Informed or Inflamed? Author Steve Almond Talks About How We Consume Trump

With the recent release of Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, Steve Almond talks in-depth about the US president whom most parents wouldn't even let on the playground -- and about his beef with the American left.

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country
Steve Almond
Red Hen Press
April 2018

Steve Almond has written a handful of books about things like music or sports. All of them are pretty funny and surprisingly touching. He comes off as a mensch every time. Almond has three kids who aren’t yet teenagers and the kids want to know why their dad is so grumpy lately. Parents across the country are struggling to explain to their little ones how Trump came to be the president of the United States of America, in part because parents can barely make sense of it for themselves.

Well, Almond is here to help. Wading into the swamp of our contemporary political discourse to sift through the muck of the American mythos, he has emerged with Bad Stories to guide us all toward a more useful approach to the national nightmares we face when we turn on the television these days. Almond reminds us that storytelling itself is a necessarily redemptive enterprise, and urges us to consider that our moral progress as a nation is still completely possible, even if it’s inconvenient. PopMatters checked in to see how he’s feeling about it.

The original subtitle for this book was Toward a Unified Theory for How It All Came Apart, and you want to work toward a synthesis of all the explanations for how we arrived at a Trump presidency. Do you think it’s important for all of us to be on the same page for what happened, or is it possible for us to agree on solutions to problems without us agreeing on what the causes are?

Great question. Give me like a year to think about that. […] There’s an immediate impulse to say, of course, we need to agree on the etiologybefore we can cure the disease. We have to have close to the same idea of what the root cause is, but I don’t actually think that’s unconditionally true as I think it through. In other words—regardless if you agree, for instance, America’s never been a representative democracy. Right? That’s my take—that’s what I believe. Somebody doesn’t have to believe that to accept that voter suppression exists, that the Electoral College is incredibly corrosive to the process of representing the popular will, that gerrymandering is profoundly anti-democratic—right? So maybe you don’t have to agree entirely, but it will be a lot easier to find solutions to complex crises if at least a voting majority have a clear understanding of how we reached a particular impasse or a particular crisis in our civic life.

So for instance, I think one of the things — I don’t know that it will ever happen but I know if it did it would demonstrably improve our democracy overnight — if we somehow were able to prevent large media companies from broadcasting propaganda, disinformation […] or any one of the wild or patently easily verifiable untruths that are now monetized for huge gain in our media ecosystem. Immediately, or at least very quickly, we would see a much less divisive civic discourse, much more real discussion of what the real problems we face are, the common crises of state and their potential remedies. We can all agree or at least it’s very clear to me. Do you have to have my particular take on the Fairness doctrine and the privatization of media to come to that conclusion? No. But you’re much more likely, if you can go back to the root, go back to the beginning, to get to the bottom of it, to say, “Oh, I see.”

Media is incredibly powerful and influential. The founders never anticipated that there would be media that could control the hearts and minds of millions of people instantaneously. They never foresaw Fox News or the right wing talk radio guys setting out that grand narrative for their listeners that feed their sense of grievance and primal negative emotions and causes them to act, to move through life in a paranoid and aggrieved way that makes solving problems almost impossible if they become politically motivated. And we have enough apathetic citizens to make their minority population politically significant.

What’s interesting about the propaganda is that that portion of the media exercise sticks really quickly — and all the many metaphors that we’re trying to hang on Trump in order to make some sense of him and some sense of the problems — do not seem to stick. I mean, they call him Teflon Don. In your book, you talk about the presidency as reality TV, as internet trolling, as akin to sports violence or market disruption or even domestic abuse. But none of these are sticking. What do you make of our failure to find one adequate catch-all characterization of Trump?

