To Hell with 2016: An Interview with Ben Fountain

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Ben Fountain is the author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, winner of the PEN/Hemingway award for fiction, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award, in addition to being made into a feature film directed by Ang Lee. 

In November 2015, Fountain was asked by the Guardian whether he’d be interested in writing a series of pieces about the 2016 US election. Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2018) came out of those articles and narrates that shocking year in American politics, but it also goes beyond reportage, exploring the history and forces that precipitated our present political moment. In stunning and incisive prose, Fountain offers a searing portrait of America and a vision of what may be needed to move forward into a more socially and economically equal future.

TQ: In Beautiful Country Burn Again, you assert that there is an “American anthropology,” which boils down to a recurring phase throughout the book: “profit proportionate to freedom; plunder correlative to subjugation.” This principle led us to two previous massive resets of the American economy, one turning on race (the Civil War) and the other turning on the threat of unbridled industrial capitalism (the New Deal). Today, unprecedented levels of economic inequality exist alongside heightened levels of racial tension. You say of President Trump, “His racist rants play like full-fledged operas compared to the dog-whistle stuff, rupturing the finely honed code that’s worked so long and so well for the GOP establishment. But that’s why the base loves him; he feels their rage” (138). You make a compelling case that this “dog-whistle stuff,” coded and/or blatant racism, has been used quite effectively by both parties. How does this tactic finally lose its power?  

BF: Trump’s election seemed to be the triumph of identity politics over economic interest, but ultimately—by way of trying to get my head around what happened in 2016—I end up concluding that they’re bound up together. Race and economics as the two main factors in the ultimate social equation, the power equation. American history can be viewed as one long elaboration of that equation, and Trump, you might say, has taken the equation into the realm of calculus or quantum physics; he’s used it as masterfully as anyone I can think of. The conflation of race with economic security, psychological security—that any advancement by people of color threatens the status and security of white America. 

How do we transcend this very low form of politics? That’s the question you ask, and it really is the question, right? How to speak to and nurture our better angels, how to develop beyond this destructive sort of politics. It’s very basic, I think, and it’s also very hard, and requires long-term, transgenerational commitment to, putting it bluntly, education. Devoting tremendous resources, and a good portion of the very best of our talents and energies, to educating ourselves and our children. Broadening and deepening our appreciation of human nature, the human condition, and, along the way, the fact of our shared humanity. 

The good news is, we’ve done this before, and, broadly speaking, it worked. Through the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, and especially in the post–World War II era, we devoted tremendous resources to public education, and not only did it make us materially rich, as well as making us the world’s leader in all kinds of measures of quality of life and social goods, I’d also argue that it brought about a certain level of enlightenment in society. Would the civil rights advances of the 1960s for African Americans have happened without the GI Bill following World War II, which enabled millions of Americans to get a higher education, and consequently to broaden their notions of humanity? Marilynne Robinson had a great essay on this in Harper’s in March 2016, “Save Our Public Universities: In Defense of America’s Best Idea,” and it ought to be required reading for our political class. If democracy’s going to work, you must educate your people. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was getting at the same thing when he referred to the development of our individual intelligence and talents as the bedrock of a healthy democracy. The premise being that with proper education we’d get smarter and wiser over time, and democracy would be strengthened. I get into that in the “Two American Dreams” chapter of the book.

TQ: Your book was released the same week as the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford hearings, but you don’t talk much about gender playing a role in the election. Do you think that the backlash against Hillary Clinton was more about her behaviors and her own relationship to the truth than about the fact she is a woman? 

BF: I think I very much underestimated the role that misogyny played in Hillary Clinton’s defeat, and that was brought home to me during the Kavanaugh/Blasey Ford hearings. There’s deep, deep misogyny in this country—and for anyone who has doubts, it’s right there in the numbers on wage inequality, and in hip-hop lyrics, and in the way certain members of Congress and the executive branch talk, on the record, about women—but something about Hillary Clinton tapped into the most florid, vicious strains of that misogyny, and we saw it happening from the moment she first appeared on the national scene. She just touched off something livid in the collective psyche; I mean, people hated her, for no reason that they could articulate outside the realms of conspiracy and fantasy. Maybe it was as basic as her manner—that brisk, know-it-all air she often projected—and the way it may have evoked certain terrible and painful childhood memories from elementary school; and in men more than women, since men, boys, mature more slowly than girls. (I’m a prime example of that, I was a disaster in elementary school.) Hillary came across as that infuriatingly bright girl in the class who always sat in the front row, always made straight A’s, always had her hand up with the answer. She had to be the best, and she was the best, and just her existence and brilliance and striving served as an ongoing humiliation for those of us who weren’t hacking it in school. Maybe—and of course it’s just a theory, nothing that could ever be proved—that’s why so many people loathed her from the start. She was a lightning rod and a focus for all kinds of deep-seated resentments and traumas.

