Salman Rushdie says Donald Trump is “demolishing reality”

The U.S. president, says Rushdie, is "crazy like a fox," which has made his attacks on the concept of objective truth so effective
Salman Rushdie at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 10, 2015 in Cheltenham, England. (David Levenson/Getty Images)
Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 10, 2015 in Cheltenham, England. (David Levenson/Getty Images)

Salman Rushdie’s publisher bills his new novel as a “triumphant and exciting return to realism.” But reality feels different from when Rushdie started his career in the mid-1970s, especially in his adopted homeland. The narrator of The Golden House (Knopf Canada), aspiring film director René, reflects that in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, “America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe.”

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Throughout The Golden House, Rushdie refers to Trump as “The Joker,” and his unhinged, Batman villain-like presence looms over the characters. On the phone from his Manhattan home, the 70-year-old author calls his novel “operatic realism,” an attempt to say, “Here are the lives of real people in a real place, but these people are ruled by cartoons.” Like superhero comic books and the Hollywood movies they beget, Rushdie is concerned with how people adopt new identities, but The Golden House also looks at how we have identities thrust upon us, with effects both comic and, more often, tragic.

This being a Rushdie novel, its plot is charmingly overstuffed with references to other stories, from myths to novels to films. René is a sort of Nick Carraway, chronicling the lives of a family of Indian Gatsbys, all of whom have nicknames derived from the ancient Greeks and Romans. The ultra-rich Nero Golden (who like a superhero, or villain, hides his original name) has three adult sons: Petronius (or Petya, a software guru), Apuleius (or Apu, an artist) and Dionysus (or “D,” a disaffected college graduate). Having fled their Mumbai home for Manhattan in the wake of the 2008 terrorist attacks that killed Nero’s wife, they find the U.S. at first obliging, but then psychically dangerous.

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In conversation, Rushdie expresses a pessimism about our times, leavened by good humour and an apparently still boundless curiosity. And as our perspective on the world is narrowed by the claustrophobic echo chambers of Trump-favoured social media, The Golden House seeks to open it back out. For Rushdie, we needn’t emulate our rulers: “The Joker and the trump are the two most bizarre playing cards,” he laughs. “They don’t behave like the other cards.” He spoke with Maclean’s about the dangers of identity politics, the thrill of writing about unfolding events, and the way books can break the barriers between us.

The Golden House will be available across Canada on Sept. 5.

Q: Because the novel covers such recent history, you must have been writing it during the election. In what way did you need to respond to what was happening, as it was happening?

 A: I think there’s a real risk in writing that close to the present moment. You feel constantly that you’re bicycling very fast along the cliff edge, and you worry about falling off. But if you do it right, you can capture that moment and freeze it on the page, and contemporary readers could derive the pleasure of recognition when they read it and think, “This is how it is.” And hopefully, in the future, people can say, “Oh yes, this is how it was.” I did it before. I was writing the later parts of Midnight’s Children, which deals with the emergency rule period in the mid-’70s, when it was still going on. I remember thinking, “I don’t want the novel to end with Indira [Gandhi] in this condition of authoritarian rule, but I can’t end it in my novel if it hasn’t ended in the world.” And then in 1977 she called an election, thinking that she would win and therefore legitimize what she’d done, and instead she lost and was booted out of office. I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s an incredible relief.”

Q: This time around, you had to deal with an election that didn’t allow you to close things off in a positive way. How did that change things for you?

A: I’m sorry to say that I guessed right. Most of this book was written before Nov. 8, and I was aware that depending on how the election went, there would be some reshaping required. There would have been more reshaping if the election had gone the other way. It didn’t substantially affect the actual storyline; the way in which the characters’ lives develop is just going along its own trajectory.

Q: Some of the book’s characters find themselves bewildered and stultified by political correctness. René’s parents, who are academics, worry that “young people were becoming pro-censorship, pro-banning things, pro-restriction . . . the narrowing of the youthful American mind.” Is this a particular tension that we’re seeing now?

 A: I do worry about it somewhat, in the same way as René’s parents worry about it. It seems more like human nature for parents to tell young people not to say things and for young people to break those rules. For the young people to become censorious feels as if the world’s turned upside down. I’m not sure how big a problem it is, because I teach at NYU, and I lecture around the country at different universities, and I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody talking about safe spaces or trigger warnings or things that shouldn’t be said. I suspect that it may not be as prevalent as sometimes reports in the media make it seem, but it’s there. In this book, I wanted to try and catch what was in the air, just to say, “Here is the stuff that everybody is thinking about”—through the ideas of characters.

