July 02, 2020
Rita Banerjee interviews author David Shields about his book, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention. Listen below:
Below is an excerpt from the transcript:
Rita Banerjee: David, thank you so much for talking to me about Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump. I really enjoyed reading the book; I thought it was compelling and a really fast read. I just wanted to start off by asking you a question about the form of the book and its composition. You often call this a curated diary or a thematized journal, and it seems like there are six major acts to this book, everything ranging from “A rage to injure what has injured us” to “Apocalypse always.” How do these major themes tie into one another and build up to the book’s final epiphany?
David Shields: Thanks, Rita. The book is indeed broken into six chapters. What is it, this culture that we are living in, which seems qualitatively different from previous political cataclysms? As a citizen of the republic, what could I do to address it? There is or was something riveting about the Performer-In-Chief. There’s something in him – we can all pretend that we’ve turned it off, and maybe some of us have. I wanted to explore this mixture of revulsion and attraction. Not to any political stance of his, but to his performative chops. I’m a big fan of the idea that great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings. On the one hand, my intellectual self is actively opposed to him; I’m doing all kinds of things to contribute to his defeat.. But there’s this other quite primitive part of me that is fascinated by the fact that he is still President. So I just kept a journal. Every day I’d walk around the house with my headphones on. I’d be flying back and forth from CNN to MSNBC to Fox News, from Christian talk radio to NPR to local news. I read every book about and putatively by him. I listened to every episode of the Howard Stern Show with Trump and I watched every episode of The Apprentice. With this onslaught of media coming in, it almost felt as if I were in a war zone. That was important to me, to just gather all of this stuff. I had hundreds upon hundreds of pages of this stuff, but I wanted to organize it into a very carefully structured pattern. =This book is organized within an inch of its life. Among the many things I find exciting about collage, is that it can boundary jump. One of the pleasures of writing this book for me, and I hope for a reader, is you never know what’s going to come next. I can cut to anywhere I want to go as long as I am getting a deeper purchase on Trump. The whole excitement of this form is that you’re not just making a fictional gesture or essayistic gesture or a stand-up comedy gesture. You can pull from any possible pot of clay, so long as you are deepening your investigation. I also hope that it almost feels for reader that you are spying on the writer as he is going on this existential adventure. And the reader kind of feels like, “this is actually adding up to something.” One of the chapters, “A rage to injure what’s injured us,” is really about Trump’s childhood. There is a wonderful line by Robert Hass from his great poem“Bush’s War.” He says that there is a rage to injure what’s injured us. Without turning Trump into simply a psychoanalytic category, he was demolished by his father. He’s hugely projecting that anger elsewhere. Then there’s the chapter “The frenzy of the visible” in which he’s trying to experience love through the media. There’s this amazingly interesting feedback loop in which he’s watching TV watch him watch TV watch him. It’s like Being There times one hundred, in which he’s trying to experience love through media forms. Out of his broken childhood, he became incapable of human love. Out of that incapacity, he attempted to live within a sort of “mediaverse,”hoping and believing that somehow the big TV in the sky would love him back. The big message of the book is that he may destroy the planet out of the rage that has injured him. The final revelation of the book is that the thing that will save us is Trump’s self-destruction. There’s such profound self-loathing that animates his hatred. I argue that before Trump destroys the planet, he’ll destroy himself. The book is making a very clear argument about how brokenness leads to lovelessness, how that lovelessness leads to an over investment in media culture, how that media culture can in no way can yield a love that he wants, how out of that emptiness creates a huge drive of destruction, and how the possible saving grace is that he finally will self-destruct. It’s a beautiful and terrifying circle.Hidden within these 400 paragraphs is this relatively tight psychosocial argument of the book. It’s really a very specific investigation – how destruction comes from in its own woundedness, how it projects itself outward, how it often defeats itself through self-loathing.
Rita: You dig into this idea that Trump had a domineering, hyper-capitalist father who bequeathed him at least $40,000,000. His mother had complications from pregnancy from one of his siblings and was absent for much of Trump’s youth. She was ill, she was not very affectionate with her children, and she renounced her responsibilities to be a mother. As we learn about Trump’s original wounds and his early childhood and the emergence of his psychology and his reticence to have or feel much if anything at all, do you think the book demonstrates what’s monstrous in Trump, or does it do the opposite in which the book humanizes him and rationalizes his behavior by demonstrating his psychological makeup?
