Booker prize winner says president’s rise is not a shock and race relations have improved very little, even under Obama
When Donald Trump was being inaugurated, Paul Beatty was lying in bed with his wife, groggy with medication halfway around the world, in Jaipur, India. His book, The Sellout, a sarcastic, complex novel on race relations in the US, was the first American work to win the Man Booker prize, but Beatty, faced by a phalanx of cameras at a press conference at the Jaipur literature festivalon Saturday, refuses to play along and be the voice of black America that the journalists so desperately want him to be.
“I don’t claim to offer any special insight,” he says. “I read the same newspapers you all do.” Reclining on a large sofa hidden from the crowds of literature enthusiasts attending the festival, Beatty slumps as though a dark cloud is hanging over his head. His pessimism about America’s future seems to reflect the gloom of many Americans who watched the former reality-TV star take the oath on Friday.
“It’s like a big test – and it’s like, is the world going to fail? [Trump’s victory] is so symptomatic of so much that’s happening [in the world]. In the States everybody pays attention, because supposedly the States is different. But this xenophobia, this fear, this insecurity, with [Indian prime minister Narendra] Modi here, [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines, they’ve always been there, but the fact that they’re making progress, that’s scary.”
Trump’s rise is difficult to comprehend, Beatty says. “It’s like a diorama on how we do things against our own self- interest,” he says. “Despite his misogyny, his rhetoric, 48% of women voted for Trump, 8% of African-Americans.”
He muses that many who support Trump do so just to provoke reactions. “I had a friend who was telling me about this friend of hers who she sees as a progressive, nice guy. And for the past month [before the election], he’d been saying pro-Trump things as jokes. And in my head I was like, ‘you know he’s not joking’.” And she was like, ‘you’re probably right. He’s just testing these trial balloons.’ And I bet there’s so many people like this.”
To Beatty, Trump stood out as particularly undignified against the dignified ritual of the inauguration. “It’s funny because you have this decorum, and this guy is anything but gracious, anything but. At least Barack Obama has a level of civility that Trump doesn’t.”
But watching him take the oath, Beatty felt none of the shock or horror that many liberal Americans have since election results were announced. Trump’s America, he says, is one that has existed for a long time, and one that Beatty knows well. “This is nothing new. To me that’s the part that feels disingenuous. When people go, I don’t recognise this place. And I’m like, where have you been? That’s the part that bothers me. With the police violence – people are like, oh I didn’t know. And it’s like people have been putting this in your face for ages and all of a sudden now … why now?”
After Trump’s victory was announced, a class of students that he teaches at Columbia University in New York greeted him in tears. “They were distraught. They were inconsolable. They are in their early 20s, so they’ve grown up with whatever Obama does symbolise, they’ve grown up with that for a big part of their lives. They’ve come of age with it, and all of a sudden that’s gone.”
For many, Obama’s presidency marked an era of change in America. But Beatty always doubted the rosy image of improving race relations under the nation’s first black president that was presented at the time. Some of his students, he says, were horrified and hurt when their own parents started spouting pro-Trump rhetoric. “What’s to be hurt by? Why are you hurt? Is this new for you? How is this new?”
The existence of white supremacy, xenophobia and violence is something he and many of his generation of non-white Americans have grown up with. Beatty describes always feeling an outsider in his own country. “Maybe I just don’t feel accepted, so I don’t feel hurt. I’m not a patriot. It’s just my home, where I grew up, but hurt, no. I don’t have that parental relationship to the place. It’s like if my mom kicked me out of my house, I’m hurt. I don’t have that relationship to the government, to the people. I don’t.”
Beatty doesn’t want to make predictions about the future (at least, not in public), but he fears Trump’s presidency will make life more difficult for black Americans. “I think things can get worse. I have zero faith in this guy. Zero faith in the people that stand behind him.”
Within hours of being inaugurated, the LGBT and climate change pages on the presidential website were taken down. This and Trump’s “America first” rhetoric were alarming, Beatty says.
So was his victory despite his refusal to release his tax returns during the election campaign, and the leaked tape of him boasting about sexually assaulting a woman that presented a dangerous and terrifying new reality, where people no longer care how their politicians behave.
“The thing I’ve been thinking about,” he says, “is this continuing lack of accountability and the nation’s continuing acceptance of that. And Trump ran along those lines, and very few people held him accountable.”
In a sense, the lack of accountability is what brought America here, Beatty says: “Talking about Iraq we never held ourself accountable. We’ve never done something on the level of South African reconciliation committees, to say hey, what did we do here? It’s something Americans are not very good at doing. That’s not new, but the blatancy feels new. Its so in-your-face.”
The only optimism, he feels, comes from the thousands of protesters and campaigners who take to the streets to oppose Trump’s rhetoric. “Thank God there are people with the stamina who are making their voice heard. Whether their frustrations get heard is another story, but they’re out there screaming and shouting.”