Marilynne Robinson’s America

President Obama’s favorite novelist on the race to succeed him

The primaries were rough.

A country with a preexisting case of polarization developed a new set of battle-lines. Even earnest Sanders supporters came to be seen as marauders in the intense contest against Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, the #NeverTrump and the #okFineTrump constituencies are hoping to hash something out at Mitt Romney’s annual summit in the mountains of Utah.

It’s safe to say that many, many Americans came away finding that they scarcely know their neighbors.

For some grounding, we at Open Source with Christopher Lydon turned to Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who has demonstrated, in a career of writing and commentary, that she does understand something about the universal U.S.A., its people, and its ways.

Robinson’s life began in rural Idaho, where she took up Moby-Dick at age 9. This year—after four novels beloved by our outgoing president and five books of essays and criticism—Robinson retired as a teacher, after 25 years of anchoring the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

We have a very, very solid civilization (that we’ve developed over time) that generally prepares people to run a huge, complex country — not like anything else in the world. I think that we have a right to call that a success.

Robinson sometimes preaches at her church, and it shows. She reminds us that the American people remain essentially moral and capable—so long as their basic needs for health and education are provided for. If they aren’t, she faults bad politics—this deadlock “stands in the way of things that are obviously necessary.”

We asked Robinson how the Trump moment looked from her home in Iowa, how this moment of breakdown compared to the tense 1960s and how she sees the legacy of her friend, the 44th President.

Christopher Lydon: Marilynne Robinson, at halftime, what’s murky is the people. And a lot of them are in your part of the world. They’re people of your novels. I want to know about hearts and minds in this country, in this year. How do you describe, among your friends, what’s going on?

Marilynne Robinson: We really don’t know what’s going on in the country, and I think it’s valuable to find out that we don’t know what’s going on in the country. I think it’s certainly true that the way that the way the new economy is talked about, and the way that it is emerging, it is as if it will simply abandon a large part of the population — to what, God knows? I mean, there are limits to how long you can sell each other hamburgers. I think that there’s a very real fear on the part of people whose family history and culture and so on is rooted in traditional manufacture, or whatever. We should not be prioritizing our economy over our population. We should not be passive in relation to the brutal consequences of economic evolutions.

I think one of the worst things that happened in modern American history is that we have started talking about ourselves as a capitalism rather than as a democracy. And if we’re a capitalism, then the great machine rolls on, you know. If we’re a democracy, we are advised by the needs and wishes of the population in general.

CL: You’ve spoken before about this tide of fear, the threats, maybe the absence of faith, maybe of a fundamental security.

MR: Given our mortal condition, nobody’s ever fundamentally secure. You could spend your life worrying about whether there’s some rogue cell in your body or something like that, you know. I think that when fear becomes commercialized — as I think it has been, by Fox News, by talk-radio programs, and so on — it’s sold as a sort of an addictive substance, I think? It’s sort of like a panic in a crowd. If enough people in a crowd seem to be alarmed, you can’t help but be alarmed. You have to think there’s something to be scared about. If you listen to these people on the radio, they’re always coming up with new ways we’ve been stabbed in the back or sold down the river or something like that. You know, since they’ve worn out all the old objects of hatred, they have to recruit new people into their animus. People hear that and hear it and hear it, and it begins to sound like truth. And then somebody like Trump can come along and simply, you know, light the match.

CL: How well do you remember 1964, but especially ’68 and ‘72 — the Vietnam War conventions, but also the feelings of a broken conversation, a tremendous youth alienation?

MR: I remember it very well — it was sort of a central part of my earlier life. And I remember, Eugene McCarthy saying, you know, “I’m proud to address the nation in exile,” or whatever he called it, systematically leading his youth following away from the Democratic Party. I think that Hubert Humphrey would have been an infinitely better president than Richard Nixon. We’ve seen this over and over again; everybody talks about Al Gore and Ralph Nader and so on, but that was an earlier instance that I think was catastrophically significant. I mean, I have a lot of respect for Bernie Sanders; I’m very happy with Hillary Clinton. I certainly hope we don’t sabotage the system again by leading the natural constituents of a liberal democrat away from her when the chips are down.

CL: We wonder about that — the tragedy of Hubert Humphrey. I got to know him later. He was an adorable man, and a first-class public spirit.

MR: Absolutely, absolutely.

CL: I remember him saying, “The word ‘efficiency’ is not in the Bible!” And a society can be measured by “how it treats people in the dawn of life — that’s children — and in the shadows of life — that’s the handicapped — and in the twilight of life — that’s elders.” Jesse Jackson stole it from him, and made it a better line. Hubert’s heart was so fine, and yet the tragedy was so complete around Vietnam.

MR: True, absolutely. But what, Nixon said he had a secret plan or something like that? Good grief.

CL: But Hubert had dirty hands, too.

MR: You know, so do we all. Looking for moral perfection in a national politician is probably not useful. You have to take things in broader generalities than that. There are people who love the country, which means everybody in it. And there are people who have a kind of ideological sense of what it ought to be, although it never was, and they’re willing to virtually attack portions of the population because they stand between the realization of this ideology and the present time. We have people, who one way or another, are not contributors, or whatever. God bless ’em, it’s just humankind, you know? If you love a country, you love its people in the twilight and people in the dawn, you know? I just can’t understand that — as a kind of holier-than-thou, more righteous-than-thou, higher-income-than-thou sort of stance that just appalls me.

