George Saunders is an award-winning American short story writer, essayist, and author. His writings span multiple genres, from his own unique (and almost unclassifiable) blend of futuristic, absurdist Americana short fiction, to dystopian sci-fi and literary realism, to children’s books, to novellas, to his immersive journalistic reporting and literary nonfiction. His work has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and GQ, and often features stories of capitalist-born desperation and the nausea of professional drudgery. Saunders’ recent piece for The New Yorker chronicles the few months he spent on the Trump campaign trail earlier this spring. World Policy Journal‘s Joshua St. Clair sat down with Saunders to discuss the Trump assignment—also taking the time to talk writing, racism, revision, and the weight of living with ambiguity.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Can you describe the premise of the Trump assignment? Was it simply a matter of The New Yorker proposing: let’s send George into Trumpland and see if he can make sense of the madness?
GEORGE SAUNDERS: I think that was it. I had finished a novel and so I was getting ready to take a long break, and then I got an email from The New Yorker saying, how would you feel about approaching Trump as a subject?—sort of in the spirit of that Norman Mailer essay, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” So I kind of went uh I don’t know; that’s gonna be hard. And then I just felt like it would be neat, so I said yes. I think the idea—at least from my end—was to go into these rallies not trying to cherry-pick some extreme behavior, but to try instead to get a feeling for what most of the people there were thinking. It’s easy enough to go in and find a crazy person here or there at any gathering of 6,000 people. I was just curious as to who [his supporters] were and what the mindset was.
WPJ: You write about the energy that seems to reverberate during a Trump rally—that the scene is more or less civil right up until the moment Trump begins to speak, and then this spell is cast over the audience. What was it like being in the herd, seeing (perhaps even yourself feeling) this kind of energy?
GS: It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. I can understand how [Trump] is an appealing speaker—in a way. He’s funny; he’s self-effacing. If you graphed it, the energy would be at four (kind of like at a Jimmy Buffett concert, or something), and then during the speech it would spike up to seven. And you can see people being really energized by it. And then, retroactively, when I went out and talked to the protesters, you could see that’s when things started to get combative at that moment.
WPJ: The tension builds and you have two sides waiting for the other to make a first move. Democrats like to think that it is the Trump supporters who instigate, but you’ve found that that’s not always the case.
GS: No. And, in fact, it was interesting, because when I first went to Arizona, I wanted to go to one rally and be done, basically. The way that would happen was if something outrageous occurred and I could come back and smugly report it. What I saw—especially at the second rally—was the Trump people coming out and the protesters behaving quite aggressively—not physically, but chanting “Trump’s a racist, and so are you,” and so on. And that didn’t fit with my narrative. We talk about overturning bias. I wanted the liberals to be sitting there meditating (levitating, if that was possible). But I went home a little confused by [their aggressiveness]; it unsettled me a bit. But then on that same trip, I was talking to some grassroots organizers and they said, the Trump movement has a kind of passive-aggressive stance—which is to say these quasi-racist things and incite this xenophobic energy. And then they just sit back and smile. In other words, the aggression is embedded in the program, in the platform.
WPJ: And this dynamic comes out in the exchange between “Trumpie A” and “Trumpie B” and “Green Shirt” liberal. It’s a strange dynamic: both sides accusing the other of being uneducated, stupid to what’s going on in the world. No doubt there are smart supporters on either side.
GS: It gets really complicated, doesn’t it? When I came away from those rallies, the big thing for me was this intense divide between Left and Right to where we can’t even agree on the basic data set. The fact that two sides of the same country are drinking from different ponds, so to speak, makes it really sad. When I left that first day, I was just so sad and a little bit frightened for the future. It’s one thing if you and I disagree in principle regarding the same facts; we can reason through that. But if we are drawing from entirely different mythologies, then the more passionate we get, the more frustrated we get. The passion turns into aggression and frustration that doesn’t lead anywhere.
WPJ: When you speak of this bifurcation of American thinking—RightLand and LeftLand, the separate language we speak, and the separate mythologies we draw from—it seems like it’s not so easy to bridge that divide.
GS: And it’s amazing when you’re in that situation and you’re talking to people—and kind of having a good time (there was no tension; it was all very affable)—and getting to that point over and over where you go: okay, so we are reading from different rulebooks—different sets of encyclopedia—and it doesn’t matter how vehement I am (or even how charming I am); you’re not coming off your rock there. I also—and I don’t think I made much of this in the piece—came away thinking there might be a neurological basis for this, because it was so predictable—the way that a given piece of data would fall on me and a Trump supporter. You could almost see it getting into the top of our heads, and then, almost like one of those Plinko Boards, the disk would go down, down, down and at the end it would reach a totally different conclusion.
WPJ: Did you ever feel that you were engaging in a kind of inappropriate liberal voyeurism—making the Trump supporters into this strange species to be studied anthropologically?
GS: I think you can do it while acknowledging that it’s problematic that you’re doing it. But I got exactly that complaint. What I heard from Trump supporters was that it was self-righteous and elitist. And that’s true. But if a Trump supporter went to a Hillary rally, that [charge] would also be true [there]. It’s kind of implicit in the act of journalism: I go there to see what this other group is like. I retain a lot of the control narratively for sure.
WPJ: When you were speaking to the Trump supporters, was there any hostility to the questions you were asking?
GS: Never. Never. Now, again, one of the problems with a piece like this is you’re intersecting with a very small number of supporters. I didn’t see anybody who was overtly racist or violent. But on the internet you can find that. (I can’t at all claim that this is a statistically solid sampling). So part of the method is to kind of admit that and say, well, based on my clearly-reality-biased set of data, can I imaginatively occupy the larger world? But there was no hostility. I mean, people were nice, and they were friendly. In a sense, I had to account for that in the story, because we know that there’s outrageous violence at these things; we know that there’s lots of hateful rhetoric online. It’s a defect of the method. It’s a novelistic method and not an objective journalistic method.
WPJ: Do you think these supporters would have been as open or as willing to civilly engage had you not been this white, middle-aged man asking them questions?
GS: I’m not so sure. That was my assumption. And visually I blend. But I don’t think—and this is so general as to be a little dangerous—but, my sense of that group was that they know (and, again, that “they” is so problematic) that they’re regarded as prone to racism. And they don’t like that. They actually are not first-order racists in the 1950s-southern-share-of racism way. So they always verbally establish that quickly (I have friends of all colors). And I think that if a black reporter went to a Trump rally and announced himself as a liberal reporter, the first thing would be to say, oh great, we want to tell our side of the story. Where the bumps in the road may come out is the arguments they chose to advance.
But it’s a little more complex than what I first thought. I thought I would go to this rally and overhear some racial slurs or something. Not at all. So that’s both good and bad. It means that if there’s racism in the platform, it’s complex and it’s imbedded and it’s a little sly. I came away thinking that it might not be a bad thing to investigate the term “racism,” because now it’s become kind of a mic-drop, for one thing. And it’s also defined differently, depending on who you’re talking to. I had a thought that you can do what the Greeks did with the word “love” or what native people in the north do with “snow”—there should be many words to describe this thing that we all participate in. Only because it would be more effective—to talk about the micro things the mind does (even the mind of a progressive does) that are actually the seeds of racism, or the remnants of racism. That seems to be where we are in terms of the rhetoric that we need.
I think the challenge for liberals is to stay in the game long enough to see what’s really happening, and if it has racist overtones, what does that look like on its feet? As opposed to painting a simple picture of these positions. Because then you’re fighting the wrong battle; you’re fighting too simple a battle. And you’re fighting a battle that could be bereft of sympathy.
WPJ: At the same time though, you have a lot of supporters using phrases like, Trump is “onto something.” Did this strike you as coded racism / xenophobia?
GS: Not really, no. When I first took this piece, the most enlightened liberal view was that the Trump supporters were like the Joes in the Grapes of Wrath: They were working people who had been left behind and were frustrated and, therefore, deserving of sympathy. And I think there’s a large truth to that. But on the ground, it’s something different. It’s not just poor people or working people or non-college-educated people.
WPJ: This “Grievance Mind” that you speak about—the being-left-behind, the powerless, disconnected—and this powerful, strongman Donald Trump who was going to rectify this for them. Can you speak about this power / powerless logic that was occurring?
GS: Here’s what I think the irony is. In my lifetime (and probably in the last 30 years) there’s a core of really big problems in America, and the list might go: the incredible flight of the money upstairs to the rich; the vanishing and shrinking and degradation of the middle class; the disappearance of this industrial core that used to allow an American without much education to make a dignified life for himself or herself—that’s gone; increasing corporatism, increasing materialism. And so in that model, Trump comes along and puts his fingers on a couple of almost-cartoonishly-exaggerated elements of that, and he gets a little bit of attention. But I don’t know what’s going on. Let’s put it that way.
WPJ: At least you don’t have the ultimate plan all laid out for someone to believe in.
GS: No. I’m mostly a fiction writer. So for me the solutions are kind of above politics. They’re more moral / ethical, and they have to do with how we regard one another, how we regard the profit motive, and so on. Ultimately, that’s what I really believe. So this Trump assignment was a little bit of a pain for me, because I had to put on a political hat and act as if the solutions are present in that realm. Whereas, really, the fact that these problems have been bounced back and forth between parties over the last 30 years indicates that there’s something deeper at play. And I don’t think it’s this case of some sinister group of people somewhere pulling the puppet strings. Somehow we’ve come to believe that unfettered capitalism is somehow good and we’re seeing the results of that.
