The Captain and the Glory, Dave Eggers’s 12th book, is like a shiv: slim, sharp, and made to cut. In this case, it slices two ways. Not just through the hide of Donald Trump, but also through the madness of these strange times. On the surface, the tale is a simple one: When the beloved captain of the great ship Glory retires, a loud, clownish passenger on the boat with no experience steering a ship convinces the other passengers to make him captain, so that he can shake things up. And he does. Until one day a pirate—revered by the captain because he looks so handsome riding bare-chested on his horse—comes aboard the Glory. As with all allegories, the story reveals so much more …
air mail caught up with Eggers while he was in New York, for a beer and fries. He had just come from a frustrating experience at FedEx. “They have free Wi-Fi, so when I’m traveling, they’re my office. But it was down.”
Air Mail: Is it fair to call this an allegory?
Dave Eggers: I think it is a hybrid of an allegory and a farce and a satire. One of the better ways to see this time more clearly is by just taking a few steps left of where you are. On a cruise ship, who would this guy be? He’s the guy selling cheap souvenirs. He’s sitting there all the time, just like Trump has been in our consciousness for 40 years. And we have done a very equivalent thing, putting a souvenir salesman in the most important office in the world.
With Trump, we threw out every conception of dignity. And that alone is a concept so interesting to me. Electing Obama said that we were interested in dignity, especially after George W. embarrassed us in a lot of ways. So I said, “A president should make us proud, and be well-spoken, reasonable, intellectually valuable, curious, and dignified.” It turns out dignity is not high on the list.
Dignity is a big theme in the book—how some people on the ship are mistreated.
People who come to America, whether asylum-seekers or coming for any other reason, are deserving of dignity. This is a concept that is quite new, though—the idea that the most vulnerable humans, who have come here out of desperation or because of violence or oppression, don’t deserve due process or any sense of decency. I think that’s new and straight out of the tyrant’s playbook, or the sociopath’s playbook.
“With Trump, we threw out every conception of dignity.”
Who is the man in the air vent, the voice that whispers to the captain at night?
Stephen Miller. I think Miller is a real type-A, fearful racist. He feels threatened by loss of prominence. I know this type. California racists are a real specific type and they’ve been ultra-activated by the changing demographics. Unfortunately, he was born without any charm whatsoever. I’m sure he’s just a guy who can’t make friends, like the guy at the garage that was fixing cars or whatever, turns into like the local authority, sort of these guys that can be controlled and melded into mid-level.
It’s a mediocre mind given far too much power without the imagination to conjure feelings for anyone, just seeing people as abstractions. But in a tyranny, you can’t have a lot of empathy in middle management. That’s going to gum up the works. You have to have unimaginative functionaries all the way down because the second somebody starts thinking, you end up with this Ukraine whistle-blower.
And yet the book ends on a note of optimism.
The advantage of a book right now is you can give it an ending. All of this will be ending one way or the other. It’s either going to be 2020 or 2024. It will end in this way where we will restore ourselves to better versions of ourselves. I’m inherently optimistic, I guess, and I also feel that the same electorate that put Obama in office twice is malleable.
As a country, we hit radical reversals all the time. From Clinton to George W.; from George W. to Obama; Obama to Trump. All of these are bipolar ships. We have these sort of eight-year radical swings, with a few exceptions.
We’re in the middle of a fever. A fever will break. There is no other Trump. He is unprecedented, and I don’t think you’ll have that same combination of demagoguery, flagrant ignorance, xenophobia, and misogyny, and still somehow a magnetic power.
You’re an inspiration to people because you take action. A book, however, is a passive experience. Is more action needed?
Voting has to be part of it. Number two is the A.C.L.U. They’re the only ones that have wins on the board, for the most part, with some of these draconian immigration policies. Short of that, in a lot of other countries, there would be millions on the street. We’re a strange country in that … We have no ability to keep momentum, and that’s really odd. Look at Hong Kong, Chile, Puerto Rico, they stayed on the streets until it was over. We do one-day marches that are nice, and then we go home.
“In a tyranny, you can’t have a lot of empathy in middle management. It gums up the works.”
This is what Trump leverages. He’s smart enough to know we will govern ourselves by logic, therefore he can behave in an illogical manner and exploit the rules we play by.
I cycle through so many different thoughts every day about this, and I always come back to the fact that he didn’t start a war. We always forget that George W. started a war that killed a million Iraqis. Somehow that’s totally forgotten, and he can get on talk shows, and paint paintings of veterans, and somehow he’s this lovable guy. That speaks to our incredibly high tolerance for militarism and aggression, and just violence that is riddled through our culture. When I cycle through, I think, It could be worse. He hasn’t started a war.
You saw the comments Obama made a week or so ago, about being “too woke” and the perils of the “cancel culture.”