David: That’s a great question. A friend of mine, the wonderful writer Brian Fawcett, wrote an incredible book called Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow.” It was a huge influence on my own book. Brian told me, “You’ve done the impossible; you’ve humanized Trump.” I don’t know if that’s an answer to your question, but I think implicit in your question is that you worry that to understand all is to pardon all. Part of it for me is it’s a manual for defeating bullies. I feel like if every single person read this book, Trump’s presidency would be over.
Rita: Seeing his interactions with his father and his early youth, it seems as though Trump was quite bullied by the patriarchal figure in his household. In a weird way, it creates a lot of sympathy for Trump, and I’m wondering if that was your intention. Is it something like Jimmy Fallon rubbing Trump’s hair and showing that he’s not wearing a toupee?
David: In no way is this book equivalent to Fallon rubbing Trump’s hair. I guess he doesn’t have a toupee, but it’s a pulling off of his combover and seeing that underneath that orange skin is a cowering 12-year-old boy. Part of the influence of the book is that in my academic life, I’ve had to deal with at least three absolutely psychopathic bullies. We’re all capable of being bullies and being bullied. I really am interested in bully psychology. I’ve read volumes on it. It fascinates me on every level: the domestic level, the cultural level, the political level, the animal level. The classic psychology and understanding of how to defeat a bully is to understand that behind every bully is a mewling baby. If anyone takes Trump down, he quickly backs off. The huge mistake, and a big part of the critique of the book, is on the various cultures that enable Trump. There’s a wonderful line from the British documentarian Louis Theroux who says that in a shame culture, being shameless gives you enormous leverage and power. That’s really the essence of Trump’s strategy. It’s really easy to say, “Isn’t Trump awful?” Yes of course he’s awful; that’s a given. But how is the magic working? Why is he speaking to 50 million people? In order to defeat a bully, you have to understand what animates them on every possible level. So yes, I do agree with you in part (the book makes Trump seem human), and it scares me about the book, and scared me about writing it. I do think the best work comes out of confused feelings. At one point in the book I call him the best worst personal essayist ever. For instance, recently Cokie Roberts died, an ABC journalist. The only thing Trump could say was, “She was never nice to me.” No one exists except a reflection of himself.reflection of him. If Hitler showed up, Trump would say “Well, I like Hitler; he once gave me a candy bar.” Trump isa 7-year-old child – is this person giving me sugar at this moment? Yes, the book humanizes him; he’s a human being. It tries to understand what animates him—as my drive to understand him and then as a way to defeat him. At one point I call the book a manual for beating bullies. If we understand him, whatever is happening at academic and media and political culture, we would understand why he’s winning most hours. Whatever the Democrats are doing is not, to me, working.
Rita: You quote several of Trump’s tweets, interviews, off-air conversations, and “witticisms” throughout the book. What was it like to allow Donald Trump’s ethos, his words, his violence, his misogyny, his racism, and his nonsense to inhabit your body and your psyche, as you’re writing this book? Do his words become part of how one could maybe reason or rationalize him?
David: I certainly worry about that… It’s a book I wrote a couple of years ago, and now it’s a year and a half later. I’d write the book differently now, though I’m proud of it, and I think it holds up well. Any other approach seemed, to me, dead on arrival. To me, standing on a high moral promontory and wagging a finger at the armies down below is not an approach that interests me. You’re just preaching to the proverbial choir. That doesn’t interest me;it has no animating energy for me as a writer and thinker. A politically left friend of mine was telling me about how he watched the news. He happens to be in a wheelchair, and he couldn’t get to the remote on his TV. When Hillary was talking, he knew what Hillary was going to say and so he didn’t bother to wheel over to the remote because her words were so predictable and so vetted that he didn’t really care what she was saying. Instead, he found himself wheeling over to hear what Trump had said. That is what I wanted to unpack. If I find myself weirdly riveted by Trump, then I can try to understand those 50,000,000 voters who actually voted for Trump. Regarding your question, maybe the book will get us into uncomfortable territory. Trump does have quite serious performative skills. He’s basically an old-fashioned Catskills insult comedian, and for a variety of reasons, it works or has worked so far. There’s this quote I love by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The way to write is to throw your body at the target when all your arrows are spent.” I tried to do that, to throw my body at the target, which is Trump. I was boring everybody with my “Oh my God, can you believe what’s happening?” But in this book I say, what’s scarily riveting about him? In this journal, I’m going to be real. For decades, Republican strategists have learned to go to the very essence of someone’s strength. You go after the unassailable, and the whole edifice falls down. Trump went after McCain, who was this canonized figure, and just said “I like heroes who aren’t captured.” That’s verbally brilliant. On every level, that’s politics, that’s warfare. There’s this line that I quote, too, from Seneca: “Life is warfare.” Trump gets that. Like I say in the book, quoting a friend, the Democrats are playing badminton and Trump is playing ice hockey. It ain’t working. So how about if in this book, I try and play some ice hockey?
Rita: Follow-up question–throughout the book we get a portrait of Trump’s interior psychology. What is his relationship to emotion, and do you see echoes of Trump’s relationship to his emotion within yourself, or within American culture at large?
David: I think that’s one of the huge hidden topics of the book. I do talk a lot about that: we’re numb, we’re broken, in a postmodern, hyper-mediated, and hyper-digitalized culture. In contemporary, culture, we’re walking dead people. It’s my own thesis, and again I can only speak from my experience. Maybe this is my condition, which I’m unfairly projecting onto the populace. But all these 19th century feelings that Hilary Clinton pretends that we still have, people just know that’s completely dead. In some ways, Trump is a very contemporary person, probably because he has Attention Deficit Disorder and might be on the spectrum.. I think he is in touch with his reptilian self, and he knows how to access it. Yes, he is a racist and has been from a very early age (stemming from his father’s real estate dealings), but what Trump does quite consciously is extend his personality to reach a larger base. Not long ago, he was a pro-business, pro-choice, pro-gay, centrist Republican. He’s taken his incipient racism and performs it extensively to see how far it can go. If it’s slightly too far, he just dials it back slightly. It has to do with art, with understanding that politics is performance art. It’s theater, it’s symbolic theater. When the Democrats are droning on about something, it’s not working. Part of my argument about art is that it does go forward. Art, like science, progresses; you can’t rewind the clock. Additionally, this kind of demagoguery seems to play better on the right. If someone like Elizabeth Warren started acting very demagogice, we would say, “Stop that.” “The left tends to valorize discourse and intellection, and demagoguery tends to be a strategy of the right. The left is now confused because how you can have riveting political theater when the whole rhetoric of the left is that they’re smarter than you, or they’re more thoughtful, more empathetic? I do think a real key to Trump’s success is that I think he’s a really quite serious nihilist. Through a lot of the lines in the book, he sounds like he’s straight out of “Notes from Underground,” Dostoevsky’s novella about the underground man. Trump has no belief in any transcendental signifier. He has no belief in love and religion, in art, in history, in the continuation of culture. He’s obsessed with the fact of death, he’s terrified of death, as most people are, but most people find some kind of solace or consolation. Trump is a seriously nowhere man. I would argue we all, as 21st century people, struggle with a kind of numbness. In Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner talks about being in a museum in Madrid and how the only thing that moves him about being in a museum is that he’s moved by his own incapacity to feel anything. I think that’s a real insight into contemporary culture. You may not agree; t might be the super male or white or privileged point of view, but that’s Trump’s point of view as well. I think his numbness is absolutely crucial. People will do anything to feel a little bit of rage about their numbness. Hillary is an easy battering ram or a punching bag because she’s such an obvious perfect foil for Trump. She’s earnest in the way that he’s cynical. You think of the great anti-heroes of literature, whether it’s Petronius’ Satyricon all the way up to Camus’s The Fall, and that character is our worst self realized. We see a reflection of our own numbness in Trump, and I think that connects to Trump’s rage. He’s expressing the rage that people feel, that life is absolutely meaningless in a post-God, post-literate culture. That is absolute political theater. That’s how I mean the Democrats are playing badminton: “Here’s our policy suggestion which might improve things ever so slightly.” Trump is not playing that game, he’s playing existential theater. And it has sort of worked so far. That’s really the core of the book, that we’re broken, we’re dead, we’re numb, we’re the walking dead. Watch me at least express an insane rage, which feels better than feeling numb.
Rita: I think this relates to what Trump is doing in terms of his comments sexualizing his daughter, his alleged rape of his wife Ivana, and his involvement in Jane Doe V. Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump, which is a case from 2016 in which Trump and Epstein are accused of raping a 13-year-old girl in 1994. He often uses his particular brand of misogyny to make people laugh as a way of bonding between him and interviewers, like Howard Stern. Why do you think his misogyny resonates with so many people or is entertaining to so many people?
