Novelist Jonathan Lethem: "There is no allegory crude enough" to capture Trump's America

Award-winning novelist on his new neo-noir "The Feral Detective" and being "stuck inside Donald Trump's deep dream"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 4, 2019 10:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump;  Writer Jonathan Lethem (AP/Salon)
President Donald Trump; Writer Jonathan Lethem (AP/Salon)

The age of Donald Trump is a political fever dream. Trump and his movement's lies, cruelty, disregard for facts, and assault on America's political norms and rules are disorienting. The American body politic is sick and overheating as it tries, with little success, to fight off the poison of Trumpism.

A reality TV show star, fake billionaire and professional wrestling villain was not supposed to be elected president — yet he was.

A man who publicly colludes with a hostile foreign power to subvert an election, and then lies about and obstructs justice to conceal his skulduggery should have been immediately impeached and removed from office. Yet Donald Trump is still president and may well be re-elected in 2020.

As public opinion and other research shows, the American people are divided from and against one another. Trumpists and others who live in the president's orbit have created their own reality around the persona of the Great and Dear Leader. The rest of America and the world live in empirical reality, the world as it actually exists: they understand Trump and his movement to be a disaster and an embarrassment, a rebuttal to human progress and a celebration of the retrograde, the backward and the ignorant.

In the 1999 science fiction classic "The Matrix," Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) asks Neo (Keanu Reeves), "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"

Morpheus was describing an elaborate computer simulation, but his words are a near-perfect description of TrumpWorld.

How can speculative literature and other fiction help the American people and the world make sense of Donald Trump? How do we resist Trumpism's assault on reality? How should writers and other artists confront the unimaginable and heretofore unbelievable events of this political and social moment? Can the American people resist and escape Donald Trump's dream world and the right-wing propaganda machine that makes his alternate reality possible? What do Donald Trump's fantasies reveal about the gullibility of his supporters and their willingness to be conned?

In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with the award-winning novelist Jonathan Lethem. He is best known for such works as "Motherless Brooklyn" (recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and soon to be a major motion picture) as well as "The Fortress of Solitude."

Lethem's new novel is "The Feral Detective," a noir road story set in Donald Trump's America about a New York Times reporter who quits her job after Trump's election and sets out to track down a missing woman in the American West.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

For rational people and others who actually live in empirical reality, the age of Trump is surreal, maddening and unbelievable. I have described this as "malignant reality." How did this all come to be? As a speculative fiction writer and student of science fiction and the surreal, how do you make sense of it?

I've been trying to figure out such dynamics and arcs of history for some time, going all the way back to my novel "Amnesia Moon." With my newest book, "The Feral Detective," obviously the references are more contemporary. I wrote the book in the full flush of the savage disarrangement of the 2016 election itself, so "The Feral Detective" mentions Donald Trump by name.

In "Amnesia Moon," which I wrote during my 20s, I was writing an homage to Philip K Dick. In that book the government leaders are all TV characters. They represent the appetite for fantasies that have been denied. In this present moment there are so many fantasies that have been summoned by Trump, but he deals in obvious inflated enemies that are bogeymen. It's a horror film without a frame, without a theater. You don't have to buy a ticket. You just watch the news and believe it.

We also need to be honest with ourselves: Donald Trump is the most entertaining public character in recent memory. The chattering class as well as many in the general public cannot get enough of him. This is a spectacle.

It's certainly addictive. Even if you tell yourself that you're hating it, we as a culture are enmeshed in it right now. We are talking about Trump, saying his name, denouncing him. It's like Donald Trump is Tinker Bell. Everyone has to clap their hands to keep him alive.

What American cultural fantasies and tropes is Donald Trump fulfilling?

It is very strange. I think Trump is a through-the-looking-glass version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." The swells in suits are going to get their comeuppance. It's almost like an unholy convergence of the image of the self-made monster, such as "Citizen Kane," combined with "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." For his voters it is a story where only a rich bastard can save us now because he's the only one qualified to do it. Our world is so fallen. They've got it so locked down. They own everything. Only a guy who's been at those parties can free us.

It's also a revenge story — and it's incredible to consider how much of American culture is revenge stories now. "Death Wish" has won.

What is the place of horror as a genre in this moment, when for so many people the world as it exists is actually terrifying?

There is real suffering in the world right now. But the construction of American reality is also in the hands of a relatively and world-historically not-in-peril and not-suffering class of people. Rather it is an anxious, precarious class.

Most Americans who can afford a television to watch Fox News and pull a lever for a candidate are not suffering in the sense that you mean. With 9/11 and then increasingly and systematically it has become a type of diet for such people to go on the internet and expressing their loathing for the Other. They watch Fox News and fear the person who is supposedly trying to take away Christmas. These are not real situations for the people who are fearing and hating. They are virtual reality, a perverse simulacrum. These are not people who are suffering in the pure, most real, animal sense.

Social disruptions create great art but they also create a lot of bad art. When you sat down to write "The Feral Detective," did you have rules you operated from? How did you avoid the trap of writing something too on the nose and obviously of the moment?

Some people are made quite anxious by the contemporary references in the book. It infringes on their expectations about "literary fiction." I could have left certain events that were very fresh, the inauguration and the Women's March and so forth, out of the picture. It was uncomfortable for me inviting them into the story. I didn't sit with a tremendous amount of concern that I was going to land on the obvious, for the simple reason that I write out of trying to learn something, or discover something, that I do not already know.

