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George Saunders on how art can inspire empathy in the Trump era

“Those of us who are in the arts or in journalism can do some work to put real people on the other end of this thing.”

Johnny Louis/FilmMagic

George Saunders, a Buddhist raised on the South Side of Chicago, is one of America’s great writers. He’s long been hailed for his short stories; his debut novel is Lincoln in the Bardo. Zadie Smith describes it as a “masterpiece.”

The Civil War is in its first year — it’s February 1862 — and Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie dies. Saunders imagines a polyphonic graveyard chorus during a night the grieving Lincoln returned alone to Willie’s Georgetown cemetery crypt.

I spoke to Saunders on a recent afternoon in Dallas, over the phone. We discussed Lincoln, empathy, having friends and family who voted for Trump, and the problem with the media.

Alexander Bisley

During the period Lincoln in the Bardo is set, the Civil War is a fiasco. What do you think Lincoln would make of what’s going on today?

George Saunders

Lincoln’s got this beautiful quote, in which he’s talking about if you truncate the American equality vision, if you truncate it to exclude black people, the next thing some despot will do is start excluding immigrants. Lincoln knew this, and in his day the opposition party was called the Know Nothings, and they were very much a white power party. I think Lincoln would recognize and be very strongly against the Trump movement, because it’s simply anti-American to be so damn scared all the time.

Alexander Bisley

Lincoln spoke stirringly about “the mystic cords of memory” and the “chorus of the union.” African-American writers like Walter Mosley and Colson Whitehead have emphasized to me that Barack Obama tried to find post-partisan commonality between Republicans and Democrats, and only got scorched-earth opposition as thanks.

George Saunders

I think that’s true, but God bless Obama for making the effort. He’s a tremendous role model, and I think he had a very, very deep understanding of this American project as it’s supposed to be. America was a terrific, beautiful concept as stated in the Constitution, and we’ve never actually done it: to really believe that all beings are created equal. I felt just before this election, going to some Bernie Sanders rallies and talking to my students, that we’re closer than we’ve ever been to realizing the constitutional vision, which is what most of us believe and want.

As sometimes happens when one thing is about to dominate, the opposition has a bit of a death throe. I think that’s what we’re seeing here, a last stand of this white- normative exclusionary, xenophobic vision of America. America as, like, a little island or something. It never was. You can go back to 1780, and we were a multicultural society then. I’m just trying to be optimistic and say that the young people get it.

The vision in the Constitution was always colorblind; it was, “that person is an American because he lives in America, and because he believes in certain ideas.” I think in terms of demographics, and the way that young people understand this country intuitively, I think we’re going to get there. The question is how long is this Trump step backward going to last, and how much damage is it going to do in the process.

Alexander Bisley

There was a memorable piece you did for the New Yorker, following Trump supporters on the Trump campaign trail: “Sometimes it seemed that they were, like me, just slightly spoiled Americans, imbued with unreasonable boomer expectations for autonomy, glory, and ascension, and that their grievances were more theoretical than actual, more media-induced than experience-related.”

George Saunders

My feeling is mostly confused. On the one hand, I’m so angry about these mean-spirited people running our country, and at the same time I also have some sympathy for some of the people who felt left out enough to go to Trump.

In real time, in real chaos, it’s hard to know what to think. It’s always easy with a hundred years of history between you and the object, but in real time the ways that things get fucked up is, there’s such a contradiction in the data that it paralyses us a bit. What I keep thinking is that maybe, for the first time in my life, these eternal verities that I’ve always talked about are actually being asked to stand up and walk.

Defense of democracy, defense of diversity, kindness, empathy: All these things now are really being challenged. And you have to be fierce while being empathetic, which is pretty tricky. You have to think about these groups that are suffering under Trump, and even sort of include these Trump supporters as one of those groups. It’s really morally challenging, and kind of invigorating if it’s the right day.

In the Buddhist sense, when they talk about compassion, that means you don’t want anybody to suffer. In philosophy, that will actually make you a stronger opponent to injustice. If you can remain empathetic, curious, open, you’re actually going to be a better advocate for justice in the long run. As opposed to descending into hyperbole or snark and then standing there ejecting bile at everybody. That’s not a very effective stance.

