A Conversation With Dave Eggers About Trump and the American Empathy Void

The author and activist has a plan to build civic engagement and open minds among future generations

Last month, the author Dave Eggers spoke at a special naturalization ceremony for 34 minors in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. He was instructed in a letter from the Department of Homeland Security not to make it political. The letter also contained a few lines about how immigrants make up “the fabric of our nation,” which Eggers found curious considering the people currently governing the United States. “The Trump administration is trying to cleanse everything of any mention of immigration being a good idea and that we are a country of immigrants,” Eggers tells Rolling Stone. “I’m sure when this comes to Stephen Miller’s attention, he’s going to try to scrub this.”

Joining Eggers in Golden Gate Park was Shawn Harris, who illustrated Her Right Foot, Eggers’ children’s book about the significance of the Statue of Liberty, which most people don’t realize was cast in mid-stride, with her right heel slightly raised. It would have been difficult to imagine the horrors that were yet to result from Trump’s immigration policy when the book was published in September 2017. “What’s terrifying, and I never thought it would happen in our lifetime, is just how quickly and violently a few people could pivot the bedrock aspect of our self identity from being born as a country of immigrants to being a nativist country where our ancestors were all born here and nobody ever came from anywhere else,” says Eggers, who has written extensively about the immigrant experience. “It’s startling and terrifying.”

Another theme central to Eggers’ work both on and off the page is education, and on September 11th, he and Harris released What Can a Citizen Do?a children’s book focused on instilling a sense of civic engagement in young people. Its release follows the first-annual International Congress for Youth Voices, which was held in San Francisco in August. Founded by Eggers, who also founded the 826 National network of writing centers, the ICYV brought together close to 100 students from around the world to interface with writers, activists and elected officials like Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). “You just have complete faith in the future, seeing these students,” Eggers says. “I’ve been seeing this for 16 years at 826, but we’ve never had a gathering like this with such extraordinary young people from around the world. It was on another level.”

Rolling Stone spoke with Eggers shortly after the event wrapped up to discuss the vital role of civics-based education, combating Trump’s lack of empathy and the message Democrats need to send heading into the midterms and beyond.

You’ve written for children in various ways for quite a while now. This is the second children’s book you’ve written since Trump took office that has had a civic bent to it.

For some reason, in the fall of 2016, civics was on my mind. It occurred to me that maybe we needed to remind [kids] what democracy is. Not just what we deserve and our rights as citizens, but our obligations. When I say “citizen,” it’s important to note I’m not talking about a piece of paper. I’m talking about a member of a society. You’re obligated to your neighbors and the people you share your community with, and you’re obligated to know the rules of your government and to engage in them and change things that need to be changed, and to be vigilant against erosions of rights and bastardizations of the ideals of the country. This is the situation we find ourselves in right now. 

I think it started eroding somewhere in the ‘80s, and then in 2011, government cut funding for civics and social studies. Because civics and social studies can’t be tested, they’ve become a smaller part of school at every level. More and more we focus on what can be tested at a standardized level, so it doesn’t really fit in. There aren’t that many schools that teach a civics-specific course, and even social studies has so many different obligations that it has to fulfill. In terms of really understanding the work of a democracy — and our democracy, in particular — it’s rare that a school has the freedom to do that and to do it well.

When you thread civic engagement into every subject — literature, history and geography and even math and science — you end up with a really, really, excited and inspired student body. The more students are taught these subjects and how history affects them and how their communities have been affected and influenced by activists, the more they actually want to be involved. It’s a really effective bulwark against apathy and disengagement and feeling distanced from your government. 

I saw someone say recently that you know things are going badly when everyone starts figuring out how the government works. I took some requisite government course when I was a kid, but there wasn’t any real pressure to make sense of it. Now that Trump is in office, I do think a lot of people are wishing they had a deeper understanding of how the government interacts with all of these different parts of life.

Republicans, true conservatives, were equally dedicated to civic education. You could debate the idea of small government versus large government on equal intellectual footing. You could have Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley debating and they would both make cogent, rational points. But, now, contemporary Republicanism does rely on engendering ignorance, and obfuscating and muddying all sense of what truth is and what history is. It relies on a know-nothing-ism that hasn’t been seen in quite a while. Obviously, the better educated one gets, the less likely you might be to vote for a hate-spewing autocrat. So they have a self interest in keeping people uneducated, confused, apathetic and misinformed.

I’d been thinking about this well before this election, to be honest. I was always surprised at the decline of education about civics. I didn’t get a whole lot of it growing up, and so I didn’t have any sort of connection to how anything happened in D.C. or Springfield [Illinois] or anywhere that affected me. You can make lifelong voter activists, or at least informed voters, very early on. If a student runs a bake sale to help fire victims, with that alone, you’re halfway there in creating a permanently engaged citizen. A lot of this picture book is about that. You can create your own mini society. You can experiment with your own mini nation states if you want. That’s what the pictures in this book are doing. But you also have the right and maybe the obligation to change even the smallest things around you, whether it’s a stoplight, or whether it’s like this 14-year-old running for governor.