The scenario I placed in front of myself enticed me, it amused me, it seduced me. But it also left me wondering and afraid. I didn't know what was possible for these characters or for myself, in the world I was placing them in. And that sense of discovery, rather than thinking in terms of, "What are other people writing?" and "I better make sure that I'm not just falling in line with what other people are going," is what drives me. For me, it's about doing something that I have never done before. I try to write every book in that spirit and let the question of what other people are doing remain sidelined.

What are some rules for writing about the horrible, strange and bizarre social political moment that is the age of Trump?

Be wrong, beautifully. Embrace your mistakes. Make them to the hilt. Take the most wrong and crazy impulse and try to make some sense of it. We in America are living wrong. You know? We're living in capitalism and we can't see around the edges of it.

I have had many moments writing about Trump and his movement where I am stunned by my own words. You see the writing on the page and cannot believe that Donald Trump is doing such things, that this is the world as it now exists. Have you had such experiences with "The Feral Detective" or your other work?

There is no allegory crude enough to create and capture the counterfactual universe we are living in right now, with Trump and how we got here. Our world is broken on levels deeper than just who is in charge or what their particular unbelievable behavior consists of.

Let's imagine, as a thought experiment, that those particular people and their unbelievable behaviors were not in front of us, and you just made it up and took it out there as a piece of fiction. People would say, "Come on, that's just too broad. Cut it maybe in half and it'll be a broad satire, but no one is going to buy any of this."

America is sick on many levels. Trump is both the symptom and the cause of a horrible disease. Have writers, artists and other people who should be truth-tellers stepped up enough? Have they met the challenge of these trying times?

People are terrified. They are also distracted and confused. We are all stuck in the same machine. As artists and people we just try to get the word out, and sometimes that takes the form of just giving things their actual names. One of the things that was so remarkable about the Occupy movement was that it succeeded instantly just by giving capitalism back its name. Suddenly, there was an anti-capitalist thought made possible. Suddenly capitalism as something to be thought about, rather than just accepted as the unquestioned norm, existed again. Now we can ask, "How do you feel about capitalism? I think I don't like it."

When Trump gives a speech at one of his political rodeos or otherwise tries to communicate with the American people, he is met with disbelief and disgust by most in the mainstream news media, especially liberals and progressives and other people of conscience. This is very dangerous, because those who dismiss or mock Trump are de facto refusing to admit that they are not the audience he is speaking to. For his political cult members, Donald Trump is a remarkably effective communicator.

The fact that our experiences as a society regarding Trump's movement are so bifurcated is very exhausting. There have been debates about whether the mainstream news media should even bother to run his speeches. That is an incredible thing. Maybe we should just seal off that world. What if we just closed the door? It is like a Philip K. Dick novel where there is a breach in space, and one of the solutions to solve the crisis is to just wall it up and the problem will just stay over there, behind the wall. Trump speaks to a very specific set of concerns. He uses different references and tonalities to do this for his audience, his people. Trump's speeches and other performances are not going to persuade anyone who is outside of that system of belief. But that system is part of reality nonetheless. We must still tell absolute truths about that system and the world. That is hard work. It hurts, just like putting on the glasses to see the truth about the aliens in the movie "They Live."

One of my favorite movies, both recently and for all time, is "Mad Max: Fury Road." It is a masterwork. Every line of dialogue matters. George Miller is a genius filmmaker. In the film Max tells Furiosa, "You know, hope is a mistake. If you can't fix what's broken, you'll go insane." Is hope a dangerous thing right now?

That's a terrifying thought. Who's a greater dreamer than Donald Trump? He's dreaming so hard we're all stuck inside.

And Trump's dream is a dream of revenge. Donald Trump is like the outer-borough rich kid who is going to avenge himself on the elites in Manhattan. And we're stuck inside Trump's deep, deep dream. Trump has an entire dream machine at Fox News and its various shows and hosts. There's an entire social media infrastructure for Trump. There is almost an entire industry dedicated to keeping Donald Trump from waking up.

Given that you and I are both fascinated by the art of the con, how would you categorize Donald Trump?  

Kevin Young's book "Bunk" would help you tiptoe up to an expansion of the truism, "You can't con the honest" because he writes brilliantly, savagely, about the impulse to con. He also writes brilliantly about the appetite to be enmeshed, and what kind of collective appetites and fantasies are being satisfied in the psychic system of the half-knowing con victim. And that's what we have with Donald Trump and his supporters.

We have a nation of ironic con victims who are letting it happen. It's like reality television. Hannah Arendt speaks to this with her observation about how "the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, the distinction between true and false, no longer exists." What is this will to be conned by this con man?

To me the deepest fact about Donald Trump is that he is inexperienced. He never went to war. I'm sure he never fell in love. I don't think he's ever changed a diaper. I think he knows that he's not really a politician at all. Donald Trump is not a rich person. He's a counterfeit. He's a fiction. Weirdly, as people feel their lives inching into the virtual, into counterfeit, he creates this lionized authority that says, "You can be full of shit and feel OK. Vote for me. You can drift out of the reality of experience and, look, it's working for me. I'm the president." That's what Donald Trump is selling.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

MORE FROM Chauncey DeVega