Bret Easton Ellis’s new book challenges the ‘over-reaction’ culture of Trump-baiting and public shaming, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.
The first time 55-year-old American writer Bret Easton Ellis hit Ireland was in 1999. He was visiting on a book tour for his fifth novel Glamorama. After a day of press duties in Dublin, he went for dinner with fellow
novelist Irvine Welsh in Bono and the Edge’s hotel, The Clarence. It was where Ellis was staying.
“We both had a bit too much to drink,” says Ellis. “It was just one of those young-enough-to-party nights and I got into a kind of boxing match with Irvine. There’s a picture still out there of us on the night. We were drunk and struggling with each other. I don’t quite know why. We were pushing each other back and forth in the booth and then we were running down the hallways.
“I see Irvine out in LA now when he’s out there and we’re two, calmer older gentlemen. How times change. How people change. It was my last and only rock’n’roll tour.
Ellis was back in Ireland recently for a speaking engagement at the International Literature Festival Dublin, and as part of a press tour for the release of his first non-fiction book. Entitled White, and part memoir, it’s a collection of his prose thoughts on modern culture and American politics and society, much of it expanding on themes he has been exploring in the podcast he kicked off in 2013.
These topics include ideology vs. aesthetics; the cult of likeability; the “cancel” culture; how we’ve all been turned into actors; and also what he describes as the “over-reaction generation” — the social hysteria that seems to be pervasive in western culture and which is especially visible on people’s social media channels.
“I think another thing that has entered into the culture, particularly for younger people, is this intense feelings of shame, and also this desire to shame other people,” says Ellis.
“It seems to be another kind of weapon that they use. I know that my partner [pop singer Todd Michael Schultz], who is 32, feels so much shame at times on the internet. It’s something I haven’t felt in such a terrible way that I let it affect me.
Thanks to all who showed up. Great meeting everyone. It was an awesome, if exhausting, afternoon. https://t.co/dKUixurz5M— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) April 28, 2019
"I don’t know if that’s because I come from the analogue era. These mass waves of shame younger people are feeling is certainly something I have not been able to identify with.”
One thing US president Donald J. Trump doesn’t seem to feel much is shame. Ellis has been intrigued by how tetchy and hysterical the left wing in America has become about Trump. He says their chief objection to Trump is that they find him uncouth. It’s a mood and odium he notices outside his country, too. Ellis takes the opportunity to playfully challenge his Irish publicist, Cormac Kinsella, about it during their lunch together in Dublin.
“I believe [the visceral opposition] to Trump is about aesthetics,” says Ellis. “He looks gross. If he was maybe Mitt Romney or someone who was more polished, and not so vulgar, not such a bully, there would be a different reaction.
“I see a Trump Derangement Syndrome in people. I was just at lunch with Cormac, and I said, ‘Come on. Does Trump trigger you?’ And he said: ‘A bit. A bit. He does.’ He said, ‘I do have a bit of a Trump Derangement Syndrome.’
“That’s where all [all the hate towards Trump] stems from. Yeah, he’s got a lot of bad policies. I don’t like it. I’m not supporting Trump. I didn’t vote for him. I might not like Trump but I hate where the left has ended up in our country more.
"It’s much more disappointing to me. I don’t think they’re going to win this battle that’s coming up [next year’s presidential election] because of this fractious over-reaction to a president that
actually really won an election.”
Ellis says there is a high level of support for Trump, which the left doesn’t take into account. “They think there is a hundred racist, straight white men that are propping him up and keeping him in office. It seems to be the narrative. It’s not true. It’s annoying — this notion that no one likes him and we’re going to get him out of there.
“I don’t think that Trump is a hawk. I don’t think he’s going to get us into a war in the way that George W. Bush did. Knock on wood. There are interesting things about him but it’s in a package — you look at him; you hear him; the Muslim ban. A lot of it is not cool — that’s hard to swallow.”
“[Their parents don’t teach] them how to deal with life’s hardships about how things actually work: people might not like you, this person will not love you back, kids are really cruel, work sucks, it’s hard to be good at something, your days will be made up of failure and disappointment, you’re not talented, people suffer, people grow old, people die.
"And the response from [millennials is] to collapse into sentimentality and create victim narratives, instead of grappling with the cold realities by struggling and processing them and then moving on, better prepared to navigate an often hostile or indifferent world that doesn’t care if you exist.”
Sinatra’s story is really about pragmatism, defeat, loss, pain and the romantic disappointment that (in the guise of Ava Gardner) nearly destroyed him, and about the way he turned these things, those feelings and that hurt, into art, deepening the songs he was simply performing (he didn’t write any of them). Through the force of his artistry, he both caught and created the mood of a nation and connected with a massive audience that is unthinkable now.
I’m not talking about racking up a billion YouTube hits, but an entire country that was lastingly stirred.
I’d known Kanye since 2013 … and [I find] myself reacting to his amazing stream-of-consciousness thoughts on his official Twitter page … [they are] sweet and mysterious, dumb and profound, funny and playful, self-help speak and old pics, part absurdist stunt as well as a genuine reflection of where Kanye West was in that moment.
White by Bret Easton Ellis is published by Picador, an imprint of Penguin Random House (€17.99)