I’m not even entirely sure that that would be useful. It might be politically useful for people to say, “He’s this,” but I think what people would actually be better served to do is pay attention to what he is doing, not what he is saying or how depraved his character is, since that’s no longer the issue until such a time that Congress sees fit to actually exercise oversight over the presidency. He can be as depraved as he proved himself to be from the first moment he appeared in civic life. […]

We should ponder, why it is the president is someone who demonstrably would not be allowed on a playground? You would not allow someone who brags about grabbing women by the pussy or teases disabled people or glories in inciting violence or fanaticizes about violence, and is racist. You wouldn’t allow that person on a playground. The questions the parents should ask is—and this is parents across the board, not just people who are progressive or moderate or troubled by Trump, but every parent should be sat down in a golden chair and forced to answer why it is okay that the leader of our country politically [is someone] who they would feel uncomfortable having on their children’s playground.

But you don’t get a chance in democracy to do that. That’s another system of thought and system of government that’s closer to a kind of despotic rule. You don’t get a chance to sit people down and say, “You must morally justify this decision you’re making.”

The impetus for the book is a need to help your own children understand what’s going on and to have some version of an explainer for them, and as a result you spend a lot of time on big picture ideas and the American mythology that we have created for ourselves. The language is pretty well free of political jargon, but it can’t really be read by a second grader. Still, was it difficult to write in this minimalist way—compared to the conversation that we’re having, which uses a different vocabulary? How do you keep yourself from sliding into a so-called snobby liberal elitism or even tones of mansplaining?

Well, I’m trying to, and it kind of depends on who’s reading it, if you know what I mean. In other words, I think some people who don’t want to talk about this and engage deeply, who say things like politics is just a bummer or I don’t like to get too deeply into that stuff, they’re all corrupt, and other ways we use to dodge serious discussion. They might look at the book and say, gee, it is sort of too much full of jargon and this guy is a flaming lefty and dot dot dot with all my talk of capitalism. But the truth is, if it doesn’t—if I somehow managed to avoid those excesses of didacticism, it’s because I really am interested in the soul of the thing.

Who is your actual intended audience for this project?

It’s me. I was trying to understand. And yes, I would love if I could explain it to my kids, but it was more that before I can explain it to my kids, I have to explain it to myself how we reached this result. In other words, the instigation might be the moment where it’s 4am on election night, I’m looking at my kids, [who are] ten-, eight-, and three-years-old. But I’m looking at little kids, and I’m saying, “Shit.” First, I’m pretty sure my kids will be all right because we’re middle to upper-middle class white people—Jew, but still white—and I’ll bet you there are families of color and immigrant families and Muslim families, literally looking at their children thinking, these kids might not be safe in the country that I live in.

But even beyond that, I’m going to have to somehow explain to these kids how it is someone who shouldn’t be allowed on their playground is the president. That might have been the instigation, but within myself what I was saying was, I got two choices here: I can either lie in a pool of my own dread for six months to a year or stick my head into the news cycle, which is like sticking your hand into a blender, basically, and just get pelted left and right with hot takes and anguish, or I could try to take a step back from history and using what I have natively, which—I’m not a political scientist, I’m not a journalist, I’m basically a writer of short stories and essays and whatever it is, occasionally a memoir and failed novels. And I can use those tools to try to explain to myself how we got to this place, because I knew that American culture and civil and political discourse was degenerating, but I think I didn’t realize we would get such results so fast. That was genuinely surprising and heartbreaking and deeply bewildering.

This is unquestionably the least funny book you’ve ever written, and you even say that satirical news delivery like “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live or the many spawn of John Stewart’s Daily Show are wrecking our motivation to take action or make any change. I find so much value in the satirical distance. Can’t we take politics seriously and also still laugh at the bummer?

Here’s what I would say—I would construct it differently. It’s not that they’re doing it. It’s that we’re creating a market for people who convert our anguish about our political moment into sharply observed political and social commentary, and there are certain demonstrable benefits to that—it provides information to people who are not news junkies, who are not deeply engaged in politics. It tells them what’s going on, and it hones people’s critical faculties. So my beef is not really with them.

