The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #151: David Shields
In Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, New York Times bestselling author David Shields expertly dissects, analyzes, and investigates the fascination with and horror of President Trump. Shields uses the “human condition” as a framework to zoom in on how a boy from Queens, New York morphed into a power-hungry germaphobe who takes pride in showcasing the darkest parts of humanity, and how that ultimately led to him occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In a style you may recognize from his 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger (and many subsequent books—this is number twenty-two), Shields creates a literary mixtape/meditation via collage, Trump’s own musings, leaked transcripts from Fox News, email correspondence with friends/other writers, and his own interpretations of Trump to build a case for the main thesis of the book: “that we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump is not gratuitous Trump-bashing. It’s a sobering, nuanced, and, at times, brutally funny psychological investigation into why Trump resonates with all, even the people who hate him.
I recently spoke to David Shields via email about why Trump is the perfect person to analyze to learn about the human condition, what having a stutter has taught him, why Trump will be elected again, and the human impulse for a death wish.
The Rumpus: What I admired most about Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention is that you so expertly make the case that to write about and analyze Trump is to write and investigate the human condition—ourselves. You zoom in on how Trump became someone who prides himself on showcasing the very darkest parts of humanity. More importantly, how as human beings we are attracted to that very darkness and chaos. Many of your previous books have a similar thread/theme of dissecting what it means to be alive. Why do you think that is? What keeps drawing you back to this theme?
David Shields: That’s a really sharp observation, Moshe, and I think you’re onto something. I’m obsessed with the self-destructive nature of human beings collectively and individually—the species’ death wish. As your later question implies, I, too, tie it back to stuttering. I think we all have an ineradicable wound and we all replay this wound the rest of our lives. Trump is a tragicomically explicit case study of the phenomenon.
Rumpus: In 2010 you published Reality Hunger—in which you argued for collage, appropriation, and blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. In a way, I see this book as a Reality Hunger: Part II. If folks didn’t listen to your call to arms eight years ago, perhaps they will now. What Trump does so well is blur all the lines, which is why he is so hated and loved. No surprise a reality show host became a reality show president. Is this book a warning shot to the virtue signalers and outrage specialists in our country to take a step back and reconsider their strategy/approach to defeating Trump in 2020?
Shields: I must say that I think an awful lot of people have listened to Reality Hunger. An amazing number of people who vilified that book when it was published have recently pivoted and said that it has prophesied many of the major movements in contemporary writing. A lot of this book is about how it’s as if Trump and his handlers had read the last half-century of post-structuralist thought and figured out a way to weaponize as political theater.
Rumpus: You write about your friend, Andrew Altschul, whom, along with author Mark Slouka, wrote an open letter in 2016 making the case against electing Trump with the intention of getting signatures from other notable writers. Altschul admits while he had good intentions with the letter, he was also aware that his agent was trying to sell his new novel. I can’t help but think about the handful of books that have already been published (and will be published) about Donald Trump and the Trump Presidency by “experts,” White House insiders, former staff members (Omarosa / Sean Spicer, etc.). Do you think Trump is savvy enough to intentionally create enough chaos for opportunists to focus on capitalizing on his presidency and prolonging his stay in the White House?
Shields: Andrew has that great metaphor in the book—Dems are playing badminton; GOP is playing ice hockey. It’s not even close. The sixty-four-trillion-dollar question is whether Trump is a lucky ignoramus or a brilliant strategist. Clearly, some of both. I think his resentments resonate with one-third of the populace, and he knows how to harness that resentment. I don’t think Trump cares about underwriting the publishing industry via books by Omarosa.
Rumpus: Rudy Giuliani recently said, “truth isn’t truth.” Trump repeatedly yells about #fakenews. You wrote an entire book (Reality Hunger) about throwing out the rules in regards to knowing what’s true or not in literature. I believe you wrote, “memory is a dream machine.” In this new book you write, “I’m against “alternative facts,” I suppose, but I’m for “alternative interpretations.” Can you elaborate? One can argue that Trump’s way of looking at the world is an “alternative interpretation.” Are we living a temporary alternative interpretation or is Trump our new reality? An introduction to Post-Post-Modernism?
Shields: When Giuliani said truth isn’t truth, he was mocked, but this is the central tenet of philosophical thought over the last one hundred years: the perceiver by her very presence alters what’s perceived. I’m shooting a film with other people at the Nonfiction Now conference in Phoenix November 1-3, at which we aim to explore to what degree is the ludicrous term “creative nonfiction” the predicate” of alt-facts.
Rumpus: One of my favorite sections of the book is “28 reasons Trump will be re-elected.” Many of the passages are about the liberal left’s obsession with virtue signaling, political correctness, and micro-aggressions—ammunition for Trump’s base and a significant factor in Trump being elected. It seems as if the left has doubled down on their outrage rather than take the Trump presidency as a jumping off point to recalibrate. What do you think is the antidote to Trump? Is there one?
Shields: Hmm. Antidote to Trump? Whole book is an attempt to find one. It ain’t earnestness; that much I know. It ain’t badminton. It’s ice hockey. It ain’t Chuck Schumer, who is sub to Trump’s dom. Bullying needs bullying back. I’m for a new ferocity.
Rumpus: You disagree with author Timothy Snyder that “totalitarianism has arrived.” What has arrived?
Shields: It’s totalitarianism-lite. It’s American fascism, with a smile on its face. It’s all fun and games and carnival. It’s not boots. It’s bots. It’s karmic payback for twenty-five years of MTV’s Real World and all of its manifestations. How to penetrate the simulacrum? Not clear.
Rumpus: You have many passages/quotes from leaked Fox News off-air transcripts, from old Howard Stern shows, TV shows, films, books, etc. I hate to ask a “writing process” question, but the eclectic compilation you have put together is impressive and, to me, almost daunting to assemble. What’s your secret?
Shields: Daunting assemblage, I guess. I’ve been working with this method now for at least thirty years and my scissors have gotten sharp. I start with a huge problem. I shoot a lot of film. I get rid of ninety percent of it. I organize the material into vertical and horizontal patterns or silos. I then cut both ways for maximum momentum. Super easy.
Rumpus: You’re unapologetic about your stutter and have written at length about it (including in your beautiful novel Dead Languages), and when you’re doing public appearances I’ve noticed you’ll let the audience know about your stutter at the beginning of your talk. I can’t think of a better way to access the “other” than to let people know that you are flawed. Would you say that your experience as a stutterer—being an outsider—has informed the way you look at the world? The way in which you have clearly diagnosed how we got to a Trump presidency (an outsider himself in many ways) and how it is very likely we will be seeing more of him in 2020?
Shields: Stuttering. Weakness. Flawedness. Etc. I’d say what stuttering has taught me is that we are language-besotted animals, we are all trapped inside our own space suits, and whatever our original weakness is we will go on reanimating the rest of our lives. Oh, and also: everyone is broken.
Rumpus: I’ve always thought that Trump would dig his own grave during his Presidency. After all, that is what he’s done his whole life. He builds tall buildings and ultimately tears them down. Destroys whatever is in his way. Debts intact. People’s lives destroyed. How do you think this will all end? Or will it? Will we ever get bored of Trump? Of chaos?
Shields: Self-destructiveness is the key to him. Everybody loves a train wreck. Apocalypse always. He is programmed to come undone. He promised that and will deliver. It’s the moment he and we have been waiting for all our lives. Death wish fulfilled.
Author photograph © Tom Collicott.