CL: But when you think of those Sixties crises… Are you consoled that we got through it, or alarmed that it kept ending badly?

MR: Well, we did get through it. I think that the Vietnam War was a catastrophe in many ways — one of them was an unarticulated anxiety among parts of the population that we tend not to win wars. That we involve ourself in a war, that we throw a trillion dollars into the war, we maim a generation of our people, and then at the end of it, we say, “well, that wasn’t really about anything,” why don’t we leave, which we do, thank God. But at the same this pattern of involving ourselves in a war that we get tired of in effect … rather than saying at the beginning, this would not be a good idea. This has been going on since Korea. What the wiser heads conclude is that we ought not to do anything stupid — that is, involve ourselves in a conflict we can avoid. But there are people who want to fight a war that we can win. And I think that George Bush was appealing to that impulse. And it’s going to drag us into one war after another after another. We have to finally say, “We have to disavow this. We’re not going to invade anybody. It never ends well. We should know by now.”

CL: I know what you mean. I can look back at the last 30, 40, 50 years, going back to Vietnam, as a melancholy time at home, and worse abroad. My best question you, how do your people, how does your America start again? Wiser if possible, but with a kind of American grit.

I just want a better politics that doesn’t stand in the way of things that are obviously necessary. I want a higher estimation of what people are, so that more would be in school and fewer would be in prison.

MR: Well, you know, one of the things that I think is true of this country, is if we just let it find its own nature, prosper by its own lights, if we gave people what they wanted — for example, education, which is increasingly difficult for many people to have access to and so on — if we respected the country, and its needs, responded to its objectives, I think we’d have a good solid country. We wouldn’t have to be moralizing about it. We wouldn’t have to be in culture wars. If you want a democracy, what you have to say is, “We respect the self-determination of people, that this is assisted by health systems, education systems and so on, that make them able to live their lives fully.” My books do fine, my books do very well, and I think that is — I know it is — because lots of people recognize their own experience in them. Obviously, I’m devoted to a certain moral system. I assume that many other people, in many other ways, are devoted to moral systems. And that if you let them live out their lives without fear of their being able to look after their children properly, that they’d be able to live good lives, and that the country would flourish. I’m not a missionary for a restoration of values or something; I just want a better politics that doesn’t stand in the way of things that are obviously necessary. I want a higher estimation of what people are, so that more would be in school and fewer would be in prison.

CL: There’s an interesting conversation out there about whether the American people brought this unhappiness on themselves; that they’re not quite up for democracy and that the Trump vote proves it. With their individual problems, their family neglect, their loss of faith or whatever. It’s time to move on, but they’re not the future.

MR: Well, I don’t know what the Trump vote means, and I don’t think that any of us will know until November. I think it’s kind of a loud scream more than anything, and it can be interpreted in lots of different ways. But it’s a phenomenon of the primaries, which, you know, people can vote for him without electing him. I’ll wait to see how things sort themselves out ultimately, but using Trump categories, like “losers are people who vote for Trump,” if that’s coming from the left, is just as mean-spirited as when he talks about “losers” coming from the right. I cannot dismiss what is after all a democratic phenomenon, which is a disturbing and uninterpretable vote. That has to be taken on seriously, and can’t be dismissed with talk about people losing their values or something.

CL: I’m with you. I don’t think we can run a democracy blaming the people, and that a scream, even in primaries, has to be heard and taken seriously. Parse it if you possibly can…take that agonized scream apart.

MR: Well, you know, if I were screaming…[laughs]. I do think that people have been put in a double bind. We don’t accept the humanity of their lives in the sense that people say, :if these towns are dying, they should just pack up and move on.” If you had a decent respect for humanity, you’re asking them to leave the place where their parents are buried. The place where they had every close relationship that they’ve ever had in their lives. The place that they loved because that’s where they go hunting in the woods and so on. It would be bizarre and infuriating if somebody came along and said you’re not economically viable, pack up. I mean, it’s just bizarre, this is a country…a human country, with people in it.

CL: You have a huge fan and a reader in the White House. What does it mean that his prez ends in this bitterness?

MR: Thank God, his approval ratings are quite high. I’ve heard rumors that they could change Constitution — not from him. He’s a gentleman; he’s someone who tries to make the best of every circumstance; he’s gracious with other people; he treats other countries as colleagues rather than as adversaries. Some people are so removed, they see that as weak. Trump would go in with his elbows out and terrify the Japanese. God knows, since Benjamin Franklin, we’ve worked diplomatically, at our best, always. We’ve emerged as an enormously powerful country — these things are not accidentally related. Who brought Donald Trump up? I mean, good grief!

CL: Last question — you’ve brought up the wonders — remind us of what’s working?

MR: I frankly — I’m often in Europe. One of the things that people talk about is what they call an American education — an education in the humanities whatever else. One of the consequences of this is that we have a very influential literature now — it’s thought of with great interest and respect everywhere I go. Of course, I have a special view of reality because of my own life. How many books on a publishers list are American, and so on, but we have a very very solid civilization that we’ve developed over time that generally prepares people to run a huge complex country — not like anything else in the world. I think that we have a right to call that a success. I see that through our educational system, it’s very very valuable. It’s a huge engine of research and innovation — virtually any university is. The idea that they’re disparaged and starved is utterly perverse.

You can listen to the full program with Marilynne Robinson, Andrew Solomon, Nancy Rosenblum, & Bruce Schulman at