WPJ: All these topics though—politics, corporatism, consumerism, being left behind, etc—they all enter into your fiction in some way. You write about art as being a “black box the reader enters.” The result is that writing, narrative, artistic endeavor—what it seeks is the encapsulation of real, emotional every-day waking-life experience, sometimes using the most un-every day devices (fiction, hyperbole, absurdity, etc).
GS: For me, although it will seem as though I had a politics and wrote stories, it was the other way around: I discovered what politics I had through the process of writing, and especially—this sounds a little bit insider-baseball—but to me there’s something about revision that’s very (I’m going to say this and be sorry later) spiritual. In the sense that you write something down—and whether it’s a fiction story about invented reality, or part of this Trump piece—and somehow if it’s full of nonsense, it doesn’t read well; it doesn’t compel. Sometimes that’s because of a lack of specificity. Sometimes it’s because it’s so agenda-based that it’s stopped making sense. The deepest thing I’ve ever done in my artistic life is to learn how to really revise something. For me, revision takes me from my first draft personality, which is a little hyperbolic and facile and sentimental and a whole bunch of other bad things (that I am in everyday life). But then if I give myself three or four months to work on something, my prose sensitivity starts to make corrections. And by the time I’m done, the resultant thing is truer than the first draft, and it’s also more empathetic and it’s funnier and all that. By studying your own work in that way, you can actually improve your everyday self. A piece like [the Trump piece] is great because it’s so hard and you have to go in there and write some nonsense and then attempt to improve your nonsense until it’s more truthful.
WPJ: What kind of ideas came out of the revision process for this [Trump] piece?
GS: The great thing is that those ideas tend to be irreducible; they’re there in my heart, but I can’t really say them. But I think it has something to do with this idea of the ultimate complexity of the world of ideas—the sense that when you have four people in a room, you’ve got four distinct, very powerful inner monologues going on that may or may not have anything to do with one another. There may or may not be conduits of communication possible. And that writ large is basically the universe. This idea that people, as dear as they can be, are basically thought-generating machines. And the thoughts that they generate have very uncertain relation to reality. So you’re there with your thought-generating machine and I’m there with mine. We like to think that we can communicate in some linear, flawless way, but in reality something much more beautiful and crazy is going on. In other words, when I come out of that Trump piece, I’m mostly inspired to try and write a work of fiction that will embody some of those notions.
WPJ: What’s interesting with Trump is that this inner monologue is made external for all of us to hear. Did moving about Trumpland feel as though the “black box” had become folded inside out—that you didn’t need to consciously step inside to see the absurdity?
GS: I think that’s why you make that “black box” in the first place: to try and mimic some of the absurdity of real life. I would argue that if you were a really really sensitive observer, even just walking down the street and going to the store is … insane. (The actual ways in which these perceptions come to us and how we order them in our mind and so on). When I got into something like a Trump rally, where my core beliefs are so different from the people who are there, it’s maybe another level of absurdity. And what I mean by “absurdity” is just being reminded that your model of the world is not the world. The scale model that you make in your mind has only a nebulous relation to the world outside. And at those rallies, what happens is you get two different scale models butting up against each other and not being able to agree at all. So, in a way, you’re talking about the limits of conceptual knowledge. If I have to tell you what I believe in words, I’m going to get it wrong. Or, if I have to try to understand the world in words or in beliefs or in a political position, that model is going to be comically inadequate to actual reality.
WPJ: How do you combat that gulf between the mental representation and and the way the world is?
GS: I think the best way is just to keep telling yourself that’s the case. In other words, sitting there, as if in meditation—which is to say: okay I’m creating a model of the world—I have to; I can’t live otherwise. I have to live by that model. Maybe this meditation is looking a little scant at that created model, remembering that it’s only a creation of your mind, which then should, theoretically, result in a little more humility. I think what troubled me at first [doing this Trump piece] was that you could be talking to somebody that you really liked at this rally and you could [simultaneously] deeply disagree with his or her idea. And you might even think (as I do) that those ideas are going to be very dangerous if writ large. The problem is your mind naturally wants to chose one over the other: either he’s a good guy or he’s a stinker, either she’s a very sweet person or she’s a danger. The fiction writer’s mind asks, which one of these is true? And the fiction writer responds: both—neither. These things can coexist. So the only problem is why do we have so much trouble biting that ambiguity? So that’s one thing a piece like this does for me—it makes me say oh yeah, both those things are true. I really like this guy; I really disagree with his positions. I had a great conversation with him; I wouldn’t want 10,000 of him gathering in a public square.
WPJ: This is something I really enjoy about your writing: It “softens the borders” between people. I never forget that what I’m dealing with in your writing is people—first and foremost. And people are never one dimensional.
