Chris Carroll has written for The New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, Tin House and Lapham’s Quarterly.
Steve Almond’s new essay collection, “Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country,” is the latest in a thriving cottage industry of books offering explanations for how Americans came to elect President Trump. Almond, a former journalist who teaches nonfiction at the Nieman Foundation and who is perhaps best known as one half of the popular advice podcast “Dear Sugars,” is a voracious reader, and his book is notable not so much for advancing new ideas but for synthesizing almost every major argument about what ails our country — including, among much else, racism, xenophobia and rampant economic inequality — and for offering a response to each. Almond is staunchly progressive, and the finished product, if often one-sided, nevertheless combines “statistical data, personal anecdote, cultural criticism, literary analysis, and when called for, outright intellectual theft” into a whole that is lively, stimulating and pleasantly discursive.
Almond derives the term “bad stories” from the Israeli historian Yuval Harari, whose book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” argued that humans came to dominate the world because of our ability to cooperate in large numbers. This capacity, in turn, is due to what Almond calls our ability to “believe in the imagined, to tell stories that extend our bonds beyond clan loyalties. Our larger systems of cooperation, whether spiritual, political, legal, or financial, require faith in a beautiful fiction known as the common good, the sort of mutual trust in any trade agreement or currency.”
Bad stories, then, are “fraudulent either by design or negligence” and, Almond says, are as much a threat to our species as good stories are a benefit. Each of the book’s 17 loosely linked essays comprises one such story. Many of these bad stories — as well as their rebuttals — will be familiar to those who have followed debates over books like Mark Lilla’s “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics,” which suggested that Democrats were undone by devoting too much of their platform to allegedly divisive issues of identity politics instead of the more unifying cause of economic injustice. Almond argues against this idea in an essay called “Economic Anguish Fueled Trumpism,” which emphasizes that it was Trump’s racist and authoritarian appeals that made the difference: “The story Trump told about America was of a holy land infiltrated by foreigners who lurked beyond, and within, our borders. Whites unsettled by a rising demographic tide flocked to his rallies to partake in a grand drama of national reclamation whose central figure was an orgiastic denunciation of those dark, and dark-skinned, forces aligned against their cause. . . . The rest of us never quite grasped how persuasive this appeal was. We should have.”
Almond says up front that in his book he is not offering “a single theory, or even a set of theories, as to how our democracy fell apart.” Instead, he says, “I’m working toward a synthesis of theories.” The central chapters relate to ideas put forth in Neil Postman’s influential 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” which offered a fascinating, if somewhat generalized, argument about the trivializing effects of television on all aspects of national discourse, particularly politics. Almond found that the book was not just an elegant polemic against television but a sophisticated work that “outlines the deterioration of our national standards with such eerie precision that Trumpism comes to seem not only plausible but inevitable.”
Almond’s essay “Our Court Jesters Will Rescue the Kingdom” takes up Postman’s idea that the gradual decline in serious political debate brought on by the arrival of TV would be accompanied by a rise in parodies of this particular degradation. Here Almond points to the phenomenal popularity of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart (whom Almond admires) in the years leading up to the election, suggesting that both provided a “cheap and reliable opiate for progressive angst,” a liberal equivalent to the paranoid fever dreams of Fox News. Programs like “The Daily Show,” he argues, served mainly to discourage liberal participation by giving viewers the impression that consuming satire was a form of political engagement. “If Stewart’s mission was to decant the anguish and rage of the left into laughs,” Almond writes, “Trump fanned those same emotions into raw political power. Both, in this sense, profited by a loss of faith.”
The subsequent chapter, “There Is No Such Thing as Fair and Balanced,” considers how we arrived at such a hyper-polarized cable news industry. Almond explains the history of the Federal Communications Commission and the untimely demise under President Ronald Reagan of the Fairness Doctrine, which had required that broadcasters devote a certain amount of time to covering controversial subjects and that all such coverage give equal time to opposing views. The doctrine’s death knell, he writes, was the moment the free press became a for-profit industry, a path that led directly to the founding of Fox News.
Almond is an excellent prose stylist, and his book is a welcome change of pace from its mostly wonky competitors, though its reliance on literary models can induce the occasional eye roll (“I think here of David Foster Wallace . . .”). And while his digressive style is one of the book’s greatest pleasures, it also makes it difficult to draw any single, unified conclusion from these essays — beyond, perhaps, the general belief that we should take participatory democracy more seriously and go about it with a bit more empathy.
Though the book is retrospective in nature, it nevertheless ends with an exhortation: “We have to be able to dream up stories that offer a vision of the American spirit as one of kindness and decency, the sort that powered the Emancipation Proclamation and the New Deal and the War on Poverty.” The natural question, of course, is how.
By Steve Almond
Red Hen. 268 pp. Paperback, $16.95