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In Search For Answers, Author George Saunders Covers Trump Campaign


George Saunders is an award-winning author best known for his absurd, fantastical short fiction. But for the latest issue of The New Yorker, he reported on a real phenomenon - the raucous, passionate and sometimes pugnacious rallies of GOP candidate Donald Trump. Saunders, a self-professed liberal, hit the campaign trail interviewing Trump fans at rallies in Arizona, Wisconsin and California, eager to understand the people who were willing to cast their votes for a candidate he detests.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: My thing on these nonfiction pieces is just to confess my bias right at the beginning. And, in fact, even at the rallies that was my technique. I would kind of, you know, go stand next to some unlucky guy and say eventually, Hi, I'm George. You know, I'm with The New Yorker. I'm a liberal. I'm somewhat left of Gandhi. Do you want to talk? And, you know, they always did. It was never a, you know, confrontational. It was just kind of fun. It was like a couple of guys at a kegger without the keg.

NEARY: Well, you say that we now sort of live in the land of the left and the land of the right, and that the two speak completely different languages, that that's one of the things you observed.

SAUNDERS: You know, and actually, as the dust settles, that's the one thing that I came away believing and really deeply troubled by is the extent to which you can have two well-intentioned people talking in a friendly spirit and you get to a point where the two mutual mythologies just don't intersect. So kind of the next piece I'd like to write or think about is how did this left-right divide get so weird and codified.

My theory, and this is a little nuts maybe, but my theory is that there might be a neurological or experiential basis for this divide. You see it in all cultures - many cultures anyway. And the thought I had when I left that last rally was, OK, maybe back in the cave this was a useful Darwinian thing to have one half of the tribe be sort of other curious and the other half the tribe be a little bit other cautious.

So we were huddled in the cave together and here comes a tribe. The other curious part says hey, that's - they could have some new tools for us. And the other cautious side says well, those are spears I think, you know? If there's a nice calibration between those two sets what you get is negotiation. And a negotiation leads to taking a really close analytical look at that approaching tribe. That's useful. It seemed to me, being out there on the trail, that the calibration has gone incredibly wonky. And now we're basically like two - we're in our caves shouting at each other.

NEARY: I have to say, I know you're kind of trying to apply scientific principles here, but what you all just laid out sounds like the work of a great fiction writer to me.


SAUNDERS: Well, I'll take the compliment. But, I mean, I do think I've read that a lot of this political stuff is actually emotionally based rather than logical. And that was definitely my experience out at these rallies because I would have a big discussion and I'd raise some point that to me seems like a deal breaker and the Trump supporter would kind of say, yeah, but and be off to some pro-Trump position. So this is why I think fundamentally, it's emotional.

They, you know, a person supporting Trump likes Trump. And I think they would say the same about me. I like Obama. I like him. So how far does rationality help to persuade anybody? You know, I'm not so sure.

NEARY: Well, let me ask you about the appeal of Donald Trump because you say his autocratic streak is complicated by a Ralph Kramden-esque (ph) vulnerability and for those of us a certain age, that conjures up a pretty distinct image. But I think there may be younger people out there who don't know who Ralph Kramden is.

SAUNDERS: Well, you know, Ralph Kramden, as played by Jackie Gleason, was this big bumbling New York City bus driver who was kind of mean and crass and a little bit egotistical. But underneath it all, he was a big heart looking for a place to land I think. I don't know if I'd go that far in this case. But I think when you see Trump in person, my reaction is you kind of enjoy it. It's kind of an enjoyable night out.

NEARY: You say an ungentleness gets into the air when he speaks. What do you mean by that?

SAUNDERS: Well, I mean, so many people mentioned this at these rallies. You go to these things and it's kind of like an oldies concert. I mean, it's not hostile. And you can say you're a liberal and everybody laughs and it's a good time. Then when he starts to talk there's a kind of a ripple of something that goes through the crowd. And it seemed to me that it's the feeling of someone who's been - and we've all had this experience. Something is starting to dawn on you in the privacy of your own mind. And then someone says it. And it's exciting. It's like oh, my God. I'm home.

So at this Fountain Hills rally he started to talk, and it's weird because he's not really saying anything. There's a lot of strange, empty assertions and kind of conservative talking points, you know, the wall and all this kind of stuff. But there is definitely an energy ripple that goes out.

And when I went out to the protesters at the time that he started speaking, they reported there was a change in the energy of the people walking by them. Suddenly there was hostility and swearing. And a woman was grabbed by the breast and thrown to the ground, and a rock was thrown. And so the correlation between his voice going out and people's behavior was observable in the place.

NEARY: You ended this piece saying that you never before imagined that what you called the fragile American experiment could fail, but now you can. Why?

SAUNDERS: Well, because the way that media falls on our mind and then inflects it has changed so much. You know, as a fiction writer, one of things you learn is God lives in specificity. You know, human kindness is increased as we pursue specificity.

So in a story, for example, you'll start off with a character who is a little bit of a cartoon. That's not satisfying and you start revising. And as you revise you always are making it better by being specific and by observing more closely, which actually is really the same as saying you love your characters. The close observation equals love of them.

In the process, the piece gets more big-hearted, more fair, it includes more things and more people. So I think, and this - I know this is a, you know, kind of a big theory, but I think something that I can't name about our media has made us move away from that kind of specificity and that kind of curiosity. So it doesn't - the problem doesn't go away no matter what happens in November. And I think the - what I tried to get at in the piece is that the only tool we have is empathy and some development of mutual affection for the other side.

NEARY: Writer George Saunders is the author of "Tenth Of December." Thanks so much for being with us.

SAUNDERS: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.