on Bill Clinton's presidency as the time when the Democrats became the party of the college degree as the key to success in life.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is George Packer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and his latest article is called "Hillary Clinton And The Populist Revolt." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is George Packer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is called "Hillary Clinton And The Populist Revolt." And he's also the author of the 2013 book "The Unwinding," which is about working-class America.
So in writing about the working class, you write about how the working class has changed. Now, the working-class image used to be of, like, you know, the man on the factory line or the man in the coal mine or, you know, the man in the steel mill. And, like, a lot of those places have shut down. And being working class now sometimes, as you point out, means being the greeter at Wal-Mart.
It's just - it's a different kind of job, and it doesn't come with, you know, what used to be defined as, like, the dignity of, like, hard manual work. And, you know, a lot of people are working, like, on part-time jobs, hourly wages, no health care benefits written into the job, no union. So can you describe one of the people who you talk to who you consider to be representative of the new working class? And I should say here, too, that the new working class so often means unemployed or semi-employed.
PACKER: There's a man named Danny Hartzell, who I met down in Tampa, which is one of the main locations of the book. He's a husband, father of two kids, didn't get past high school. In fact, I think he dropped out around ninth grade. But he had skills as a welder and for a while was gainfully employed as a welder and, you know, had the satisfaction of making things and working with his hands, of doing a job well.
Then those welding shops began to close down. He ended up in a packing plant, you know, packing, like, I think, potato chips or some snacks, packaging them, which is, you know, not necessarily a job that a man like that sees as being worthy of his skills and dignified. And then that went away with the Great Recession. And he was left to shuffle between Target and Wal-Mart, part-time jobs, never sure what his hours were going to be, completely up in the air with no say over his hours and in some ways desperate for hours because at times he was working, like, 10 or 12 hours a week. It all depended on what the store needed. And he was, you know, being - you know, I think he was operating a forklift or moving, carrying boxes and talking to customers, which was not his favorite thing to do because it didn't - he said to me once I'm not a hello, how are you, what's your dress size? - kind of guy. So all of this - and the family fell on very hard times as his wage dropped and his hours dropped, and they became homeless for long periods of time. And this was the heartbreaking case of a man who in some ways was doing everything right. I mean, he you, know - he blamed himself for quitting school, but he'd assumed that there would be, you know, employment for him and a living to support a family. The family stayed together. They were not doing drugs. They were not drinking. They were not committing crimes. They were in some ways doing exactly what politicians ask of them, and they were still desperate. I mean, they were barely surviving.
And what I felt most of all was their aloneness. There was no one, nothing to support them. There was no - they weren't in a church. There was no local civic group that had kind of adopted the kids and the family in a way. There was, you know - the corporation was this utterly indifferent heartless animal that used him and then threw him aside as it needed to. They didn't have a neighborhood watch, you know - they weren't part of anything larger than themselves. And this really struck me as being a way more and more Americans live in a way that has undermined our confidence in ourselves and our democracy. So that was the Hartzell family in Tampa.
GROSS: Can you compare what you think Hillary Clinton says she has to offer and what Donald Trump says he has to offer to a couple like the couple you just described?
PACKER: Trump tells them I'm going to get you your way of life back. You will be at the center of our country again. You'll be the backbone of America. You'll have a good job. You'll have a good income. You won't feel like these alien people are coming in and taking your job. And, you know, it's all both in some ways attractive and in some ways, it's quite a fraud. But he's appealing to their resentment and to their sense of having been just unfairly reduced in status by a whole lot of different forces.
Hillary Clinton would say I'm going to fund a program that will find the local, you know, industrial or manufacturing jobs that are available and train you to do that job. And then you're going to get that job. And it's a much more of a nuts and bolts sort of policy vision. And whether either of those two really has the answer for this family, I'm actually a little skeptical. I don't think simply job training is enough because I think there's a whole realm of what's called social capital. And really just morale and support that they don't have and that they need. But Trump is even less real because playing to resentment and using a lot of, you know, grand abstract phrases like make America great again is - it just doesn't have the answer. It's simply a way to whip up emotion and then leave people more bitter than you found them.
