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Enemies, A Love Story

George Saunders explains how writing about Trump voters and writing a novel required the same skill: understanding people you don’t agree with.

By February 2017Comments

Photograph by Jonathan Sprague

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

George Saunders has lived up north for most of his life (he was raised in Chicago and teaches creative writing at Syracuse University), but the acclaimed 58-year-old writer is actually a Texan: he was born in Amarillo, visited his grandparents there nearly every summer, and spent time in his twenties working in a Texas slaughterhouse and playing guitar in a country band. This month, the question on the minds of fans of his short stories—Will he ever write a novel?—will finally be answered when his first full-length work, Lincoln in the Bardo, a fantastical treatment of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s adolescent son, Willie, is published on February 14.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jeff Salamon: Could you lay out the chronology of your time in Texas? I know you were born in Amarillo, moved pretty quickly to Chicago, then came back during the summers as a kid. But I’m a little blurry on the details.

George Saunders: My dad was stationed at Amarillo Air Force base and he and my mom met at a dance and got married and I was born there and lived there till I was about maybe one. Then we moved to Chicago. My mom’s family stayed in Amarillo, so every summer we had this big ritual, where we would get in the car and drive 24 straight hours to Amarillo and stay there up on Alice Street. It was just paradise. They were the most beautiful summers ever. Down in Palo Duro Canyon they have this play called “Texas” that I think they still have, and that was always a big deal. My grandfather was a salesman in the Panhandle, he sold beauty supplies and hearing aids so he’d take me out with him and we’d go out to Dumas and Borger and Pampa and all those types of places. For a kid from Chicago this was very mythologically rich, to self-identify as a Texan. He would send me back to Chicago with Texas flags—I still have a little Texas-shaped paper weight. When I was a kid my identity was very much a “I’m in Chicago but really I’m a Texan” kind of thing. Then I went to school up in the Colorado School of Mines, and at the same time my parents moved back to Amarillo, I think to be closer to my mom’s family. So my college summers were also all spent in Amarillo. I did work in the oil fields one of those summers and then when I was in my 20s I went to Asia and came back and lived in Amarillo.

JS: Is that where you worked in the pig slaughterhouse?

GS: It was pigs and cows, actually.

JS: And you were a “knuckle puller.”

GS: Not for very long, thank God.

JS: And there was a period where you were playing in a cosmic country band in Amarillo?

GS: I don’t know if it was that cosmic. Just straightforward country. It was after I had been to Asia and I settled down in Amarillo for a year or so and was working at an apartment complex and playing in this band. It was on Amarillo Boulevard, which is Route 66. By that time—it was the mid 80s—that street had seen better days. I was looking for work and I auditioned for this band on a Wednesday night and they said, “Okay, come tonight and we’ll play.” We never rehearsed, we just did Hank Williams and Ray Price and all the classic country songs. I was the lead guitar player. We played the same set four times a night, we’d play from 7 until 2 in the morning and make $50 cash. It was great.

JS: You grew up in Chicago, so I’d have to assume most of your identity is Chicagoan, is that right?

GS: Yeah, you can hear it in my voice, probably.

JS: Did being born in Texas and spending a lot of your summers in Texas make you different in any way? Did kids call you “Tex”?

GS: No, but I wanted them to. I would’ve loved them to. As far as they knew I was making it all up, anyway. The one thing that was really wonderful was my mom had a very beautiful, thick Southern accent and the kids would come over to our house to hear that. That was kind of cool. That was exotic.

I do remember coming back one summer with an affected accent to show off a little bit. I guess everyone does that—you have your main identity and you need a shadow identity. I was really into cowboy movies and stuff and I think it was because I loved that side of my family so much. And when I went there, there was always that summer feeling of freedom and for many years I was the only grandson, so there was that sense of disgusting entitlement. Texas always meant a lot. It means a lot to me even now.

This is kind of embarrassing, but I got into the Syracuse University’s MFA program when I was 25, and I was very insecure and intimidated because I was going to meet all these great writers. So what I did was I intensely self-identified as a Texan. My dad had bought me this old ‘66 Ford pickup with a camper on it and I definitely had a bit of a Dwight Yoakam look going on and I had boots and I was playing all this Jerry Jeff Walker and all these kinds of songs. So when I got to Syracuse it was almost my safety armor, that I was a Texan. I think it confused people because I sounded just the way I sound now. My wife finally called me out: “You’re not from Texas! You sound like you’re from the South Side.”

