When America Stopped Being Great

A History of the Present

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Pub Date 9 Mar 2021 | Archive Date 1 Apr 2021

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'Nick Bryant is brilliant. He has a way of showing you what you've been missing from the whole story whilst never leaving you feeling stupid.' – Emily Maitlis

'Bryant is a genuine rarity, a Brit who understands America' – Washington Post

In When America Stopped Being Great, veteran reporter and BBC New York correspondent Nick Bryant reveals how America's decline paved the way for Donald Trump's rise, sowing division and leaving the country vulnerable to its greatest challenge of the modern era. 

Deftly sifting through almost four decades of American history, from post-Cold War optimism, through the scandal-wracked nineties and into the new millennium, Bryant unpacks the mistakes of past administrations, from Ronald Reagan's 'celebrity presidency' to Barack Obama's failure to adequately address income and racial inequality. He explains how the historical clues, unseen by many (including the media) paved the way for an outsider to take power and a country to slide towards disaster. As Bryant writes, 'rather than being an aberration, Trump's presidency marked the culmination of so much of what had been going wrong in the United States for decades – economically, racially, politically, culturally, technologically and constitutionally.'

A personal elegy for an America lost, unafraid to criticise actors on both sides of the political divide, When America Stopped Being Great takes the long view, combining engaging storytelling with recent history to show how the country moved from the optimism of Reagan's 'Morning in America' to the darkness of Trump's 'American Carnage'. It  concludes with some of the most dramatic events in recent memory, in an America torn apart by a bitterly polarised election, racial division, the national catastrophe of the coronavirus and the threat to US democracy evidenced by the storming of Capitol Hill.

'Nick Bryant is brilliant. He has a way of showing you what you've been missing from the whole story whilst never leaving you feeling stupid.' – Emily Maitlis

'Bryant is a genuine rarity, a Brit who...

Advance Praise

“A masterclass from an outstanding chronicler of modern America ... Insightful, thoughtful, and beautifully written.” – Orla Guerin

“Nick Bryant is brilliant. He has a way of showing you what you've been missing from the whole story whilst never leaving you feeling stupid.” – Emily Maitlis

“There are all too many people who can opine about the United States but there are very few with Nick Bryant's depth of knowledge, experience and empathy for the country and his ability to communicate intelligently, engagingly and entertainingly.” – Nick Robinson

“Bryant is a genuine rarity, a Brit who understands America” Washington Post

“A scathing indictment of the polarization and degradation that has transformed the US … [A]n adroit political critique.” Kirkus Reviews

“Few outsiders explain America better than Nick Bryant or write about it as well. This is a must-read guide to an extraordinary time” – Katty Kay

“A masterclass from an outstanding chronicler of modern America ... Insightful, thoughtful, and beautifully written.” – Orla Guerin

“Nick Bryant is brilliant. He has a way of showing you what...

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Featured Reviews

A stunning book that is written in a way that gives context to the weird time America has gone through recently. The book is easy to understand and follow, telling a story we all know but in a way that makes it feel brand new.

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Brilliant, entertaining overview of US presidents since Reagan, written by BBC US correspondent. It is definitely a must-read for everyone. I could describe it as 'unputdownable'!

It clarifies many aspects of US politics, and gives a very clear picture of all presidents from Reagan to Trump - revealing that all had, or have, feet of clay to a greater or lesser extent. And as we get closer to 2021 there are shocking moments, laugh-out loud ones, and ones that would be better on 'reality TV.

Highly recommended.

With thanks to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for an ARC.

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What just happened?
This is essentially the gist of the question answered in this excellent book by experienced BBC journalist and author, Nick Bryant.
For in 2016, billionaire reality TV star, Donald Trump was elected US president having promised to “make America great again.” It was not an original slogan, but it clearly resonated with the US electorate. We now know, of course, that the outcome was the exact opposite of what Trump promised. His presidency was an unmitigated disaster for both the US and the world. Compared to where it stood in the middle of the last decade, America’s standing both at home and abroad has been dramatically diminished.
Trump never said, of course, when exactly in history he considered the US to have been great in the first place.
As the starting point of his narrative, Bryant takes us back to 1984, the time of the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Ronald Reagan’s re-election and his own first youthful trip to the USA, “the summertime of American resurgence.” Bryant doesn’t gloss over Reagan’s weaknesses at all. He was essentially a film star in the White House just as Trump was a TV star and let his Hollywood-inspired concerns about ‘little green men’ and belief in astrology influence the content of potentially vital US-Soviet summits.
But 1984 was certainly a period when the USA seemed to stand tall. Bryant’s book is essentially the story of how conditions gradually shifted over the next 32 years resulting in the disaster of Trumpism, the unhappy period which dominates the last third of the book.
Reagan was partly to blame. Bryant argues “Reagan created a flawed blueprint, and showed that a president could achieve historical greatness without even mastering some of the basics of the job.” The Clintons were not blameless either. Bill’s behaviour set a new lower standard for the basic minimum morality requirement expected of a chief executive. Hilary didn’t help either by seeming almost insulted at the idea of having to assert her leadership credentials before such an unworthy foe in 2016. Her arrogant dismissal of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” also did her immeasurable damage. George W. Bush was also at fault, setting a new low for the standard of presidential crisis response after Hurricane Katrina after 2006 which foreshadowed Trump’s own woeful response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Bush’s absurdly premature “mission accomplished” celebration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 also set a new standard for ‘fake news’. The war in Iraq still had a very long way to run.
Even Obama is partly to blame. In retrospect, his public goading of Trump at various Washington Correspondents’ Dinners, though often very funny, may have unwittingly provoked him into running. Obama, Bryant argues, also too often backed away from confronting genuine foreign policy challenges in Libya and Syria. Obama was genuinely an economically successful president, but the fact is many American voters didn’t feel the effects. The US was in many ways much poorer in 2017 than it had been twenty-five years earlier. Many Americans polled in 2016, incorrectly believed that they were still in recession.
Now they really are. None of this is to excuse Trump himself of ultimate responsibility for the disaster of his presidency. All the chief executives named, after all, had redeeming features. Trump has none. This book merely explains how these and other factors such as a growing sense of partisan division, the rise of Twitter, the deeply flawed electoral college system and a complacent media keen to flatter Trump by endlessly suggesting he run for president and which infected by “good story bias” garnished Trump with an endless supply of free publicity enabling him to win and make the resulting nightmare possible.