It’s with the left, and myself included, the left’s reflexive use of political parody as a form of therapy for feelings of distress and frustration and even outrage that are actually necessary to get people off their couch and to stop tweeting and start organizing and becoming politically engaged and getting involved in specific causes and candidates that are morally important to them. You cannot do that if your best response or your most consistent response to our civic dysfunction is to find people who make jokes about that dysfunction. As funny as those jokes might be, it is ultimately turning civic dysfunction into a form of entertainment, and that is in its own way in the service of an eventual President Trump.

That’s what happens when everything becomes a form of entertainment. You wind up electing reality TV rather than somebody who wants to govern.

How are you curating your own media diet these days—now only where do you get your news, but how much of your daily life is consumed by trying to keep up with it?

There would be the ideal, like what I wish I could tell you, and then there would be the truth. I’ll go with the truth. I try to read Vox, which I think is a really smart website that tries to explain things. I still get pissed at them because they do this pop cultural coverage that feels to me, ugh really? But then again, there is really almost no media that you are going to go to that doesn’t have a profit motive and therefore doesn’t have to water down the more serious sober journalism with pop culture coverage and sort of Trump hate-watching porn.

I think Talking Points Memo is pretty smart about this stuff. The New Yorker is probably the thing I read most consistently. Just their long form journalism is always thoughtful, and again, sort of stepping back from history and telling stories that are of enduring importance in terms of understanding what’s happening. And I think that what I do too much of is kind of tune in, and this is not a lot, but I will sort of once a day take ten minutes to watch some pundit scorching Trump.

Though I haven’t been watching it as much, I think somebody like Rachel Maddow makes an honest effort to be a good narrator and try to explain why things matter. And I do understand that there is this kind of inherent conflict that a lot of people—I at least am struggling with, is don’t I have some duty to tune in and figure out what’s going on. I can’t just turn completely away from it. […] In other words you have to know a little about it, or at least a little bit about what’s going on to understand and get yourself motivated to become politically active, to say it’s not okay for this whole set of reasons.

But you can really—there’s a thin line between that kind of “I need to keep myself informed” and “I need to keep myself inflamed.” I need to go for another hit of that Trump hate-watching. And that’s the battle that I am fighting, because I will admit that I have the desire, and it’s a very primitive fucked up desire, to see this morally depraved guy explode and see everyone around him explode.

So let’s talk about behind-the-scenes of your Trump hate-writing. Because you have an unpublished novel who features a guy who is just like Trump whose name is Bucky Dunn. What happens to Bucky Dunn at the end of your manuscript—if you don’t mind spoiling it for us—and do you see maybe some way forward to publishing that type of manuscript now, especially as you do more self-publishing work?

So what happens at the end is Bucky Dunn Is Running, my failed novel, is he’s much more successful than anyone suspects. He is like Trump in his basic outlook and his policies and the jargon he uses to try to demagogue. He talks about elites and he talks about illegals, gins up racial panic and misogyny. He’s the same kind of operator. He’s way more articulate and erudite than Trump, but whatever. It was my fucking bad imitation of a GOP demagogue. But what happens at the end is—my fantasy, and I think commentary—at some point people are going to wish that Trump’s desire for attention is going to become so compulsive and out of control that he’s really going to step in it, and he’s going to lose it, and that’s what I confabulated at the end of Bucky Dunn.

He goes on this TV show called The Gauntlet that’s hosted by an Oprah-like African American woman who’s sort of his nemesis, and this is a show where you face all of your secrets. They come out of the closet on live TV and you have to contend with all of these people, and it’s this ritual of shaming that causes people to melt down. But Bucky can’t resist because it’s too big of a media hit. All of his advisors tell him, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it, Bucky! It’s a set up! Don’t do it!” But he can’t resist because he’s a creature of attention, that’s his oxygen.

So he goes on, and the revelations are just awful. And he has to somewhere know that this stuff is going to come out. He forced his wife to have an abortion, he dabbled in homosexuality—all this stuff that is off the charts. And he goes crazy and is humiliated, and he understands his candidacy was torpedoed by these forces much larger than himself. He thought he was in control of this thing, but in fact he was just one little car on this train and he just got crushed. And he goes crazy, and he attacks her and physical assaults her on live TV, and he goes to jail and he’s writing this jailhouse confession of his ride. It’s a wish fantasy.