But I think I definitely didn’t give misogyny its due in my accounting of the election. Maybe I was focused so much on the misogyny specific to Hillary Clinton that I missed the more generalized version that saturates our culture. In the days following the Kavanaugh/Blasey Ford hearings, I talked to several women who described the day of the hearings as a revelation to them, how it crystallized for them in a gut-punch way the extent to which deep-seated misogyny played a role in Clinton’s defeat. And that got me thinking that, yeah, I blew it on that one.

TQ: To take it one step further: how much of Trump’s election do you think was a direct backlash against Obama? You don’t spend much time on Obama’s presidency, but his message, in the early optimistic days, was one of hope and “Yes We Can.” Do you think Americans don’t want to engage in the “we”? that we don’t want to take responsibility for where we are and thus turn to the “you,” to blaming the other?

BF: I have a friend, a very wise man, who spent his career as a public-health psychiatrist, who once told me: “The word ‘them’ is the most dangerous word in the English language.” There’s no question in my mind that Obama backlash was a major factor in Trump’s rise, and Trump spoke to it directly by promoting the birther fantasy, and with his wild comments implying that Obama was an ISIS operative, a terrorist, and so on. Here’s a news flash: America is a deeply racist country, plain and simple, but the degree of racism ebbs and flows according to the individual and the collective moment. The pros of American racism, like George Wallace and Donald Trump, know how to bring that simmering racism to full boil, while a transformational figure like Obama can—if it’s the right person at the right moment—move a critical mass of the country some way toward something better. Clearly, there was a moment in historical time when a critical mass of the country was receptive to the “we” politics that Obama was offering, as opposed to “them” politics. But the more anxious people feel—anxious, threatened, beleaguered, shortchanged, cheated—I think it’s just human nature that our instinct is to retreat into the perceived safety of the tribe.

TQ: As I read this book, I couldn’t help but think of your own background as a lawyer, marshaling the evidence for arguments. Throughout the book, you are a master at it. But facts and figures don’t tend to change people’s minds. Are we that paralyzed by the fear of what the new thing might be? Or was Trump just that—the new thing that would fix this disconnect between what politicians say and what actually happens?

BF: Trump offered an extremely powerful truth over the course of his campaign: the system is rigged. People felt the raw truth of that statement and responded to it, and for many, clearly, that was enough. But even the most superficial analysis showed that as far as offering a concrete or even coherent agenda that would actually make the lives of working people better, Trump was peddling a con, but apparently the analysis didn’t even get that far for a substantial portion of the electorate. All you had to do was look at his position on, say, something as basic for working people as raising the minimum wage—he bounced around like a fart in a bottle on that. So what does that say about us, that we weren’t willing to educate ourselves in even the most elementary way about this guy? Laziness, surely, is part of it. And the emotional release of going all out for the guy who’s speaking that one profound truth and, by the way, skewering the politicoes with the crudest language imaginable. And surely the distraction machine of mass media, and the number it has done on the American mind in the past twenty-five to thirty years, had a lot to do with it. If the country’s going to have any claim to being a genuine constitutional democracy, we’re going to have to learn how to see and think again, and not let the machines—and the people behind the machines—do our seeing and thinking for us. 

TQ: I wanted to ask a bit about your writing process. This book came out of a series of articles you wrote for the Guardian in 2016, but you’ve said that around 70 percent of the book is new material. “Iowa 2016: Riding the Roadkill Express,” the first essay in the book, is “new” and reads much like your fiction, with devastating character sketches and observations. So much of the book is historical and analytical, but it felt like you were having fun in the Iowa chapter simply describing this cast of characters—Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Trump—and commenting in a very cutting way at times. How did you write this chapter—which reads as if we are right inside your mind in real time?

BF: “Iowa Roadkill,” right, none of that material appeared in the Guardian. It was written after the fact, based on my notes and memory, and by resorting to the public record. But I wanted to try to re-create the urgency of that moment, and something of the vividness and intensity and contingency of those days as they were unfolding, and to give as honest a portrayal as I could of the candidates I personally witnessed. It wasn’t so much me trying to have fun while I was writing (okay, confession: I was having fun), as me trying to make those pages an experience for the reader, as opposed to mere information. Getting you in there, in the moment. With the section on Cruz, for instance, I’m trying to convey as honestly and accurately as I can my sense of him, his physical person as well as the aura or vibe or odor, whatever you want to call it, he gives off. Again, trying to get you there into the room with me, giving you some of the real juice of my own experience of those days.

TQ: You have interludes between chapters—“Book of Days,” you call them—and they are a listing of various headlines during each month of 2016. Reading them brought on a feeling of seasickness at times, just the nonstop insanity of what was happening throughout that year. I noticed (and I might be wrong, but it’s the sense I got) that you didn’t choose any uplifting headlines to include. Was that purposeful?