David: In the wake of the Obama presidency, there’s this amazing statistic – 5 million people who voted for Obama voted for Trump, and all Trump needed was 75,000 of them in the upper Midwest and that was the election. Who are those 5 million people? They really interest me. In many ways, there’s no way Trump’s election happens without Obama’s Presidency. Trump is the cancellation of the Obama Presidency. In the weirdly schizophrenic and dualistic way in which American politics work, we almost always go from Eisenhower to Kennedy. There’s this constant pendulum swing. Specifically, millions of rural, disenfranchised, dispossessed, and underemployed white people who felt threatened by a hyper-educated, hyper-articulate, extremely polished Harvard Law School African=American President—it infuriates them that an African- American man was in the White House, and Trump is that packet of anger. In another way, we have this guy who looks like us, talks like us, and eats the same junk that we eat. He reminds us of us. Fran Lebowitz says, “Trump is a poor person’s image of what a rich person is like.” He’s a super cartoon version of Richie Rich. All that is sort of a long predicate to how I think Trump’s misogyny and sexism and sexual assault play in the culture, and how he doubles down on that. I think of this moment a few years ago in the Rose Garden. A CBS Reporter, a stereotypically beautiful young woman, got up during a Rose Garden press conference. Trump called on her as she was sort of fiddling with her equipment, and she wasn’t quite ready to ask a question. She was a little flustered as she was sort of getting her act together, and she said, “Oh I’m sorry; I’m not ready.” And then Trump, with just absolute vitriol, said, “Of course if you’re not ready; you’re never ready.” The President was saying this A 70-year-old man was saying this to this 27-year-old woman. How could somebody say that? Why would somebody say that? How did that happen? How did we get to a point in which somebody said that and didn’t turn into dust immediately?
Rita: Do you find it to be a reaction against #MeToo?
David: That’s what I’m trying to get to, and I’m still trying to understand g it myself. Why would he say that? Is it a conscious strategy? Is it unconscious? There’s a sense in which his unconscious almost perfectly mirrors, as an insult comedian’s does, the audience’s rage. I think there’s a rage at her beauty, the power that her beauty has over the male psyche. There’s definitely a rage at the swing of culture toward a more egalitarian culture in the workplace vis-a-vis the sexes. Trump actually says, “Of course I didn’t rape her;she’s not my type.” Since when do people, let alone the President, say that in publicHe’s delivering venom to people who are unjustifiably angry. Trump is expressing, as an insult comedian does, the audience’s reptilian self. I think that’s a key to Trump’s appeal. He appeals to people who aren’t self-reflective human beings. He releases something deeply primitive in people’s deepest unconscious. I think that the difference between me and a Trump voter is that as an amateur anthropologist I can ask myself, how is Trump working? Why did I maybe laugh at that particular line? How can I then unpack it and see what Trump is actually doing? Whereas the so-called MAGA hat wearer will then say, Yay for Trump! He’s releasing me from my existential condition, as a dispossessed white man, in a number of ways. His strategy vis-a-vis race is hugely related to his strategy vis-a-vis sex – to express either as a conscious or unconscious strategy the howling rage of people who feel terrified about a culture that’s trying to move in a more egalitarian direction.
Rita: I think Trump has a really difficult time sharing the stage with anybody or anyone who might upstage him, like this woman, who actually might be the focus of all of these cameras and microphones, setting up and getting a moment in the limelight before he gets to get on stage.
David: Jesus Christ himself could come back and Trump, within seconds, would bring the focus back to himself. He reminds us all of our own pathological narcissism. For instance, there was a ceremony a couple of years ago, honoring Native American World War II codebreakers. They were a squadron of Native American World War II soldiers who were instrumental in the World War II effort to break Nazi codes. To me, this is fascinating, that Trump, either as conscious or unconscious strategy, had to ruin the moment. He had to go to the Elizabeth Warren joke. Here it is, this dignified graceful moment in which for 20 seconds Trump is doing the right thing and honoring these people who were intellectually impressive and physically brave, and he had to say something like “Pocahontas would not like this moment.”
Rita: Often at rallies, he throws out misogynistic comments or racist ones in the form of a joke. It causes a lot of laughter, cheering, and chanting. I want to ask you if you think Donald Trump is a sign or symptom of the times. You end the book with this really provocative quotation from Pogo who says, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” How is Donald Trump like us, or how are we like Trump?
