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Godfrey Hodgson: a legendary author who predicted America’s unravelling

Hodgson, who died aged 86, provided a stellar canon of articles for openDemocracy that unveil the path to Trumpism.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
29 January 2021, 4.55pm
Godfrey Hodgson had a prolific career writing about US politics
Darren Greenwood/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

The legendary Godfrey Hodgson, author of essential books and reports on the US, a journalist with The Observer and then The Sunday Times Insight Team when they were in their prime, and in later life the head of the fellowships programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, has died, aged 86.

This is just a note to acknowledge the remarkable series of articles, a masterclass of analysis and observation, that he wrote for openDemocracy.

The first was a month after 9/11 when he reflected on a theme that he had written about at length: that the US thought of itself as “the exceptional country”. Americans thought they had created a model for the world and believed it was only a matter of time before the rest of us, everywhere, would come to see this. Perhaps, Hodgson suggested, more in hope than expectation, the shock of the terrorist assault would finally make America realise it was not the exception after all.

The most striking contribution Hodgson made, however, was not in any single article or essay, like this. From April 2004 to November 2011, he wrote 80 articles on American politics, sometimes monthly. These track the decline of the Bush presidency: with brilliant characterisations of George W. Bush’s flaccid character, class background and corruptions; the pathetic grovelling of Tony Blair seeking American influence; and the rise and victory of Obama, which is coolly observed.

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Masterly overview of Obama’s presidency

With a sure, sympathetic eye, and superb foresight, Hodgson feared for the coming frustration of Obama’s presidency: a plea in Obama’s second month of office not to waste the financial crisis; a swift recognition of the “reality gap” opening up before the inexperienced president; an assessment after six months that there was “too much emphasis on personality”, while handing management of the economic crisis to friends of Wall Street would prove catastrophic; a masterly overview in November 2009, where he quotes Lyndon Johnson that the nature of the presidency means, “You have got one year”, and sets out how Obama has lost it.

With respect to the Republicans, in 2010 he grasped that with the ‘Mad Hatter’ rise of Tea Party, the mid-term elections were “a clash about the moral nature of American society”, one that would “decide the fate of Barack Obama’s vision of national renewal”. He was not optimistic. Indeed, the Democrats lost control of Congress and Obama was broken politically, with all the consequences that followed.

In the same article Hodgson offered an explanation, before the fact, of what was to come, a sure sign of his feel and understanding for the coming disaster:

“My own hunch is that the unease and turmoil that are reported from every  corner of the country, and from both ends of an increasingly polarised nation, reflects the cumulative shocks of an electorate adjusting to the discovery that many of its core beliefs have been exposed as false… In the years of the financial crash and economic crisis since 2007 especially, the pace and scale of dissolution of once unchallenged verities have been accelerating. So painful and disorientating has the overall change been, it is bound to produce a collective, political-psychological response that transcends everyday issues and disputes. And this seems to be it.”

In the last of the regular columns, in November 2011, Hodgson cast his eye over the appalling choice vying to be the Republican candidate to take on a visibly failing Obama. “Neither the president nor the Congress,” he observed, “seems able even to begin to address the United States’ grave problems – public and private debt, high unemployment, economic stagnation and policy paralysis. The fact that the next election is of vital importance to America and the world makes this a chilling reality.”

Hodgson could not resist the offer of a reflection, in September 2016, of the next choice of president. It is a finely written lament on the tragic choice of either Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump. In his final words for openDemocracy, he offered his concluding judgment on the United States, which he loved and knew so well; “The glory has departed.”

Reading his articles now, as a small body of work, their sheer quality stands out. Written from across the Atlantic in England, it is as if they are reports from the ground. They are short and accessible, deploying arresting facts and revealing examples, and they provide telling and relevant quotes drawn from his huge scope of reading.

His immense sympathy for American democracy and political energy never displaced clear-sighted judgment. His writing maintained proper scepticism while avoiding the dreadful cynicism and patronising, opinionated cleverness that scars the yellow pages of the British press, from the Daily Mail to The Spectator. Instead, because he was really interested in what was happening, and because he knew and had seen so much, his articles remain both interesting and wise.

Full obituaries can be found in the newspapers: The Guardian’s is here.

Correction, 2 February 2021: When this article was first published, it got Godfrey Hodgson's job title at the Reuters Institute wrong.

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