Several months into the pandemic, a friend drove us away from the southern California coast into barren, dun-colored mountains, where roadside signs were riddled with bullet holes. We came across an abandoned service station with the windows blown out and an American flag, faded by the desert sun, painted on the front. We entered the ruins. On the back wall was a graffito: fucked at birth.
“I knew you’d like that,” my friend said as I took photos of the words that encapsulated what I’d been trying to say for the past 40 years in my work as a journalist documenting the ever-expanding class chasm in America.
In the early 1980s, I believed awareness would instigate political and social change. Now, after so many articles and books, I felt that they were like some tired country ballad playing in a honky-tonk where everyone is drunk and not listening to the music. I was done with the work.
So when my friend suggested the scrawl as a title for my next book, I blew her off – I was tapped out.
In the coming days, however, I was haunted by the juxtaposition of the flag and the spray-painted words. It was time to change the song. I decided to drive across America and visit homeless encampments, meatpacking towns, crippled onetime industrial cities, showing people a picture of the gas station’s exterior and what was inside, and let those I encountered tell me what it meant. The responses always came fast.
In Sacramento, John Kraintz, who had been homeless: “In the Declaration of Independence, they said all men are created equal. That was the first big lie. If you’ve got money, they care about you.”
In Denver, the Black Lives Matter activist Terrance Roberts: “You ask me about being fucked at birth? I mean, I’m an African American male.”
In New York City, my former student Megan Cattel: “That’s the millennial rallying cry.”
That journey convinced me of the need for the title. Sales representatives from middle America told my publisher it would be difficult to place the volume in stores; a professor friend wrote that her community college bookstore in California “warned me that they might not carry it because of the title”.
The words – fucked at birth – are perhaps harsh. But what is far more harsh and unpleasant is the fact that they are simply reality for ever-increasing numbers of Americans.
The stark title is the least part of changing the song. I also came away from my recent cross-nation reporting tour convinced that the 2020s are going to be this century’s 1930s. The stock market – fueled by low interest rates and a record three-fourths of a trillion dollars of borrowed money – is by one metric overvalued more than any time since 1929. Amid this, the Eviction Lab at Princeton University fears as many as 30 to 40 million people face being thrown out of their rental homes when the various moratoriums end, which seems destined to create an unprecedented wave of homelessness.
Don’t be fooled by what’s going to happen later this year: when the vaccines are widely distributed, the top two quintiles of the American population will start spending money. A lot of it. But this won’t immediately translate into good times for the bottom three quintiles. Tens of millions of the precariat were already living in a de facto Great Depression before the pandemic, and many working-class jobs will not return in the short term – if ever. This widening disparity creates a level of rage among voters that inexplicably continues to evade Beltway journalists’ understanding.
It’s not that difficult to grasp meaning. Just look to the past. I’ve long been a student of the 1930s – fascism was on the rise in the US throughout the Great Depression. It’s something that never went away; it’s part of the American DNA. Many of the 74 million who voted for Donald J Trump in 2020 would be quite happy with authoritarian leadership. They aren’t going to vanish with the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
We think of social media, Fox News and the One America News Network as being drivers of QAnon or the Proud Boys, amplifying feelings and actions that heretofore would have remained in the shadows. But long before there was an internet and television, fascist ideas thoroughly infiltrated American culture. An early activist who recognized this was the Reverend LM Birkhead, a Unitarian minister. In 1935 Birkhead traveled to investigate the authoritarian governments of Italy and Germany. In 1938, he released a list of 800 “antidemocratic” organizations in the United States that were aligned with the Nazis and fascism. He believed that one out of every three Americans was being reached by fascist materials.
In early 1939, a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden drew 20,000 people. The rising authoritarian movement was the subject of a 9,000-word 1940 Harper’s magazine article, The American Fascists, by Dale Kramer.
In the modern era, the Youngstown State labor studies professor John Russo recognized early that anger over the loss of good jobs was leading to a resurgence of fascism. When I interviewed him in 1995, he foresaw the emergence of a Trump-like figure. When I went through Ohio recently on my cross-country journey, John doubled down on his 1995 prediction; he feels that the threat from the far right will not abate. Trump lost “and the thing I say is, ‘So what?’ Right now we are at a tipping point in terms of what the American economy is going to look like, what the American social structures are going to look like,” Russo told me. “2024, that’s going to be the seminal election.”
Russo says there will be “contested terrain”, a fight between progressives and rightwing authoritarianism between now and 2024. If a smarter, more effective Trump comes along, he or she could eclipse the threat that Trump presented to American democracy.
The fascist inclinations of the 1930s were simply stalled by the New Deal and postwar economy. The final paragraph of Kramer’s 1940 Harper’s article, though off in timing by seven or so decades, serves as a warning for 2024:
“It will take time for a powerful movement to organize itself out of the confusion caused by the war. But the [technique] of prejudice politics has been so well learned that should economic insecurity continue there can be no doubt that the American people during the next decade will be forced to deal with powerful ‘hate’ movements. Great vigilance will be required to preserve our liberty without giving it up in the process.”
Adapted from Fucked at Birth: Recalibrating the American Dream for the 2020s (Unnamed Press, 12 December)
Dale Maharidge is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism