New York Times Magazine writer Jim Yardley has spent more than a dozen years as a foreign correspondent and editor, living in and covering Beijing, New Delhi, and Rome. This summer he came back to the United States to cover the 2016 election as one of America's wayward sons, a man who decidedly no longer recognized the country or the people he left more than a decade ago.
I had forgotten how big the people are, how big the cars are, how much fried food can be stacked onto a single plate. Everything seemed larger than I remembered, even the night sky. Driving along the 610 Loop in Houston, I saw a cigar shop named SERIOUS CIGARS that was easily triple the size of my grocery in Rome.
“This country is huge,” Tomás said one day. “It is like 50 countries all together.”
Tomás, a Chilean, has traveled the world, but this was his first long tour across the United States. On seeing one rural road sign, he asked what it meant to “adopt a highway.” Another day, another road sign: “Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates.” Tomás was startled by how thoroughly so many American cities emptied out at night. In Colorado Springs, we attended a rodeo where the announcer made a long soliloquy praising our military for defending our freedom at home. Tomás had embedded many times with American forces in Afghanistan. He liked the soldiers, but he didn’t understand how sending troops to other countries, particularly Iraq, kept Americans free at home.
Before the rodeo, I met two ranchers, Rob Alexander and Bill Craig. The air smelled faintly of horse manure as we sat on a plastic cooler drinking Coors. Alexander, 53, explained that the rodeo was a fund-raiser for ranch hands, who often lacked health insurance or a safety net to help out in emergencies. Ranching families had taken a hit in the past two decades, in part because trade agreements led to the consolidation of many cattle operations and an increase in imported beef from South America. Craig, 35, is a fourth-generation rancher, but he said land is now so expensive and profit so meager that he could never afford to start a ranch from scratch today. They talked like men whose lifestyles and values were endangered.
“Something is wrong,” Craig said. “Watch the TV. The moral compass is so far out of whack in our country right now.”
At the University of Texas at Austin, I met Lisa Moore, a professor of English and women’s studies who is one of three plaintiffs suing to overturn a new state law allowing students to carry concealed handguns on campus. Born in Canada but a resident of Texas for 27 years, Moore is a naturalized American citizen who is still a bit baffled by her new country. “That is the weirdness of the United States to me: Everybody is always talking about their rights,” she said, while identity in Canada derives from the idea of the social compact.
Moore is a gay, married mother of two children who teaches courses on L.G.B.T. literature. “Campus carry” infringes on free speech, she argues, by inhibiting her ability to provide a safe learning environment. What if a student becomes enraged by the subject matter and pulls out a Glock?
American gun manufacturers produced 3.3 million guns the year I left for China, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. By 2014, the number was nine million (supplemented by 3.6 million guns imported into the country). According to some recent estimates, there are now roughly as many guns as people in the United States, maybe even more. To many foreigners, the American infatuation with guns is an inexplicable, if defining, national trait. On a taxi ride in Beijing once, the driver, upon discovering I was American, shaped his hand like a pistol and began shooting imaginary bullets.
At a firing range outside Austin, I met six guys shooting semiautomatic rifles. Several of them worked for Defense Distributed, the open-source organization in Austin that came up with a plastic handgun whose design can be downloaded from the web and produced with a 3-D printer. The State Department ordered the company to remove the design code, but the company is challenging that order in court. For Benjamin Denio, at the time a 36-year-old who worked in desktop support and did product testing at Defense Distributed, being able to produce your own plastic gun is a safeguard against the tyranny of the state. “The term I would use to describe the level of vitriol in the country,” Denio said, “is that it is the ‘cold civil war.’ ”
A "cold civil war" seems about right. America is broken, having been largely rendered ungovernable and unmanageable by political forces on the right that decided an America they could no longer fully control was going to slowly burn to the ground instead. History says we've gotten repeatedly lucky to avoid the fascist moment, although even a cursory glance at our history shows many such moments and systems that took decades and centuries to be dismantled, and some that very much remain.
We're at one of those nexus points now, where we choose whether or not we're going to continue down the road of this country's decidedly darker and awful days, or the brighter ones where we work to correct our many mistakes.
Only 150 years ago these states were disunited. We're closer to that moment again now than we've been in some time. Maybe we just need a little perspective from somebody who has been away for a while.