Yeah, I like that. It’s very right. His words carry, obviously, more weight than the vast majority of humanity, and so I think it was a really necessary check on something that was getting out of control. All of it I drank in with great enthusiasm, because I’m around the young activists a lot and they are very … there’s a quickness to erase people, based on a mistake or an incorrect … You know, I saw it a few months ago with some young activists, and there was an older politician who was talking about gender identity and she’s considered among most people to be very good on this issue, but she did blow a few pronouns. And one kid walked out. She had lost them because their language was a little different, and I thought in one part it’s the left eating itself, which we’ve always been so good at doing. It’s the latest iteration. And it overlaps with the purity test that’s happening in all of the primaries, where there’s always some new level of purity that we filter a few more people through to see if we can somehow find the blandest candidate, who’s never offended anybody and so they never made an error.
Do you think we’ve gone too far left again?
No. I think we’re in the middle of an interesting conversation about it. I think it’s just really … substantive primary process right now.
“Look at Hong Kong, Chile, Puerto Rico. They stayed on the streets until it was over. We do one-day marches that are nice, and then we go home.”
You’re not worried that we’re right back where we were in 2016, talking about bathroom signs rather than stuff that gets to issues?
I think people learned that lesson pretty intensely.
They did, but the memory is pretty short, right?
In 2016. Yeah. I don’t blame so much of 2016 on identity politics like a few pundits have done, but I do think that people care about if they have a job, do they have a 401K, are they living with dignity, can they plan for next month, and next year, and college? And I do think that Warren and Sanders, as further left as they are, that’s all they’re thinking about. They give very little attention to issues of identity. They’re really talking economics and what alterations need to be made to the nation’s economic system to make it more fair. And that’s real substance, you know?
I do think that the left and the young left, and that’s who Obama is speaking to, really have to remember that you are “one of” 320 million people, and your issue is “one of” maybe a million issues. So, if somebody doesn’t speak correctly about your particular issue, have a little humility, and have a little bit of understanding, empathy, forgiveness for that person. When in every other aspect they are trying to do everything and trying to help your side. And they’ll get there.
It’s the other piece of the cancel culture, and the other piece of what you see on the right and the left, which is, “You don’t—shut up, it’s over—no, sorry, done.” No room for discussion. Like, “You must give me what I want, immediately.”
It’s obviously the immediacy of the Internet, the immediacy of social media, and the fact that within an hour, people feel like they’ve debated and arrived at the conclusion, which is, this person is going to the guillotine, or this person’s career is over. The speed of that cycle is unprecedented in history; and if you can say instead, “I’m going to let this cool down, and then we’re going to discuss it,” this waiting is something that everybody has to learn. In some circles, Warren probably would’ve dropped out when she blew the Native American announcement.
“If someone doesn’t speak correctly about your particular issue, have a little humility.”
If anything, Trump “grabbing the pussy” proved it.
That was it. That was the lesson for everyone.
In the book, you write, “This new captain was candid and unvarnished. And because he didn’t know how to spell, and had no taste or manners or filter or shame or sense of what was true and what was false—because he was unscripted when he told lies—he was the most honest captain they’d ever known.”
So that came out of a rally I went to in El Paso. I said, “What’s the essence of the appeal?” and they said, “Well, the most important thing is his honesty.” But I realized that what they meant was the way he was saying it sounded honest.
I love the line, too, when one person says, “He writes like I speak when I’m drunk, and I find that comforting.”
Yeah. It’s going a step further than the idea that he was like somebody you’d want to have a beer with. Now it’s the type of person that sounds like yourself. Like you’re most in tune with. He’s made himself a millionaire with that same lack of eloquence. And that same, so-called, plainspoken way. And that’s the golden combination. No expertise, shoot from the gut, make a billion bucks. That’s the most revered American ideal of all. It’s that, none of that book learning, all that money, buy a bunch of golden stuff and put more gold on it, marry supermodels. And do it all without, you know, saying please or thank you. There are a lot of American tropes wrapped into him.
Last question. In the book, the captain is terrified of a spider.
I’m sure that Trump was a coward. I think that most of his behavior comes from being someone who found cowardice and fear in just about everything, whether it’s dodging the draft, or it’s running away from financial responsibilities, dodging taxes, hiding under every loophole to declare bankruptcy, and leaving his creditors high and dry; or running away from marriage, running away from all these different things. There’s a cowardice that I wanted to start with. That’s where the contrast later in the book with these true authoritarian murderers he finds himself cozying up to—which he has in real life, with Putin and with M.B.S. and others. And you realize that ultimately, Trump isn’t a murderer. You know? That he doesn’t like conflict.
He won’t even fire people. So all of these things are sort of to paint a picture of this very afraid, childish entity that trusts no one. And never trusts what is seen or known or perceived in terms of wisdom but will trust his own crazed voice. I wanted this story to have a whole different arc with his relationship to all of these other strong men, and it showed just how in over his head he is. Just to see his relationship with Putin is so comically tragic, it’s so tragic to see how much he wants to be respected by and considered the equal of Putin. I’m sure Putin considers him the most useless toy. Ultimately he is essentially an ineffectual person.
Michael Hainey is a Deputy Editor of Air Mail