One Author Parses How 'Bad Stories' Shaped Trump's Election

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"Bad Stories," by Steve Almond. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Bad Stories," by Steve Almond. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The 2016 election caused author Steve Almond to rethink the stories that Americans tell themselves about what's happening in their country and the world. He says many of those stories are "bad" — fraudulent by design or negligence.

Almond (@stevealmondjoy) joins Here & Now's Robin Young to talk about his new book "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country."

"I think stories are the basic unit of consciousness, human consciousness, they're how we construct reality," Almond says. "And every bad outcome is the result of a set of bad stories that we tell ourselves, or we consent to. And that's what I was trying to do: take a step back from history and say, 'How did we get here?' "

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Bad Stories"

Interview Highlights

On one of the 17 "bad stories" the book explores: "Economic anguish fueled Trumpism"

"The idea that it was economic anguish that fueled Trumpism is just not true. All of the social scientists who have broken it down said, 'Look, the central determinant of why people became ardent Trump supporters, or Trump supporters at all, was racial animus,' which had to do with the sense of lost utility, and frankly had to do with a kind of masculine insecurity."

"I think the way that we become empowered is by telling better stories, more compassionate, more merciful stories, and that requires sometimes looking at the bad stories that are sort of all around us like a trace element."

Steve Almond

On "bad story" No. 6: "What amuses us can't hurt us"

"Part of what's happened in American culture is that we have become unserious — we're incapable of having a serious discussion about our common crises and how to solve them. And we also see increasing civic dysfunction. I think on the right, the tendency is to get focused on conspiracy theories and paranoia. On the left, I think the problem is that we're frightened of our dysfunction, we feel helpless before it and our response is to convert our feelings of anguish and distress into disposable laughs. Actually that's what [former 'The Daily Show' host Jon] Stewart does, and ['The Late Show' host Stephen] Colbert and the rest of them, and they're brilliant at it, and I get that they're just comedians. But the message that they're sending is that, 'It's OK if government's totally broken, and your elected leaders are bought and paid for. They're all losers, they're all hypocrites and your best response is to laugh at it.'

"I know that sounds like a real bummer, but that's the line that Trump was using at every rally, was that all our systems are broken, 'the system is rigged against you.' Jon Stewart was laying the groundwork for Trumpism, and that's not a dig on him as a comedian. ... But it's also true that [comedy like Stewart's] trivializes it. And there are certain things that we should be feeling: a sense of despair and outrage. We should be deeply upset that we are not taking seriously the species-wide threat — the threat to the planet — that's posed by climate change. We should be furious that a country as abundant and wealthy as ours can't care for our most vulnerable citizens."

On "bad story" No. 8, which involves former President Obama: "Nobody will vote for a guy like this"

"This election was decided by .077 percent of those who did not vote. The number of people, 103 million, who didn't vote, the election was decided by 79,000 votes over three swing states. So even if he convinced .077 percent of voters not to get up and schlep to the polls on a Tuesday in November, if they feel like it doesn't really matter because the president is already joking about the election, that really carries weight with them, and they might decide, 'You know, I got better things to do, she's probably gonna win anyway, I'm not gonna worry about it.' "

On a passage from John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" — one of the "good stories" the book explores — that a listener wrote to Almond about after an earlier Here & Now appearance

"So, I write about it just a little bit at the end, getting this note: I received a few responses to the segment, but the one I remember most vividly came from a man who insisted that, while he understood the book was a classic, its final scene had always disgusted him. The book ends of course with the Joad daughter, Rose of Sharon, giving birth to a stillborn child in a barn where she has sought shelter from a storm. Also in the barn is an emaciated stranger. The final lines read:

Then slowly, she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. 'You got to,' she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. 'There,' she said, 'there.' Her hand moved behind his head, and supported it. Her finger moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together, and smiled mysteriously.

" 'What was she doing smiling?' My correspondent wanted to know. 'Wasn't it creepy enough that she was breastfeeding a grown man?' I wanted to tell him he was missing the point of the story. The point of the story was that the man was starving to death. The point of the story was that she was saving his life.

"It's so sad to me. That's one of the most humane pieces of writing that we have, this beautiful story that this genius crafted to try to say, 'You have to try to help people who are struggling. You have to try to save people's lives.' And I don't wanna be too critical of this listener, I appreciate any feedback I get. But he was just missing the point."

On why that moment continues to affect him

"I get shaken up by this, because I think there are a lot of people walking around these days who are trying to make sense of this moment we're in, and trying to figure out, 'How do we go from being the object of history to the subject?' And I think the way that we become empowered is by telling better stories, more compassionate, more merciful stories, and that requires sometimes looking at the bad stories that are sort of all around us like a trace element."