GROSS: My guest is George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "Hillary Clinton And The Populist Revolt." We'll talk more after a break. And David Edelstein will review the New World War II film "Hacksaw Ridge" based on the life of the first conscientious objector to receive the U.S. Medal of Honor. The film was directed by Mel Gibson. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker who's been writing about the presidential campaign. His latest article is titled "Hillary Clinton And The Populist Revolt." It reflects on the questions how did the Democrats lose the white working class? Why did many of these voters move to the Republican Party? And can Hillary win them back? The article revisits some of the themes in Packer's 2013 book "The Unwinding" about the political and economic changes around the time of the 2012 presidential election.
You describe a battle among Trump's opponents to define his supporters. And you say, you know, are they having a hard time economically, these supporters, or are they just racists? Do they need to be listened to or do they need to be condemned and written off? Can you talk a little bit more about this discussion among Trump's opponents about how to define and deal with his supporters?
PACKER: Yeah. I mean, this is a big question for journalists, for people who support Clinton, for people who are appalled by Trump. What do we think of his following? Are we - do we hold it responsible for - in a sense, for everything that Trump is and does because they support him? You could. It's a bit of a destructive course to take because in the end, you're essentially going to be writing off - what? - 40, 45 percent of the country as being beyond the pale. And I don't know how we continue to do politics in a democracy if we simply can't listen to one another, if we simply close the door and say you are beyond redemption.
So then that leaves, well, where does it break down? How do you categorize it? You know, Hillary Clinton categorized it famously at a fundraising event by talking about on the one hand, those who deserve sympathy, who are maybe victims of trade deals or of deindustrialization and who've seen their communities deteriorate and be overtaken by opioid addiction, et cetera. And then there's the basket of deplorables, who are bigots of various stripes, misogynists, anti-Muslim, racists, homophobes.
I think it's not quite that easy. I think those two baskets are - probably there's a good deal of overlap, and there's a good deal of gray. And it's impossible to break it down. What goes on in a person's head, what impels them to a political choice, it's a pretty complicated question. And my feeling in writing this article was to try to explain it historically rather than simply to condemn it.
And explanations can be accused of being justifications, which I hope my article is not. But I think it's important for Americans to try to understand each other a little better. There's a mutual contempt in these two camps that's so - so hot, so vitriolic that I don't know how we're going to come together after this election. I really worry about that a lot.
GROSS: In "The Unwinding," the 2013 book, in addition to profiling people who are in the working class, some of whom are working, some of whom have lost their jobs, you also write about some significant famous people, including Andrew Breitbart, the late founder of the right-wing website Breitbart. And you write about how he became conservative, what his family background was like. And his legacy and his website are actually figuring pretty heavily into this campaign, you know, most noticeably in the fact that the former head of the Breitbart website is now the campaign chair for the Trump campaign.
So what do you think is, like, the most interesting takeaway from the fact of how this kind of self-made right-wing creator of a website has had such influence on the Republican Party and on American electoral politics?
PACKER: In "The Unwinding," I have 10 portraits of celebrities from different sectors of society. And when it came to choosing someone from the media, I was trying to think because the book covers really 35 years, from the late '70s to 2012. And I was trying to think who - who is, like, the characteristic or maybe most influential or just most interesting figure? And all the traditional journalists didn't seem like the right person.
And I finally settled on Andrew Breitbart because what he did was to try to destroy traditional journalism. And that has had such a huge influence on the way the media operates now, the way the media operates in the realm of politics. He created a website and used the website to highlight undercover videos and other sort of dodgy, sketchy bits of pseudo-journalism that made his political enemies look bad and created scandals and highlighted scandals. He's the one who first exposed, if you will, Anthony Weiner for his sexting and led to the - in some ways - to the drama of this past week in the campaign with the Clinton emails and Anthony Weiner's computer.
So Breitbart just - he had a kind of devilish, bad-boy vision of how the media, the internet really 'cause that was his - that was his baby - could be used to just make trouble and to mock those who were solemnly going about the less fun and less glamorous business of covering politics and to mock political figures as well. And so he created a whole new - didn't totally create it by himself but became part of a new landscape in which facts and arguments no longer mattered as much. What mattered was the event, the hype, the number of clicks, the sheer noise you could create, and through that noise, bringing both money and attention to oneself and pushing a cause, in his case a cause of fairly far-right conservative politics.
