Maybe you’ve stopped searching for someone to explain the perceived spiritual and political chasm dividing the people who voted for Donald Trump and those who voted for Hillary Clinton (or didn’t vote at all) on November 8, 2016. Maybe you’ve begun to delete every political action committee email you receive before opening it. Keeping up with the news cycle has become nothing if not a full-time job, and most of us don’t have enough available hours in the day, not to mention adequate emotional fortitude, to confront the deluge of improbable stories issuing from the White House. Nevertheless, we should all persist. Steve Almond’s eighth book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, deserves our undivided attention.
I first encountered Almond’s writing about 15 years ago in the New England Review, a literary journal that continues to publish Almond’s short stories, some of which have been included in The Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. Along with three story collections and a novel, he is the author of several works of nonfiction—among them, the bestselling Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America and most recently, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.
Published this past spring by the flourishing independent Red Hen Press, Bad Stories is destined to become another standout in Almond’s bibliography. Its pages brim with well- reasoned and insightful arguments that demonstrate the author’s erudition and humanity. Bad Stories is also a bona fide page-turner, Almond’s voice is both confiding and hypnotic as he draws on the works of Herman Melville, Theodore Roosevelt, Neil Postman, John Steinbeck, and other esteemed thinkers and cultural critics to explain why so many people woke up on Election Day 2016 and voted for a reality TV personality with no political experience, ultimately ensconcing him in what is arguably the most important public office on the planet. – Christine Sneed
Sneed corresponded over email and Google Docs with Almond about Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country for The National Book Review.
Q: One of the many compelling arguments you make in your new book focuses on the culture of fandom in the U.S., one imported from sports, which has turned our election cycles into spectacles and drained them of all seriousness. Briefly, how did we end up here?
A: During the Great Depression, people were often asked how they lost all their money. The common refrain was, A little bit at a time, then all of a sudden. That’s how I feel about the erosion of American democracy. There are so many factors, and they all reinforce each other, from screen addiction to polarization to demagoguery. What animates (and incentivizes) all of them is the mindless greed of late-model capitalism, which has steadily pushed citizens away from the duties of citizenship and toward the pleasures of fandom. We used to understand politics as a contest of ideas. It’s now a form of entertainment, a kind of reality TV show for ugly people.
Most Americans spend far more time, money, and passion focused on sports. That didn’t happen overnight. It happened over decades. If you think about the major social movements in this country--from abolition to suffrage to the labor movement to Civil Rights--they were all predicated on a faith in the mechanisms of self-governance, the sacred belief that we are the subjects of history, not the objects. I believe we’re losing faith, and that certain factions of our population benefit from this loss of faith. These factions are not especially hard to identify. Just follow the money. Who benefits from our loss of faith in government? Large corporations, politicians, demagogues. This is why Teddy Roosevelt spoke about the need to break the corrupt alliance between government and business.
Bad Stories argues that we (the people) must recognize our complicity in all this. That requires pulling our heads out of the news cycle, stepping back from history, and identifying the bad stories that led us to this politics of rancor and despair. It’s no longer enough to hate-watch our dysfunction, or laugh at it. We have to be willing to shoulder what the writer Sarah Manguso calls “the burden of hope.”
Q: Talk radio is another cultural phenomenon you explore in Bad Stories, tracing its roots to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and how it has helped to turn blue states red by influencing large numbers of people to vote against their own interests. Is right-wing talk radio à la Rush Limbaugh uniquely American? Or have other countries embraced it too?
A: I don’t know enough about the media of other countries to answer responsibly. But I suspect that America is the best example of a free press devolving into a for-profit industry. You could see it so clearly on election night, on the faces of all these anchors on cable news, the folks who had pumped the oxygen of attention into Trump’s crusade, who had covered him incessantly because he goosed their ratings. It was like history had called their bluff in real time. But their shock was really just a reflection of our own. We’d all turned away from the compass of self-governance during the campaign, and toward the spectacle of wounded masculine ego.
What most folks on the left never realized is the power of the propaganda media in our culture. For four decades, talk radio has been fostering an ecstatic cult of white victimization, preaching a gospel in which their listeners are forever under siege by some dark other. It’s a world that allows them to deny their vulnerabilities by exalting their grievances. That’s why you have so many Americans voting for a party that wants to decimate their health care options--because they’re focused on Building a Wall or Banning Muslims. And this is why I focus so much on the Fairness Doctrine. Because it was put in place to limit propaganda, to prevent our media from monetizing bad stories--stories intended to frighten people and to sow discord. The moment it was repealed, talk radio exploded. Pundits talked about how Trump had created a movement. That’s utter nonsense. All he did was inherit an audience.
Q: Do you think there was a time when politicians weren’t sources of derision and mistrust in our culture? What is it about politicians that makes voters so willing to distrust them? (Hillary Clinton, for example, was the repeated target of right-wing smear campaigns but millions of voters refused to believe she was being targeted, and many fervently believed she was a scofflaw).
A: Politicians have always been reviled, often properly so. What’s unique about our current realpolitik is that one of our two major political parties has become completely dedicated to breaking government, so that they can run as the anti-government party. There’s almost no discussion from the right about the traditional role of government, which is to solve problems. Instead, the whole idea is to vilify and thereby disempower government. That’s the endgame of the modern conservative movement. Its leaders aren’t even politicians, but pundits and demagogues who flood the airwaves with bad stories. The effort to improve health care becomes a “state takeover” with death panels intended to kill Granny. Sensible gun control becomes the eradication of the 2nd Amendment. The established science of climate change becomes a Chinese hoax.
