Books In Conversation
STEVE ALMOND with Curt Smith
Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country
(Red Hen Press, 2018)
I first met Steve a few years ago when we read with the late Kate Light at an event at Rosemont College. I’d read Candyfreak, and I was pleased that the thoughtful, funny voice I’d heard in my head was pretty similar to the man himself. We chatted over dinner, bonding over children and music. There was a nice crowd at the campus theater, which of course made me nervous, but the evening started with a bit of Q and A, and again, I found myself simply chatting with Steve and Kate, a bit more at ease and a little less trembly when it was my turn at the mic.
In the intervening years, I’d read some of Steve’s articles. I saw his stories in the Best American and Pushcart Prize anthologies. I caught a podcast or two of “Dear Sugars” with Cheryl Strayed. I enjoyed his book Against Football almost as much as I enjoyed his responses to the book’s hate mail. Then I read of his new book, Bad Stories, and I clicked a link to a call-in radio show where he argued—kindly, patiently, yet emphatically—with a Trump supporter. I followed that up with a YouTube interview with Chuck Morse—and I felt like this was the kind of book I needed to talk about, one that put the political angst of these past two years under the microscope and gave me the chance to better understand the roots of a narrative so haywire and vicious that it sometimes overwhelms my reserves of logic. So I dropped Steve a note, reintroducing myself and asking if he’d like to talk about Bad Stories.
Curtis Smith (Rail): Congratulations on Bad Stories. It’s a great read—and I think it’s an important one as well. Can you take us to its origin? Was there a moment you can identify when you decided this had to be your next book? If so, what were the makings of that moment?
Steve Almond: This was not the book I wanted to write, believe me. I’d have been much happier working on short stories. But I always wind up writing about the stuff I can’t get rid of by other means. And it was pretty clear to me on the night of the election—as I stared at my three kids (ages 10, 8, and 3) sprawled out in bed—that I myself wasn’t going to sleep much if I didn’t make some good faith effort to explain how the adult population of America had elected a man so vile he wouldn’t be allowed onto their playground.
Rail: I admired the book’s structure. So often we view the political scene in terms of monolithic, catchall categories—liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. But in Bad Stories, we’re shown an analysis of the narratives that comprise much of the current political discourse. How did this structure come to you? Was it there from the beginning? Or did you start writing something different and then discover the individual strains waiting to be untangled and explored?
Almond: Well, the first thing I did is write a shitty first draft. That’s a crucial part of the process for me. I try to remind myself that every book (at least every book of mine) begins with a Shitty First Draft. In this case, the draft was confused and aggrieved, which neatly describes the mind that produced it. I showed this draft to a number of poor souls, including my wife, who’s also a writer. She immediately identified the book’s central premise, which is that every bad outcome is the result of a bad story, meaning a fraudulent or naïve or propagandistic story, a story intended to sow discord, to erode our faith in a common good. What I was saying (though I couldn’t quite hear myself) was that we have to stop reacting to the avalanche of bad outcomes in our browsers, which are really symptoms, and go in search of the cause. And the cause is always bad stories. She was also the one who suggested that I organize the book as a series of Bad Stories, rather than chapters. I realized almost immediately that she was right, which is a familiar pattern in our relationship.
Rail: I’m sure some of the bad stories were right at the top of your head when you started—but did others only make themselves clear after you were deep into the writing? If so, what were these elements? Did any of these revelations take you by surprise?
Almond: Absolutely. I knew I was going to write about the Fairness Doctrine, and the absurd delusion that we’re a representative democracy, and race, which is our most enduring bad story. The ones that took me by surprise were the subtler delusions—the idea that America is a beacon of hope for immigrants, when, in fact, back in the 19th century you had the New York Times calling for Sicilian immigrants to be lynched. It should offend our conscience to see babies being ripped from their mothers on our Southern border, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Or the notion that America won the Cold War. As I thought about it, I could see that Putin’s mission was a mirror image of Trump’s. He wanted to make Russia great again and he knew this would require reducing American power and influence. He couldn’t achieve this militarily, or economically. But he saw that he could divide Americans using bad stories, and he knew that every empire—from the Aztecs on down—ultimately collapses because of internal divisions. He also realized that Trump was the ideal person to sow this discord because he represented the grim and logical endpoint of capitalism: a human being driven purely by the lust for money and power.