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Starting with Reagan, this book analyses the ins and outs of each presidential reign with some fantastic analysis. He lays out the scene of how these Presidents, the decisions they made and the cultures that they made helped to lay the pathway for Trump to take up spot in the White House - yes, including Obama!

Although the political insight is detailed and insightful, Bryant writes this in an accessible way and so you don't need to have intricate understanding of US Politics in order to pick it up. Bryant ends on the most somber of notes, that the way forward doesn't seem much, if at all, brighter.

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When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present is a comprehensive and richly-detailed analysis of the political, economic, cultural and technological factors that contributed to America’s decline and inadvertently paved the way for Trump’s presidency. Nick Bryant is the BBC's New York correspondent, holds a doctorate in American politics and has had his finger on the pulse of American politics for decades. He fell in love with New York when he first visited in the 1980s when it was the USA's heyday of power and self-confidence. He once considered becoming a US citizen, but now he wonders if the nation brought low by income inequality, substance abuse, falling life expectancy, and gun violence, is in an irreversible state of decline. He posits that the presidency of Donald Trump is commonly seen as an historical accident, but that by 2016 it had become almost historically inescapable. In this highly personal account, drawing on decades of covering Washington for the BBC, Bryant shows how the billionaire capitalised on the mistakes of his five predecessors – Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – and how also he became a beneficiary of a broken politics, an iniquitous economy, an ailing media, a facile culture, disruptive new technology and the creation of a modern-day presidency that elevated showmanship over statesmanship.

Not only are we starting to see the emergence of a post-American world, Bryant fears we are witnessing the emergence of a post-American America. The history of Trump’s rise is also the history of America’s fall – we witnessing America’s post-millennial decline, but also the country's disintegration. The aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, when Donald Trump refused to accept defeat and incited his supporters to storm the US Capitol, and the Black Lives Matter protests have revealed more about the country’s chronic state of disunion than any other events in recent years. This is at once a fascinating and unsettling account of the gradual decline of America as the land of plenty and the countless anecdotes Bryant uses to illustrate his points are not only well thought out but engaging too. He explores how the ‘American dream’, ebbed away as successive Presidents allowed the divisions in the ‘United States’ to become so apparent again. So much of the country was being left behind economically and technologically as advances were made in the big cities; as standards of living started to fall, the attitude towards immigrants – for so long the driver of the country’s success – became far more negative and exposed the racial problems that stemmed from its slavery trade roots and which had never been fully dealt with. Bryant explains that Trump’s presence on the political stage will still likely loom large for some time and the destructive energy will still be present despite Biden's win. This is a powerful, assured and eye-opening read from start to finish; let's hope we can recover from the past few years as quickly as possible. Highly recommended.

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Review! Nick Bryant: When America Stopped Being Great 🇱🇷


I have never been so hungry for books on recent history and this is a very timely, well-researched and accessible piece of work, taking us all the way up to the capital riots.

The book's title may make it seem part of the anti-Trump genre but it's richer and more objective than that.

@nickbryantnyc takes us on a journey through the facts and spirit of each presidency since Reagan, exploring their impacts on the people of America/the world. This is all nicely interwoven with Bryant's personal experiences in the US as a journalist, and living in NYC during the pandemic.

The best books on the near-past create a linear narrative, threading together events into a coherent plot which help to make sense of the direction we are moving in- and this book does just that.

It's a strange reality that if this were fiction the narrative might almost feel too neat.

Bryant's plot is one of increasing polarisation and a decreasingly effective government.

He outlines how the style of the presidency has changed, but I learnt most from exploring the different governing priorities of each generation and how the demands of the electorate have changed over time.

I believe the UK is following a similar plot, so it was doubly insightful! I really didn't want it to end!

For me, books like this help to generate hope. By reflecting and assessing, we can best work out how to move forward and flip back into a plot full of hope and unity.

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