STEVE ALMOND is the author of 12 books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times best seller Candyfreak and Against Football. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, Washington Post, and New York Times Magazine, among others. He teaches at the Nieman Fellowship for Journalism program at Harvard University. His newest book, which occasioned this conversation, is Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country (Red Hen Press). William Giraldi is the author of the novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark, and a memoir, The Hero’s Body. His newest book is a collection of criticism, American Audacity, to be published in August. This conversation was conducted over email in January.
WILLIAM GIRALDI: With many millions of my fellow baffled Americans, I’ve been trying to comprehend, as the subtitle of Bad Stories has it, what the hell just happened to our country. It wasn’t until reading your synthesis that I began to get the myriad cultural and political forces that needed to align, over several decades, in order for Trumpism to prevail in 2016. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. Nothing comes out of nowhere. Your take on the Fairness Doctrine is one of the most riveting sections of the book, something I didn’t know about. Can you speak about the Fairness Doctrine and why it’s necessary to understand it in order to understand what’s happened?
STEVE ALMOND: To begin at the beginning, our Founding Fathers simply never envisioned the technologies that comprise our modern media. To them, the Fourth Estate consisted of broadsheets and pamphlets. When radio emerged, early in the 20th century, our leaders suddenly had to contend with a medium that could reach millions of Americans instantaneously. The smart ones were good and freaked out by that prospect. Back in 1926, the Texas lawmaker Luther Johnson said this:
American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations, for publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a republic. And when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one person, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership or dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.
These concerns led lawmakers to pass various measures, culminating with the Fairness Doctrine, which said that broadcasters should use the public airwaves to serve the public interest, not private gain. They had a duty to cover important issues and to provide “reasonable opportunity for opposing viewpoints.” It was basically a spoiler plate for propaganda.
Under Reagan, the head of the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that “the perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants.” I realize that sounds kind of wonky. But what he’s saying marks a precise fault line in our history as a country, the moment when our free press became, officially, a for-profit industry.
And the effect was immediate: a revolution of conservative talk radio hosts (and later Fox News anchors) who have spent three decades telling the bad stories we’ve come to associate with Trumpism. A government that seeks to redistribute wealth or curb greed is evil. Brown people are lazy and/or dangerous. White men are under assault. Elites and academics are mocking you. The mainstream media can’t be trusted. It amounts to a retailing of what the historian Richard Hofstadter calls “the paranoid style” in American politics.
This proudly ignorant aggression, which cloaks itself in the language of self-victimization, is the mindset that now animates much of our electorate. Guys like Rush Limbaugh have been indoctrinating their dittoheads for three decades. Talk like a populist and rule like a plutocrat — that’s the basic con. Trump didn’t create a movement. He simply inherited audience share.
Americans have come to accept the demented idea that for-profit demagogues have a constitutional right to use the public airwaves to spout falsehoods and propaganda. As a result, we now have a sitting president whose consciousness is guided by the caffeinated misinformation of Fox & Friends.
Which brings me to another important facet of Bad Stories: your analysis of the astounding moral vacuity of our Fourth Estate, their conscious and unconscious credo of entertainment over information. During the primaries and the election, even the outfits that were against Trump’s lunatic bluster — CNN or MSNBC, say — seemed helpless not to cover him incessantly. It was a ratings rodeo for them, and to hell with the fact that they were helping to elect him. Or consider even The New York Times giving front-page prominence to FBI director James Comey’s nothing-letter on the Clinton email nonsense, mere days before the election. You have an expert appraisal of Neil Postman and his masterwork, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Say a little about Postman and his ideas for those who might not be familiar with them.
Postman was a cultural historian. In 1984, he was asked to deliver a lecture at the Frankfurt Book Fair about Orwell’s 1984. But he argued that Reagan’s United States could be better understood by examining Huxley’s Brave New World. He saw a population mired in passivity and egoism, a republic that had devolved into an audience. The resulting book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues that every aspect of our culture (politics, religion, news, education, commerce) has been “transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.” Public figures, therefore, are no longer judged on experience or competence. All they need is “a talent and a format to amuse.”
