An American Nightmare: The Millions Interviews Dave Eggers

September 16, 2020 | 1 book mentioned 11 min read

With the presidential election drawing near, it seems there has been an increase in Trump-related books, though the publishing industry has steadily published titles about Trump or inspired by him since he took office. Dave Eggers, author of numerous books, founder of McSweeney’s and Scholar Match, and co-founder of 826 Valencia and Voice of Witness, has reported on Trump’s presidency for The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, and recently turned to fiction to focus on the subject.

Eggers’s latest book, The Captain and the Glory, is a hybrid of political satire and allegory that begins when a new captain, modeled after Trump, takes over a cruise ship called the Glory. The book presents the Captain as cowardly—he hides under his bed, listening to a voice in a vent—and cruel. While the ending of this slim novel is hopeful, the inhumane acts may be what linger most for readers.

During what is now commonly known as “the before times,” I spoke with Eggers at the McSweeney’s office in San Francisco to discuss The Captain and the Glory. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the upcoming elections, the American Dream and Nightmare, and Trump’s cruel policies. 

The Millions: What do you think is at stake this election?

Dave Eggers: Well, I don’t think I could handle four more years myself, but whether it’s four more years or just a year, I do believe that we can bounce back and think that the values that we typically live and stand for will be restored. I think he’s once in a lifetime. There’s nobody with his combination of fame, charisma, madness, and seeming expertise in certain things. There’s nobody like that, there hasn’t been, and I don’t think there will be.

I think that the dignity of the office will humble the next person in the way it’s supposed to. That’s what I hope and believe, and that’s what I wrote at the ending of this book, because I actually can’t imagine it being any other way. If there was another person like him in the wings I would be scared, but I don’t know if that person exists.

TM: In a PBS NewsHour interview, you mentioned that the American Dream “is always alive and always under threat.” I think that The Captain and the Glory is your take on the American Dream, specifically post the 2016 election, and I like to define these kinds of terms and concepts. How do you define the American Dream?

DE: Well, you walked through Scholar Match on the way here and that to me is the embodiment of the American Dream, where higher education is much more accessible here than it is in any other country; we have more colleges, we have more of an egalitarian approach to it. Higher education has been the catapult to class mobility since the beginning of the Republic, since Alexander Hamilton came from the Caribbean and got his degree and came here with nothing and ended up as Secretary of Treasury and one of the framers of the nation.

You see the American Dream alive every single day, and the most sort of bedrock and corny aspects of it—if you work hard, you can get ahead; if you play by the rules, as they say, you will be given opportunities. You know, I’m from the Midwest, we believe in some simple but provable concepts. I believe that’s where I define the American Dream, where it is about anyone from here or from elsewhere in the world, if they come here, opportunity is available—it is not always available, but for so many, tens of thousands, if not millions, every year, it becomes a reality.

At the same time, I think that Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, when he was part of the administration, all of these people, would very much like to limit the access to that American Dream and pull up the ladder, close up the borders, and keep a white majority and limit those opportunities to people that are already here and can prove their lineage to Norway ideally. I think that’s where it’s always under threat.

I don’t think in our lifetime the American Dream, as it pertains to new arrivals, has ever been so explicitly denied. There might have been implicit or quiet ways of making people feel unwelcome, or favoring certain groups, but this is the first time in our lifetime where from the highest levels we’ve said, Enough, enough of any of you from countries that we don’t consider favorable to our national demographic. It’s never been so punitively and cruelly stated, I think.

TM: It’s been said that we’re living in a moment of crisis, that these things have always been present, and the volume has been turned up. I think you partially answered this next question, but how would you define the American Nightmare?

DE: Well, I think in many ways we’re living in it, in the cruelty, the denial of rights, the denial of the rule of law, the naked xenophobia, the glorification of ignorance in a way, the black hole culturally speaking of the White House—having no recognition of any cultural contributions that the United States has or makes or can export. It’s been the first administration in probably 100 years that hasn’t had one artist visit the White House at any time. Instead, like out of any authoritarian playbook, there is an exaltation of the military, of the police, of anyone in Europe, of order. For a liberal democracy, this is as far as we can go toward illiberal authoritarianism without completely breaking the American experiment.

At the same time, weirdly, our checks and balances and our legal system and organizations like the ACLU, keep proving every day that there are ways to thwart, slow down, push hurdles in front of, and outright defeat so many of these policies. One of the most encouraging moments was seeing Ivanovic and Bill Taylor, and dedicated civil servants, come out with incredible earnestness and talk about their work and talk about the mission that they’re tasked with and how important it is to create a hedge against Russian imperialism. It was heartening to see there are tens of thousands of people like this in the government that are so sincere. They are what make the government run and hold themselves and the country to the highest standards.