Are you hoping the real life version also ends with a sort of jailhouse fantasy? Would Trump’s impeachment constitute a happy ending to some of these bad stories you’ve discussed, or is impeachment just another bad story?

No, I don’t think impeachment is a bad story. I think impeachment is the remedy for a political actor of his indisputable corruption. He’s utterly venal. And he’s been sort of swanning around, skating by, paying people off, and just doing enough to not get busted, and that’s what Robert Mueller is looking at. He’s like wow, this guy’s spent his entire life doing things that are utterly corrupt and yet managing to thread the needle of not-quite-illegal-enough for him to be indicted.

Impeachment is a political process and what it says is that Congress recognizes that the presidency is inhabited by someone who is too corrupt and has done things that are too immoral to allow him to continue to operate as the president. That should have happened any of 50 times in Trump’s candidacy. We should have as a population, and many of us did, that this person should never be in a business office let alone high office.

But it [impeachment] is a political remedy. The way it would happen is that Trump would have to get unpopular enough that he would be a political liability, and that’s the only thing that would cause Congress to hold him accountable. The only remedy to that is for enough voters to be sufficiently outraged and troubled by the ineptitude and corruption of this administration. […] All those questions are political questions. They’re not moral questions. But I do think it would be better for Trump to be removed from office through political means or the clear indication that that was going to happen and he resigns, than any other outcome.

Any other outcome, I believe, would be a failure. He’s someone who should have never been in office. He did not win the popular vote. He lost it by a significant margin.

Trump is a symptom of our disease, but is it a uniquely American disease or are we telling these bad stories in a more global way?

I think Putin is looking at a guy like Trump and thinking this is why capitalism is going to fail because its purest expression is purely transactional and completely without a functioning conscience. It’s just a cash register, and its only incentives are money and winning, and attention is in the service of both of those. So whoever can grab attention, regardless of their morality, and if they can win they will be given the power. That is very much a kind of capitalist, American capitalist ethos.

The pursuit of money and fame is sort of our theology in the United States. So I do think it is particularly American. And I think Trump is a particularly American despot. You see a different arrangement in other cultures. Look, the guy is a casino capitalist. He’s a Ponzi scheme spinner. He’s not an aggrieved ex-soldier like Hitler, or a guy like Mussolini or Stalin.

You compare him a lot to Ahab from Moby Dick. I don’t know if Trump has read Moby Dick, but he’s pretty much known for not being much of a reader generally. In some fantasy land where Trump would read books that you would give him, what books would you recommend to the president so he could better himself or better this country?

Oh God.

Photo: Jennie Baker (Courtesy of Red Hen Press)

Would you put your own book in his hand?

I’m struggling to think seriously about an answer, but I want to tell you why it’s so difficult. It’s really hard knowing characterologically who this guy is, to imagine him to have the attention span and the moral seriousness to read, to engage with any kind of art. Do you know what I mean? I don’t even think… Let me give you an example. He watched the Super Bowl that had his favorite team, the New England Patriots, because he loves the owner and loves Tom Brady and whatever and they somehow aggrandize him so he likes them. It’s not like he’s rooting for them for any authentic athletic reason. It’s purely if they win [he thinks], I’m a winner, I’ve flown on their plane. He literally turns off the game because it’s not close. The Patriots are losing 28-3 at halftime, and he turns off the game. They’re just losers now, now they’ve lost. Okay, the Patriots came back and won that game in the most exciting Super Bowl ever, but Trump did not even watch the second half. That guy is not going to pick up a pamphlet, let alone an entire book. He just doesn’t have… It would have to be…

You’re forcing me to imagine that he would take anything other than his own ego and stature seriously, and there’s nothing in his character to indicate that he would do that. He has to literally imitate emotions. He has to have somebody write down when he’s meeting with people whose friends and family have just gotten shot and killed. He has to have somebody write down for him to listen and express concern.

