Steve Almond Talks 'Bad Stories'

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The results of the 2016 presidential election elicited a lot of different reactions: surprise, anger, the need to cry into the soft fur of your very confused dog. Maybe I'm getting too specific.

For Steve Almond, the election and its aftermath drove a quest for answers that resulted in his new book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, which explores the social, political, and cultural issues that led to Trump's rise. He'll be reading from the book at our Lit Fest 2018 Kickoff Party on June 1 before joining Lighthouse Program Director Andrea Dupree for a lively Q&A.

I got to chat with Steve ahead of his visit about Bad Stories, Trump, and staying hopeful.

Q. Your new book explores some of the underlying issues that led to Trump’s election. But you’ve said you weren’t surprised by Trump’s win—in fact, you sort of predicted it in your 2011 novel, Bucky Dunn is Running. So what drove you to write about it now?

A. Bucky Dunn is Running is about a shameless right-wing demagogue who runs for the GOP nomination and does shockingly well. Bucky sees himself as “a superhero made of assets and motion.” He gets that political campaigns are no longer about ideas, but about entertainment. So he tours the country holding rock-and-roll style rallies, dominates the debates, and rockets to the front of the pack. In other words: he’s Trump before Trump came along. But in the end, Bucky implodes. He goes on TV, and his darkest secrets are revealed, and everyone comes to their senses. His candidacy is like this dark lesson in what could have happened.

Most people (myself included) looked at Trump and said, in essence, “No way. No way a guy who flaunts his bigotry and brags about sexual assault and incites violence at his rallies—no way a guy like that can win. That’s not what America is about!” People just couldn’t accept that “half the country” would vote for a guy like that. You could see this on election night—all those cable anchors were in a state of shock. And that shock was partly a measure of their own complicity. They were the ones who fed oxygen into his crusade. They turned the election into an entertainment product. Why did they do that? For the ratings, of course. But why was Trump generating ratings? Because we the people watched, whether in rapture or disgust. We were like the crew of the Pequod in Moby Dick: we knew Captain Ahab was a madman driven by wounded masculinity, but we went along on his doomed quest.

I wrote Bad Stories because I was freaked out and sad and confused. And I was sick of reading the various half-baked hot takes on What Happened. Rather than lie around in a pool of dread for six months, yelling at the newscycle, I needed to try to explain how America reached this dark place. And that meant stepping back from history. All around me, people were reacting to this frantic stream of bad outcomes—all of Trump’s cruel words and policies. But as human beings, the way we construct reality is based on stories. We’re a storytelling species. So the question I wanted to answer was this: What bad stories led to these bad outcomes? And that’s not an easy question. Some of those bad stories, such as the story of race, are older than America itself. Others are fundamental delusions—such as the idea that we’re a representative democracy. And other stories are really damning of the way we live today as Americans, the ways in which we’ve turned away from the basic duties of citizenship and embraced the lazy pleasures of fandom.

In other words, it’s a depressing set of stories. But there’s also a certain hope. Because the underlying point of the book is that stories have power. Bad stories weaken the bonds of human kindness. They nourish our rancor and starve our common sense. But good stories have just as much power—to awaken our mercy and idealism. I have to believe that, because I’ve got three little kids. Americans know how to make moral progress, how to beat back our worst impulses. But it requires more than just hate-watching democracy. We have to renew our faith in each other, and our political process. And that really happens one soul at a time.

Q. Bad Stories pulls a lot of ideas from other writers throughout history—Baldwin, Orwell, Vonnegut. How did you go about synthesizing all their different perspectives while also making them fresh/relevant/yours?

A. I looked to literature because that’s what I know best. People tend to get caught up in this idea that our present circumstances are totally unique and unprecedented. It’s self-aggrandizing nonsense. George Orwell saw how corrosive the world of sports was 80 years ago. Baldwin understood how fraudulent our delusions of racial harmony were. Great writers are always in conversation with human consciousness in every age. All I did was try to apply their perspective to our moment.

Q. The book came out in April, which in this news environment is something like 10 years ago. Is there anything that’s happened since you finished that has surprised you or given you hope? 

A. Oy. I want to be able to cite something hopeful, but if I’m honest, I’ve found the last six months deeply dispiriting. Trump has already shown us who he is. He has the mind of a tyrant and the skill set of a conman. He’s ruling like a plutocrat, happily targeting vulnerable populations, carrying out the orders of his swamp monster donors, lying at every turn, trolling, and stoking the negative emotions of his faithful. He’s not going to change. The question is whether enough independents and Republicans will get sick of his act and break ranks with him. But that really isn’t going to happen until his public approval ratings drop. For some perspective: Nixon only resigned when his public approval ratings slipped to the low twenties. Trump has an approval rating of 35-40 percent. He’s done that by convincing Republicans that any effort to investigate him is a witch hunt. There’s a whole media universe where the FBI and the Special Counsel are “out to get him.” It’s the same bubble where Death Panels live, and where “Obama’s going to take away your guns,” and where the real scandal is still Hillary’s emails. Pundits and politicians on the left can rage against this propaganda all they want. But Trump actually uses this outrage to fuel his own persecution complex. Right-wing radio has been working this con for 40 years: they’ve convinced their mostly white, male listeners that they are the ultimate victims, and that any effort to intrude upon their privilege is an attack on their selfhood. The mindset is so deeply embedded that it’s impervious to reason or moral logic. Trump could shoot a child in broad daylight, and Sean Hannity would say, “Hey, the kid had it coming.” That’s where we are.

The real question isn’t what Trump is going to do, but what the rest of us—the 70 million people who voted for someone else and the 104 million citizens who didn’t vote at all—are going to do. If liberals and moderates show up en masse for the mid-terms, and the Republicans suffer huge losses, the pendulum will start to swing back toward common sense and mercy. If that doesn’t happen, Trump will continue to target vulnerable communities, will continue to let special interests feed like pigs at the trough, and will continue to degrade everything and everyone he touches.

Q. You’re literary famous for giving advice (with Cheryl Strayed) on the Dear Sugars podcast. If you could lend some Sugar-style wisdom to Americans right now, what would it be?

A. Not to lose faith. To remember that America has gone through cycles of cynicism and hope, and that we’ve made moral progress as a nation only when we believe in our own power. The great tragedy of Trump is that he’s managed to exhaust so many of us, just by virtue of his tireless cruelty. It’s part of the GOP agenda—not just to suppress the vote, but to depress the voters. To get us to disengage as citizens, to sit back and passively consume our own ruin.

Don’t fall for it. We’re the ones in charge of all this. If people of conscience convert their anguish into action, if we actively work for the candidates and causes we believe in, if we struggle to awaken the apathetic, we stand a chance. Make a personal plan of action. Ignore the other side. There are no sides. There’s just us.

In addition to his reading and Q&A at the Lit Fest Kickoff Party, visiting author Steve Almond will teach two classes at Lit Fest this year: How to Write Riveting Scenes (which is sold out!) and Rage is a Red Lesson: How to Turn Anger into Charged Prose. He'll also be a part of the panel at our salon, Good Art, Bad People. Steve Almond is the author of 10 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto and Candyfreak