It was restorative to see civil servants in public expressing basic outrage about what they see as an infringement on and an abasement of the dignity of their mission. That makes me think that there are so many more of them than there are the Trumps and the Bill Barrs. The vast majority of Washington and all government systems are sincere people.

TM: It sounds like that even though you think that we’re living in a nightmare, knowing that these folks work in the government, helps you feel more hopeful or secure about the future.

DE: Yeah, it was a good reminder. I think the foundation is strong. There’s a certain amount of damage you can do from the Oval office, but I don’t think that it’s enough to irrevocably alter that foundation.

TM: You’ve talked about scaling down setting and characters in The Captain and the Glory in order to satirize D.C. What things did you intentionally leave out?

DE: Melania, it started with Melania, maybe. It’s both too easy and too mean.

TM: In what ways?

DE: Well, I had passages written about somebody like Melania, and it seemed too broad, actually, and I guess too easy. I was about to say I consider her a victim of this predatory clown, but I don’t think that she’s a victim.

I think you have to decide on who that cast of characters is. When you shrink the cast and the setting and you create a universe with its own rules, you don’t have to at all conform to the logic of D.C. or a government anymore. There’s something inherently funny about a cruise ship, and the people that work on it. At the same time, if you consider what is to be a happy, celebratory atmosphere and turn it a little bit and the people that serve you mojitos and lay out the deck chairs become a pseudo-militia that carries out what amounts to ritualized drownings of certain people, then it can get really dark, really quickly. I wanted that to be part of it from the start. There’s this ridiculousness at the superficial level, which we’re living with, but then, at the same time, Trump and his cohorts enact policies that have ended the lives of countless people and created a culture of menace and fear for millions.

I was visiting a family that I wrote about before, that has been living in a church basement for a year and a half. A woman that came here because her ex had threatened her life, and she was quite sure if she didn’t leave, she would be killed. She left one child with her mom, came up here with her youngest child, presented herself at the border, applied for asylum, and they gave her a court location but no date. They said they would tell her the date and time of the court appearance. They never did and they tried her in absentia and they issued a final order of deportation. If she goes home, she dies. She has two American kids now, she’s been working— she’s exactly who we should be protecting in every way, and we should be keeping her with her American children where they can do harm to no one and live their lives in peace; but instead, the government has put the full force of its authority into removing her. They most recently fined her almost $300,000. They issued a terrifying letter saying that she owed the government $300,000. They tried to lure her out of the church, so that they could arrest and deport her, which they do a lot of times. And that level of venom and cruelty is, at least to me, new and soul shaking and hard to live with.

There’s the ludicrous communication and superficial appearance and clownishness, and then there’s this cruelty and our capacity for tolerating cruelty. Those were the two themes of the book from the beginning.

TM: Yes, and in the Captain and the Glory, there seems to be an attempt to get at the Captain’s internal reality, almost as a way to explain why those themes exist. In the book, it seems that his fear and paranoia are fueling the clownishness and cruelty.

DE: Yeah, and in the book, the Captain starts as a little bit more of an empty vessel than Trump is, I think, in real life, and the voice in the vent articulates and confirms his fears and gives him an action plan for them. In my studies of Trump, he’s always been a racist and he’s always been a xenophobe, but it turned up many notches when he ran, and I think his handlers, starting with Bannon and Miller and others, convinced him that this was important to his base. I’m sure Nixon was the same kind of fearful and loathing personality, but, in public, he had some discipline about expressing it. Trump’s lack of discipline is actually the reason why we see the nutty side.

If you read the tweets before he was in office, more and more, he was always inclined toward the conspiracy, whether it was Muslims dancing after 9/11 or starting with the Central Park Five. He was always ready to believe the worst of anyone that wasn’t white, for one thing. Then he started courting and being advised by people like Bannon, Alex Jones, Stephen Miller, and coddling the alt-right—that was the voice in the vent, originally it was an amalgam of Alex Jones, Stephen Miller, Bannon—people that do present a bleak, paranoid, fearful view of the world that is about threats and about invading hordes. He gravitates towards those voices, because they stoke these fearful embers in him and that is something that’s fascinating to me.

I was trying to get at that the Captain is such a cowardly person that he has to live largely under his bed, and there has his fears confirmed and articulated by this disembodied voice. It’s one of those things where it started writing itself, because a lot of this was written in a stream of consciousness, in the first draft. Sometimes that’s where you get your best and purest truth—when you just let go and, like the shaping of a dream, you realize afterward that it’s speaking to something that you haven’t been able to articulate otherwise. I think writing from the subconscious is rewarding sometimes.

TM: Slightly related to the subconscious, I was thinking about symbolism. I was thinking about the vent and the ship and what they might mean on a symbolic level. But I think you might be fascinated with ships, or maybe they appear in your work because of San Francisco, your setting.

DE: Well, obviously I think it’s subliminal—you’re always seeing oceans, water, island, and ships. Once I knew that to make this at all interesting, it couldn’t be in D.C., and it couldn’t be exactly now, it couldn’t be landlocked or land-bound; you do have to completely change the venue to tell a story that has parallels, but doesn’t kneel before the facts at all times. You have to tell your own story that is appealing and entertaining on its own—and I was determined to do that.

I wanted the story to go into even darker places, and to show nobody aboard that ship is suited to revive it—they’ve been transformed, paralyzed, and desiccated, and it’s only those from elsewhere that have heard the legend of the Glory that are equipped to restore it and to believe in the mythology and to believe in those books of laws and principals. Refugees from tiny vessels come having recovered the floating manuals and guiding principles and laws, saying, I thought you might want these back. I didn’t know that was the ending until I wrote it.

TM: Right. You didn’t know that that’s where you were heading. Given that it’s a book about the American Dream, and that you believe in the foundation of the government, and you believe in the American Dream, it makes sense that your subconscious would take you there, right?

DE: Yeah, I’ve always said the people that dream the American Dream the best are immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants—it’s always been that way—I don’t think there’s any exception. We’re not ourselves without constant influx of new people, that has always been the energy of this country and it always will be. On a basic entrepreneurial level, all the statistics say immigrants are double or triple the rate of entrepreneurship and that’s important to me—I am sort of an entrepreneur, too.

I hope that we’ll be okay. The number of asylum seekers we’re taking in has dropped almost to historic lows, the number of turnarounds at the border is higher, higher than ever. It will take a lot of effort to get that back up again, because it’s hard to open the doors once people have gotten used to them being closed. But I do think that the people that will remind us of why this country exists are not necessarily going to be the Stephen Millers and Bannons and Trumps of the world—it’s gonna be people that actually have read and believed in the words that define the country in the first place.

TM: Earlier you mention cutting Melania out. I’ve been thinking about the Captain’s fascination with his daughter. As a reader, I think it’s clear he has sexual desire for her—the way he’s looking at her. It’s something that the narrator goes back to again and again, and I’m interested in why this book includes it.

DE: The book is mirroring his public comments on Howard Stern and elsewhere, and when he said, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, I’d perhaps be dating her.” Because there are too many outrages to count, we forget 90 percent of them in any one assessment. We elected somebody who had been accused of and demonstrably was a predator, bragged about it, and also expressed amorous interest in some way or objectified his daughter in the national media. There were certain things that I wanted to remind people of.

TM: You mentioned being an entrepreneur. In an interview on Connecticut Public Radio, you listed some attributes that you thought should be necessary for the president. You mentioned empathy and knowing the Constitution, among other things. The presidency is kind of a macro example of leadership. What attributes do you think are necessary for leaders on a more micro level, in small businesses or institutions?

DE: Empathy, again, of course. There are positions for people that lack empathy and they could be in places where they could do less harm. I think empathy is genetically predisposed to have more or less, but I also think it’s something that could be taught, simply by reading a lot and listening a lot.

Intellectual flexibility, curiosity, eagerness to listen and learn, a presumption that you don’t know much and that everybody around you can teach you so much every day. I think one of the great joys of life is you go through it knowing how little you know and taking such pleasure in the relief that you’re really not going to know 99 percent of anything. So, if you consider yourself a vessel that has room to be filled, then that’s so liberating in a way. I’ve learned so much even in the last 20 years being with McSweeney’s.

With 826, I knew 100 percent I did not have any qualifications to run a nonprofit, so I was going to do mostly listening and helping along. All Nínive Calegari, the co-founder, and I ever did really was aggregate everyone’s ideas into a workable form and execute them. So tenacity, the ability to achieve the result, would be the last attribute.

Bonus Links:
A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’
The Perils of Writing Wilderness: On Dave Eggers’s ‘Heroes of the Frontier’
Stranger in a Strange Land: Dave Eggers’s ‘The Parade’

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, Lit Hub, The Rumpus, Marketplace, and anthologized in California Prose Directory, Rooted, and Golden State Writing. She has received scholarships and residencies from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Oregon State University’s Graduate School, and Spring Creek Project. She lives in Los Angeles.

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