Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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Copyright © 2020 by Kurt Andersen

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

and the
colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

Some passages in
Evil Geniuses
were originally published in a different form in
Vanity Fair.


Names: Andersen, Kurt, author.

Title: Evil geniuses : the unmaking of America : a recent history / by Kurt Andersen.

Description: New York : Random House, [2020] | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2020017081 (print) | LCCN 2020017082 (ebook) | ISBN 9781984801340 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781984801364 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Wealth—Political aspects—United States—History. | Big business—United States—History. | Corporate power—United States—History. | Democracy—United States—History. | United States—Economic conditions. | United States—Social condtions. | United States—Politics and government.

Classification: LCC HC110.W4 A53 2020 (print) | LCC HC110.W4 (ebook) | DDC 330.973—dc23

LC record available at

LC ebook record available at

Ebook ISBN 9781984801364


Book design by Susan Turner, adapted for ebook

Cover design: Pete Garceau


“We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”


“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”


“Strategic inflection points…can mean an opportunity to rise to new heights. But it may just as likely signal the beginning of the end.”



When you reach your fifties, it gets easier to notice the big ways in which the world has or hasn’t changed since you were young, both the look and feel of things and people’s understandings of how society works. A half-century of life is enough to provide some panoramic perspective, letting you see and sense arcs of history firsthand, like when an airplane reaches the altitude where the curvature of the Earth becomes visible.

Some of the arcs of historical change are obvious, their paths as well as their causes. The equality and empowerment of women is one of those big
ones. But other important historical arcs, more complicated or obscure, have to be figured out.

That’s how I came to write my last nonfiction book, a not-so-obvious American history called
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
I’d noticed that in so many ways, as Stephen Colbert joked on the first episode of his old nightly show, America had become increasingly “divided between those who think with their head and those who
with their
.” From the 1960s and ’70s on, I realized, America had really changed in this regard. Belief in every sort of make-believe had spun out of control—in religion, science, politics, and lifestyle, all of them merging with entertainment in what I called the fantasy-industrial complex. In that book I explained the deep, centuries-long history of this American knack for creating and believing the excitingly untrue. As soon as I finished writing
we elected a president who was its single most florid and consequential expression ever, a poster boy embodying all its themes.

But that long-standing, chronic American condition that turned into an acute crisis is just half the story of how and why we’ve come to grief these last few decades. This other part concerns the transformation of our social system that started in the 1970s and ’80s, helped along by a simultaneous plunge into compulsive nostalgia and wariness of the new and unfamiliar. Whereas
concerned Americans’ centuries-old weakness for the untrue and irrational, and its spontaneous and dangerous flowering since the 1960s,
Evil Geniuses
chronicles the quite deliberate reengineering of our economy and society since the 1960s by a highly rational confederacy of the rich, the right, and big business.

From my parents’ young adulthood in the 1930s and ’40s through my young adulthood in the 1970s, American economic life became a lot more fair and democratic and secure than it had been when my parents were children in the 1920s and early ’30s. But then all of a sudden around 1980, that progress slowed, stopped, and in many ways reversed.

I didn’t start fully appreciating and understanding the nature and enormity of that change until the turn of this century, after the country had been transformed. In 2002, when several spectacular corporate financial frauds were exposed and their CEO perpetrators prosecuted, I published a long screed in
New York Times
blaming Wall Street. “If infectious greed is the virus, New York is the center of the outbreak,” I wrote, because it

is also, inarguably, the money center of America and the world, the capital of capitalism….It was New York investment bankers who drove the mergers-and-acquisitions deal culture of the 80’s and 90’s and who most aggressively oversold the myth of synergy that justified it….It was they…who invented the novel financial architectures of Enron and WorldCom. It was the example of New York investment bankers, earning gigantic salaries for doing essentially nothing—knowing the right people, talking smoothly, showing up at closings—that encouraged businesspeople out in the rest of America to feel entitled to smoke-and-mirrors cash bonanzas of their own.