David: Right, that quotation is from the Walt Kelly cartoon from the 1940s and 50s. Obviously “us” is different; I’m not you and you’re not me. We all are different, so what does “us” really mean? I have certain privileges, and in some ways I don’t. We all have learned how to problematize and complicate this idea of “us.” But I think it’s really a huge mistake to believe that Trump causes all these problems. He is a symptom and a reflection of the culture. The book is hugely interested in the destructive and self-destructive nature of the human animal and the way in which Trump exploits that as a political theater. I could’ve written the really easy book, in which I say that Trump is a really bad guy, and aren’t I an enlightened liberal? But the scary book was, Trump is a really bad guy, but what does his existence say about our culture? This whole idea of a curated journal pivoting on a human crisis that suggests a larger cultural and personal crisis—that really interests me. That wonderful line of T.S. Eliot’s: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”: such are the marching orders of this kind of book. Yes, these are fragments, but they are meant to be sort of bulwark against personal and cultural ruins. It’s a really open question to what degree Trump’s isa conscious strategy, to what degree it’s an unconscious strategy, to what degree in a very lucky way his pathologies dovetailed exactly with the culture’s pathologies. I mean, he’s not in any way nearly as wealthy as he pretends to be, which is why he’s trying to prevent his taxes from coming out. If he had taken the money his father had given him and gone sailing his entire life with all the money in a money market account, he would be immeasurably wealthier than he is now. He is the world’s worst businessman. He has hardly ever made a deal that worked out. Yet, I don’t know if it’s advice from other people, whether it’s this sort of “so dumb he’s smart”, whether his Asperger’s and nihilism have a weird echo in the culture, in the ways in which characters in fiction whom we despise have a weird purchase on the culture, but he is us. The whole book is meant to explode with that particular line. There are so many ways in which he’s enabled by the culture, by academic culture, by media culture. As you know,I’m making a film about that as well called How Do We Know What We Believe? With the death of the transcendental signifier, what a lot of the book argues is that the very idea that has animated contemporary and modern and post-modern physics and structural linguistics–the perceiver, by his very presence, alters what’s perceived: Trump has taken that and weaponized it times a million. The book is meant to show the ways in which our cultures – my, yours, media, academe, journalism, politics – there’s a million ways in which Trump appeals to our worst possible instincts and weirdly feeds on them. That’s the core of the book’s argument.
Rita: For the upcoming 2020 Presidential election, what is your advice to each writer, artist, thinker, and American citizen out there in terms of subverting the status quo?
David: To me, the classic advice is the only way to deal with a bully is to punch him in the nose. What people in Eastern Europe have learned to do is to counter Russian propaganda all the time, second by second, hour by hour.
Rita: Is it something like what the protestors in Hong Kong are doing, where they’re taking down cameras that are capturing people’s faces and doing face recognition, or they’re diffusing tear gas bombs? That’s an extreme version of subverting the status quo.
David: The way I would say it is, it’s 1933;This is real. This is it. The idiomatic way to say it is, you have to fight fire with fire. With the Democrats and conventional media, it’s like they’re fighting fire with Jujyfruits. This ain’t working. I promise you, this is not working. =The magnetism of political theater: you have to bring it on.
Rita: You almost need a vaudevillian radical to trump Trump.
David: You have to either ignore Trump entirely, or you have to be out-Trumping Trump. The way it is now is like, “Oh Mr. Trump, that was a very bad thing to say.” Enough of that;that is not working.
Rita: It’s too polite.
Rita: Thank you.
Rita Banerjee is the Director of the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Executive Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop. She’s the author of several books including CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing (C&R Press, 2018), the poetry collection Echo in Four Beats (FLP, 2018), which was nominated for the 2019 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize at the Academy of American Poets, the novella “A Night with Kali” in Approaching Footsteps (SPR, 2016), and the poetry chapbook Cracklers at Night (FLP, 2010). She is the co-writer with David Shields of Burning Down the Louvre (2021), a documentary film about race, intimacy, and tribalism in the United States and in France. She received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard and her MFA from the University of Washington, and she is a recipient of a Vermont Studio Center Artist’s Grant, the Tom and Laurel Nebel Fellowship, and South Asia Initiative and Tata Grants. Her work also appears in PANK, Nat. Brut., Poets & Writers, Academy of American Poets, Los Angeles Review of Books, Vermont Public Radio, Electric Literature, Hunger Mountain, and elsewhere.
David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty-two books, including Reality Hunger (recently named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade by LitHub), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Other People: Takes & Mistakes (NYTBR Editors’ Choice). Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention was published in 2018; The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power appeared in 2019. James Franco’s film adaptation of I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, which Shields co-wrote and co-stars in, was released in 2017 (available now on Amazon Prime, iTunes/Apple TV, Vudu, Vimeo, Kanopy, and Google Play). Shields wrote, produced, and directed Lynch: A History, a 2019 documentary about Marshawn Lynch’s use of silence, echo, and mimicry as key tools of resistance (rave reviews in The New Yorker, Nation, and dozens of other publications; film festival awards all over the world; available soon on Sundance TV/AMC, First Look Media). A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and a senior contributing editor of Conjunctions, Shields has published fiction and nonfiction in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Salon, Slate, Tin House, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Best American Essays. His work has been translated into two dozen languages.