A conversation with David Shields
David sits down with Leah Paulos to discuss his new book, Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump: An Intervention, a psychological inquiry into Trump’s brokenness, a philosophical meditation on the relationship between language and power, and a satirical compilation of the wit and wisdom of Donald Trump. Above all, it functions as a dagger into the rhetoric of American political discourse—a dissection of the politesse that gave rise to and that now sustains Trump.
Leah: There are a lot of Americans, including this interviewer, who despise Trump with every cell in their bodies. Why is the book called NOBODY HATES TRUMP MORE THAN TRUMP: AN INTERVENTION, and do you think it’s true?
David: Yes, of course Trump loathes himself. No human being on the planet is less capable of joy or even fulfillment. This is a key connection between himself and his voters. He’s as unhappy as they are, or he’s very good at pretending he is—it’s very difficult to tell, which gives his hyper-performativity its immense frisson.
Leah: But close to 90% of Republicans voted for Trump. Trump voters were Bush and Reagan voters, and they were Goldwater voters. Are you saying they are all deeply unhappy people and always have been?
David: The key people are the five million people who voted for Obama and who voted for Trump. They are who matter. They are low-income, low-information, disenfranchised, blue-collar voters. They are furious at the varieties of ways in which the world has left them behind. Obama offered them hope. Trump offered them rage. HRC offered them precisely nothing.
Leah: Books about Trump are a dime a dozen these days, and everyone is drowning in tweets and hot takes. What is different about this book?
David: It’s not everybody else’s Trump-bashing book. It offers a tragic take on human nature—Trump’s destructiveness and self-destructiveness echoing with an existentially lost populace. It has leaked off-air Fox News conversations. It’s about a very scary American strain of death wish. It offers a new reading of his psychology and childhood to suggest origins of his anhedonia.It shows the many subcultures which gave rise to him and which now sustain him. It raises the real question whether he’s a genius quasi-punk anti-hero or a near-Asperger’s idiot or neither or both. It’s about the emotional weather of living under Cloud Trump. It’s a manual for beating bullies.
Leah: There’s always been loads of money, charismatic celebrities, and bigoted flamethrowers in American politics, but a person like Trump becoming President never seemed possible until it happened. Or did it?
David: Oh, please. Sonny Bono. Ronald Reagan. Shirley Temple. Jesse Ventura. Jerry Springer. George Murphy. Fred Thompson. Cynthia Nixon. Clint Eastwood. Clay Aiken. Al Franken. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Caligula.
Leah: When did you realize America was screwed up enough to elect Trump?
David: When, at age 7, I realized being bad was more fun than being good (a more perfect foil than HRC would be impossible to imagine).
Leah: How many of the 63 million Americans who voted for Trump did so because he’s a big, sick joke?
David: A huge number of things we love are big, sick jokes (from WWE to horror movies to the NFL). The method to Trump’s madness is that, in a shame culture, he’s shameless; this gives him enormous appeal and leverage to people who are resentful (as Louis Theroux has pointed out).
Leah: Trump is a needy, unloved, extraordinarily damaged, outer-borough millionaire with a genius for low-brow marketing. In a culture steeped in celebrity worship and with a mass media allergic to serious issues, was the marriage between Trump and his scared, aging, white base inevitable?
David: “Outer-borough” is a tell that you hold yourself above Trump, but the key to iconic celebs (e.g, Jesus, Napoleon, Elvis, Madonna) is that they embody the culture’s contradictions. Trump is a “winner” who acts like a “loser.” He’s a millionaire “schlub.” This allows him to play both ends against the middle. This is mad brilliance or luck or both. Trump is karmic payback for an America lost to simulacra for at least twenty years; as Andrew O’Hehir says, “Our culture is obsessed with ‘real’ events because we experience hardly any.” Trump pretends to be “real.” It’s black magic.
Leah: What particular talents does Trump have that tap into the American psyche?
David: What such talents does he not have? He has swallowed America whole.
Leah: In this entire disgraceful, scary, embarrassing saga, who is the person you hate the most?
David: Exactly the wrong question. G.K. Chesterton, asked what’s wrong with the world, said, “I am.” If you can’t find in yourself what’s scary about Trump, you have zero chance of figuring him out and/or counteracting him.
Leah: I fully understand that within myself I can find what is scary about Trump. The spectacle is impossible to turn away from; we’ve all been rubbernecking for 3 years now. In the debates, I laughed at “low-energy Jeb” and “Lil’ Marco,” while simultaneously knowing the whole thing was gross. But I think your answer absolves Trump and his administration of their cruelty. They took babies from their mothers at the border. They won’t stop until poor people don’t have health care. It’s not just PT Barnum giving people a good show. So, let me ask again: whom do you hate the most?
David: The book is the book and my life is my life. In my actual life, I work to bring an end to the oligarchy. Along with everyone else, I yell at the TV and radio and web. In the book, though, I strive to understand the phenomenon. And to understand all is most definitely not to pardon all. That being said, whom do I hate the most? To my surprise, the person who comes to mind is Comey.
Leah: In the book, you mention Will Blythe’s TO HATE LIKE THIS IS TO BE HAPPY FOREVER, a book about the Duke / UNC basketball rivalry. Does Trump vs. liberals feel like a sports event to you? On some level, is checking Twitter every morning and getting outraged fun? If it is, is that white privilege?
David: Love the title but have never read the book. To not view Trump as both deadly serious and a “funny” game-player is to miss the entire point. Of course it’s sport; that’s a huge part of the shtick. “Bread and circuses” means there are circuses. Overreliance on the term “white privilege”: another reason Trump will be re-elected.
Leah: Is Trump your perfect foil? What about him as subject matter makes him so conducive to your writing style and thought process?
David: ADD. OCD. Logorrhea. Graphomania. Ressentiment. Weariness/wariness re virtue-signaling. Originary woundedness. Vanity. Narcissism. Avariciousness. Lust. All the usual human vices and sins.
Leah: Should America still be a country? How can you stay in a marriage with 63 million people that voted for a monster?
David: These are the very questions that got Trump elected and that threaten to get him re-elected. The moment you call Trump a monster, you’ve stopped trying to understand him and the conditions that gave rise to him and why he resonates with so many people. There’s nothing remotely useful about this sort of moral self-congratulation.
Leah: How do you hope this ends?
David: I’m not in the hope business. I’m in the tragic-news-about-the-human-condition-business. We are a fallen, doomed species. People want apocalypse always. Trump promises to deliver the end or a glimmer of the end.
About David Shields
David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty-two books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (NYT Bestseller), Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), Other People: Takes & Mistakes (NYTBR Editors’ Choice). The film adaptation of I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel was released by First Pond Entertainment in 2017. The Trouble With Men: Reflections On Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn And Power is forthcoming in 2019. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships and a senior contributing editor of Conjunctions, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Believer. His work has been translated into two dozen languages.