A few years later, one very cold morning just after Thanksgiving, I had another slow-road-to-Damascus moment from whatever I had been (complacent neoliberal?) to whatever I was becoming (appalled social democrat?). I was actually on the road to Eppley Airfield in Omaha after my first visit to my hometown since both my parents had died, sharing a minivan jitney from a hotel with a couple of Central Casting airline pilots—tall, fit white men around my age, one wearing a leather jacket. We chatted. To my surprise, even shock, both of them spent the entire trip sputtering and whining—about being baited and switched when their employee ownership shares of United Airlines had been evaporated by its recent bankruptcy, about the default of their pension plan, about their CEO’s recent 40 percent pay raise, about the company to which they’d devoted their entire careers but no longer trusted at all. In effect, about changing overnight from successful all-American middle-class professionals who’d worked hard and played by the rules into disrespected, cheated, sputtering, whining chumps.

When we got to the airport, I said goodbye and good luck and, at the little bookstore there that contains a kind of shrine to the local god Warren Buffett and his company Berkshire Hathaway, bought a newspaper. In it I read an article about that year’s record-setting bonuses on Wall Street. The annual revenues of Goldman Sachs were greater than the annual economic output of two-thirds of the countries on Earth—a treasure chest from which the firm was disbursing the equivalent of $69 million to its CEO and an average of $800,000 apiece to
everybody else
at the place.

This was 2006, before Wall Street started teetering, before the financial crash, before the Great Recession. The amazing real estate bubble had not yet popped, and the economy was still apparently rocking.

I was writing a regular column for
New York
magazine, so after reading and thinking some more, I summarized my understanding of how an egregiously revised American social contract had been put in place, take it or leave it, without much real debate.

“This is not the America in which we grew up,” I wrote.

By which I meant America of the several very prosperous decades after World War II, when “the income share of the superrich was reasonably cut back, by more than half. The rich were still plenty rich, and American capitalism worked fine.” I wrote about how, since the 1980s, “the piece of the income pie taken each year by the rich has become as hugely disproportionate as it was in the 1920s,” how “an average CEO now gets paid several hundred times the salary of his average worker, a gap that’s an order of magnitude larger than it was in the 1970s,” and how most Americans’ wages had barely budged. I wrote that “during the past two decades we’ve not only let economic uncertainty and unfairness grow to grotesque extremes, we’ve also inured ourselves to the spectacle.” By
I meant the mostly liberal, mostly affluent New Yorkers and other cosmopolites who read
New York

After this twenty-five-year “run of pedal-to-the-metal hypercapitalism,” I wrote, it was “now time to ease up and share the wealth some. Because the future that frightens me isn’t so much a too-Hispanic U.S. caused by unchecked Mexican immigration, but a Latin Americanized society with a

callous oligarchy gated off from a growing mass of screwed-over peons.” We needed to take seriously the rising anger and disgust about an American economic system that seems more and more rigged in favor of the extremely fortunate.

Populism has gotten a bad odor, and not just among plutocrats—for most of the political chattering class, it is at least faintly pejorative. But I think that’s about to change: When economic hope shrivels and the rich become cartoons of swinish privilege, why shouldn’t the middle class become populists?

I remember thinking,
was why my professors in college had used the terms
political economics
the political economy
as distinct from simply
the economy
. For one thing,
has the connotation of pure science, suggesting that organizing production and pay and investment and taxes and all the rest is just…math. Whereas
political economics
contains the crucial reminder that real-life societies and economies are the result of all kinds of fights and negotiations and feelings and choices about the rules of the game, what’s fair, what’s not, what to maximize, how to optimize for the majority instead of maximizing only for some powerful minority. It’s fine to call it
the economy
when we’re discussing what’s happening month to month or year to year—the ups and downs in the stock market and rates of employment and inflation and growth. Whereas if we’re talking about the whole megillah, the way we’ve structured our capitalism versus the versions in Canada or Denmark or Russia or China, I think
political economy
is much better. The economy is weather, the political economy is climate.

I also thought:
Mea culpa
. For those last two decades, I’d prospered and thrived in the new political economy. And unhurt by automation or globalization or the new social contract, I’d effectively ignored the fact that the majority of my fellow Americans weren’t prospering or thriving.