JS: But she fell in love with a guy from Texas.

GS: Well, she fell in love with some combination of those.

JS: Is that when it came to an end?

GS: Ehh, not right away, no. I think it took a few years. What happened is we started to work and we didn’t have any money and we had our kids right away, and it takes a little bit of extra energy to cling to a shadow identity and I didn’t have any energy, so pretty soon I would just look tired all the time.

JS: Let’s talk about your new book. Your last story collection, Tenth of December, has a “Coming Attractions” page in the back advertising your “long-awaited first novel.” I suspect that if you had started your career with four celebrated novels, the arrival of your first collection of short stories wouldn’t have been promoted as “long-awaited.” Short-story collections are what publishers, somewhat reluctantly, put out to keep marquee novelists happy. How much have you internalized that hierarchy, of the novel being the most important thing?

GS: After the Tenth of December got on the best-seller list, I purged myself of any desire to write a novel or any feeling of second-class citizenship. Which, paradoxically, is what led me to finally write a novel. This book, the whole way through, I kept saying, “I don’t feel like it has to be a novel, because I don’t want to write a novel. If it could be a novella or a story . . .”  I was keeping it very honest; I wanted to do justice to this particular story by any means necessary. If it meant writing a poem about it or writing a movie about it, I would’ve done it. I went in to with a very simple attitude, which was, let me just not dishonor this material, let me find the real emotional core of this material by using whatever form I have to use. So at the end I felt like I cobbled together this approach. It was like MacGyver—you take a bobby pin and a penguin and you make a nuclear reactor out of it because that’s what you need at the time.

JS: Have there been any other attempted novels along the way?

GS: Oh God, yes. And then six months in I’d find out it wasn’t a novel after all. So my mantra became “No extraordinary measures.”  If I’m trying to tell a story, I’m always looking for the exit, for the shortest distance between two points. I don’t mean that as a general principle, but for me it’s a solid working approach:

I’m not going to linger, I’m not going to make big asides, I’m just going to try to cut for the exit. And somehow, for a reason I don’t understand, that tends to keep the material honest. It keeps it sitting up straight.  

JS: Is this book an inflated version of a George Saunders short story or something different?

GS: No, that’s what I did not want. No inflation. That’s the other mantra: No inflation. I think what I found out—it was kind of a revelation—was that I kept waiting for that moment to happen, where a whole different set of skills would come in and inhabit my body because it was a novel. But it was nothing like that—it was the same principles applied to a slightly bigger frame. So the principle would be, you stay in one scene, and you revise it almost fanatically until it produces a bridge to the next scene. Related to that, if you’re in scene 15 you’re always looking at scene 14 and scene 16 to see if it’s a beautiful shape, if the cause and effect is correct. Which is exactly the same principle with a short story. In my mind, there’s not a big difference between a short story and a novel besides the size.

JS: Now that you’re done with it, I don’t get the sense that you’re, like, “Phew, now I can get back to short stories which are what I really love!” Nor are you like, “On to novel number two!”

GS: Both of those impulses are there. I had a long apprenticeship as a writer. Early on, I messed myself up by trying to be too in control of the process, by trying to have a set of topics about which I would write— what’s my voice, what’s my ethos? Somehow, insisting on answers to those questions was really crushing my buzz in the early days, and when I finally said, “Oh my god I’m 32 and I haven’t done anything yet, what’s going on?” that kind of despair and wonderment produced a kind of openness, like, oh fuck it, let’s just see what happens. And that was the first time I ever had that feeling of being open to the story, the story’s energy, treating it like a mystery, treating it like a problem that would be solved, but only with a lot of hands-off observation. So that’s still the idea that I try to enact, to say I’m going to see what’s interesting, see what sounds fun, and then come to it real sweetly: “What do you want to do, do you want to be a poem? Or a pamphlet? Or a slogan?”