Candidate Trump’s training as a tabloid and TV star endowed him with the talent. And cable news, as you note, supplied him the format. Networks aired his speeches and fulminated against his antics and cast his tweets in shrieking chyron. They treated him like a celebrity. If they had covered him like a traditional politician — Jeb Bush, say — he never would have claimed the GOP nomination. His inexperience and erratic nature would have reduced him to a fringe candidate. He became the frontrunner because he was treated as the frontrunner.
And the networks made no secret of this double standard. The most shocking statement uttered during the entire campaign came from CBS CEO Les Moonves, who noted that Trump’s campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. […] The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” I probably don’t need to tell you that Moonves said all this at a media conference sponsored by Morgan Stanley.
This is exactly what happens when you turn a civic institution (“the Fourth Estate”) into a business. You wind up with a cash register rather than an editorial sensibility.
What’s so astounding about Postman’s book is that he saw all this coming down the pike more than 30 years ago. He knew TV news was destined to become a sewer of disinformation. He predicted the rise of parodic news programs that would convert our dysfunction into disposable laughs. He foresaw that Americans would “come to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.” I think about that statement every time I pull out my smart phone, and every time I get on the subway. What I see is a car full of people locked onto their tiny screens, amusing themselves to death.
Postman’s book helped me understand the 2016 election was ultimately a coup we engineered against ourselves, arising from unseriousness and bad stories.
And part of how we’re currently amusing ourselves deathly is by viewing the daily, almost hourly dramas of the White House as another reality TV show, albeit one with annihilating consequences. After Watergate, Gore Vidal pointed out that Americans had become addicted to scandal. That was nothing next to what we’re seeing now. It’s stunning to me how Trump’s every asinine tweet is treated by the media as something worthy of our attention. When a soulless and intellectually incurious entertainer with dysphasia steals the presidency with the help of a hostile foreign power, we really shouldn’t be continually surprised when he behaves like a soulless and intellectually incurious entertainer with dysphasia. One of the stories Bad Stories tells is the one about how Vladimir Putin saw his chance with Trump. Can you speak a bit about Tsar Putin?
One of the problems Americans have always had is a kind of ingrained solipsism, one born of privilege. We’ve been incredibly lucky as an empire. We have vast natural resources and weak neighbors. We’ve never been invaded, let alone occupied. Because we’ve been so sheltered we are, broadly speaking, unaware of, and incurious about, history. We live in the Capitalist Now, an era of monetized distraction, “within the context of no context,” as George W. S. Trow put it. Our national stories are either downright false (“all men are created equal”) or dangerously naïve (“the Cold War is over and we won!”). The Berlin Wall came crashing down. We all danced to shitty new wave music amid the rubble.
But what if we looked at our democracy through the eyes of Putin, a fiercely nationalistic KGB officer who was in Dresden when the Wall came down? The driving force in his life has been to restore the stature of his disgraced homeland, to Make Russia Great Again. Jump into that guy’s head and ask yourself: Is the Cold War really over?
Of course not. One of Putin’s central goals as a leader has been to attack the American empire. He’s smart enough to recognize that he can’t hope to win a military or economic war. So his attacks have come in the form of cyber-warfare and disinformation. When Russians hacked into the Democratic National Committee, they were doing the same thing as the Watergate burglars, and for the same reason: to smear the Democratic nominee.
During Watergate, the “story” was about the burglars — who had hired them and why. In 2016, journalists barely bothered to ask those questions. Instead, they eagerly spread the smears. They essentially did Putin’s dirty work for him. He knew they would, because he could see the cracks in our democracy: a free press that had degenerated into a for-profit tabloid operation, widespread voter apathy and disaffection, a conservative media complex devoted to stoking racial grievance, social media platforms that happily amplified Russian propaganda, state-sanctioned voter suppression.
For Putin, Trump represented a kind of geopolitical unicorn: the useful idiot abruptly elevated into a Manchurian candidate. His entire agenda mapped to Putin’s intentions. Trump consistently sowed discord among Americans, and undermined their faith in liberal democracy. His foreign policy called for the United States to retreat from the world stage, leaving Putin free to expand Russian ambitions. Putin also knew more about Trump’s financial entanglements than the US electorate.
