Note: The first interview I did with playwright/activist/political commentator and writer John Steppling for The Huffington Post blog was in May 2014
J. Folino: Good afternoon, John. Thanks for the interview. With this current election in the U.S., a great many Bernie Sanders' supporters are deeply upset over the possible voting fraud that has occurred during this election season. But it's pretty much a given now that what happened with Bush and Gore in Florida showed that the voting mechanisms can not be trusted. And yet people still behave as if democracy is functioning. Where do you think such a deep cognitive dissonance emanates from in Americans? What is it people are so fearful of admitting and why?
John Steppling: I don't think there has been a functioning democracy, not a real one, since 1963.* I think that was a signature moment. And nobody fully knows who was behind it. We can guess. But the point here is that most people running for national office are already vetted, and they know the drill. Nobody who is an outsider has even the remotest chance of running for national office for either of the two major parties. Now Sanders was never an outsider. Period.
But I think something else is occurring this election. And while everyone always says, that this is the most important election of our era, it's never true and it's not true now. The deep toxins and ugliness of these candidates is becoming harder and harder to ignore. It's becoming difficult to not see how broken the U.S. is as a nation. Most people are getting overly upset and strident and aggressive this election when they usually don't. This election has been upsetting and I think it's been upsetting in ways that are at least partly unconscious.
J. Folino: The recent massacre in Orlando has focused the public's attention away from the election as well as the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions and shifted it to public safety and gun control. The way the American media suddenly switched from politics to gun control seems almost calculated to me. Can you comment on this?
John Steppling: The Orlando shooting raises so many questions. I want to write in some depth about them. And now the White House is rainbow. This drives me nuts. Where is the solidarity with dead Palestinians? Or dead Black teenagers? Or the victims of Fallujah? I mean yes, it's a hate crime, committed, allegedly by a former G4 security worker. The same guys who torture Palestinians in Israeli jails. Irony? Uh, yes. But the violence against sexual orientation has not changed at all really. And I wonder sometimes if the progress of gay marriage and the way it's on almost every show on TV now, the well adjusted loving gay marriage... if that isn't a disservice to the queer community. For me part of the sexual outlaw nature of Fassbinder* or John Rechy* was in not fitting in. Rejecting the bourgeois norm. Not adjusting. So yes, it's progress of a sort. Absolutely. I am not minimizing that. But marriage is a pretty retro institution. There is a domestication of this storyline that I think is more complex than it's given credit for. The great queer artists that I am thinking of would have laughed at the idea of marriage and this new "fitting in" notion.
I think people are twigging to the ugliness of American society and culture. And I happened recently to start smoking pipes again. I hadn't in a decade or more. But it made me remember back when I was twenty or so and I wanted to be like Anthony Braxton* who I knew. I knew I looked silly so I smoked it alone in private. But I remember the older men who were at the old tobacco and pipe stores. One on Hollywood Boulevard and one later in Century City. It was an introduction to a ritual of becoming a man. It was symbolic. And I think it's odd that people get upset by the health risks but don't care at all about plastic wrapped everything or factory farmed meat etc. Einstein, Ernst Block, Bertram Russell, JR Tolkin, CS Lewis, Mark Twain, Jung all great pipe smokers. On and on. Anyway it helps me think. Nicotine and caffeine. And I think these rituals of maturing have been lost. Even simple ones such as pipe smoking are lost. I have such distinct memories of the tins... the labels that never change... old pipe tobacco companies... Gawith, Rattrays, Germain and Sons. All of them. And it's something you have to learn a bit about, too. It's an art.
Anyway, I mention this because there is something about this shrinking masculine in the events around Omar Mateen, and around the Stanford rapist Brock Turner and others ... a sense of psychosis and lack of fertility somehow. And then remember that the men who distort these stories for the news, or those who create false flags or set up stings for patsies... these are men who never grew up right either. They are pinched at the soul somehow.
J. Folino: Since Senator Bernie Sanders is pretty much out of the picture at this point as a possible Presidential candidate, describe what you envision as a Trump Presidency as opposed to a Clinton Presidency and which you believe is more dangerous for the working poor and middle-class population in the U.S. and why?
