Were Bernie Bros and Trumpkins Craving a Religious Moment?
A novelist confronts the near-conversion craving that some voters seek in political candidates and ideas and deals with it the only way he can—as fiction.
I think it’s close enough to the truth to say that my latest novel began in a grimy pub in Newark, New Jersey, where I had a (typical for me) religious experience with Marxism, a near-conversion experience. The novel I refer to is The Radicals, my second—in self-promotional mode, yes, but not only that. The book is about political activists who get in over their heads, who get impatient, who get violent, but in a surreptitious way it’s also about my friend Paul and me, and tennis, and ambition, and the kind of hopeful ideas that made Bernie Sanders possible, and arguably Trump, too.
I’m not in the mood to develop that argument outright—and anyway it’s been developed before, and before. I’m in the mood to think of Paul and sit again in the happy hyper-articulate gale of his talk. One night in the graduate seminar we’d met in, Paul called a comment of mine “petty bourgeois.” I didn’t quite know what that meant, only that it wasn’t very good. When I asked him about it in the post-class pub session, Paul laughed out loud, throwing back his head.
“I did say that, didn’t I?”
“In front of the whole class,” I said.
We were both laughing, but Paul could hear the telltale earnestness in my voice, I think, and soon enough an earnest discussion followed.
This was 2008, a kind of chiaroscuro moment in American life, and in my life, darkness and light intermingling. Barack Obama was a few months from the White House, but Bush fils (as Maureen Dowd liked to call him) and the wars he’d given us, the torture regime, Guantanamo prison, the Patriot Act, and that dark etcetera—all of it still hung in the air. I was a first-year graduate student at Rutgers-Newark, getting a stipend to teach and try to write a little literature of my own, an absurd privilege. And I was learning about more than just literature, too. In a conversation with a poet friend and making some grand statement about what we all value, surely— She half-raised her hand, interrupting me. “Who’s ‘we,’ though? You mean the white ‘we,’ right?” Or the hijabi Muslim student who came to speak to me after class, not quite lifting her eyes to mine but describing the anger she’d felt at the slighting description of Muslim women in Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday. (“How dismal, that anyone should be obliged to walk around so completely obliterated,” thinks the novel’s protagonist, seeing a trio of women in full burkas.)
“It’s not like that,” my student said.
“Well, write about it. Write about what it is like,” I told her, and a week later she turned in an impassioned defense of what might be called modesty-positive feminism, implicitly arguing against the Western intellectual ethos that dismisses such a position as self-deluding and repressed.
Politics currented on the very air in that time and place, it seemed to me, so Paul Heideman, holding court in Marxism class behind the strangely small laptop he tapped at, the large glasses he wore, the hipster-tight thrift-shop T-shirts he sported (I remember a tie-dyed unicorn affair, which I duly complimented), and the air of happy-go-lucky impatience he sometimes gave off, I don’t know how else to describe it—Paul made sense. He’d come to Rutgers-Newark specifically to study with the radical scholar and activist who led our seminar with her own mix of generosity and occasional exasperation. And who could blame her? All these gatecrashing poets in the class, all these novelists-in-training pretending like they knew what they were talking about! In my first paper that semester, I’d adopted an arty formal approach (cf. Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) that the professor dismissed in her comments as “kind of pretentious.”
Paul got a big kick out of that one, too, when I told him about it. I found I liked to make him laugh in our after-class sessions, even if the jokes came at my expense. We got a group together, usually, and repaired to McGovern’s or Kilkenny Alehouse—the choice depended on the collective money situation, or how much seeped-in whiskey smell we felt we could take. “I don’t want to be ecumenical,” Paul said one night. “Fuck the Stalinists! I’m right, they’re wrong!”
It was exhilarating to be in the presence of such knowing, consequential talk. You felt knowing by association, as if complicated answers to world-historical problems could be transmitted by a kind of osmosis. You began to feel (or anyway I began to feel) what a very different Paul had once called “hope against hope”—New Testament hope for liberation from sin mingling with its secular version, or so I began to see it.
I asked Paul if he could make sense of the differences between contemporary Trotskyist and Stalinist positions, and he tried, and I tried to understand. I asked him how he could honestly maintain that no meaningful difference existed between Obama and John McCain—and not the recent, returned-to-moderation McCain, remember, but the John McCain who’d sold his soul to the Republican Establishment and who was now taking to stages across America with running-mate and “lamestream media” scourge Sarah Palin. And no meaningful difference existed between them?
“Which candidate would pose a serious threat to America’s posture of military imperialism abroad, predatory capitalism at home?” Paul said, laying down his ace.
He saw it as an ace, anyway, and I think I was starting to see it that way, too. I was ready, I was eager—I displayed the near-convert’s faux-combativeness, but deep down I wanted to believe.
I should mention, too, that I wasn’t actually drinking myself during those after-class drinking sessions in the spring of 2008. A Mormon by birth and training, I was at last leaving the church, but slowly, slowly—a slow learner. By the time I broke with Mormonism officially, it was almost a year after I’d left Rutgers, and it was my Mormon wife who made the leaving possible—in asking me for a divorce, she’d released me from my final obligation to the church. Not my memories of it, of course, or its traces in me. A good Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, put the personality down to an “infinity of traces,” influences, experiences, the various accidents of birth and history that we burn behind us like comets’ tails—amen and amen.
For a long time my working title for The Radicals was a phrase lifted from the book of Matthew, “on earth as it is in heaven”—lifted and darkened, dropped into a radical context. When the novel darkens along with its catalyzing character, Sam, when the guns turn up, and eventually the bodies, it’s because Sam and the people he’s gathered around him begin to prosecute their vision of heaven on earth, reluctant earthlings be damned. It’s the Marxist as jihadist, Crusader, dictator.
This wasn’t and isn’t my friend Paul, I should make clear. If anything, Paul surprised me by his distinct lack of sympathy for the socialist bloodletters of the 20th century—Stalin, Mao, the obvious ones, and the not-so-obvious ones too. When I asked him what he made of the Baader-Meinhof gang, the ’70s radical group in West Germany that took hostages and later executed them, burned down department stores with the cleaning staff still in them—“They were crazy,” Paul interrupted me. “Those people were crazy.”
And there I was again, asking and asking my questions, greedy for answers—not drinking but drunk on Paul’s knowledge, his enthusiasm, his charisma. (And of course I mean “charisma” in its religious sense: a divine gift, a spirit of radical change that descends on your soul.)
I’ve lately wondered if the large swathes of the country who flocked to one populist, grand-narrative campaign or the other during the 2016 presidential election didn’t feel a pull toward politics as religion, religion as politics, as I think I began to feel with Paul. The irony isn’t lost on me that I, the former Mormon missionary, had pressed my friend into the role of proselytizer on those nights at McGovern’s or Kilkenny’s, and later across the net at tennis courts all over Newark. It turned out Paul and I both loved the gentleman’s game—he as a Rafael Nadal fan, I a Roger Federer fan, a division of loyalties and aesthetic values at least as unbridgeable as the Trotskyist–Stalinist divide, but somehow we’ve managed. I think I wanted Paul to give me more than anyone could give me, a new god, a new stripe to belong to completely. Later on I saw this with a fiction writer’s clarity—I recoiled against my needling, misplaced zeal, let it out unbridled onto the page, and watched it burn down the world.