This is what the historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.” It’s a mindset that’s migrated from the fringes of our discourse to the center. The whole idea is to erode our faith in government, to dismiss politicians as inherently corrupt. This is how Republicans convinced themselves that it was okay to vote for a nakedly cruel and divisive sexual predator--not by praising him, but by turning his opponent into a criminal. Think about the enduring image from the Republican National Convention, all those angry white people chanting “Lock Her Up!” That’s not a political gathering. It’s a lynch mob.
Q: Along with writing books, you teach journalism at Harvard University and worked for years as a reporter in El Paso and Miami. In Bad Stories, you explore the controversial way the media often handled reportage about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Do most, if not all, major market newspapers appear to be focusing more on profit margins today than on the ethical concerns related to how and which stories are reported? Which newspapers are doing the best, most reliable reporting, in your opinion?
A: You’re being kind in choosing not to dwell on my own sins. But part of the reason I shared my own experiences as a reporter in Bad Stories is because the entire pursuit is so ethically fraught.
I spent four years in El Paso and yet I never wrote about what I saw every morning from my balcony: young women crossing the Rio Grande and scrambling through a chain-link fence, then having to change into dry clothes so they could go clean toilets for twelve hours, then return to their families in Juarez. I never wrote about how the INS vans would sometimes chase these women through the low desert scrub. Nope. Instead, I marched off to work and wrote about bands such as New Kids on the Block.
I say this not to scold myself, but because this is simply how the media works in America. It’s completely driven by the need to stimulate, by the fizz and shimmer of consumer culture. And this mentality has completely infiltrated our political coverage. This is why just ten percent of the 2016 election coverage focused on policy. We should all be disturbed by that figure. But we should also recognize our complicity. The reason media companies focus on scandals and fund-raising and poll numbers and horse race stories is not just because those sorts of stories are cheap and easy to produce, but because that’s what we demand.
As for reliable newspapers, I’m pretty cynical at this point. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post played a central role in promoting stories that smeared Hillary Clinton. They ginned up the phony email scandal, and spread dirt dug up by Russians hackers.
I mean, step back for a second. Back in 1972, when reporters discovered that burglars had broken into the DNC offices, those newspapers devoted themselves to figuring out who had hired those burglars and why. But in 2016, they didn’t bother asking those questions. Instead, they did Putin’s bidding.
Our leading newspapers have tried to make amends. But they continue to focus on tweets, and other distractions, rather than the disastrous policies of this regime. They should be telling the stories of those communities devastated by heartless immigration policy, and environmental deregulation, and a tax cut designed by Scrooge McDuck.
As for my own news diet, I try to focus on the long-form reporting in The New Yorker, and the investigative reporting done by Pro Publica. There are a few hosts on cable TV who attempt to provide historical context. But most shows wind up degenerating into disposable entertainment--panels of brawling pundits, pontificating anchors. You hardly ever hear from someone qualified to do more than talk: an investigative reporter, a scientist, an historian. It’s all reactive and hysterical and calculated to goose ratings.
Q: You mentioned in one of our recent exchanges that this wasn’t the book you wanted to write but worried you’d go nuts if you didn’t. Would you talk more about this? And what were you trying to write when Bad Stories took over?
A: I was working on a novel about a young Mexican-American girl, the daughter of an undocumented worker, who gets caught up in a corrupt police investigation. I may return to the book in time. But like a lot of folks, I found it impossible to ignore what was happening in the campaign. It felt (and feels) like a real crossroads, a moment in history in which Americans are going to have to decide whether they want to renew their faith in the bonds of human kindness or turn in a much darker direction. That’s really where we are. And we’re going to have to decide whether Trump represents the death throes of white supremacy in this country, or whether his ascension to power initiates an era of permanent division and decline.
All empires collapse because of internal divisions. That’s just how it works. And that’s what will happen to America, if we can’t renew our faith in one another. I see that as impossible if we continue to allow political actors and demagogues to be the central storytellers in our country. We need more compassionate voices to tell the story of America. And that’s really what I’m trying to do in Bad Stories. We’re a storytelling species, after all. Stories are how we construct reality and how we pluck meaning from the rush of experience. This is why I use literature to understand our politics--because great books are always about the politics of our souls. Bad stories always lead to bad outcomes.
But the opposite is just as true. Good stories lead to good outcomes. Look at all these teachers striking for better pay all across the country. Look at the kids from Parkland High School, who refuse to let the gun lobby’s greedy lies go unpunished. Look at the activists and journalists fighting to document what’s happening on our Southern border. I don’t believe in bad people. I just think people fall under the influence of bad stories. So let’s not waste our time fighting those people, or trying to shame them. Let’s turn our attention to the 104 million citizens who didn’t even vote in the election. The question is: how do we convince them that they have a stake in the political process? That’s going to require a lot of work. People of conscience need to detach from their screens and convert their anguish into political action. The only way our national destiny is going to swing back toward mercy and justice is if we place our shoulders to the pendulum and push.
Christine Sneed is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. Her stories or essays have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Ploughshares, and a number of other periodicals. She teaches for Northwestern University’s graduate program in creative writing and for Regis University’s low-residency MFA program.