JS: I don’t know if you like to think of yourself as part of any literary movement, but at the same time that you’ve been writing your books there have been other writers who have been pushing against the boundaries of realistic fiction, people like Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, Justin Cronin, just to name a few. And usually these writers and the critics who support their work can offer very sophisticated explanations for why they make these choices, for dipping into the fantastical, the allegorical, why those things function aesthetically. But back in 2001 you said something to an interviewer that to me almost sounded like something that someone who is criticizing your work would say. Your quote was, “Some of my stories are really sentimental but they’re layered over with weird satirical stuff.” I could imagine someone who wanted to criticize your work saying pretty much that: “Oh this is just sentimental stuff with this layer of weird satirical stuff that just disguises it.” But I can’t imagine that’s what you actually think about your work.

GS: Uh, kind of. Maybe not sentimental—maybe “emotional” would be a better word. I think actually art is, if there’s a non-pejorative way of saying it, it’s smoke and mirrors, that’s what it is. You construct this magic show in which people walk around and talk. And every writer has to cobble it together from positive and negative tendencies that they have. Just like an actor. You see these great character actors who look a certain way and they sound a certain way, and their artistry is in making accommodations with the way they sound and look to produce the illusion of another human being who isn’t them. The kind of writers who maybe aren’t that interesting are the ones who are not in some kind of struggle with their positive and negative tendencies, they’re such pros that there’s no sign of struggle.

Also, I think this mixing of elements that you’re talking about, that’s always been in storytelling—Gogol, the Bible, the great fairy tales—the idea that there would be a range of activity outside the frame of the quotidian. But, yeah, I am, every day, painfully aware of my limitations and my bad tendencies and my tics and I don’t think you eradicate those but you put them to work for yourself. If you had a unicorn in the house, you’d say to it, “Can you pull a wagon?” To me the most exciting part is to say, we’re all born into this world a mix of wonderful things and shitty things and the artist is someone who says, “Ok, all of you things that comprise me, I accept you all. I can’t cleanse myself but I can let all you little freaks onto the table. And maybe we could have some fun together.”

JS: Have you ever thought of shifting gears and writing realistic fiction again? Not because realistic fiction is superior but just because it’s different, it would be a challenge, it would get you out of your current wheelhouse?

GS: Weirdly, that’s sort of how I thought of this Lincoln book! Let’s see, how do I say this? This is complicated. Ok, here is what I’ve concluded: If I start thinking about what I’m going to do in a planning way, I get a little scared. Also, if I think of it in a way that’s too worked up—for example if I think of my work up to date as being not realistic—I’m like, well, I don’t know if that’s true. A story like the “Tenth of December” is pretty realistic in its contours. So I tend to resist planning at all. So for me to say, “I would like to continue being a sci-fi guy or start to be a realist,” that seems like a form of pinning yourself in a bit with binaries.

But the one thing I think I’ve been trying to progress toward is to be emotionally honest and try to write something that actually reflects the emotional range that I’ve experienced. In some of my earlier work, I think the main work that was being done was a kind of outrage, a feeling of outrage about the way life sometimes presents itself to us. Now, with this book, I’m trying to be a little more attentive to the emotional lessons my life has taught me and certain emotional valences that are positive, like the love Lincoln has for his son and vice versa. If I had to describe it at all, I really feel like I’m in a race to try to write books that are as happy as I am and at the emotional range that I’ve experienced. And I think even as of right now, I’m limited as every human being is. But the element in my dream is to keep moving on that axis, to keep writing books that are as in love with the world as I am, but also as terrified of the world as I am, and as emotionally open as I try to be.

JS: Though Lincoln in the Bardo is a novel, it’s still identifiable as your work. In both this book and your early short story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” a ghost of some sort enters someone else’s mind and body and feels an unexpected empathy for that person. Is that how you see yourself as a writer, as someone who is trying to get into the mind of someone you don’t know?

GS: Absolutely. If you could inhabit the secret thoughts of your enemy, they wouldn’t be your enemy. You would see their understanding of the world; what they were doing would make perfect sense. When you read a great book, you’re lifted out of your consciousness and into someone else’s, even though that second one is an imitation of a consciousness. It’s almost like compassion training wheels.  

JS: Does that process happen before you start putting pen to paper? Or is it during the writing that you find yourself starting to understand the characters you’ve created?