Alexander Bisley

In your 2007 essay and book The Braindead Megaphone — about the pernicious effects of entertainment and right-wing media — you wrote: “Our venture in Iraq was a literary failure, by which I mean a failure of imagination.”

George Saunders

I think that the Trump movement is a failure of imagination. All these people who are being humiliated and terrified by these stupid proposals. For the Trump people, I have to believe they are just projections. If you think about an actual immigrant, an actual Muslim, no reasonable person could be so energetic in pursuing these harsh policies if they actually knew those people.

I read a Gallup poll about Trump supporters that supports this idea that most Trump supporters don’t know many immigrants. They don’t live near the border or near pockets of immigrants, they don’t know many Muslims, a lot of people of color. It means that these fearful programs that they’re putting in place are mostly based on projection; it’s not based on actual human experience.

One of the purposes of art can be to put flesh on the thing. You think about the big political essays that were written about the Okies in the ’30s that were projective, and then think of The Grapes of Wrath. I have to believe that people who read that book would be moved by the plight of that particular family.

So I think that’s one possibly productive thing that progressives can think about is that the people making a lot of these Trump initiatives don’t seem able to imagine the actual victims of their programs. So those of us who are in the arts or in journalism can do some work to put real people on the other end of this thing.

Alexander Bisley

Do you discuss politics with your friends and family who are Trump voters?

George Saunders

Not so much. Zadie Smith told me a wonderful thing about the way that you can look at a person and see that there are multiplicities. So they may be a Trump supporter, but they may also be a wonderful granddad, or a baseball fan. I’m personally not very comfortable with fighting or with strife. The times when I have raised politics with them, I haven’t made any converts, and it’s probably made it worse. I’m pretty comfortable with just getting along in whatever way I can, and I think they feel the same way about me. I feel like each of us has to figure out a way to protect our own equanimity and our own better self.

I don’t like hating people, I don’t like fighting, I don’t like name-calling, so I’m not going to do it. I have faith that the things I really believe in — which are empathy, and good faith, and a sense of humor — will serve me better than those other things. I don’t know if persuasion is happening, but as long as I can feel that there’s a softening of the border — maybe suddenly we’re not talking about Trump, we’re talking about music.

Even though that feels small considering the stakes, it’s a start: To be able to remind ourselves that we are a country here, and if we can cultivate a little mutual curiosity and affection it might come in handy if the crisis gets worse. I’m trying to stay in a state of confusion every day, so I don’t settle into some kind of false, foul position.

Alexander Bisley

Of course, art is about much more than just politics.

George Saunders

In all honesty, when you’re writing a book, you’re in love with it as an aesthetic exercise. First, you respect the innate energy of the piece; trying to make it truthful and trying to make it fast and funny. Any time you start hitting an idea too hard, you can fuck yourself up as an artist because the real process of writing a book is a lot weirder and a lot more mysterious and maybe unintentioned.

If you start saying what art should do, pretty soon you’re saying what art must do, and then some reactionary comes along and says, “Hey, your art isn’t doing what you said it must do, go to the Gulag.” I think art has to reserve the right to be truly useless. It can do these other wonderful things. But from the point of the practitioner, you have to be a bit understated in terms of intentionality.

Alexander Bisley

Do you have any criticism of liberals?

George Saunders

I think there’s a lot of mutual projection from both sides. If you talk to Trump supporters, they have an idea of progressives that isn’t accurate, and very condescending. But I would say that a lot of progressives that I know have the same idea of Trump supporters; it isn’t quite right.

Progressives are more curious about what Trump supporters are like, and they’re more willing to go out and do the work and are able to self-flagellate for their failure to imagine the Trump supporters. I don’t see much of that coming the other direction. I want to avoid false equivalency.

Alexander Bisley

You believe hard right-wing media is a malign influence on our polity?

George Saunders

Yes. As I wrote in that Braindead Megaphone essay; there are two different mythological universes that are working. It started with Fox, which has become a great mainstream media source for many people. But Fox is pretty far to the wacky right, so that’s disturbing the whole thought system in this country. Fox came along, and Rush Limbaugh and so on, they made a model, which was maybe tapping into something legitimate, but it now exacerbates it by a factor of tens.

