Learning to Read our Trumpian Dystopia

This is what I’ll be teaching today and tomorrow, in my creative writing workshops:

Dear Students,

I am sorry I didn’t read your drafts. This seemed to matter more.

First: I love you, in a totally non-actionable, platonic, intellectual, but-still-don’t-tell-HR-I-said-this, literary way.

Second first: I love literature, and I love writing, and I want to talk today about the way that Donald Trump is a failure of narrative literacy, and how what we’ve just experienced is a remarkable – if harrowing – reminder of how our lives are defined almost entirely through story. More than that, the unexpected, shocking, terrifying, troubling, unimaginable happened last night because we, America, don’t know how to read and don’t know how to imagine.

This is why we matter, class. This is why teaching writing matters, and learning writing matters, and books matter, and reading matters, and serious reading and writing matters. It’s all we have. And I believe that’s actually quite a bit, is a solemn, serious, powerful tool.

Yet we’ve given up on it, or allowed others to give up on it. We can’t do that anymore. Because we failed to imagine the possibility of President Trump. We failed to imagine the potential narrative arcs of those in America who struggle. We imagined Trump into the White House because we don’t know how to read.

Look, there are words we need to deploy right here, theoretical terms that help to explain, analyze, and begin to sort where we are. Neoliberalism. Panopticism. State Ideological Apparatus. Propaganda. Jingoism. On and on. I encourage you to talk to theorists, and philosophy professors, and religious studies professors, and political science professors, and psychologists who have been studying how the human brain is literally transported through the act of reading, that literature teaches empathy, that reading is not an idle pass-time used to wile away the hours. Indeed, all of these things are vital. Notice, though, how the study of so much of what I’ve just listed happens in places and by people who are frequently denounced as irrelevant to the biggest issues of national concern, like economy, and economy, and economy. We’re in a place right now, a liberal arts college, populated by individuals who over the years have been decried as pointy-headed intellectuals, and ivory tower elites, blah blah fucking blah.

This characterization is no accident. This sidelining is no accident. Trump is no accident. The forces of, in particular, the neoliberal attack on thinking, education, and creativity in favor of vocational, “measurable,” value-propositional, corporate-speaking, business-minded, bottom line focused, spreadsheet-obsessed absences of imagination have led us here. We have decided to measure value in a narrow way, and that measurement does not include narrative.

Let me step back for a second to fundamental issues of story. You have a character. And that character has desires. And the character acts on those desires, along an escalating line of complications, until the desire is satisfied and the character is transformed in some way.

Donald Trump is a character. America is a character. Elections are built on narratives, and we have been failing spectacularly as readers, so the transformation isn’t so great.

I’m going to be direct and blunt here, because I think the particulars of this election signal something dangerous. Trump is our nightmare scenario. But we should have been able to see it coming – all of us – because Trump isn’t even a terribly inventive character. You write Trump in a story, and I flag that character as a cartoon, as a cliché, as too much of an oafish bad guy to carry a story to a satisfying end. Shit, Trump is a Disney villain. If you know how to read, he’s obvious, blunt, and not worth our time.

Yet here’s another thing: Trump knows how to work a narrative, and he knows that many people don’t. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, a first-person-POV, full-on narcissist, transparent in his attempts to badly persuade the audience to see him as the hero when we know he’s the villain. And he does this by spinning the easy narratives that we want to hear. And he succeeds because America doesn’t care enough about serious reading to understand how he works. And he succeeds, also, because as readers we fail to read the subplots, the desires and anxieties of the secondary characters who figure into the big book of elections. We trust the unreliable narrator, so we totally miss the point of the book. We root for Humbert Humbert. We vote for him. Or, just as dangerously, we recognize him as villainous but can’t understand how and why others might vote for him. That, too, is a failure of imagination.

What do the secondary characters of this narrative want, the ones who voted for Trump? Safety. Respect. Money. Power. At heart, these aren’t necessarily negative desires. But Trump understood how characters act toward releasing the tension of desire regardless of whether the release is positive or negative, and he offered a way to release it. In one direction: vote for him, a big middle finger to the establishment. In the other direction: be so consumed by righteous hatred of all he represents that we fail to recognize the real struggles of many Americans left out of the contemporary political conversation. His was a misdirection play, a narrative of deceit. And because America can’t read, America didn’t see how we all, as characters, were being led to a climax that would release narrative tension badly, against the core narratives of who we claim to be. And because America can’t read, America didn’t see how they, as characters, were being led to a climax that would release narrative tension badly, against the core narratives of who we claim to be. This book doesn’t end well for the characters, other than for the POV protagonist villain, who wins by telling the story he wants to tell so people hear what they want to hear and vote against, well, so much.

I’m optimistic, so I choose not to believe that nearly half of America is actively racist, misogynistic, bigoted, and corrupt. But I do see how a narrative can be built – by Trump and, broadly, many politicians acting in narrow self-interest and pretending it’s for the good of the nation – that exploits the desires of the nation and creates a narrative that convinces us to ignore evil and hate and pretend we’re voting well, and that also cultivates a narrative that encourages us to villainize and, therefore, fail to actually care about and address the real struggles of the voters waving their collective electoral central phalanges. I’ll say it again: America can’t read.