GS: It’s during. For me, it’s especially during revision. Because the first pass is usually a little bit cartoonish and then as you try to make the language more interesting, you also make the moral sphere more complicated and ambiguous. You know your first pass has a certain depth and then as you have the incredible privilege of going back and working over it, almost phrase by phrase, the person kind of comes out of the stone a little bit and you see them with more detail, and as you do that your heart goes out to them. It’s kind of a scale model of what happens when you get to know someone in real life. You know, you see someone who is—put in the label you want: the liberal or the conservative or the religious fanatic. And then as you get to know that person you see that’s a pretty useless label for the person who’s contained inside there. So for me it’s almost all about revision. To write about Lincoln first you get a cookie cutter Lincoln and then as you’re dwelling with him at a particular time of night in a particular setting, you’re trying to make the language more rich. And in the process, he reveals himself to you, sometimes just through striking out one phrase or putting another one in. So that’s the really interesting part of fiction. Residing in prose with a certain respect for specificity and detail can make you a better person. It makes me feel like a better person. Your sloppy thoughts get cast aside and replaced by more detailed ones.

JS: When you were younger you were an Ayn Rand–style libertarian, a political philosophy that not only isn’t interested in empathy or compassion but specifically celebrates the rejection of those qualities. How did you eventually make such an 180 degree turn? Was there a moment when it happened or was it a gradual process?

GS: Well, I was kind of a half-assed libertarian. I was feeling really insecure, so I had to find, like we talked about earlier, an identity. For me being an Objectivist [the set of ideas behind much of contemporary Libertarianism] was the identity. And I think it wasn’t in keeping with my personality or my natural inclination. I don’t think I was particularly heartless in real life. I think the place where it really fell away was when I went overseas to Asia and worked in an oil field. Objectivist philosophy was that if someone is suffering it was their problem, if someone was poor it was because they hadn’t worked hard enough. And I went to Asia in the ‘80s and we were exploiting people for the greater good for the oil business and it was easy to see that there were people suffering cruelly who were working their asses off and hadn’t been doing anything but work and were still being squashed in the mud. The story I always tell is that one night I went out drinking in Singapore and walked by this hotel that was being excavated, and I was thinking about how great it was that I could travel the world as a working class kid and then I went to the fence and I could see something moving at the bottom and it turns out it was a group of Malaysian women, ladies, old women who had been hired to clear the site of stones during the night. There were grandmotherly women in long dresses lugging these stones out by hand. It kind of made you say, what would Ayn Rand think of that? There’s a whole area of suffering that she didn’t take into account.

Also, as I’m telling you this story, I remember that there was a little bit of inoculation when I read Steinbeck for the first time. I was working in the oil fields up in Amarillo and I read the Grapes of Wrath and I was working with some vets who were in pretty rough shape mentally and some guys just out of jail, you could see that that the Objectivist moral diagram of the world was missing a few boxes.

JS: How long did that [libertarian] phase last?

GS: It’s funny, you take a bad book like The Fountainhead—well, it’s not bad, but it’s morally a little wooden, cartoonish—that book actually got me into college. I wasn’t going to go to college, but then I read Atlas Shrugged in, like, one long sitting and weird as that book is, I had never thought of myself as an intellectual person, and reading that book made me think, maybe I could go to college.

But that whole phase? A year or two. When you’re young, you make a philosophical ideal for yourself, and then the real world starts to eat away at the edges of it.

JS: The world eating away at your ideology and reshaping it almost sounds like the process of creating fiction. You start off with an idea, and then the story takes over and tells you what it is.

GS: That’s exactly right. Art is one way to remind ourselves that things are always more complicated than we can conceptualize. You think, “I’m going to write a story about this person from the opposite political camp. Ha-ha, I’ll crucify that jerk!” And as you do it, you kind of go, “Oh, hmm, I guess I don’t really know who that person is.” So I think it makes you a little slower to judge, a little slower to act, and when you do act, you act with a little more humility and empathy.  

JS: This is making me think of that piece you wrote last summer in the New Yorker, about attending some Trump rallies. But I’ll get to that in a few minutes. Unlike most literary writers you come from a lower middle class, maybe even working class, background, and you certainly did some working class jobs in your 20s. Do you think those sort of experiences inform your fiction in a way that other writers don’t have access to?