Rail: I’ve long contended the abolishment of the Fairness Doctrine was one of the country’s biggest mistakes. But even in my gloomiest imaginings, I couldn’t have pictured the polarization of 2016. Yet, I should have seen it coming—the lies and smears and slant all turned to a kind of truth for a good segment of the population. We grew up with Walter Cronkite—but I recently watched some old clips of him, and if he came back today, I believe Limbaugh and Fox would decry him as left of an already leftist media. So first, do you think there’s any hope of reinstating the Fairness Doctrine—or establishing any kind of new guidelines that would better shape how we get our news? Or is that genie already out of the bottle? Is the onus on us now as consumers to do the filtering ourselves—and if so, how should we facilitate that?
Almond: It’s absolutely true that Americans (like me!) who bemoan the sensationalism of the media need to stop whining and change our media diets. It’s too easy to “blame the media” for our own viewing habits. We all get it at this point: our free press is a for-profit sector. The reason all these huge “news” corporations keep trotting out pundits to yell at each other is because we keep watching them. We have to own our role as sponsors. At the same time, I do believe the federal government should regulate propaganda. That’s why the Fairness Doctrine was so crucial. It basically said: if you’re going to use the public airwaves, you have to serve the public good. You have a duty to cover controversial issues but must include all “reasonable” shades of opinion. Ginning up stories about death panels or Muslim sleeper cells or deadly immigrants isn’t a reasonable shade of opinion, and it doesn’t serve the public good. It’s creating an ecstatic cult of white victimization. And that’s precisely what talk radio has been doing for the past four decades, ever since the Reagan administration axed the Fairness Doctrine. If the government is now pressuring Facebook to stop using its platform to promote conspiracy theories, why in God’s name wouldn’t they apply the same standards to the rest of the media? The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee demagogues the right to retail hate so they can hawk Armageddon seeds and boner pills. Fuck that. Our Fourth Estate is a cesspool of bad stories precisely because reactionary politicians declared it a marketplace rather than a civic institution. The sooner the left recognizes this, the better. Because the only way we can create a public discourse focused on the real threats bearing down on us—climate change, income inequality, resource depletion—is to crack down on those who profit by telling bad stories.
Rail: It’s hard for me to reconcile what others see in our President. To me he’s an embarrassment; a racist, thin-skinned child with no allegiance outside his own interests. I believe he cares nothing for the common man, and all the more shame on us for falling for his conman’s game. Yet there are folks I know and like, who are decent, kind people, who support him wholeheartedly. I feel like we’re viewing one of those ambiguous images—where we both see the same thing but our perceptions couldn’t be more different. You touch on some stories like this—how do you explain such divergent views from people who’d otherwise have so much in common?
Almond: The central bad story that I use to explain this in the book is that people exalt their grievances to hide from their vulnerabilities. Skilled demagogues and politicians exploit this by inflaming people’s grievances. Get folks thinking about the “dark other” lurking on the border, or in the big city, and you can distract them from their need for affordable health care, education, sustainable jobs. Trump plugged into that false sense of white victimization that talk radio had been stoking for years. But there’s also a more authentic sense of anxiety that white people feel—a sense of lost utility and waning cultural power. To the people who felt that most acutely, Trump became a kind of savior, the big rich white bully who would both vanquish the elitists who looked down on them, and punish the uppity minorities who wanted to usurp their privilege. The historian Richard Hofstadter calls this “the paranoid style in American politics.” The whole idea is to get people focused on what divides them, to annihilate the common good.
Rail: I watched the first Republican debate with my son, and with Trump’s first response to Megyn Kelly, I turned to my boy and said, “He’s done.” And over the next year or so, I said the same thing at least a half dozen times. Then the Friday before the election, there was a Trump rally in our town, and my son and I went to check it out. We didn’t go in—but the scene outside was surreal—kind of like a mix of Fellini and a monster-truck rally. And it dawned on me that he would probably win because this group had so much more passion than my side had. How do you account for this—not just his following, but the vehemence of his followers? I fear that even if Mueller comes back with a dozen smoking guns, nothing will change the mind of this core group.
Almond: You’re right. Because Trump has weaponized the shame of his followers. It works sort of like an emotional Ponzi scheme. The more Trump makes offensive and fraudulent statements, the more he offends our common decency, the more his supporters are looked down upon. The more they’re looked down upon, the more ardent they become in their devotion. It’s that ecstatic cult of self-victimization I keep mentioning. His base is never going to disavow him, because this would require acknowledging their complicity, their gullibility, their monstrous cynicism. Trump knows this. Like all tyrants, he drags his constituents down to his level; he bankrupts them morally. The real question isn’t about Trump or his disciples or his haters. It’s about those citizens who remain indifferent, the 104 registered voters who didn’t even bother to vote. How can they be awoken?
