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«They’ve pitted the working class against each other»

The American novelist Dennis Lehane (53) talks about Trump, racism and why Hillary lost.

Dennis Lehane (53) lives in California.
Dennis Lehane (53) lives in California.
Gaby Gerster/Diogenes Verlag

In Dennis Lehane’s latest novel «Since We Fell» the protagonist, Rachel Childs, a tv-journalist with a university degree, searches for her father. After many wrong turns she has to face the fact that he was «just» a barkeeper. In a bar on the outside of Baltimore she finally meets with one of his Exes. Rachel finds it hard to understand that her father didn’t aspire for more and tells his ex-wife as much. Maddy is consternated. She sees Rachel as arrogant and condescending.

Maddy pushed a breath through her lip that managed to be both derisive and melancholy at the same time. «The only people who ask questions like ‹Did he want to be something besides a bartender› are people who can become whatever they want. The rest of us are just Americans.»

The rest of us are just Americans.

Rachel recognized the grubby self-­aggrandizement as well as the faux modesty. She could already hear herself quoting it at cocktail parties, could hear too the laughs it would garner. But even as she heard the laughs, they shamed her. She was guilty, after all, of success, a success that stemmed from birthright and privilege. She took hope for granted, saw opportunity as her due, and had never really had to worry about vanishing into a sea of unseen faces and unseen voices.»

Basler Zeitung: Dennis Lehane, these few lines from «Since We Fell» are in their very core what America is all about in these days. On the one hand all the privileged like Rachel, for whom all the doors are wide open because of their money and their superior education. On the other hand the forgotten, the lost, the underdogs. Isn’t this your comment about your country in the era Donald Trump?

Dennis Lehane: «Since We Fell» is a book in which the concept of truth is extremely fluid.

Are you showing sympathy for Trump voters? Oh no, I didn’t say Maddy is a Trump voter. She is an angry and upset person who felt like she’s abandoned that doesn’t necessarily make her a Trump voter per se. The same psychology went into a Bernie Sanders voter and into a Obama voter. As the world globalizes, more and more and more, people feel more powerless. And they want to reach back to an imagined past. And I don’t think that’s American. That’s a global phenomenon that’s been in play for thousands of years. People embrace their myths above all other things. The national myth is so much more important than the national truth. And I think that’s true in Germany, it’s true in Poland, in the Netherlands and in Venezuela. I think it’s true in America.

And what are the consequences? What happened in America with the Trump issue is: You have some voters who just feel left behind. They strike out at anything. But then you have the dark side of the Trump issue and this is one of race. I truly believe that when you see it through that prism you can understand a lot of it.

You know what I don’t understand? For a little over thirty years now I have had a house on the coast of Maine. And there you have all these incredibly posh and rich houses right on the water and just twenty miles inland you have absolute poverty. Oh, that’s Maine, isn’t it?

I know. For me, as a Swiss, this is hard to grasp. How do these poor, poor people not get angry with these filthy rich? There is a psychology to it and it’s based on the idea of meritocracy which is engrained in our blood. You can say to somebody that corporations rig the system. And they say, «well of course, that’s what corporations do! We’re fine with that.» The angry Donald Trump voters should just have a bumper sticker that says: «He can do anything he wants as long as he doesn’t give my tax dollars to black people.» I believe that at it’s core. The greatest trick that the rich played in America was to get the poor to fight among themselves. It was an amazing magic act – and they’re masters at it. They have been doing it now for centuries.

And you’re saying that trick works in Arkansas as well as in Maine or in Ohio? Yeah, because you can’t reach the people who are truly screwing you. You already know the game’s over. You can’t get them (the angry voters) excited about the fact that far more of their tax dollars are going as tax ­breaks to Exxon and others than to keep any lazy people on welfare. You can’t get them to grasp that because it would speak to their central idea that the world is not a meritocracy and they can’t accept that. But America is a meritocracy and it’s also a rigged game.

That’s what took me so long to understand: That a Swiss citizen and an American differ on that fundamentally. This is one of the distinctions which is going so deep that a Swiss essentially can never be an American... ... or vice versa. You know, I had a very fond relationship with my father. My father was an immigrant who literally pulled himself up by his bootstraps, who believed that America was the greatest country in the world, because you can do that. At the same, at the exact same time that he believes all of those things, he didn’t believe that that gave you the right to look down on people who maybe couldn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, who maybe had a few more disadvantages. He believed that we were all working class and we should all stick together. And I loved that about him and I took that into the rest of my life. And now what they’ve done is: they pitted the working class against each other.

What you’ve just described of your father I think has something to do with not ever being arrogant. And what really bothers me is the conviction of certain people that all these Trump voters are in their core dumb and ugly and not really fit to vote at all. And I think arrogance is poison. I agree. I remember having a conversation just before Trump entered the race. I was with some intellectuals – ivy-tower types – and they said: «The country is completely changed. The train has left the station.» And I said: «You have no idea, how much resentment and justified anger is out there.» And they said: «You’re crazy!» And they said it so off-handedly, it was just so smug.

And then? When Trump won, they looked like somebody hit them on the back of their head with a baseball bat. They couldn’t understand it. Again: I do believe there is a large cohort of Trump supporters who are racist. But then there is an entire cohort of just people, regular people like Maddy, who feel like this country’s left them behind. And it did. Both left and right. And you can’t just say to an enormous slot of the population «fuck you!» without them saying «Fuck you!» back.

You mentioned in one of the interviews I’ve seen with you the critical situation in Boston in the early seventies. You talked about a city on the brink of civil war. Do you see this potential danger on the horizon? And who is there to bridge the gap? Well, Obama did. And yes, there is the ugly contingent that we’re talking about. Trump placed it. The white supremacy contingent. And I think it’s been legitimized in a way that’s very scary right now. At the same time I think if there is somebody, if there maybe is a couple of somebodies who are able to say «We understand. We understand your pain! But this is not the answer!», there can be a bridge. The bottom line is: If you look at the situation that we are in right now and you remove the gender issue, we would have an answer. If Joe Biden had been running against Donald Trump, he would have won by 20 million votes. Biden would have crushed Trump! Because Joe Biden was somebody who actually understood the people he was trying to represent, where – remove every­thing else from the Hillary issue, she was very much a victim of the old boy network and of sexism – she was also however somebody who did not come across as if she understood remotely the working class. And that perception became a very ugly reality.

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