GS: That’s the thing that I find hard. And it actually gets worse as you get older (I’m sorry to tell you). Our ability to abide with true ambiguity is so important. Someone who can say A is true, B is true, C is true (all at once)—that’s a real expansive way of thinking. It gets harder to think that way in times of anxiety or trouble or financial meltdown or war or conflict. Maybe that’s the other thing I learned from this piece: It’s all well and good to sit at home and say I’m in love with ambiguity, but then you get out and see someone get punched in the face and suddenly you feel as though you could get punched in the face. I think we all know how human beings should live, but then you slip off the path of prosperity or confidence and then all bets are off.
WPJ: There seems like there’s only so much one can tolerate about that other mental representation. I can already hear the arguments on why things must be deemed objectively moral, amoral—that these actions are “wrong.”
GS: Yes. Exactly right. In Buddhism there’s this concept called “idiot compassion” where you basically become an enabler because you’re so forgiving. Now that’s a false understanding, I think, of what “compassion” actually means. Compassion can be very strict and very firm about drawing a line. People would argue that if somebody has a dumb idea and you tolerate it, you’re actually not being compassionate; you’re making it worse for them, because you’re enabling them to continue to have that dumb idea. That was something I really struggled with in this piece. I didn’t want to throw these Trump supporters under the buss. A lot of them had never been interviewed before; they were very trusting. And I didn’t want to be cheap about it.
My first two drafts that I sent to The New Yorker were rejected. The complaint was: you’re not doing analyses; you’re putting a bunch of stuff out there with no judgement. That was something I had to work on. Be firm about the dangerous things that are being said—being put forward by Trump. At the same time, don’t make demons if demons don’t exist. So that was a really tricky mix. And I’ve had people say both. I’ve had some liberal people say, oh god, you’re way too mealy-mouthed on them. And of course Trump people say, you were condescending from the beginning and never gave us a chance. I suppose that if you’re getting hammered from both sides a little bit then you know you did an okay job.
WPJ: Throughout the whole piece you teeter back and forth from despair to a kind of civic pride, back to despair. What made this experience on the campaign trail such a roller coaster of conclusions?
GS: In all these pieces I’ve done (these non-fiction pieces), they’re all roller coasters, because if you look at our minds closely, they’re always doing that back and forth. I think of it as on-the-other-hand thinking. You say oh, A—and then a little voice goes yeah, but on the other hand how about this. I think that mostly what we do is override those little fluctuations in our viewpoint. I’m a Democrat, so I believe this—period. But actually, on the micro-level, your mind is always making those little counterarguments and flipping around. Part of this mode of writing is to just say, alright, let me document those flip-flops (or whatever you want to call them) in real time. And then the piece as a whole will be a collection of all those variations in your thought, which is very truthful—the fact that you’ve had all these different, conflicting emotions. So that was my theory: If I resisted the urge to declare my allegiance (and I do it in the first section with Trump; I couldn’t help it), in terms of the supporters try to be as fair as possible, then when you finally do weigh in you’ve actually got a factual basis for it. You’ve made rhetorical momentum that’s honest as opposed to showboating.
WPJ: Of the “Black Box” you wrote that, “What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.” What do you hope is the undeniable and nontrivial thing that happens to the readers after following you through Trumpland?
GS: It’s sort of a trick question, because I think the writer has to say all along: I don’t know what that is yet. I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s almost as though there’s this big machine that has all these sub-machines and you can see what they do [individually]. So here’s a gear, here’s a rotor—so you go around adjusting all those sub-machines; you don’t really know what they do together. But your job is to make sure that those sub-machines are efficient. Then, at the end, you press the “on” button and something happens. It’s not like you really planned it along the way, but it’s the result of all those fine tuning things you did. On this one, I suppose that if I had to say it, I would like the reader to feel as I had felt, which was kind of a combination of wow this is complicated, wow he’s a dangerous candidate, oh boy America is a beautiful mess (with the emphasis on beautiful). Feel some affection for the people who I talked to. Feel some suspicion about the people I talked to. In other words, just to simulate a Platonic version of my mindset when I was done. And usually with these pieces, that state is of a full befuddlement. I’m less sure than when I came in. I’m a little more alert to the situation than when I came in. And then I’m also interested in how things proceed from there. But I think the befuddlement is the ideal.
WPJ: That image of ignorantly playing with the gears actually seems like the perfect metaphor for the Trump campaign. Let’s hope he doesn’t get to the point where he’s flipping the “on” switch.
GS: That’s the thing, and this is something I’m really still struggling with, which is that I think he’d be a catastrophic president. If he becomes president, then I think I’m going to look back and say I wonder if that was the right rhetorical approach. I think it is. I think that if you have any intention of persuading, then this courteous stance is the correct one. But I don’t know. And the bigger thought, which is maybe a little depressing to me, is that any big, bad movement in history has indeed been made up of nice people. That’s something that’s scary to think about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Photo Courtesy of Chloe Aftel]