Art is predicated on the idea that you could tune in and feel a deep sense of sorrow and a real rousing of emotion around people who don’t even exist. I just don’t think he’s capable of doing that with people who do exist. So I want to say I would give him this, that, or the other, but the reality is it’s so far beyond my capacity to imagine him engaging with any kind of art because that requires a soul. I do think there’s a soul somewhere in there, but it’s been strangled.

There’s a parallel question then of how are we to watch the second half, so to speak, of Trump’s presidency? What’s next for you—are you going to sit on this topic of politics for a while? Might there be more politics books? Or did you say what you needed to say and are tapped out on it now?

Well I don’t think I’m tapped out in the sense of who knows what’s going to happen. This has the potential to be a redemptive thing, a positive thing. People are taking democracy more seriously. As we’re talking, it’s the day after [March for Our Lives] protests all across the country, 800,000 people on the mall in DC. And the Women’s March was another moment like that. There have been other instances where people are genuinely taking to the streets, and they are trying to be subjects of history rather than objects of history. That’s something that’s not just exciting to see but it creates the possibility that the pendulum will start to swing in a kinder, more compassionate, more sensible way or direction.

But for me, I’ve said I did my best with my limited powers and my limited amount of time to try to tell some of the stories that I think led us to this. And within those stories there are correctives and ideals. To sort of take it around to your first question, I don’t think you can fully change history until you reckon with history. I don’t think we’ve done that, and I certainly don’t think my book is going to complete that process. I don’t think we have entirely done that yet. I don’t think the magnitude of what’s happened is apparent to us, and I think as we start to get a grip on that, I hope that the central byproduct will be that people will become politically engaged and will change the course.

I don’t want to watch the second half of Trump’s presidency. I want to be a political actor in my own life changing the course of the country’s history. Trump has sucked up all the oxygen, and he’s a vacuum. There’s a black hole of meaningless and self-loathing. But the country is full of beautiful people striving, doing their best, and yes, aggrieved, and stuck in a rut and behaving against their own interests and putting their grievances before their vulnerabilities, but trying—and I hate this idea that our posture should be to watch this sort of selfish bully, and just sort of deem how badly he’s done or how we’ll get rid of him. We’ve got to turn away—I try to say this in the last chapter—we’ve got to turn away from him and towards what our own affirmative goals are for the country, and I feel like that’s what I want for the second half of the presidency, if he lasts that long.

Even if Trump leaves, the bad stories aren’t going to leave, and if we don’t look at those and figure it out, then there’s going to be another Trump who comes along. If we are determined to transform ourselves from a Republic with an actually citizenry to an audience that just wants entertainment, we can’t continue to elect people who entertain us rather than govern us.

There’s no point in sticking it all on Trump. He’s just a symptom, and we’re the ones who are in charge of it ultimately. I want to advocate for that. I want the book to hopefully advocate for that, but I don’t want to get stuck there for the rest of my life because I want to write stories. I want to do what Joseph Conrad’s talking about, to engage in the sense of hope and wonder and sorrow and beauty that connects the living to the dead and to the unborn—that’s part of the larger human story.

I mostly want to feel like whatever I’m doing is treating storytelling in the proper way, which is redemptive. It’s the way that human beings make sense of the world and pluck meaning from the rush of experience. I’m sorry that I had to talk this much of meaning and I’m not particularly sure that I did such a good job, but that’s what was on my mind and heart really heavily like a lot of other people.

You asked me who’s the intended audience. Anyone who is walking around in a state of pain around the political state of the country. We can center it around Trump, but it’s bigger than that. Anybody who is confused by that or who is in pain and is looking to try to understand it better and gain some purchase on it—that’s who I hope will find the book. I want to continue to write about this as it seems to matter, but I also want to write some fucking short stories and go back to stuff that is less weighted with the really heartbreaking energies that this election broke loose in people.