GS: I hope so. Just because, if nothing else, you find yourself in different situations than someone else might. To be short of money, to be in your 20s and already feel old because you’re so tired because you’re working so hard—those kinds of things are really great empathy expanders. I never really thought of capitalism as a thing and then when you feel it sitting on your chest, “Oh yeah, that’s a thing.” And as an educated white person if it’s sitting on my chest, you go, jeez, it must just be crushing the crap of other people. So that was definitely beneficial. I think any time that life gets you out of your usual circle it’s great. So now I’m even…I’m interested in rich people. I don’t know much about rich people; that’s kind of a blind spot for me, to see how that works. And like a lot of people who come from non-rich backgrounds I tend to caricaturize those people. So part of my job is to get up there and find out what the actual humanity is.

JS: Are you working on a project where this would be the question?

GS: Yes, it’s to become rich. (Laughs.) No, nothing in particular. But my thing is, it’s kind of childish, but I always feel like if I can find a way to get into a situation that makes me uncomfortable I’m kind of honor-bound to do it. The Trump piece would be an example.

JS: Ok, let’s talk about that. Go ahead.

GS: I had finished the Lincoln book and was kind of lounging around and happy to be done with it. And then the New Yorker asked if I’d be interested in doing a piece on Trump. My first reaction was, nah, it’s hard and I’m tired. And my wife said, “You really should do it.” And then I remembered this idea that if there’s something hard, I’m going to try to do it, especially if it’s uncomfortably hard. So I said I would do it. And it was harder than I thought, by an order of magnitude. It was really tough. I just thought I’ll go to one rally and it’ll be really outrageous and I’ll type it up. But I ended up going to five rallies in three states and a lot of different side show stuff at those rallies. And my first two drafts were rejected. It was ….it was great actually. At the time, I was ready to jump off a bridge, but in retrospect it was so expanding and confusing.

JS: What did you go in expecting you’d find among his supporters and what did you find that was different?

GS: I thought I would drop in and see a fringe movement, but what I found was that many of the people were nice and not extreme in the way I expected. They weren’t running around saying racist things. But they seemed to be coming from a totally different mind-set than I do. Their data set was so different from mine, and their way of interpreting that data was totally different. But because of my background, it wasn’t that different; I understood a lot of their frustration and so on. So that was complicated.

The other layer was that I was spending a lot of time in Phoenix with people who worked with immigrants and getting a sense of how terrifying it is to live in Arizona if you’re Mexican or Mexican American. That was really complicated, to see that there are people, nice people, who are somehow okay with, or deaf to, the hurtfulness of Trump’s rhetoric. Which made for a morally rich story to tell.  I got 10,000 words to tell it and it was really hard. I still have PTSD from the whole writing experience. (Laughs.) Not from the reality, but from writing.

JS: The conventional wisdom right up until November 8 was that Trump couldn’t possibly beat Hillary. I’m curious—the enthusiasm you saw on the trail, did that have you doubting the conventional wisdom?

GS: Yes. I was checking the news so much for any kind of reassurance that she would win. I was just ingesting it wildly. But in retrospect, the ethos of those rallies and the passion were so evident, and my attempts at persuasion fell on such deaf ears, that if I’d been a little smarter I’d have realized there was something in the air that I wasn’t picking up on.

JS: I’ve got to imagine during this political season, and now that we’re heading into the Trump presidency, that people are saying to you, “This seems so much like a George Saunders story.”

GS: Yeah. Don’t blame me. People say, “Oh, there’s a story in the press about a body cut in half, dressed up as a cowboy, it reminded me of one of your stories.” And I’m like, come on. I don’t know. It’s interesting in a way—I’ve been thinking that if we feel crestfallen or heartbroken or disoriented by all of this, it goes back to what we talked about earlier: if the world is making you heartsick it’s kind of on you. I feel like it’s on me that I didn’t see this coming, my shock at Trump’s election just means I didn’t understand America correctly. And to me that’s an empowering thing, rather than saying, “Oh my god we live in an absurd universe!” We don’t, actually; we live in a very logical cause and effect universe, but our projections cause us to not see it correctly. So that’s ok. And again that’s the artistic thing, we can say, “Alright, this story isn’t what I thought it was, what is it?” That’s kind of where I find myself right now, saying, “Ok, it’s on me, I misunderstood, let me go back and try to understand what our country is about.” It’s the ongoing effort in our life to recognize that your mind is making stories all the time and it can’t make a story as complicated as reality, so we have to have a certain relation of affectionate distrust for the stories your mind is making and then we have to invoke the skills we have to make those made-up stories more detailed. And we have those abilities so I’m not really discouraged. I’m re-committed to the importance of literacy and literature in our public imagination. I think a lot of the trouble that we’re in you could say it has to do with the way we’ve abandoned art.