I saw that.

But you know, it’s just feeling, like you have a right to have a seat at that table. Maybe the most radical idea in the book is that it’s not all about you. We’re many decades into a societal shift where it’s taught from birth that it is all about us as individuals, but maybe in some cases we should think about what’s good for society equally or even before we think about what’s good for us. We can contribute by being an active citizen, and maybe by giving something of ourselves, we actually help ourselves, too. 

One of the lines in the book is about how society is filled with both joy and pain. A common response to this administration and to what’s happening in the country right now might be to insulate kids from the pain aspect of this. 

Yeah, I think that was one of the lines I thought most about in the book. Not that anybody ever told me it was too intense, but I did wonder how that’s going to be talked about when a parent reads it to their kid. But to recognize that there is pain and that other people feel it is the first step toward empathy. Whether it’s a societal force or government policy or just one human to another, you have to be cognizant of and imaginative of and curious about how things make other people feel. We are experiencing an unprecedented national attack on empathy. In D.C., we have the least empathetic human among our 315 million citizens. That trickles down. We’re putting families in detention centers, separating children from their parents, deporting families that have committed no crimes and implicitly supporting hate groups.

“We are experiencing an unprecedented national attack on empathy. In D.C. we have the least empathetic human among our 315 million citizens. That trickles down.”

One of the most important things we can teach young kids is to think about how someone else feels and to not turn that off. I know it’s so easy for kids to want to and to turn that off because it’s too hard to keep it open, to keep that aperture open for feeling what it might be to be one of those kids in a Texas detention center. I know for sure the way I grew up was to turn yourself off to that because it’s so foreign, it’s so hard to even fathom. The easiest thing for all of these kids that live in relative comfort to do is to write these other families off as statistics, or as criminals, or as less-than or as somehow deserving of this treatment for trying to come here in the first place. But if you can teach empathy and a permanent state of curiosity and open-heartedness, then you have a society that’s infinitely less likely to do harm on a mass level, whether it’s starting unnecessary wars or throwing people into a system of mass incarceration or deporting people for wanting to avail themselves of the life here. 

It’s interesting to meet really young people, six- or seven-year-olds, that care a lot. Caring means helping out another first grader that skinned their knee. That’s why we teach writing and reading. By nature, it’s reading about living another life, living in the skin of other people and by necessity, without exception, it creates more empathetic people. Readers are invariably more empathetic people than non-readers because you have occupied the minds and souls of other characters, of other humans.

It’s the same thing with teaching civics in that it’s just more urgent now, because like you said, the president is the least empathetic person in the country.

I should say that I actually didn’t know that about Trump. I didn’t take his candidacy seriously and I didn’t think he was qualified in many ways to be president, but I didn’t know that. Just having known him as a TV personality, I had no idea that he had that weird sociopathic lack of empathy which actually is pretty rare in the world, not to have any of that, not to have an empathetic bone or capillary or cell.

Good government policy has to be paired with empathy. How is this going to affect actual humans? What would it feel like to be that person? If you can answer those questions honestly, then it’s very hard to enact cruel and inhuman public policy. Do you believe in the sanctity of the value of every human soul? Does every human soul have value? OK, good. Then how can you cage a family in a detention center in Texas indefinitely without a hearing, for example? How can you deport a family? I’m finishing a piece myself about a Pakistani-American family living in a church in Connecticut, in sanctuary, waiting and hoping for a hearing. They’ve been here 18 years and they’re being deported with no process whatsoever, just for having overstayed their visa. But they have an American daughter, they have a business in Connecticut. They run a pizza place, of all things. But they were denied any facility in which to stay and they’re living under a deportation order in a basement in Old Lyme, Connecticut. If we don’t as a society, as a nation, stand up for a family like that, if we just passively allow that to happen, just like so many other outrages, it erodes the soul. It’s a daily kick in the heart. I don’t know how to spin the moral compass completely, how to control it. It’s hard to find true north again.

Trump has crafted this narrative around the immigration issue — this whole idea of crime running rampant. How frustrating is it that the left, from Clinton’s campaign until now, has mostly lacked a similar narrative or any kind of cohesive thing to rally people around? Do you think it’s even possible to do accomplish this on the level Trump has?

