Steve Almond’s family takes politics seriously. His mother attended socialist summer camps; his father was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War. “They believed in a better, more compassionate, more egalitarian way of living, and they were fucking right,” Almond says. “It’s easy to mock idealists, and hard to hold onto your idealism and live it. It’s become hokey. The hippies got crushed under the boot heel of monetized distraction.”

Steve Almond

The evils of distraction form a central theme in Almond’s latest book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. Almond, author of seven other books of nonfiction and four short-story collections, and co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the beloved podcast Dear Sugars, chose the title Bad Stories because it “suggests a malignant motive as well as dubious content and damaging outcomes.”

In “Bad Story #13: There Is No Such Thing as Fair and Balanced,” Almond describes the narrative advantage gleaned by the political right through their mastery of conservative talk radio: “They don’t just say they’re coming for your guns or your God, they say they’re coming for your life.” To compete with these “emotionally seductive fictions,” Almond believes left-wing politicians need to find concrete, immediate ways to articulate how their policies will reform citizens’ lives.

“People live in a state of pathological entitlement,” Almond says. “They don’t recognize what the government does for them.” He illustrates this in “Bad Story #3: Our Grievances Matter More Than Our Vulnerabilities” through Debbie Mills, who was uninsured for a decade prior to the advent of Obamacare. In 2016, that newly available insurance became literally life-saving when her husband was on the wait list for a liver transplant. Still, she voted for Trump, because she liked his “straight talk.” Almond concludes this tale by advocating for empathy, writing that Mills “represents our national habit to take our grievances seriously but not our vulnerabilities.”

As he reckons with the myths that propelled Trump to the White House, Almond returns time and again to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—specifically, to the character of Ahab, who promised his audience he’d “strike the sun if it insulted me.” Sound familiar? Almond believes Trump channeled a version of that iconic, festering masculinity, and “we all got sucked in, like Ishmael.” Now, like Ishmael did, “We have to try to step back and tell the story, to make sense of it in a larger way. I have no illusions that things will turn around overnight, but we’re measured by the quality of the stories we tell, and the stories we buy into.”


Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country
by Steve Almond
(Red Hen Press)