Author Max Brooks on America's poor pandemic response and why Donald Trump is "a homicidal buffoon"

The "Devolution" author spoke to Salon about how ill-equipped privileged people are for dealing with disasters

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 6, 2020 5:30PM (EDT)

Devolution by Max Brooks (Del Rey Publishing/Getty Images/Salon)
Devolution by Max Brooks (Del Rey Publishing/Getty Images/Salon)

The United States is stuck in a real-time dystopian nightmare that is all too real.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the country with more than 130,000 Americans killed by the disease. The country is led by a neofascist regime that is actively trying to hurt its citizens through willful neglect and malevolence. The United States is in the midst of an economic collapse which will rival if not surpass the Great Depression. Yet, the very richest Americans are profiting from the economic chaos and human pain and overall destruction caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Global climate disaster continues and has been made worse by Donald Trump's and the Republican Party's policies.

President Donald Trump has declared that those Americans who do not support himmore than half the population – are traitors. The threat is real: Trump commands paramilitaries, street thugs, and assorted red hat MAGA rabble who are willing to kill and die for him.

Empowered by a lawless attorney general and anti-democracy Republican Party, Donald Trump is near-unstoppable in his quest to be a full-on authoritarian leader in the mold of Vladimir Putin. It is more likely than not that Donald Trump and his minions will find a way to rig or otherwise manipulate the 2020 presidential election so that he can stay in office indefinitely.

Recently on Twitter, "Star Trek" icon George Takei summarized the peril of these upcoming months as:

Listen up. The second half of 2020 will likely deliver all manner of chaos, with new lows we yet sink to. From the banal, to the horrifying, to the deadly . . . it's all on the table. That means, more than ever, we need to stay focused and determined. Eyes on the prize, friends.

Such a moment is tailor-made for the gifted insights of author Max Brooks.

In his bestselling 2006 book "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War" – which was modeled on journalist Studs Terkel's classic "The Good War" – Brooks uses a worldwide zombie outbreak as a metaphor for the SARS virus, the failed American invasion of Iraq, consumerism, and other examples of when government arrogance and a failure of imagination led to disaster.

Brooks' new book "Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre" tells the story of a volcanic eruption and subsequent attack and siege by sasquatches in the Pacific Northwest on a town of rich, self-consciously progressive, technologically dependent and life skills-deprived people (Brooks describes them as "all these overeducated, isolated city dwellers who idealize the natural world.") 

The characters in "Devolution" are forced to stay inside of their homes. Their high-tech gadgets are of no help. The government is of no assistance. Self-reliance and survival skills separate the living from the dead.

Ultimately, in "Devolution" the sasquatch becomes a metaphor for the coronavirus pandemic, incompetent government leadership, and a public that is largely unprepared and ill-equipped to survive a prolonged crisis.

In this conversation, Brooks explains how the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating impact on American society was almost wholly preventable. Brooks also details how at multiple points the Trump administration repeatedly made incorrect decisions that resulted in a manageable problem becoming a disaster. He also shares his hope about the ability of the American people to adapt to the new normal that is life during a pandemic.

This conversation took place prior to the George Floyd protests and people's uprising. It has also been edited for clarity and length. 

You have written about society-changing disasters and other calamities in "World War Z" and now your new book "Devolution." How does it feel to see what you have written about in one form or another come true in real time?

I would be so happy just to be the crazy disaster guy who writes about things that do not come true. In my new book I did not predict anything per se, I was just looking backwards to what has happened with the coronavirus pandemic. Some people describe the failures of the United States government during the pandemic as a "failure of imagination." That is just nonsense; 9/11 was a failure of imagination because no one had ever taken airliners and crashed them into high rise buildings before as an act of terrorism. Pandemics have existed since the beginning of human history. What happened and is happening with the United States' overall response to the coronavirus pandemic – especially at the federal level with Donald Trump and his administration – is a failure of memory, competence, and courage.

The National Disaster Plan outlines exactly how the United States government and Donald Trump as president should have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. That plan has been refined and perfected over many years. The fact that the Trump administration did not use it a type of war crime against the American people.

If the President Trump and his administration were competent, how would they have responded to the coronavirus pandemic?

Competence would have been when the moment China told the World Health Organization about the virus the United States government would have responded to protect the country and the world. Once China told the WHO, Trump and the other leaders of this country should have been working to prevent the virus from coming to the United States – and if the virus did hit this country to be prepared as to prevent panic.

The United States government could have been ramping up production of needed medical supplies. The wrinkles in the production chain and logistic chain for necessary materials and supplies could have been ironed out. Plans could have been already in place to ensure maximum cooperation between the federal, state, and local governments.

The United States government should also have had in place a massive public messaging and education campaign that would have said to the American people, "Listen, you know that disease you've heard about in China? It's here. Now, it's not the end of the world, but it's not a hoax and it's not something to be taken lightly. We have been working to stockpile all the equipment we need.

"All our healthcare workers are trained and safe and protected. We now have test kits, so if you've got the disease then we will be able to let you know and then act accordingly. We as a country are going to be okay." The Trump administration chose not to do that.