Putin is a brutal autocrat. But he understands history, that empires, from the Incas to the Romans to the Mongols, ultimately collapse from within. They are made vulnerable to foreign invaders by internal divisions and delusions.
That’s the most chilling aspect of 2016. Whether or not they ever shook on it, Putin and Trump made a deal. But only one of them understood the true terms of the deal. Putin knew Trump was a long shot, given his flaws. But he could see the magnitude of the payout: the chance to elect a man capable of initiating what the Soviet Union never could — an era of permanent American decline.
One of the ways Bad Stories shines is by not being another lefty screed fueled by pharisaical grievance and holier-than-thou condemnations. It doesn’t traffic in the cliches and sanctimony and anti-art that fouls so much of what we now see coming from the commissars, and it even manages to have a goodly bit of mercy for Trump’s base. You can also be pretty critical of lefty sacred cows, among whom are the comedic minds liberal America, in its ballooning desperation, has taken for their prophets and seers. What’s your view of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert?
They’re both brilliant comedians who have used their shows to call out the bullshit that predominates our media and political classes. In doing so, they’ve trained viewers to think more critically, and helped educate lots of low-info citizens. Those are real and laudable achievements. The problem, as you observe, is these guys — our high-tech court jesters — have become the prophetic voices of our culture, the moral backstops. And that’s never good. Think of King Lear. When only the fool can speak truth to power, the kingdom is kaput.
Another way of putting it would be that these guys represent a kind of opiate for the left. While conservatives gin up votes by casting the United States as a horror film (with various dark-skinned villains — “thugs”/Muslims/immigrants …), the liberal response to our civic dysfunction is to cast the United States as a farce. Stewart and Colbert and their disciples convert our anguish and rage into disposable laughs. Look at all those corrupt politicians and pundits! What fools! It’s the same message Trump delivered over and over on the stump.
Why are we laughing at the moral erosion of our democracy? To protect ourselves from the fear and rage we should be feeling, the kind of destabilizing emotions that might force us to get off our fucking couches and take action. Meanwhile, those fools we’re laughing at are having the last laugh, because they’re the ones steering our ship of state. They’re deporting kids and slashing our safety net and strip-mining the EPA and reshaping our federal judiciary and turning our tax code into an open-air kleptocracy. Ha-ha-ha.
Again, I’m not criticizing Stewart and Colbert. Those guys are just doing their jobs. What troubles me is that we’re mistaking mockery for genuine political engagement. It’s not an act of protest to share the latest Saturday Night Live clip or Samantha Bee screed. It’s an act of therapeutic passivity. It makes us feel a little bit better about a circumstance that we shouldn’t feel better about.
Mencken once declared that “as democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
He was joking. But it’s not funny anymore.
I’m reminded of a line that’s almost always with me, from D. H. Lawrence’s characteristically seditious take on our nation’s literature. He lived in New Mexico for a spell, and he says at one point, in Studies in Classic American Literature, that he’s never been in a country where individuals are so downright terrified of one another. He saw us as a land of great violence and divide. “The essential American soul,” he says, is “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Look, he said, at the “Orestes-like frenzy of restlessness in the Yankee soul, the inner malaise which amounts almost to madness.” Bad Stories tries to parse that inner malaise and madness. What else could have led to the election of the gilded Mafioso currently in the White House? Your book stars Trump, of course, but it isn’t specifically about him. It’s about Americans — the American soul. Do you agree with Lawrence’s take on us?
I use that very quote in my last book, to explain the predominance of violent sport in our country. But to be completely honest, it’s a reductive statement. There is no “essential American soul.” There are more than 300 million people in this country, and each of them, presumably, has a soul. What the 2016 election cast into bold relief was not some lofty, monolithic version of the American soul, but a soul in conflict with itself. After all, 70 million Americans voted for other candidates, and 65 million for Hillary Clinton. It was only a very small percentage of Trump voters whose minds and hearts were filled with violent ideation. We saw and heard a lot from them, because they make for good TV. But they were hardly stoic, or isolate. They were, in fact, emotionally wounded and lonely and desperate for a sense of belonging.
