In August 1969, Jimi Hendrix played the Col Ballroom in Davenport, Iowa, just before heading off to Woodstock and immortality. On a snowy January day in 2016, Hillary Clinton was headlining, “hawking the politics of grind-it-out incrementalism” to an older crowd who seemed subdued but mostly satisfied.
“She was not blah,” a small, elderly woman said.
Later that Saturday night, Bernie Sanders was onstage at the campus of the University of Iowa with Vampire Weekend, mostly ruining This Land Is Your Land in front of a shining-eyed audience of young believers.
Earlier that morning, in a school basement in the tiny grain town of Hubbard, sleep-deprived children at a rally for Ted Cruz – a soft, smooth Texan with “the skin of an avid indoorsman” – held up signs declaring: “Don’t Believe The Liberal Media!”
But the top draw was Donald Trump, performing a lunchtime set in the gymnasium at Clinton middle school, making his way to the stage “as ceremonial and stately as fat Elvis”, promising a packed crowd: “You’re gonna love me as president!”
That was the introduction to America’s year of presidential election madness for Ben Fountain: a 14-hour, 500-mile tour of the Iowa caucus frontrunners.
In his novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Fountain put his thumb on the rawest nerve as he identified the precise moment American confidence in the Iraq war began to drain away. Football, cheerleaders, capitalism, family, sex, death and the general insanity of American life were all in the story of the returning soldiers of Bravo squad.
His eye for the absurd and ability to draw attention to the sheer strangeness of America made him a perfect observer of 2016: when politics met reality TV, where penis size briefly became a measure of suitability for high office and where a candidate for the White House was revealed weeks before polling day as a self-declared sexual predator, and still won.
Fountain’s essays for the Guardian, which I commissioned, saw him move from the snows of Iowa through Dallas for the opening day of the baseball season and on to the National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky. In Cleveland, Ohio, his coverage of the Republican convention drew a direct line to Norman Mailer’s view of the 1968 race, Miami and the Siege of Chicago. His year ended with an examination of the benefits of big government in rural Texas, just as Trump’s anti-Washington bulldozer was accelerating.
Two years on, in the whirling chaos of the Trumpian news cycle, his election-year commentaries could have seemed faded, almost quaint mementos. But in book form, expanded, they live up to his own description: they are both a diagnosis of America’s symptoms of stress and a record of developing crisis.
Fountain urged voters to “hang on to their brains” in the face of the phony. In that respect, he failed. He succeeded, though, in mapping America’s convulsions as politicians played on fear, exaggerated virtue and traded in fantasy.
Funny and also horrifying, Fountain has spectacular historical reach. He draws upon the wisdom of a cast including Walt Whitman, the Who, Muhammad Ali and Hunter S Thompson.
He does not really care for politicians – readers will leave the book hating Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich, Marco Rubio and both of the Clintons a little more than they did before. But he is also ready to call out the sheer susceptibility of badly educated and propagandized voters who fall for the cliches of political discourse.
“In the arsenal of the phony, the politics of God is one of the deadliest punches to the sweet spot of the American mind,” he writes.
“What is it about the American character that allows the long con of our politics to go on and on, electing crooks, racists, bullies, hate-mongering preachers, corporate bagmen and bald-faced liars? Not always, but often. The history is damning. We must on some level, want what they are offering.”
He is unsparing in scorn for the amped-up patriotism used to create the myth of American exceptionalism, the idea of a chosen land specially blessed and purposed with a world-changing mission.
“It’s the I-Love-America-More-Than-You smackdown: America is and always has been the greatest, ever, at everything, and anyone who disagrees just doesn’t love America enough. Which is political discourse as fairy tale, a made-up story for children.
“Instead of fantasy, how about this for a more adult and more useful, formulation: America has done very many great and noble things. America has also done many shocking and terrible things, always – always – in the name of doing good. Am I about to be critical of my country? I am, and by the way the United States was founded on dissent, contrariness, critical thinking; if not for independent thought, we might still be carrying water for the Brits.”
After all the flags, fighter jets, AR-15s, baseball caps and patriotic tractors have passed, Fountain reaches the end of 2016 with a couple of conclusions.
There is a demagogue in the White House and Democrats helped put him there by becoming “not so much the champion of the working and middle classes as the party that made things worse a little more slowly than the Republicans”.
And Trump, consummate salesman, “consummate New York asshole”, won because he sold a racist fantasy of a great America based on white supremacy. The bad news for his hardcore supporters? The evidence of racial inequality will not shut up; it has been raised to critical mass and cannot be stuffed back in the box.
America had to remake itself twice to survive as a plausible constitutional democracy – first due to the crisis of slavery, then with the Great Depression. Now, Fountain warns, America is again in danger of becoming a democracy in name only.
“One wonders how close to hell we’ll have to come in our own time before a similarly drastic act of reinvention is attempted.”
• Guardian readers can get discounted tickets to see Ben Fountain interviewed live on stage by Malcolm Gladwell in Brooklyn, New York at 7pm on Tuesday 25 September. Books Are Magic is offering tickets at $25 which include a copy of the book Beautiful Country Burn Again. To purchase tickets click here and use the promotional code: guardianticket