The Museum of Identity [a fictional museum where D’s girlfriend works] provided another theatrical space in which these ideas could be explored. I’m very interested in the way in which gender identity issues have been shifting language, from the level of the pronoun upwards. I had to dig into this, because I wanted to do justice to it. I wanted to say, “Here is what’s happening and how people are thinking about it,” and not say, “I think this is good,” or “I think this is bad.” Polemic is best kept to op-ed pages.

Q: D struggles with his gender identity, and he’s trying to figure things out for himself, but it’s difficult because everyone seems to thrust onto him ideas of what he could or should be.

A: Exactly. It becomes too painful for him. I have had in my life some experience of this: I do have at least two friends who have transitioned, one in each direction. Also, I became quite involved with the transgender community in Bombay—the hijra community—because [of] a Gates Foundation project to explore the hijra community, particularly in terms of its vulnerability to AIDS. And it was really a moving and powerful time because the community that feels so at risk and defensive doesn’t very easily open up to you. It’s very hard to get them to trust you enough to tell you their story, and very often, they will use lying as a defence mechanism. To get beyond that to the actual story really took a while. By the end of this period, they had begun to tell me their stories. That gave me another point of entry into the subject, and then I just tried to learn as much as I could and do justice to it. I wanted to avoid sensationalizing, to write with as much sympathy and empathy as I could muster.

Q: Your characters often talk about identity and resist the way people are so often labelled. In one of Donald Trump’s tirades about Charlottesville, he defied the media to “define alt-right.” It’s as if, having belittled so many people with nicknames, he realized he needed to stop that particular term from becoming a fixed category, and a locus of blame. 

A: Trump is crazy like a fox. I think he actually is crazy, but I think he has a sort of genius for putting his finger on pressure points, and he’s a great user of the dog whistle. He’s very good at saying things which his far-right constituency will hear as support. He’s trying to dismantle terms like “alt-right”—I don’t particularly like “alt-right” either. I think if people are going to be white supremacists and Nazis, you should call them white supremacists and Nazis. But it is characteristic of the whole Trump moment, these very strange last six months—this attempt to demolish reality, because things are not what they obviously are. The attack on the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth has been deliberate and very powerful and effective.

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Q: And in the book, Apu says, “Knowing things is boozwha” (or “bourgeois”), as if knowledge and learning themselves are being critiqued—not just by the right but by the left. 

A: That’s right. It’s not a left/right divide. One thing that gets me worked up is how scholars and writers and journalists are called “elite,” and if you look at this American government, it contains more billionaires than any administration in the history of the United States. They are the people who hear the voice of the people? It seems another case of the world turned upside-down: the elite describing its adversaries as elite. The creators of fake news accusing the people writing actual news of being the fakers. The reversal in order to demolish the idea that something is true and something else is untrue.

If you look across the ocean at England, one thing that happened in the Brexit vote was an enormous distrust of experts. Anybody who was an economist or versed in constitutional law—anybody who knew something and was trying to talk about the possible consequences of leaving the European Union—was immediately attacked for being elitist, from both sides. It’s a very odd thing that’s happened—the actual fear of learning, the actual fear of knowing things. I saw a report which said that now a majority of Republicans thinks that universities are harmful in the United States. When you live in that world of crumbling reality, it’s something that literature at the very least has got to try and engage with.

Q: Near the end, René asks readers, “let my little story have its final moments in the midst of whatever macro garbage is around as you read this, whatever manufactroversy, whatever horror or stupidity or ugliness or disgrace.” Could this be read as a plea for people to step aside from the news cycle for a moment and read something as substantial and considered such as a work of literature? 

A: [Laughs.] Yes, I suppose so. I remember hearing the great Israeli writer, David Grossman, talking about his work, [which takes] place against this highly politicized, very fraught, public landscape. He said in spite of all that, the novel needed to retain the human scale, and to tell stories of actual human beings being human beings, even in the midst of all this gigantic political public assault of history on private life. And I think René, there, is trying to say something of that sort: step aside from the garbage and look at human beings, trying to resolve their issues and go through their lives. That is perhaps what art can most importantly give us. It can remind us of human nature and who we actually are.

Q: At the end of your memoir, Josef Anton, you wrote that “readers and writers can take the knowledge of broad-based identity out into the world beyond the pages of books and use the knowledge to find common ground with their fellow human beings.” Is this something you hope readers will take away from your own novels? 

A: Well, I hope so, because the novel has always known that human beings are many things at once. We’re very both broad and deep, and the greater the novel, the more powerfully it makes us feel that. I think people who love novels, people who read literature and carry it with them, have that sense of what it is to be a human being. That’s richer than the narrower identity politics that people are being forced into nowadays.