And this was all before Twitter, but Twitter came along and Breitbart immediately took to it. And social media seemed made for him as well. And so I thought that Breitbart in many ways was the guy who figured out how to use the web to just lay waste to the old landscape of Time magazine and CBS News and to create a new - a much more fractured and raucous atmosphere for journalists to jump into politics and smash things up. And that's in a way what links him to Trump. Trump is that figure in electoral politics as Breitbart was in the media.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is George Packer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is called "Hillary Clinton And The Populist Revolt." We're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer George Packer. His latest article is called "Hillary Clinton And The Populist Revolt." He's been covering the campaign, and he's also the author of the 2013 book "The Unwinding" about working class America.
Another famous person who you profiled in your book "The Unwinding" about the working class is Newt Gingrich. Why did you choose him for your book?
PACKER: Well, I chose Newt Gingrich because from politics, I thought he is the single most important figure of my adult life which is kind of a remarkable thing to say. He was never president. He went through a series of scandals and disgraces. He's kind of this perpetual candidate, this perpetual talking head on cable news. Why not Ronald Reagan? Why not Bill Clinton? Why not Barack Obama? Well, because Newt Gingrich, in a way like Breitbart, came to Congress in 1979 understanding that TV, C-SPAN, which had just started, and his own sort of archipelago of both, you know, think tanks and tapes that he recorded and PACs and other political tools could go around the institution of Congress, around the Republican Party and create a personal base for him and also could shake up the Democratic hold on Congress.
And in a way, he had this long almost Leninist march to power in the '70s, '80s, '90s and he arrived by throwing enough rocks at enough leading Democrats that he brought them down and sort of shook their nerve. So that Gingrich, as I say, in "The Unwinding" was the first one to use mustard gas. It was like in trench warfare. The first person who's going to use certain toxic weapons is introducing something to the battlefield that can never be taken away. And it is going to make the nature of the war so much more destructive and lethal and that - Gingrich didn't have any limits. And he saw the virtue of it of sort of an extreme approach to politics that excited people. It created a direct connection between him and voters who might have been bored with the usual debates on the floor of the House. So Gingrich was really the guy.
GROSS: What were the toxic weapons that he created?
PACKER: He used both speeches on the floor in which he impugned the motives of Democratic leaders. For example, at one point, he essentially called...
GROSS: This was when he was House speaker?
PACKER: No, before when he was just a backbencher, a young Republican junior member of the House. And he gave a speech that, you know, no one in the House really paid much attention to but that was on C-SPAN because he knew the power of these cameras in which he essentially said that Speaker Tip O'Neill was a commie sympathizer because of positions on Nicaragua and that was breaking certain etiquette. You know, that wasn't done until then and not on the floor of the House, you know, not where you're supposed to talk about my distinguished friend from Massachusetts. And it was certainly a nonstop inquisition into the Clinton White House. So using all these...
GROSS: He was one of the leaders of the impeachment of the Clinton...
PACKER: Yeah. I mean, he was speaker during impeachment. He was Clinton's main antagonist. They had a lot in common. They both were kind of poor kids who'd grown up a bit unpopular, kind of overweight. But Clinton somehow developed that into someone who needed love. And Gingrich developed into someone who needed enemies and needed to make trouble, and he made a lot of trouble for Bill Clinton as did the Republicans. I mean, it all backfired because then there was investigations of Gingrich, and he turned out he was having an affair. And he had to leave...
GROSS: He was having an affair while he was impeaching Bill Clinton.
PACKER: Absolutely. Yeah. No, I mean, this is why mustard gas is such a danger or any weapon of mass destruction is such a dangerous thing because it - it's victims become everyone in the end. You know, Robespierre goes to the guillotine just like the rest of them. In the end, Gingrich fell as well, and then came back and fell again and came back. He's tireless. You know, and even now he's on Fox News telling Megyn Kelly to say Bill Clinton sexual predator - I want to hear those words from you. I mean, this is - imagine this being sort of the normal give and take of a politician and a journalist on TV in the '60s or in the early '70s. It's - he's sort of authored this anything-goes-destroy-your-enemies politics. And he's still doing it all these years later. That's what's kind of funny almost.
GROSS: Do you also credit the whole approach of if you don't give us what we want we're going to shut down the government to Newt Gingrich?
PACKER: That was in 1995 when he and Clinton were at an impasse over the budget and twice the Republicans shut down the government. It did not help them. The country blamed Gingrich, and Clinton won the 1996 election in some degree because of that, and it's now become a routine tool almost over the debt ceiling, over budgets, over even particular pieces of legislation. People in Congress are willing to shut down the entire government or to make it impossible for a Supreme Court nominee to get a hearing or for routine appointments in the executive branch to go unfilled for years because of a hold placed by a senator. No. This is what Gingrich has wrought - is a politics in which it's very easy to destroy and very hard to build.