I seldom have epiphanies, but a few months later, in 2007, I happened to have another, this one concerning the culture, and it would eventually cross-fertilize with my new sense of the hijacked, screwed-up political economy. This second aha moment started with an observation I had one morning concerning personal style. Looking at a photo in the newspaper taken twenty years earlier of a large group of very stylish people on a U.S. city street, I closely examined the way each of them looked, their clothes and hair and makeup. They were virtually indistinguishable from people of the present day. I thought about that, conducted some research, and realized it was a broad phenomenon, true throughout the culture—music, design, cars, more. Apart from cellphones and computers, almost nothing anymore that was new or just a bit old looked or sounded either distinctly new or distinctly old.

This was not only not the America in which I’d grown up, when the look and feel of things changed a lot every decade or so,
it wasn’t the way things had worked in the modern age, for a century or two
. In the past, certainly in my lifetime and that of my parents and grandparents, over any given twenty-year period, whenever you glanced back, you’d notice how culture and what was deemed current changed unmistakably from top to bottom. Since the dawn of the modern, ordinary people could date cultural artifacts and ephemera of the recent past and previous eras. During the twentieth century, each
had its own signature look and feel. By the late 1960s, the 1950s looked
so ’50s,
and by the early 1980s, the 1960s looked
so ’60s
. But then, starting in the 1990s, that unstoppable flow of modernity—the distinctly
continuously appearing and making styles seem old—somehow slowed and nearly stopped. The dramatic new change in the culture seemed to be that things were no longer dramatically changing.

How strange.

? The shortest and simplest answer is that a massive counterreaction to multiple overwhelming waves of newness on multiple fronts, one after another, sent all sorts of Americans, for all sorts of different reasons, to seek the reassurance of familiarity and continuity wherever they could manage to find or fake it.

The first wave was in the 1960s, a decade in which
seemed relentlessly new new
Which for several years felt exciting and
to most Americans, and the novelty glut seemed under control by the forces of reason and order. But then came the upheavals of the second half of the 1960s, when society and culture changed startlingly in just a few dozen months. In the early 1970s, exhausted by that flux, still processing the discombobulating changes concerning gender and race and sex and other norms, people all at once started looking fondly back in time at the real and imaginary good old days. Enough with the constant shocks of the new! Hollywood revived and celebrated the recent past in a big way, right away, with nostalgia-fests like
American Graffiti, Happy Days,
Soon nostalgia for
periods kicked in throughout all media and all cultural forms with a breadth and depth that were unprecedented in America.

As people gave themselves over to finding and fondling quaint things that had been stored away in the national attic during the century of novelty and progress, we inevitably amended our view of the entire American past, romanticizing and idealizing it, tending to ignore the bad parts. As it turned out, curating and then
pieces of the past extended beyond pop culture and style into politics and the economy. I’m not saying the freshly nostalgia-swamped culture of the 1970s and ’80s
people to become more politically conservative. But it wasn’t a coincidence that the two phenomena emerged simultaneously. They operated in tandem. The political right rode in on that floodtide of nostalgia, and then, ironically, the old-time every-man-for-himself political economy they reinstalled, less fair and less secure, drove people deeper into their various nostalgic havens for solace. This new fixation of the culture on the old and the familiar didn’t subside. It became a fixed backward gaze. Then almost without a pause came another wave of disruption and uncertainty, caused by the digital technologies that revolutionized the ways people earned livings and lived, and which made economic life for most people even more insecure. And the culture in turn focused even more compulsively on recycling and rebooting familiar styles and fashions and music and movies and shows.

Then we moved onto the weird next stage, the latest stage that I first noticed in the 2000s, after my double-take at that old photo—the
in addition to letting the past charm us, in the 1990s we also stopped creating the fundamentally, strikingly new, perfecting a comfortable
illusion that in some sense the world wasn’t really changing all that much.

As I was working on
reading and thinking about American history, I noticed more connections between the two phenomena—between our simultaneous switch in the 1970s and ’80s to a grisly old-fashioned political economy
to a strenuously, continuously familiar culture. Which led me to spend a couple of years reading and thinking more deeply about both.

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
6.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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