BF: Maybe not so much purposeful in the predetermined sense, but while I was looking back on the year, going through all the stacks of newspapers I’d saved, it grew on me just what a vile year 2016 was, and the Book of Days needed to reflect that. It was a horrifically violent year—mass shootings in the United States, police shootings, shootings of unarmed citizens, massive civilian casualties in the Middle East, terrorist attacks in Europe with scores of people dead, the attempted coup in Turkey and the resulting upheaval there, and in the midst of it all we were ingesting the obscene toxicity of US politics as the campaign played out day by day. Not to mention that we kept setting records for air temperature, ocean temperature, ice-melt in the Arctic, all further evidence, as if we needed it—apparently some people do—that the planet is cooking. It was a nasty year, a nightmare year. To hell with 2016. May there never be another one like it.

TQ: “The Long Good Deal,” about how the New Deal came to be and the myriad ways it supported and continues to support this country and its people was an encouraging chapter. It’s striking how much of that legislation still forms our connective tissue, an invisible societal net holding the country together. You repeat a phrase throughout the chapter: “The air we breathe. The ground beneath our feet.” The implication seems to be that the New Deal encompassed many of the things we take for granted and rely on as citizens. Do you think it will take a disaster on the order of the Great Depression in order to create something like the New Deal to reshape our society into something more supportive and inclusive of all?

BF: The point I’m trying to make in that chapter is that the political and social structures of the New Deal were so successful, they became invisible. Within a couple of generations, people began to lose awareness of what exactly was holding us up, what was allowing us to succeed and prosper and innovate—basic stuff like, say, clean water coming out of our pipes, and not having to worry that the meat we’re buying at the store is filled with rat excrement, and that the bronchitis our kid just came down with can be handled with some readily available antibiotics, as opposed to the way it was in the bad old days when such illnesses posed a mortal threat. Public education, collective bargaining, smart regulation of banking and finance, electricity, roads, bridges, huge government investments in basic science and technology, and so on; by the 1980s a critical mass of us began taking these things for granted, and we were helped along by an extremely well-organized and well-funded ideological sales job on behalf of free-market fundamentalism. I certainly hope that it doesn’t take a cataclysm on the order of the Great Depression to shock us back to reality, but the inequalities are so great, with so much power on the side of big money and the plutocracy, that maybe nothing short of a genuine cataclysm will get us there. Sometimes I think that the power structure is so set and entrenched that nothing significant is going to change unless a whole lot of significant things change all at once—something on the order of a revolution. Let’s hope it’s a peaceful one. We’ve had one generally peaceful revolution already in this country, and that was the New Deal. A worthy goal, it seems to me, to aspire to a second such revolution.

TQ: In reading this book and simply reading or hearing the news day to day, it seems one thing we’ve lost (if we ever had it) is empathy. You don’t use the word “empathy” when writing about political correctness, but you do use the words “eyes” and “knowledge,” and the phrase “getting a fucking clue,” which to me approximate empathy—I see you, I can try to understand your experience. In what other ways might we create more empathy in our society? 

BF: I think you’re right: empathy is absolutely bound up in my conception of the term “political correctness.” What’s the ultimate expression of empathy in the political realm, the public realm? Equal citizenship stature: each person’s humanity is equally recognized under the law, given the same protections and rights as everyone else. How do we get there? Basic societal fairness, for starters. When so much of the wealth and power are concentrated in so few hands to the real detriment of everyone else, that can’t help but throw the whole social structure out of whack, which leads to widespread conflict, grievance, aggression, anger, and ultimately, violence. Put people in a cage without enough of what they need to survive, they become animals, they’re going to turn on one another. A piss-poor starting point for building civilization, I’d say. 

Another remedy for tribalism is education, as we talked about with your first question. Broadening and deepening our notions of human experience, the human condition, which would hopefully lead to a more authentic appreciation for our shared humanity. And on the micro, individual level, in the here and now of our daily lives, stepping away from our screens—television, computers, cellphones. Doing the kinds of things that give us the mental and physical space to be human. Hanging out with actual flesh-and-blood people. Being outside, in nature, with our five senses engaged, in contrast to the sensory deprivations of “virtual” reality. It seems to me it would be quite hard to appreciate the humanity in others if our own humanity is withered and stunted from living in ways that don’t nourish us.

TQ: Do you think our current political division is a necessary part of this process, in that it has forced us to face what has always been just underneath the surface (sexism, racism, dark money power)? We can no longer not look at it, or say it’s not there. Is the fact of all this muck becoming unhidden and floating to the surface necessary so that we may finally, as a country, look at ourselves and heal? 

BF: Certainly, Trump has forced many of us to face up to a great deal of real ugliness in the American psyche. For anyone who thought racism was a thing of the past, that women had achieved genuinely equal rights, that we were beyond the days of the old-time demagogues. But the American capacity for denial—for rejecting what’s right in front of your face—should not be underestimated. And certainly, for many among us, racism and sexism are just fine, along with decidedly undemocratic ways of structuring society and government. And then there are the nihilists who see Trump clearly for the destructive, demeaning force that he is, but he’s delivering what they want—tax cuts, deregulation, and so forth—and so they shrug, they go about their business and say to hell with the country, at least I’m getting mine. Trump’s not the kind of poison that’s ultimately going to cure us. We’re going to have to figure out how to do that on our own.