JS: You wrote a novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, in which the guy who is president comes to power by exploiting fear and people crossing over a border. Have people been saying to you, “You saw this coming”?

GS: Well, yes, the book is having a real comeback in England, especially. When I wrote that book, what I tried to do was sample all the major fiascos of the 20th century and add them all into a broth and see what popped out. I think there are certain human tendencies that get reenacted over and over again, and the one that we’re seeing now is just our local version of that. It makes me feel like I should’ve written a story about a bunch of people living happily together in love and empathy and maybe that would’ve come true.

JS: Does what’s going on in the world up the ante on what you do? Does your work have to get even more extreme to maintain your distance from reality? Or does it confirm the truth for you about what you’re doing?

GS: I think it confirms the validity of the approach. But these things have always been with us, these excesses that human beings indulge in have been with us forever. And fiction has always been trying to push back on all of it. So I guess what it does, it makes me think if I can make up a handful of characters and really, really live with them in revision for two or three years, there will be something truthful that will pop out. Because why wouldn’t it? Well, lies would pop out if I had an agenda or some kind of propagandistic idea. It takes a long time to arrive at a fictive truth, so in a time like this you’d kind of have to say I have to let the politics proceed on their own timetable because fiction doesn’t. As an artist, you have to be a little patient with the slow pace. And then you can permit yourself to do whatever other kind of political thing you want to do.

I always tell my students, the skills that a writer, or anyone who spends a lot of time with language, learns are not extraneous or fluffy or ornamental. They’re the fundamentals of democracy, which are One, we can find the truth by investigating with an open heart. Two, the truth will not only set you free but will join you with other truth-seekers. Three, somehow truth-telling and love are related. And four, democracy is essentially love. Democracy says everyone should be equally treasured. So all those things, what little I know about those things, I arrived at them in large part through writing, through trying to struggle through a text to make it full of life. I’ve noticed since the election how even I had been a little bit too accepting of this idea that art is extraneous, art is a thing that silly people do or something the culture tolerates because it’s used to tolerating it. And since then, I’m like, no, art is essential, it’s the lifeblood of democratic institutions. It teaches us how to think, it teaches us how to care. I’m actually newly kind of fired up at 58 years old that art is cool.

JS: You’ve spent much of the past year thinking about two presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump. Do those two guys have anything in common?

GS: I think one is actually the opposite of the other. I don’t want to go on a diatribe against Trump, so let’s put it this way: Lincoln was humble, he revised his own opinions, he was in a constant state of curiosity, he was always sad, he was described as the kindest man you’ve ever met. He was constantly trying to expand his understanding so as to create better conditions for the people around him, he almost never said an unkind word to anybody, even his worst critics. And he had a beard. So there are some differences.

JS: Last thing. I just want to read one sentence to you from the new book which is a sentence you would’ve written a year plus ago. And I’m curious if it has any more power today than it did then. It’s Lincoln’s inner monologue, thinking about how the rest of the world was looking at America as the issue of slavery threatened to tear us apart: “Across the sea, fat kings watched and were gleeful that something begun so well had now gone off the rails as down south similar kings watched.  And if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit forever and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well it would be said, and said truly, well the rabble cannot manage itself.” Does that sentence have any more power today than it did?

GS: Oh yeah. That’s a great selection. That was the biggest concern at the time — that the democratic model was always subject to mob rule and the British king, the French king knew it couldn’t last. They knew people were too stupid and people were too anti-truth and that people were too emotional to manage themselves. That was one of Lincoln’s big ideas: We have to make this work. I hadn’t actually thought of that line, but that’s a beautiful thought.

There’s an under-country in America, and you see it day to day in the way that people are perking up. I was on the subway in New York the other day and I could feel that people were like, “Oh no you don’t, we’re not going to descend into incivility, we’re not going to start turning on each other.” I think that’s what happened during the Civil War. There was that beautiful moment where the North suddenly became anti-slavery, in part because of Lincoln’s example. So these things can go in both directions. But, yeah, that’s a really haunting line in retrospect.  

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