I think it’s teaching Americans how to be peevish and how to stereotype one another. The number of times people at these Trump rallies would tell me, “We held this rally in the morning because liberals sleep in.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?”

It’s very profitable, and I think it creates a pundit class that’d be very unhappy if things were discussed more reasonably, because it doesn’t fit into the programming. I think it’s really dangerous. I think you can trace it back to when I was a kid, when news was considered a public service that they didn’t really want to do but were required to do for a certain number of hours a day. It was not a profit-center, it was a loss-center, and each of the networks absorbed it because they were required to. And instead, then, when it became a profit-center, agitation is great entertainment, as David Foster Wallace wrote about in his book of essays.

Alexander Bisley

What do you think of your late friend Wallace’s media critique?

George Saunders

He had an amazing mind. He had a piece in which he interviewed a right-wing radio host in Los Angeles, and his conclusion, as usual, was so original. He said that while the station was ostensibly right-wing, the actual currency they were using was agitation energy. So they would introduce “grade-school teacher steps on the flag,” or something, and then they would just bring it up every day.

They found that when a person was agitated and outraged, that’s one of the most addictive emotions you can have. It’s much more powerful than political loyalty. This is what Fox does: They throw down these distorted, incendiary versions of the liberal world and they keep bringing it up every day. They have a group of people who are vocationally agitated, and who turn to that show every day to get their fix.

The problem with that is that it isn’t accurate to reality. The actual country is relatively benevolent, actual liberals are pretty sweet and pretty nice people, not so different from conservative people. But the right media has this investment in painting this picture of a diabolical elite, this negative-minded left. You can follow the money: It’s a very profitable enterprise.

Alexander Bisley

Lincoln in the Bardo evokes a moving sense of mortality. What do you hope Wallace’s legacy is?

George Saunders

I hope people will turn again and again to his work, because I don’t know a wiser or more original or more honest thinker. That was always my experience with him. I’d be around him and suddenly I’d acutely feel all the different kinds of falseness in me. He was someone who was not comfortable with lying. I think his influence is maybe stronger now than it was when he passed away. Young writers love him.

I wish I could talk to him about this Trump thing, because he always was 20 percent ahead of the curve, and he had that sort of relentless logic that would lead him to a truth that the rest of us would stumble upon a couple of years later. I so wish that he was still with us. He was also a very dear person, very loving, and was becoming more lovable and loving and funny and wonderful every day. I miss him.

Alexander Bisley

Trumpism, like Lincoln in the Bardo, reminds me of an enduring William Faulkner line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

George Saunders

That Faulkner quote is very true. I had this sense when I was writing of how fragile the country is, and how it’s never quite at peace. Before I started the Lincoln book, like most people in my generation, I thought, “Yeah, a democracy, we did it, great, now we’re just cranking out the product.” Now, after doing this Lincoln book, I’m like, “Wait a minute, we’re not done.” Black Lives Matters comes directly out of the botched Reconstruction, which comes directly out of historical white racism.

When I finished the book, everything seemed so alive politically, and then along came Trump and I went out on the campaign trail. I have to say that the world has never felt more beautifully politicized than it does right now. That line between the political and the moral, or the political and the artistic, is almost nonexistent now in my mind.

Politics, art, and morality all end up thinking about human suffering. These Trump proposals are really causing a lot of suffering for very nice people, and they’re not really alleviating anybody’s suffering. I don’t think he’s less fearful, or his supporters are less fearful, but you’ve got a bunch of people getting morally beaten up at the border and a lot of good people afraid for no reason.

Alexander Bisley

What happens next?

George Saunders

That’s the sad thing, to get to this stage of one’s life and see how much beauty there is in the world and how much kindness and how, at times, the world seems like a paradise because human beings are so wonderful.

You think about all the people in Syria who could come here to America and find homes and loving communities. The Trump machine has said, “We’re not going to do that”; who profits? Are his supporters less afraid? I don’t think so. Now this great country that I love is basically cranking out misery. And it looks like it’s going to crank out misery for as long as he’s in office. And that’s very sad.

Alexander Bisley writes for Playboy, the Guardian, GQ, BBC, and other outlets. Anthony Bourdain told him America’s opioid crisis was a notable factor in Trump’s election.

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