Think about the narratives spun:

Evangelical Christians believe, at heart, in justice, and generosity, and moral values – that’s a narrative! – but some (too many) vote for a character who spews anti-justice rhetoric and brags of grabbing pussies for sport. That’s a narrative, too, and one not consistent with the supposed core of a group of voters who, alas, were able to be led into a new narrative that didn’t fit. They are able to wash their hands of the affair and pretend that there’s something else in play, some story about moral values, and American theocracy, and truly God knows what.

Working class Americans believe in labor, and unity, and dignity. Yet some, too many, vote for an anti-union billionaire who claims, sure, I’ll bring back steel mills to a city that hasn’t had steel mills in decades and has, frankly, done fine reinventing itself. And they do it by selling out other workers, just because they can be led to a narrative of fear, that people who look different are scary. Racism is a narrative too, and Trump told it, and many read it uncritically.

And we liberals and progressives, too, throughout the election and certainly now unfairly blame so-called rednecks and hillbillies and mouthbreathing non-college-educated whites who, yes, did vote for Trump but, no, are not themselves cartoon villains. That’s a narrative, a false one, and a long one (I wrote a book about that). Politicians have tapped into it for a long time, creating a separation between “common” and “elite” and making it clear that there can be no connection. And we contribute to it by discarding rural Americans as lesser, tsking at them when they vote for Trump (yes, a bad vote, don’t get me wrong), but never actually listening to the problems they face. Our narrative of dismissiveness makes it easier for the hateful narratives – of racism, and Make America Great Again, on and on – to take root and grow like poisonous, malevolent, weeds.

As Americans, we believe in our own national narrative, of fairness and equal access and the bootstrap mythos. Yet we’re a country that just elected a president who talks in opposition to all of that. How? Because he tells a story and we don’t read it.

I mean not a lot more than this, which I also contend is a lot: Stories dictate the decisions we make in our lives. Consider rationality for a second, and the facts of our recent election. You line those up, and you compare one candidate to the other, and even if you want to make some bullshit argument about “both are flawed candidates” you cannot get the ledger to balance. One is clearly, factually, wrong. The other is not.

Yet, in the end, we vote on story, not facts. And half the nation preferred the surface story of Donald Trump and failed to critically read the narratives of both candidates and of America itself. This is where we went wrong.

Oh, and we got there because neoliberal politics have been working for years to emphasize how unimportant soft, nerdy things like stories are. And why? Because they know the power of story to unseat injustice and allow for a truly engaged and powerful citizenry.

So here we are today, in a creative writing workshop, a place where many might think we’re wasting our time. How can we fight the injustice of the world when all we do is string words together, make stories up – in fiction – navel gaze and find deep thoughts in our own lives – in nonfiction?

I don’t think we’re wasting our time. Not at all. I think now, more than ever, we see how powerful what we do really is. We are practicing reading. We are engaging narrative. We write stories to shape narratives, so that people can understand a villain when they see one. We work hard to make sure that stories exist, and that good stories exist, complicated ones, so that people will engage life with a complex relationship to narrative. We read and teach others to read, and write, and teach ourselves and everyone how to read the stories written on the world.

You understand what I’m doing here, right? That I’m partly explaining why being literary is so important, and why being genre is not, because the latter is all about cheap characters and cheap solutions. Donald Trump is genre. I can’t be more dismissive than that. I really can’t. Yes I can: he’s the novelization of a low-thought, big-budget action flick that somehow becomes a bestseller. And, worse, for some reason people want to give him the Pulitzer fucking Prize for it.

We’re better than that. We aspire to literature because we aspire to understand the complexity of human experience, in part so we don’t fuck up an election.

Which we just did.

So think about, say, a local politician – re-elected in a landslide despite being all kinds of wrong. And think about what he has said, echoing other national narratives, that students are wasting their time in majors like poetry and history and what he calls pre-Wal-mart majors. He wants to spin a narrative of fear, like Trump, that would suggest that you should be a productive worker to the economic machine and go to school to get a job. The risk, his story claims, is that if you engage in the sort of work we do in this very classroom you prepare yourself for unemployment.

Well he has it backward, and I won’t give him enough credit to suggest he knows this and recognizes the real threat. The real danger of us engaging in story is that he and others like him are at risk of being unemployed, tossed out of their intellectually-bankrupt political positions because we know how to read him, and America, and books. And that’s why we need to read and write.

Books have always been a threat to totalitarianism and ignorance, and ignorance always a tool of oppression. I’m fighting that fight by writing. And reading. And trying to spread narrative literacy so we don’t keep reading the same bereft narrative over and over again. We all do this so we can actually write and live the American narrative we want and deserve, that values all of us.

Thank you for joining me in that noble endeavor.

Ever better,