I don’t know if you can combat the core white fear that drove a lot of his voters to secretly cast a ballot for him. I’ve been to his rallies and I know those people, and they’re not as insane as we hope that they would be. They’re just a lot of everyday people. They’d be your coworkers, they’d be your neighbors, and they’d go to a rally because they like the guy from TV and they think he’s funny and unvarnished and that means that he’s honest. There’s way too many Trump supporters to think that they’re all insane, because they’re just not. You can have very rational, although sometimes frustrating, conversations with even the most fanatical fans that come out and wait in line for six hours in the Phoenix sun to see him. But the tens of millions of people that wouldn’t necessarily admit it, who wouldn’t go to a rally and wouldn’t write an op-ed, they sort of like the idea of holding the tide a bit against an increasingly diverse America. They want the white majority to stay as it is. They want to stop what they see as their loss of supremacy, and they don’t want the rest of the country to go where California is, where there isn’t one clear racial majority. The thing that I guess was surprising and confusing to me was just how much of the country lives with and is driven by that kind of fear. Trump’s support and his message is all about fear. Fear of immigrants, fear of black people, fear of Latinos, fear of loss of power, fear of the UN, of globalists, everything. It’s all fear. It’s such a strange thing to think that, on the one hand he has these bullying tactics, but mostly what he’s talking about is being afraid. He’s figuratively hiding under a table, scared of everything around him.

“As dark and apocalyptic and fearful and ignorant as Trump’s story was, it was a better story.”

There’s nothing that offends me more than people that come from a place of fear. To cast the American psyche in that shadow so as a nation we’re a bunch of fearful, cowering, backward-looking, cave dwellers. That’s what he has engendered. I’m trying to recast them in this book, in general, and in some of these projects, and trying to project an image of strength through openness and strength through acceptance and hope and optimism. Obviously Obama did that in 2008. He projected an image of the hopeful, forward-thinking America that really attracted tens of millions of people and a lot of other people that otherwise hadn’t been engaged. I saw Obama speak maybe six months after Trump got elected here in San Francisco and he was talking about how we need to tell a better story. As dark and apocalyptic and fearful and ignorant as Trump’s story was, it was a better story. I don’t think that we’ve created a counter-narrative that’s powerful enough to supersede his. I have faith that we will by 2020, but it hasn’t emerged quite yet. 

Beyond his lack of empathy, Trump has also failed to acknowledge culture and the arts, which you wrote about for the Times a few months ago.

I followed the stories of him trying to get Celine Dion and anybody else to play at his inaugural, and he couldn’t get anybody to come, even the country music stars that would have ostensibly supported him. And I think that actually surprised him. I think that he lives in this weird bubble of ignorance and he doesn’t know how unpopular he is among so many. As somebody who liked to hobnob with celebrities for so many years in New York, I think it really hurt his feelings that he could not find one well-known human in any realm of the arts to come to his inaugural or support him in any way.

He issued that sort of after-the-fact non-invitation, saying he wasn’t going to have any of those elite entertainers and that it will be an event for the people. Of course, he’d already asked all these people and been turned down. I think after that there’s kind of been a mutual agreement not even to engage. It is unprecedented in our lifetimes, for sure, and it’s so striking and has such weird echoes with autocratic regimes in the past. He has not begun silencing or jailing artists and writers and playwrights and such like his friends do, from North Korea to Hungary, but it’s just one of the many hallmarks of a dark time. It’s so much less important than what he and his team are doing to so many vulnerable people, but the point is that you cannot help but be changed when you read and when you listen to other people. The arts of any kind makes for a nimble, pliable, malleable and changeable mind.

How do you appraise the response so far from the artistic community?

I think it’s been more muted and less sustained than I expected or would love to see in terms of their reaction. I think that people are so exhausted. I remember right after he got elected and he did his Muslim ban, I was at SFO, and seeing everyone in San Francisco, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. [I] let everyone know what was going on and that’s how I found out about the protests, and then there were a few thousand people and they shut down part of the airport. We were all comparing notes. “Hey, have you been getting any work done?” “No. How about you?” “No.” For all of the writers and musicians and everybody I know, it’s very hard to figure out how and what to express, because there’s too many fronts that we’re fighting, so it’s given everybody this weird sense of ADD. I don’t know of anybody that’s found a solution. Outside of ultimately giving money to organizations that are doing the work on the ground like the ACLU. But you know, we had an anti-Trump thing going where we did 30 songs in 30 days, and even that was hard to maintain. That lost steam after a while. We were trying to get a different musician every day to write about the moment and if it’s about Trump, great, or a certain policy, great, but it just became harder every day. People were just beaten down and feeling like, well what’s the point?

It is such a strange time. I hope that everyone will get a little bit more energetic as we get in to the midterms. I know that [My Morning Jacket’s] Jim James is one guy that’s always thinking of what he can and should do. I know he’s going to tour to remind people to vote and that they matter, even in a midterm election. I was just talking with Jose Antonio Vargas, and he’s got a great organization, Define American. They’re growing and doing phenomenal work, but we’re both wishing for more of a sustained, visible, united, national movement, and we’re always lamenting the fact that that doesn’t always happen on the left. But I don’t know. I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic about the midterms and I’m very hopeful about 2020. But that’s a long way away.