Book Excerpt: 'Bad Stories'

By Steve Almond

The ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency is certainly the impetus for this book. But it should not be mistaken for my subject. In fact, I’ve been tracking the odd and lurching course of our democracy for most of my adult life. I’ve pursued this interest not as an academic—an historian or a political scientist—but as a reporter and, more recently, a fiction writer. That makes me a storyteller technically, though I feel more often like a woozy and puzzled student of the American story.

I’ve placed my faith in stories because I believe them to be the basic unit of human consciousness. The stories we tell, and the ones we absorb, are what allow us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience. Only through the patient interrogation of these stories can we begin to understand where we are and how we got here.

What happens, then, when some of the stories we tell ourselves are bad, meaning fraudulent either by design or negligence? What happens when the stories we tell ourselves are frivolous? Or when we ignore stories that are too frightening to confront? What happens when we fall under the sway of stories intended to sow discord, to blunt our moral imaginations, to warp our fears into loathing and our mercy into vengeance? The principle argument of this book is that bad stories lead to bad outcomes.

As I struggled to make sense of the 2016 election, my mind kept spiraling back to one particular scene in American literature: Ahab, perched upon the quarterdeck of the Pequod, a “grand, ungodly, god-like man” with a prosthetic leg fashioned from a whale’s jawbone. The captain has come to announce the true nature of his mission, which is not economic in nature but deeply personal. He seeks revenge against the leviathan that maimed him and exhorts his crew with a soliloquy Trumpian in pitch if not diction.

“All visible objects are but pasteboard masks,” Ahab roars. “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.”

It is this volcanic sense of grievance that fuels Melville’s saga, that binds the crew of the Pequod—a coterie of races and temperaments, immigrants and exiles, one for each state of the union—to their leader. “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine,” Ishmael tells us, rather helplessly. Who can blame the kid? Ahab is something like a natural force, a vortex of vindication as mighty as the beast he pursues. Not even the prophecies of his own mystical harpooner—who foresees the mission culminating in a hearse made of American wood—can moderate his impulses.

After four years of maniacal pursuit, Ahab spots his enemy and attacks. It does not go well. The wounded whale smites the Pequod, drowning all aboard and rendering the ship a hearse.

Melville is offering a mythic account of how one man’s virile bombast can ensnare everyone and everything it encounters. The setting is nautical, the language epic, the allusions Biblical and Shakespearean. But the tale, stripped to its ribs, is about the seductive force of the wounded male ego, and how naturally a ship steered by men might tack to its vengeful course.

The plot of Moby Dick pits man against the natural world. But its theme pits man against his own nature. The election of 2016 was, in its way, a retelling of this epic. Whether you choose to cast Trump as agent or principal hardly matters. What matters is that Americans joined the quest. Whether in rapture or disgust, we 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 enough.

When I started writing this book, in the months after the election, I was furious and frightened, worn down by decades of disappointment and determined, mostly, to launch harpoons at those I imagined to be my adversaries.

That, too, is a part of this story. The great peril of our age is not that we have turned into a nation of Ahabs, but of Ishmaels, passive observers too willing to embrace feuds that nourish our rancor and starve our common sense. It is this Manichean outlook that laid the groundwork for the ascent of Donald Trump and has, as of this writing, sustained his chaotic reign.

I am struggling in these pages to see Trumpism in a different light: as an opportunity to reckon with the bad stories at the heart of our great democratic experiment, and to recognize that often, embedded within these bad stories, are beautiful ideals and even correctives that might help us to contain the rage that has clouded our thoughts.

I have taken a patchwork approach to this project, one that knits statistical data, personal anecdote, cultural criticism, literary analysis and, when called for, outright intellectual theft. I’m trying, in the broadest sense, to understand how the American story arrived at this point.

I’ve taken Ishmael as my guide here. For while it’s true that he falls under the spell of Ahab’s folly (as did I, as did I) he is also its only surviving witness and chronicler, the voice left to impart whatever wisdom might be dredged from the deep. Amid the spectacle of a mad captain and his murderous quarry, we mustn’t forget that Moby Dick is a parable about our national destiny in which the only bulwark against self-inflicted tyranny is the telling of the story.

Excerpted from the book BAD STORIES by Steve Almond. Copyright © 2018 by Steve Almond. Republished with permission of Red Hen Press.

This article was originally published on April 02, 2018.

This segment aired on April 2, 2018.



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