John Steppling: Trump -- well two things about Trump and his candidacy. One is that it's shocking so many resentful white men are actually out there. I'm laughing but it's true. And two...that this man is a cartoon. For liberals he is a fascist ...but a sort of cartoon fascist. I mean look at him. He wants to be the mack daddy* of Atlantic City, the quarter to three cool, but all that, whatever he is in his head...that's all gone. He's just a rich kid who inherited a lot of money. For his followers he is a cartoon too, but they like cartoons. The liberals I know are all up in arms about defeating Trump. They don't care about Hillary. They identify with the social class above them. They want to belong to that class. They want a dinner at the Clinton mansion. It's an inner groveling. But also, they don't grasp the nuances of the neo liberal globalized soft fascism. They just don't. And they are not Marxist. They are usually positivists or New Age (though they would deny it) and they are vaguely revisionist psychologically about Freud. But the point is that Hillary is appealing to them, and they don't care if she is a warmonger or sadist.
J. Folino: There has been a great deal of anti-Putin propaganda in the United States in the last five years. In what ways is Putin a true threat to American financial interests and how much of what he has actually done in the Ukraine is simply being used by American politicians and the military to advance an agenda for US imperialism?
John Steppling: The Putin proganda is just jaw dropping. I mean jaw dropping. It's so endless and I'm always amazed when someone I know parrots this stuff. Putin is not Lenin nor is he Castro or Sankara*. And most Russians love him. And he has made some shrewd and thoughtful maneuvers to stay clear of the US and NATO. This is what scares me about Hillary. Her love of war. And I think literally she does LOVE it. I think she is very unbalanced. And while Trump is a moron and a bigot, I can't help but wonder how serious he is about what he says. He's not an ideologue. Hillary is. She is merciless. Cunning. And highly destructive.
J. Folino: You live with your wife Gunnhild in Norway, a relatively progressive country with strong social nets. How has this changed your life in both positive and less than positive ways? What do you miss about the United States if anything?
John Steppling: I miss a lot about the U.S. I miss the desert. And I miss aspects of culture, of art. But Norway is very empty. I drove down from Trondheim, through Denmark to Germany recently. And I love Danes. They are my favorite people if I may generalize. But that country is a bit crowded in some ways, even though Jylland is utterly empty. Germany oddly feels less so, surprisingly less crowded. And I love Germany, actually. But Norway and Finland... they are empty. Totally empty. And I really like that. It's why I liked Joshua Tree. I can't deal with too many too close.
J. Folino: In light of all that you have said, can you predict what the United States will look like eight years from now if Clinton is elected? If Donald Trump is?
John Steppling: It's hard to even guess. All I can say is that foreign policy is what scares me with Hillary Clinton as president. Her vision is one I associate with neo con thinking, actually. Destabilizing Russia is a clear goal. Break it up. Bring about regime change in Syria. And probably an intensified attack on Venezuela and Ecuador. And maybe others in the global south. And that's very dangerous. The U.S. is economically tied to defense. And I fear her coterie is slightly delusional with respect to this stuff. With Trump, the fear is more unclear. Domestically a rise in hate crimes certainly and while I don't think he can build a wall or deport millions, he will certainly usher in a new level of racist policy and probably new levels of police surveillance and erosions of civil liberties. The two of them are both a nightmare.
J. Folino: Is there any hope in your opinion?
John Steppling: The only hope is that more people will start to see that both parties are utterly compromised and will start to reject the system of the two war parties. Trump is a blurrier image. But there are so many contingencies. The environmental crises and unemployment -- there is going to be social unrest. How either of them handle that is hard to guess. Given the usual advisers, it will be a continuance of what we have, only worse. I do appreciate, on one level, the fear of Trump in the sense that he lacks all sense of proportion and is such an ignorant man. He occasionally, however, says things that are supportable. He's right that unemployment is really more like 20%. That's true. But then he just says things. Who is really under that cartoon mask? Still I worry less because I think Hillary is the next president almost certainly. And I have wondered often if Trump even wants the presidency. He is certainly the perfect foil for Hillary who is unelectable against anyone else.
John Steppling walking the walk in Norway.
*1963 The assassination of President John F. Kennedy
*Anthony Braxton: American composer and musician
*Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Prolific queer German filmmaker
*John Francisco Rechy: Pioneer of LGBT literature
*mack daddy: pimp-meister, the king of the streetwalkers, possessor of the blingest of bling-bling
*Thomas Sankara: Marxist revolutionary, pan-Africanist theorist, and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987.
John Steppling's well-known blog of social, political and artistic writings can be found at www.john-steppling.com His latest book is AESTHETIC RESISTANCE AND DIS-INTEREST. THAT WHICH WILL NOT ALLOW ITSELF TO BE SAID. Available in paperback here.