Incompetent government leadership is one of the through lines in your books "Devolution" and "World War Z." But what of the public's responsibility for their own individual and collective decision-making in a time of crisis?

Ultimately, as in my books "World War Z" and "Devolution," I blame us. It all comes down to the American people being responsible for the government's incompetence because in a representative democracy the people are ultimately to blame. The Chinese can blame Premier Xi Jinping for every single coronavirus death. He has all the power and takes all the blame.

But as much as I would blame this coronavirus pandemic disaster on a historically incompetent leader in the form of Donald Trump, the problems are much deeper than him. The United States is grappling with a broken public health system. Many Americans do not believe in science and reason. There are conspiracists who do not believe in vaccines and other medicine. Congress cut the CDC's budget years ago and there was no public outcry. The American people pay taxes and they vote. As such, the American people have to bear at least some measure of responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic's devastation on this country.

And when I speak of Donald Trump's incompetence, I am not just including the people who voted for him but those other Americans who chose not to vote in 2016. These people said, "Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the same," and other foolish things such as, "I'm not going to vote because I am not inspired." This whole disaster is on them too. Those people may not have been inspired by Hillary Clinton, but at least she was an expert in government and leadership and managing the bureaucracy. If a person cannot see the difference between Donald Trump who is a homicidal buffoon, and Hillary Clinton, then such a person bears no small amount of responsibility for the disaster with the pandemic and all the other problems it has spawned and revealed.

What are some choke points in American society that are particularly vulnerable to disruption?

Logistics is a huge one. Many people do not understand just how complicated America's economy and way of delivering goods and services really is. There is not a great appreciation among the public and many of the country's leaders for the physical logistics involved in the American economy.

Another choke point is communications. Americans are now seeing how reliant they are on the internet and other forms of communication. What if that system from the internet to cell phones all breaks down? People are going to be extremely isolated and vulnerable. This digital technology also creates a false sense of community and being connected to one another in meaningful ways. In my new book "Devolution," one of the themes I emphasize is how the characters and our society are overly reliant on specialization without understanding the type of interconnectedness and dependency on others it creates.

In "Devolution" there are these characters who are very highly educated and very well-paid but who do not know how to change a light bulb. Why should they? They live in "smart homes" where if anything goes wrong a signal will be sent to a handyman who will arrive in his electric driverless van, fix it for you and then leave, which is great, but – and there is the chokepoint – there is no accounting for what will happen when suddenly that interdependency is cut and you have to depend on yourself. What do you do when your skills are only useful in a world that was and not the new world you have been thrust into?

What type of research did you do for "Devolution"?

For every hour of writing I spend between 10 to 100 hours researching. For the characters I do not have to go very far because I travel in social circles with people who are very highly educated and very well-paid but who are utterly useless outside of their extremely narrow disciplines. These people are on the top of the social and economic pyramid in America and the world but are not capable of taking care of themselves in basic ways. The idea for the book came from observing them. "Devolution" was initially sold as a movie some years ago and part of that project came from looking at the people in my world and thinking, "Oh my God. They can't take care of themselves."

There was also hands-on research. For example, the characters had to craft weapons from scratch. I did that. I took the exact same building materials and the exact same tools to see if I could do make the same weapons used in the book.

Likewise, one of the big challenges in the book is suspension of disbelief where I had to answer the question, "Why don't the characters just walk down Mt Rainier and escape?" I went up to the exact place in the Pacific Northwest where the story takes place. I could barely walk given the foliage and other obstructions. I am a reasonably fit man and I do a great deal of hiking and camping and I could not just walk out of there.

Given you and your family's deep legacy in Hollywood, how do you think the coronavirus pandemic is going to impact the entertainment industry?

This is going to impact certain elements of the entertainment industry in ways that no one has fully grappled with and resolved. One example: Because of the internet nobody sells CDs and DVDs anymore. There is little income from physical media. The majority of money made by comedians and musicians – and they are going to be the hardest hit – comes from being out on the road working different venues. Downloads are just advertisements for live performances. That's where the money is.

One of my contacts explained to me before the pandemic really hit how the goal of a comedian used to be to do enough road gigs to build up enough fan base to get a sitcom. That was the model and then you live off the TV residuals from basic cable forever. That has changed; you make less money doing a TV show now than you would on the road.

Ultimately, comedians are going to be brutally hit and so are musicians because of the confluence of technology and this public health crisis.

In the end, how do you think American society is going to be changed by the coronavirus pandemic?

Americans are uniquely suited for this crisis in certain ways. Americans are also uniquely unsuited for the pandemic as well. Americans always get sucker-punched at first because we are so isolationist and individualistic which means that we rarely see a crisis coming. However, we also have a very powerful ability to reinvent ourselves. We always seem to get up and pull ourselves together and take whatever culture norms we used to have and update them.

I believe that strength comes from being a young and diverse country. We were late to the fight with the coronavirus pandemic, but I do believe we have the cultural ability to defeat it.

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.

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