Hannah Arendt discusses this in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. She argues that totalitarianism is a kind of organized loneliness, one that takes root in societies where people feel angry and dislocated, left behind by capitalist expansion. People who lose this sense of identity and rootedness come to feel superfluous, and this makes them frantic to find a grand narrative that will grant their life meaning and direction. (As noted, conservative demagogues on the AM radio dial have been working this market for decades.) But most Republicans recognized their standard-bearer as ethically and intellectually unfit to serve. They voted for him out of an ethically enfeebled tribalism.
It’s important to note this, because it’s really another bad story to suggest that Americans are doomed to express their most savage and self-destructive impulses. I don’t believe that. I believe we can and will do better. But only if we can rouse ourselves from the thrall of hate-watching this administration.
In this sense, the book that presages the 2016 election is Moby-Dick, an epic that is entirely driven by the seductive power of wounded masculinity. Consider the moment Ahab appears on deck to announce the true nature of his mission. He’s not interested in harvesting whale blubber. He’s out for revenge.
“All visible objects […] are but pasteboard masks,” he roars. “If man will strike, strike through the mask! […] Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
Who does that sound like?
That’s what Trump channeled: the volcanic sense of grievance and spiritual poverty that lurks within America’s absurd material plenitude.
But here’s the thing about Moby-Dick: everyone goes along with Ahab. The crew signs on for his doomed crusade. That’s the most powerful analogue to the election. Whether in rapture or disgust, Americans turned away from the compass of self-governance and toward the mesmerizing drama of aggression on display, the capitalist id unchained and all that it unchained within us. Trump struck through the mask. And it was, alas, enough.
There’s another analogue to consider, too, when it comes to Ahab: Melville modeled him in large part on Milton’s Satan, the greatest poetic quester in the canon, rebellion incarnate, sublime hero of the seditious, “self-begot, self-rais’d” by his own “quick’ning power.” One of the bad stories you tell is called “Trump Was a Change Agent,” a story that tried to peddle him as an outsider, a self-begot rebel who would overthrow the greedy gods in Washington and usher in a kingdom of the neglected. We know how that story ends for Satan in Paradise Lost, and we know how it ends for Ahab. The question is: How will that bad story end for us? Your book doesn’t close with either manufactured uplift or resigned despair, but rather a levelheadedness and inwardness devoid of sloganized idealism. What’s your vision for us now?
America has always been a nation of high ideals and low behaviors, of all men are created equal and slave labor. The moral regression we’re seeing today — the overtly bigoted policy, the cronyism, the exploitation of fear and loathing — is nothing new. Just ask any woman or person of color or immigrant. Part of what I’m trying to articulate in the book is that history is cyclical. You have moral atrocities, such as slavery, which lead to moral corrections. You have the economic and social upheaval of the Great Depression, which led to the New Deal. The War on Poverty. The Great Society programs. The Civil Rights movement. Those are examples of the American people enacting their high ideals. That is still possible.
I know there are days — a lot of them — when the ravings of our current president and his congressional quislings feel like the apotheosis of a certain inexorable capitalist decadence. Maybe Mencken is right, “that the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.” But if that’s the case, it’s not because Americans are “downright morons.” It’s because too many of us have sworn allegiance to bad stories, stories that encourage us to weaponize our self-doubt, to project our destructive impulses onto others, to drown our shame in aggression. But evil is never purely borne. It is the distortion of love, not its absence.
The question is whether we can begin to tell better stories, ones in which our citizens muster the courage to confront the dire threats facing not just our democracy, but our species and planet. It’s possible to see the 2016 election as a warning and a wakeup call, a reminder that moral progress is inconvenient but not impossible.
I’m getting at a question of faith, I guess. Can we renew our faith in the basic principles of the Enlightenment — science and reason, liberty and tolerance, the common good? Can we rouse ourselves from the twin spells of cynicism and distraction? Maybe America can be made great again only by facing what we are at our weakest.