Lit, a Heroic Bulwark against Trumpism

George Saunders


Author George Saunders recently explained why literature has a critical role to play in fighting Trumpism (thanks for the alert, Dana Huff), and he also came up with a pretty good satire of the president. I’ll give you his poem first but make sure you hang on to see what he says about the contrast between “the art mind” and “the media mind.”

My son Toby’s literature podcast (it’s well worth listening to) alerted me to Saunders’s excursion into doggerel, which appeared on his Facebook page. I absolutely love the title although it works only for people who think that Trump is different than he appears:

Trump L’Oeil

By George Saunders

A fragile egomaniac
Has taken up the reins,
Obsessed with size, defensive,
and unmoved by others’ pains.

He seems to think that saying A
While B is clearly true
Will cause the truth of B to wane
And make A true, to you.

He stomps his foot and with his hand
He does that little chopper,
Then calls all things “amazing”
As he tells another whopper.

What is it that he wants so much?
What wound must he assuage?
With all these lies and posturing
And all that pent-up rage?

When all is said and done, it seems,
The thing he wants is more.
Enough to finally satisfy
some raging inner war.

Everything’s unfair to him, 
So “sad,” so “overrated”;
Whatever gifts the world can give?
Insulting and belated.

If some of you who voted
For this vain and flailing man
Are noting now some meanness
In his attitude and plan:

It’s fine, it’s great, we welcome you!
Please come on back and aid us
In switching off the Kellyannes, 
Who nightly serenade us

With tricky sliding caveats
And puzzling odd denials,
With scary twisted Orwell riffs
And sunny prom queen smiles.

In other times and places
This dopey gong has sounded
To claim that truth’s negotiable
And that we’re all surrounded

By enemies! By enemies!
By horror and by hate,
By refugees who want us dead,
And liberals sleeping late.

But what if, in the end, my friends,
What seems most true is true—
The president is like himself,
And not like me and you?

A famous guy for all these years
An ego in a bubble,
Who learned that great attention
Could be got by causing trouble?

And craving said attention,
Scuttled out in its pursuit,
The working man’s defender,
In a fine Brioni suit.

Speak out, rise up, correct and shout,
Be stubborn and satirical;
Resist, rebuff, demand the truth,
Be positive and lyrical.

Your country needs you now, for sure
Your country needs your power.
It needs you like a fragile thing
In some uncertain hour.

For goodness, peace, and decency
Were never heaven-sent;
And each of us must now become
Our own alt-President.

When it comes to working for goodness, peace and decency, Saunders isn’t only thinking of light verse. In a recent interview with Esquire magazine, he focused on the importance of capital “L” Literature as well. Responding to a question about a New Yorker article about Trump rallies that he wrote last July, Saunders theorized about “what makes a Trump supporter”:

I think that, as a culture, we’ve been stupefied by years of reality TV language. You know it’s fake, but you buy into it anyway. Conditionally, ironically, sure, but at some level you are still buying into it, and endorsing it, and allowing it to degrade your way of thinking.

In contrast with what he calls the “media mind,” Saunders describes the “art mind”:

The other experience I’m having is the contrast between what we might call “art mind” and “daily mind.” When writing a book, in “art mind”. . . you become aware that there’s a mind operating beyond your daily mind that’s very powerful. It’s more empathetic. It’s wittier. It’s kinder. The artistic mind is real, and it’s better than the daily mind.

These days, our daily minds are really getting messed with by our news addiction and our devices and so on—it’s becoming “media mind.” So, going from writing the book into reporting on the Trump campaign (and, of necessity, going deep into “media mind”), it struck me how different those two mind states are.

Saunders isn’t entirely pessimistic, however. After all, we are seeing dramatic proof that literature is still vital. Before Trump, Saunders says, he had “acceded to the notion of literature, in our time, as a sort of noble lost cause.” He wondered whether artists still had a place at “the big table.”

His wondering has been answered:

Well, after coming back from the Trump thing, I’m like, wait a minute. We didn’t, as a culture, value art enough. We marginalized that beautiful, complex, supremely capable artistic mind. We put way too much stock in this second kind of mind, which is so much harsher and more aggressive.

We put a lot of faith in that and now I think we’re kind of reaping the bounty. But that made me feel strangely happy. Like, okay, so this thing I’ve spent my life doing is actually not a sideshow. It’s the essential show, and so maybe we can somehow move it back to a more central position. It’s essential that we do so.

Literature lovers of the world, unite! The American Republic needs you. Be positive and lyrical.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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