Sydney Writers' Festival

Sydney Writers’ Festival: American Carnage

‘This American carnage stops right here, right now’, said Trump in his inaugural address. Four months into his presidency — yes, it really has been only four months — a panel of U.S. writers and journalist met as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival to discuss the aftermath of the election.

Julia Turner, editor-in-chief of Slateset the mood for the evening with an opening apology. As quoted by The Guardian, she said: ‘There is really only one way for any upstanding American to open any international conversation about our new president Donald Trump: we are so, so sorry’.

Over the following hour and a half, we were witness to the dark night of the soul for writers and reporters of the long-running Presidential campaign and Trump’s first months in office. Colson Whitehead, black award-winning author and essayist, shared fears for his kids’ futures — fears allayed during the Obama years, only to rise up again after this year’s fateful election day. Mona Chalabi, data editor for The Guardian U.S., is of Iranian descent and has been traumatized by actions such as the travel ban.

American author and journalist George Saunders, author of newly-released novel Lincoln in the Bardo, admitted to some serious soul searching. He questions whether his home country — the land of opportunity, gun violence, and rampant capitalism — isn’t actually a ‘bit weird.’ Saunders hasn’t missed the irony of researching and writing a book about Abraham Lincoln, a famously generous and empathic president, while the current era has produced a president with a remarkable allergy to such traits.

So why does Donald Trump enjoy continued support from his constituents? While no-one claimed to have the answer, everyone was prepared to speculate.

Saunders focused on low standards of education as the key, as well as voter ignorance and naivety. (See his illuminating article in the New Yorker, penned during the election campaign.) The huge rise of right-wing media was also cited as one of the suspects. Chalabi pinpointed low levels of media literacy, citing people’s tendency to take information in, such as flawed polls, without questioning their sources or reliability.

Being of a psychological bent, I was amused but also slightly disturbed by Saunders’ jest about our thirst for reality TV. Through our continued support of it, he says, we are in effect saying that we know we are being lied to and manipulated, but we still want more. Whitehead alluded to the shallowness of the modern day personality, with a wry remark that Trump is a showbiz president in showbiz politics.

By the end of the panel, the exhaustion seeping from its members was palpable. Reporter fatigue, Whitehead had explained earlier, stemmed from both the shock of the campaign and election result, but also an addiction to fear of missing out on the next Trump slipup. ‘Will this be the one? Will this sink him?’

We couldn’t switch off, either. As we left Town Hall, we turned our own phones back on, ready for the next word-mangled tweet or drumroll announcement from the world’s ultimate reality tv show host.

– Elizabeth
Elizabeth Foster is a fiction writer who locks herself up all day in her study, but lets herself out on occasion to experience all that Sydney has to offer! You can find her writerly musings at

The Sydney Writers’ Festival runs 22-28 May 2017. Read our guide for the top picks.

Disclosure: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Image credit: Prudence Upton.