How a long-in-the-works novel was swiftly Trumped
Novelist Olen Steinhauer details how an attempt to write a story about homegrown left-wing terrorism in America was derailed by a sea change in the body politic
Much has and will be written on how Donald Trump's candidacy and win disrupted American public life: political norms, the language of race relations, the role of the established press and the (mis)uses of Twitter. As a novelist, I couldn't help but be intrigued – this is all grist for the mill – but what surprised me was how, stealthily, Trump derailed years of work on my novel-in-progress.
In 2015, when the presidential campaign was still a subject of speculation, and Trump hadn't yet announced his candidacy, I gave my editor a draft of The Middleman, which had taken me a fraught two years to write. Unlike the globe-trotting espionage stories I'm known for, I tried an American-set story about homegrown terrorists – not Islamic or right-wing, as my friends assumed, but left-wing terrorism.
I've long been interested in the radical terror groups of the seventies – the Weather Underground, Red Army Faction, Action Directe – and in 2013, with an anti-Obama Congress blocking all progress, this felt like a timely subject to tackle. I wanted to dramatize the frustration that arises from political impotence and show how it can lead to violence at home, not just in other places.
Admittedly, that initial draft was a mess. (After 10 novels, you're allowed one train wreck.) Before I could get back to the novel, though, good fortune diverted me: I spent the next year creating a television show, Berlin Station, for the cable channel Epix.
Soon after I returned from Berlin last July, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president and, seemingly every day, came out with statements I'd never heard a politician speak in public. He said things that would have immediately disqualified most politicians – and would have disqualified any woman or person of colour. Whether or not he won, Trump's candidacy was changing the nature of political discourse in horrifying and mesmerizing ways.
As the election neared, he spoke ominously of "vote rigging," and told supporters to watch the ballot boxes. He encouraged his "Second Amendment people" to consider the use of guns if the election didn't go his way. His supporters, while swearing they personally wouldn't do such a thing (the feds were listening, after all), warned that insurrection was a real possibility.
Besides distracting me from my work, the election season was a reminder that the world can change quickly. The dire 2013 of my novel now seemed like quaint nostalgia when, in front of my eyes, the fourth estate was losing its legitimacy: Americans got their news from social media without doing the legwork to verify what they read, and the pseudo-press, whether emanating from Breitbart or Macedonian bedrooms, gradually became the only news people discussed. Once venues like the New York Times realized what was happening, it was too late: The voters who would swing the election had already quit the rarefied world of classical journalism. The stories they read felt like the truth, which was enough for them.
That's not even bringing up Vladimir Putin, the golden thread that stitched together the disparate surprises into an espionage story that, a year before, would have been rejected by any serious editor. "You're telling me the candidate for the presidency praises that KGB strongman as a better leader than the sitting president? Seriously?"
I don't need to recount it all – you were there, too, through the multilayered lies and impossible moments. Perhaps you even felt the urge to violence that comes from the conviction that the world is being run by the greedy and the imbecilic, and that a single bullet might go a long way to cutting through the muck.
Then Trump won. The uprising that he had warned us about had been averted. In those first stunned days, though, a left-wing uprising seemed more likely. Even Trump supporters voiced this fear, pointing to riots triggered by police shootings: "We're not the ones who riot. That's the other side."
Around that time, I showed a partial draft of The Middleman to my wife. About 60 pages in, she looked up, distraught. "You really want to publish this?"
"How do you think people are going to read this?"
Her point, which I'd been too myopic to consider, was this: Now that Trump had won and his supporters were warning of sore-loser "libtards" rioting in the streets, a novel about a violent left would serve the very political agenda I opposed. Rather than being an expression of the individual's frustration against an uncaring, corrupt bureaucracy – which it would have been in 2013 – in 2016 it read as a different genre: a red-scare warning of approaching insurgency. Which is exactly the kind of fear-mongering that authoritarian regimes love.
If "authoritarian" sounds extreme – and I know that to many readers it doesn't – you should know that my wife was raised in Yugoslavia and watched Slobodan Milosevic rise to power on a tide of lies pumped out by a submissive media. She then moved to Hungary, where Viktor Orban followed a similar playbook to take over that country by fomenting nationalist rage. Orban's rise helped encourage us to move to the United States, a land of semi-civil discourse. My wife has watched the rise of Trump with a sinking feeling of déjà vu, and found the results of the election sadly unsurprising.
The Middleman awaits. I've had to rethink the premise of a book that has occupied me for years and forced my editor to display remarkably Zen-like patience. Now that Donald Trump has been sworn in, I'm forced to reassess my relationship to the body politic. Take responsibility for what I put out in the world, make sure it doesn't benefit my opponents. I'm learning stealth: Support the coming progressive revolution by not warning anyone about it. #ThanksTrump.
Olen Steinhauer is the author of several novels, including The Tourist, The Nearest Exit, An American Spy and The Cairo Affair. He is also the creator of the espionage drama Berlin Station, which premiered in October on Epix.