In the first half of my Nieman Fellowship, a great number of class discussions revolved around analyzing the outcome of the election that brought Donald Trump to power.
Why had it happened? How? What did we (the media, especially) miss it? How could “we” have gotten it so wrong?
Barack Obama was “trafficking in delusions,” Almond argues, when he said in his final appearance as president: “Sports has changed attitudes and cultures in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were.”
At one point, the class had to put a moratorium on discussing “The Election,” as we called it. The hand-wringing was taking up too much oxygen; we were lurching from one shaky explanation to the next, and friendships that had barely set sail were threatening to run aground on the rocks of righteous indignation.
Steve Almond teaches a nonfiction narrative writing class for Fellows at the Nieman Foundation, and his new book, “Bad Stories: What The Hell Just Happened To Our Country,” is a timely attempt to connect the half-truths and partial insights that were vigorously debated in those emotionally charged weeks – not just in our Nieman class but on talk shows and at dinner tables all around the U.S., and beyond.
In a series of essays, each outlining a specific element of America’s cultural and moral delusions that led to a reality-TV star being elected to the most powerful office in the land, Almond looks to literary voices like Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin and George Orwell to make sense of this moment.
This is Almond’s central argument: Stories matter, and bad stories lead to bad outcomes. He highlights the bad stories – fraudulent by either design or negligence – that invigorated the 2016 pre-election analysis and continue to animate the post-election ones.
For example, the bad story that economic anguish fueled Trumpism. Citing research from political scientist Philip Klinkner, “racial resentment was second only to party identification as a driver of Trump support… Klinkner assumed factors such as income and economic pessimism would predict Trump support. They did not. As with European far-right movements, economic stress wasn’t triggering racial resentment. It was already there, a cause in search of a candidate.”
Another bad story: that sports brings Americans together as a nation. Barack Obama was “trafficking in delusions,” Almond argues, when he said in his final appearance as president: “Sports has changed attitudes and cultures in ways that seem subtle but that ultimately made us think differently about ourselves and who we were.… Sports has a way, sometimes, of changing hearts in a way that politics and business doesn’t.”
For all the values that sports instills – teamwork, discipline, sacrifice, poise – “we should also be honest about sport’s essential value system,” Almond writes. “For all its grace and drama, sports boils down to a binary fueled by two incentives: winning and money.”
To become a fan, in Almond’s analysis, is to “partake in a subtle but pervasive form of indoctrination, a style of thought that instinctively privileges competition over cooperation, aggression over empathy, allegiance over communalism.” This fan mentality has dominated and degraded civic culture, he argues.
Almond also sets his sights on feckless media reporting that reflexively presents “both sides” of a debate without bothering to actually get to the truth.
“It is truly mind-boggling how disproportionately huge the coverage of Clinton’s private email server story was,” he writes. The bad stories peddled by major news outlets – that predictably and cynically repackaged “a fishing expedition into a Game Changing Event” – created the impression that the emails were, indeed, game changing. And this impression created a new reality.
In my view, Almond’s book reads less than a sophisticated political analysis and more like a dishevelled dirge of a system that many Americans believed would shine forever.
Almond himself pushes back on this characterization, saying he didn’t want it to be so depressing; “I regret that it wasn’t more redemptive,” he tells me.
I realize that public mourning is frowned upon in many cultures. But I personally take a more charitable view of public grief.
Far from being melodramatic and theatrical, I consider loud wails and the rending of garments as a sign of honor for the deceased, whose loss we feel deeply enough to cast aside decorum and respectability.
In my home country, Kenya, some communities have a tradition of a final rite that is held a few weeks or months after a person has died. The bereaved family and friends gather, and everyone – no matter their social standing – is given a chance to speak if they want to. It is a time to “clear all debts.” both literal and figurative. If the deceased owed someone money, it is declared publicly; if they had made an unkind remark or treated someone unjustly, the aggrieved gets a chance to call the deceased out. Arrangements for restitution are made, and only then can the deceased truly rest in peace.
That kind of radical truth telling is what is needed in this moment. In the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, we – not just Americans – must give up the “fear of the Truth, [the] childish belief in the efficacy of lies as a method of human uplift.” This, ultimately, is “Bad Stories”’ anguished call.