GROSS: You've been immersed in politics since you were like 8 years old, but you recently wrote about how you've become disaffected from politics. You're still writing about it. It's not like you've stopped caring or that you've stopped writing about it. So what part of you has become disaffected and why?
PACKER: Yeah. That might have been a momentary feeling. Although, it probably connected to something deeper which is the way politics is covered, the way politicians speak, the language of politics, the mechanics of it just doesn't - it's not nourishing. It's not - it doesn't give a lot of hope to the soul. I mean - and maybe we're wrong to turn to politics for that and maybe Obama was wrong to rouse those emotions in 2008 because they were inevitably going to be disappointed. And maybe it's just that government just doesn't seem to do all that much anymore. I mean, Obama got some very significant legislation passed, especially health care. But so much is bottled up or broken down that it's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton coming into Washington with all of her abilities as really a back-room dealer and a policy expert and changing it. I mean, she's going to try. If she wins, she will try very hard.
She may think that she can do better than Obama because she knows how to deal with Congress better, but there's something so fundamentally dysfunctional - I mean, when you go to Washington and get off at Union Station, as I sometimes do, and see the Capitol building, I get this hopeless feeling that comes over me. And that might have been what you were getting at about this disaffection because politics is - you know, it should seize the imagination. It should be, you know, as exciting as literature, as exciting film.
GROSS: In terms of what Hillary Clinton might or might not be able to accomplish if she becomes president, some Republicans are already talking about blocking any of her judicial nominees for the Supreme Court.
PACKER: Yeah, and investigating her forever. I mean, they're pretty - at least in Obama's case, they waited until he was inaugurated before saying we're going to make sure our highest priority will be that he fails. Now they're anticipating Hillary Clinton before the election and saying we're going to make sure she fails by obstruction, investigation and whatever other tool we've learned from Newt Gingrich and a whole generation of increasingly nihilistic elected officials.
GROSS: So from your perspective as somebody who's been writing about politics for a long time, how do you see the importance of this race?
PACKER: Well, mainly it's avoiding catastrophe. I do think Trump would be a catastrophic turn in American history. So that's the most - the deepest significance is a negative, which is not a great thing. You want there to be possibility and ideas that could achieve concrete reality. But I'm thinking more in terms of simply avoiding the worst.
I don't think of Hillary Clinton as a bad choice. She's an uninspiring choice. She is a deeply imperfect choice, largely for reasons of her own tendency to get into a defensive crouch and create greater problems for herself and the rest of us by refusing to have a transparent reckoning.
But I think she could be a very good president, but maybe not for this moment. That's my - that's what I keep coming back to is that she's a strange choice for now. She's such a classic Democratic political figure and believes so much in institutions and in gradualism in the old way of reaching compromises with the opposition in the back rooms. That's what she did in Congress. It's what I imagine she'll try to do in the White House.
That's not the America we live in right now. That's not what a lot of the public thinks is even legitimate. So how is she going to - if she becomes president, how is she going to be able to get the country behind her when she seems like a political figure from another era?
Beyond that, the biggest issue for me is whether large numbers of Americans can begin to think that government can actually help make the country a fairer place. And that's partly a matter of policies that achieve results in terms of reducing inequality and raising middle-class and working-class incomes, which have been flat for decades. But it's also symbolic and rhetorical, it's whether Hillary Clinton can - or whoever's president - can persuade Americans that it's happening and that they can begin to trust their elected officials a little bit more and their institutions of government a little bit more.
And we've just been sort of spinning our wheels for such a long time, for decades really, with each new president being considered illegitimate by the other side. That's been the case ever since Bill Clinton. And it's a - you can't keep frittering away your political capital that way and expect there not to be some long-term rot that sets in.
GROSS: George Packer, thank you so much for talking with us.
