The rich, white powerbrokers in A.M. Homes' new novel plot to be kingmakers – in the name of 'democracy'

Julio Cortez/AP
Julio Cortez/AP

The website of the America First Secretary of State Coalition (“America First SOS”) doesn’t include the word “democracy” anywhere. It goes hard on “integrity”, mentioning “voter” and “election” integrity four times in about 800 words. But the Coalition isn’t interested in democracy.

America First SOS aims to get “America First” (that is, Trumpian Make America Great Again) Republicans elected as secretaries of state across key battleground states like Arizona and Nevada, precisely so they can influence or even change election processes and outcomes in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential elections.

The America First candidates will, if elected, “counter and reverse electoral fraud”. Their openly stated objective, in other words, is for state-level election officials to both reverse-engineer Trump’s election loss in 2020 (never mind that this is impossible) and ensure that he (or his favoured candidate) takes out the next one.

Across the United States, at every level of politics, democracy is under attack. America First SOS is just one example. While the November midterm elections are being treated by political analysts largely as a standard horse race, they are nothing of the sort. What happens in November will be a critical indicator of the strength of the United States’ political institutions. And the signs are not good.

Review: The Unfolding – A.M. Homes (Granta)

“Democracy,” as one of the characters in A.M. Homes’ brilliant new novel puts it, “is fragile, more fragile than any of us are comfortable admitting”.

The Unfolding is fiction: a made-up story of American politics. But just like in the real United States, the lines between truth and fantasy are perilously thin.

Homes’ main character, the “Big Guy”, is a businessman and lifelong Republican – not unlike Jim Marchant, the Republican candidate for secretary of state in Nevada and cofounder of America First SOS.

Both Marchant and Homes’ Big Guy came of age in Ronald Reagan’s America. They lived through the triumph of the end of the Cold War, the blip of the Clinton years, then the Republican glory of the 2000 election and the George W. Bush years. So they are accustomed to wielding power, and they do not take well to having that power threatened.

Read more: American exceptionalism: the poison that cannot protect its children from violent death

Rich Republicans, ‘saving democracy’

The Unfolding begins on election night, 2008. The Big Guy is in Phoenix, Arizona, attending John McCain’s election night party. In the book, it’s always “Phoenix” – not the election, not the fact that

a Black man just got elected president of the United States. Oh my fucking god.

It’s “Phoenix” that was “the tipping point”. Because in the book – as in so much of real politics – the experiences of rich, old white men are almost always centred.

The book follows the Big Guy from the night of November 4 2008, until January 20, 2009 – President Obama’s inauguration day – as he and his network of other rich Republican men construct intricate and secretive plans to, as they see it, save American democracy.

The Big Guy and his network never really explain how it is that “democracy” is under threat, because they know that it isn’t, not really (not in 2008, anyway). What is under threat is power – specifically, the power of rich men to control American politics. As one of the Big Guy’s interlocutors puts it to him: “That’s the part that makes you really anxious, the idea that old white men will be obsolete.” The Big Guy replies, “You’re not wrong.”

Outside the context of the novel, this dialogue might seem a little ham-fisted, and it is. But therein lies its genius. Homes’ ability to tap into the language of American politics, history and culture – its simultaneous complexity and embarrassing simplicity – is astounding in its brilliance.

Homes’ capture, through fiction, of the backlash to the election of Barack Obama and its continuing reverberations, is the greatest strength of this book. That backlash (or, more accurately, “whitelash”) is responsible for Trump and so many white Americans’ embrace of, in President Biden’s real-life words, “semi-fascism”.

To Homes’ characters, living in the period between Bush’s election loss and the inauguration of the first Black president, “It’s not just that Obama won, it’s as though the founding fathers were assassinated.” They felt (and perhaps still feel) they’d watched

a generation of hard work flushed down the toilet. That’s what it is – it’s not four years, it’s not nothing, it’s an entire generation of men who worked to build this country and now it’s flushed, that’s what happened.

The Big Guy can hardly bear it; he’s watching his worlds, political and personal, collapse around him. To his like-minded friends, he insists that “each of us has worked too hard to leave this earth without having made a lasting impression”.

The Big Guy and his network are distraught, too, because “there is no succession plan – there is nothing in place to say who will run the world after they are gone”. They don’t have any sons.

Read more: Jared Kushner's memoir is a self-serving account of a hero's triumphs but contains a great deal of fascinating detail

Personal and political crises

This mingling of the personal and the political finds life in one of the book’s best characters, the Big Guy’s teenage daughter, Meghan. She, too, is shaken by the events of November 2008, as everything she thought she knew – about her country, and her own life – begins to fall down around her.

Meghan’s navigation of these dual crises, and her own changing identity, often finds its own expression in historical thinking. Both she and the Big Guy love American history; they’re obsessed by it.

One of their favourite games is exchanging obscure facts about the Big Guy’s favourite president, George Washington. They have made a family tradition of visiting historical landmarks. But it’s in these places where Meghan’s uncertainty grows. Driving past the site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Meghan wonders if

the grassy knoll is less of a hill or a mound, and more of a bump, or at this point in time – a blip? Is that true or has the scale of things changed? Does a place compact and get smaller over time? Does history shrink?

Meghan’s complex musings on the nature of history, her “fear that truth is an elusive thing, that history is not fixed in time and space but subject to fluctuation and interpretation and to the possibility that there are other stories”, stands in stark contrast to her father’s more insistent, one-dimensional view of the past and the present. While Meghan wants “to make history, to live in history, and to be the history of the future”, her father is more interested in controlling it.

Musing on the very first president, and his decision to step down after two terms, the Big Guy waxes lyrical on Washington’s selflessness, his patriotism, and his refusal to be “a king”. “What did America not want to be?” asks the Big Guy. “A kingdom.”

The Big Guy, consciously or not, exposes the contradiction at the heart of American power. The Big Guy and his friends don’t want a king, but they do want to be kingmakers. They don’t want democracy, not really. Or perhaps they do, but they want the version George Washington lived – a democracy reserved for rich, white men. The way, as they see it, American democracy was originally conceived.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The Unfolding cuts to the heart of a broken American politics. It’s billed as a “black comedy”, but I never once found the book funny. It was far too real, and too brilliant in its fictional diagnosis of American malaise. Homes captures the horror and the stupidity of American power.

Throughout the book, we’re never really sure if the Big Guy and his network can be taken seriously. When they say meaningless things like, “Our plan will be organized around the concept of rings of power and authority with an inner circle”, are we to believe that this is a brilliant organisational strategy? Are these men executing a supremely complex game of three-dimensional chess? Or are they just rich, mediocre-but-entitled white men exploiting a system that was always rigged in their favour? Maybe it’s both.

Will the Big Guy’s network succeed in their plans? Will America First SOS succeed? Will Trump come back? Will American democracy collapse? Has it already?

The Unfolding opens with the oft-repeated line, “It can’t happen here.” (“It”, in this case, being the fall of the United States to fascism, riffing off another work of fiction, Sinclair Lewis’s titular 1935 novel.) As the lines between fantasy and reality increasingly blur, A.M. Homes offers us a brilliant, frightening reminder that “it” just might happen. Or that either way, “there’s shit on the horizon.”

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Emma Shortis, RMIT University.

Read more:

Emma Shortis is an associate member of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN).