Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides tells DW why he would never be interviewed by an American media outlet about Donald Trump. He also explains why Trump reminds him of the Wizard of Oz.
DW: The ascent of rabble-rouser Donald Trump to become the top Republican presidential contender has been strongly condemned from all sides – liberal and conservatives groups, religious organizations, women's rights groups as well as African-American and Hispanic groups. Compared to many of those voices the American cultural and intellectual establishment so far seems to have remained rather mute. Why is that?
Jeffrey Eugenides: Why do you think that is true? My sense is that American writers and artists are as surprised and shocked and opposed to the idea of Trump becoming president as everybody else. But I don't know that there is a vehicle or an organization through which artists are able to protest in a visible way that might be noticed in Germany.
I am trying to think when artists have done that collectively on any other issue and it's not so often that that happens. Certainly writers and artists are individually throwing up their hands and being surprised about it. I did an event with Zadie Smith the other day where the subject came up and we are as surprised about it as everyone else. Everyone thought it was kind of funny at first and didn't take it seriously and as it goes on people become more worried. But I don't really know if I can really sign on to the idea that writers are reacting to it in contrast to the rest of the country and people who are opposed to Trump.
Just to compare, a few years ago, more than 50 German writers published an open letter calling on Chancellor Merkel to investigate the so called NSA affair. And last year over 1,000 European writers, including the late Nobel Prize Winner Günter Grass, issued an urgent appeal to European leaders to protect refugees' rights. Do you think American writers and intellectuals are more reluctant to speak out on current political issues than their European colleagues?
European culture is more interested in listening to the opinion of writers than American culture typically is. I am doing an interview with you right now about a political issue, Trump, and I talked to ZDF [a German public television channel, the ed.] last week about Trump. I would never be asked by an American media outlet to offer my opinions about politics, or about Trump. In the states they ask people affiliated with politics and pundits. We are overwhelmed by talking heads who appear on television to discuss these things. They rarely ask what artists think about these things. I do think there is a difference between Europe and America in terms of the clout that writers have in terms of various issues. It will come up now and then, during the run-up to the Iraq War, there were a lot of protests against the war and many writers joined in. But it's rare that writers get together on a single issue.
How do you explain the rise of Trump to yourself?
I see what's happening in the country largely as a reaction to the crisis of 2008. A lot of people lost a lot of money then and even though the economy has recovered people are still reeling from that. So you have a lot of people wondering whether the economy is rigged and whether things are going to get better and whether jobs are going to come back even despite evidence that jobs have been growing under Obama really quite amazingly. You have people on the left who feel this way who are voting for Bernie Sanders and you have people on the right who are attracted to Trump. They are responding to the same feeling of economic insecurity. The Trump supporters are different because they also have anti-immigrant views. I think what you are seeing in both parties is that kind of almost revolutionary spirit, a rushing out of a kind of anger at the political system.
You are a novelist. Which literary character reminds you of Trump or which one would you compare him to?
I was asked that the other day as well and finally came up with the Wizard of Oz which I don't think is a particularly interesting answer. But he is convincing people that he is a magician and would easily be found to be a fraud. He really doesn't know what he is doing. Yesterday he said there will be a terrible recession, but if he becomes president there won't be, because he will fix everything. These kinds of statements are completely insane. First, the president, whoever he or she is, cannot control the economy with a single switch. If that was possible we would never have recessions or economic crises. So he reminds me of that. But he is who he is in reality and I am not even sure it's that interesting to find a corollary in literature for him. He is almost a literary character as he exists now.
Jeffrey Eugenides is an American writer and professor at Princeton University. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Middlesex," mostly written in Berlin where he lived for five years. His first novel "The Virgin Suicides" was made into a major movie.
This interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.