Rail: I liked your analogy of the “sports brain.” Can you talk about that a bit and how it relates to our current state?
Almond: The sports brain is that part of the American psyche that refuses to see politics as a contest of ideas, and prefers to view it as a kind of blood sport. My argument is that Trump appealed to the sports brain in a way his opponents didn’t. He recognized that capitalism, stripped to its ribs, is about winning and money. And that Americans had become so hyper-partisan that they preferred conflict to compromise. The sports brain explains why so much of the media’s coverage was about strategy and poll numbers and fundraising rather than, say, policy. The sports brain also explains why GOP voters tolerated Trump’s obvious flaws, and never said a peep about the Russians campaigning for him. The whole point was winning, not playing fair or governing.
Rail: Liberal heroes, such as Jon Stewart, don’t entirely get a free pass in Bad Stories. How do you see the role of political humorists as we move forward?
Almond: Comedians do help hone people’s critical faculties, and the best of them do practice a kind of sardonic explanatory journalism. But over the years, Stewart and company have become a kind of opiate for progressive angst. What they do is convert our anguish and rage into disposable laughs. But we should be enraged that a country as abundant as ours has kids living in poverty, and schools getting shot up, and billionaires sucking up tax breaks. We should be harnessing our wrath and converting into real political action. Ultimately, political comedians profit by a loss of faith in our civic institutions. They constantly mock the media and the DC establishment. They send the same basic message Trump did at all of his rallies. The only difference is that Trump wasn’t after laughs. He was after power.
Rail: The other day John Boehner said there is no Republican Party at this moment—there’s only the party of Trump. I know we don’t have a crystal ball at our disposal, but short of that, what do you think the future of the Republican Party is now? I feel as though the right—much more than the left—has abandoned the concept of compromise, and I’m wondering what tract do they have at their disposal beyond an on-going ideological war.
Almond: I don’t even think the GOP has a coherent ideology at this point. They used to try to sell this charade that conservatism is about “small government” and “fiscal responsibility.” But they don’t even bother trotting out those arguments anymore. They’ve become a party entirely devoted to serving its donor class, and the special interests that pour money into its coffers. There’s no discernible plan to govern, and no vision for the country. It’s the party of Alex Jones and Thomas Hobbes at this point. But it’s also a minority party with profoundly unpopular policies. So the real question is whether candidates on the left can articulate a vision for the country. I’d urge them to start with Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech of 1910, in which he argued the “conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity [and] destroy privilege.”
Rail: Do you think we’d have a President Trump without Obama? I can’t escape the feeling that much of Trump’s appeal was an ugly reaction to our first black president. And I believe there was also a backlash against Obama’s style—soft-spoken, thoughtful—and some were yearning for bluster, and entertainment, and anti-intellectualism.
Almond: Yeah, I don’t think Trump gets elected without Obama. It wasn’t just his ethnicity, but, as you note, his attitude. He was too cerebral, too calm and collected. Mencken has this great quote where he says that as democracy is perfected “the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.” And I think that’s true. As Americans, we’re swimming in this consumer culture that is constantly showing us images of wealth and ease, feeding us the illusion of instant gratification, while we’re stuck in endless snarls of traffic. And that disjunction between what we worship and what we live has made us uniquely aggrieved and frustrated. Trump plugged into that.
Rail: And yet at the end, you hold out hope. I admired the quote “We have to be the fools in charge of forgiveness.” Can you go a bit deeper on that and take us out on a positive note?
Almond: I understand the impulse to resent those who voted for Trump, or who didn’t vote at all. But I really don’t believe we’re a nation of bad people. I believe we’re under the influence of bad stories. And the worst story of all is that we’re incapable of moral improvement. Our own history tells us that’s nonsense. We’ve made tremendous moral progress. But it’s predicated on faith—in ourselves and in each other. The pendulum of our democracy can swing back towards mercy and moral competence, but only if we set our shoulders against it and push. I have to believe there are enough kindhearted people in this country. I have to hope because I’ve got those three little kids. Cynicism isn’t an option.
Rail: What’s next?
Almond: I’ll be writing about my favorite novel in the world, “Stoner,” for the wonderful Bookmarked Series. After that, I’ll return to my calling as an obscure short story writer.