PACKER: My pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "Hillary Clinton And The Populist Revolt." After we take a short break, David Edelstein will review the new film "Hacksaw Ridge," which was directed by Mel Gibson, and is based on the life of the first conscientious objector to win the U.S. Medal of Honor. He was a medic who saved lives on the battlefield. This is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. Mel Gibson has directed a new movie called "Hacksaw Ridge." He won an Oscar for the second feature he directed, the 1995 Scottish war epic "Braveheart." And he went on to make two more brutal films, "The Passion Of The Christ" and "Apocalypto." "Hacksaw Ridge" is also graphically violent, set on the battlefield during World War II. But the hero, played by Andrew Garfield, is a pacifist. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In "Hacksaw Ridge," Mel Gibson has found a great subject for his peculiar gifts, a story of extreme religious faith amid extreme violence. It's based on the life of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the U.S. Medal of Honor for lives he saved as a medic during the May 1945 battle for Okinawa. Unusual for a CO, Doss had no problem serving. He longed to serve.
The problem was that as a Seventh Day Adventist, he refused to carry a weapon, which the Army saw as flouting a central tenet of military cohesion. You protect your fellow soldiers. Doss had to put himself in the middle of an inferno to prove he wasn't a coward. He just wanted to save lives instead of taking them.
As Doss, Andrew Garfield has such a sweet affect that at times he reminded me of Jim Nabors' Gomer Pyle. But the one note he hits is the right one for the film. He makes you believe that Doss has purged violence from his makeup. As a child, Doss nearly killed his brother with a rock and stood in shame before his deeply religious mother, played by Rachel Griffiths.
He struggled to be as different as possible from his brutal alcoholic father, played by Hugo Weaving, a man who lost his closest friends in World War I and rides with survivor's guilt. In the barracks, Doss takes a lot of abuse, first from his sergeant, a beautifully nuanced performance by Vince Vaughn, and other soldiers, among them a muscular bully played by Luke Bracey.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HACKSAW RIDGE")
LUKE BRACEY: (As Smitty) So how come you don't fight? You think you're better than us?
ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) No.
BRACEY: (As Smitty) Well, what if you was attacked?
(SOMEONE BEING HIT)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Whoa.
BRACEY: (As Smitty) See? Like that. Bible says to turn the other cheek, though. See, I don't think this is a question of religion, fellas. I think this is cowardice, plain and simple. That right, Doss? Go on, take a poke. Tell you what, I'm going to give you a free shot, right there. Hit me, Doss, go on.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Let him have it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Go ahead.
BRACEY: (As Smitty) No?
EDELSTEIN: Garfield's Doss just stands there, his eyes watery but his resolve firm. He won't hit back. At first, I was surprised that Mel Gibson was attracted to the story of Desmond Doss. Gibson loves violence. Well, love may be too simple. It's that he seems to see violence as the straightest path to spiritual purity.
I once wrote that the formula for the action films in which he starred was the three M's - make Mel mad - hurt him, hurt his women, hurt his kids and watch him explode as a holy avenger. But the masochistic component might be stronger yet.
In Gibson's "Braveheart," Scottish rebel William Wallace reaches his apotheosis while being drawn and quartered. Christ in "The Passion Of The Christ" earns his divinity by having his flesh scourged beyond the point of human endurance. On screen and off, in his horrifying public struggles with alcoholism, Gibson is drawn to scenarios of self-obliteration, to men whose wails of pain to their God are proof they've transcended the flesh.
Unlike his hero in "Hacksaw Ridge," Gibson doesn't suggest the men who do kill on the battlefield are wrong. They're heroes. They saved Doss's life. For much of the battle on Okinawa, Doss is on the periphery. As a medic, he's like a little boy trying to plug a thousand holes in a dike. This part of the film, the last third, is relentless, as graphic as "Saving Private Ryan" with body parts and viscera everywhere. But the carnage is shot from farther back so that we see more vividly the relationship of the soldiers to one another and to the enemy that pours out of the smoke.
It's only later when what's left of Doss's battalion has descended the ridge that we see the true scale of his heroism. He lowers gravely wounded men, one by one, down a cliff. Then, as Japanese soldiers prowl the battlefield shooting anyone that moves, he begs his God to let him save another soldier, just one more, he says.
When Doss is himself lowered down the ridge, Gibson milks the religious angle. He films his hero from below, an angel, suspended between heaven and earth. But Gibson has earned that imagery.
I don't think he has the moral intelligence of the greatest artists. He doesn't mourn human cruelty. He seems to crave it. But he puts his fever and his passion into every frame. Like it or not, he's a remarkable filmmaker.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with Stephen Colbert, check out our podcast. There's lots of our interviews you can download.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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