The cross : What are America’s main challenges?
Peter Heller : For me, what is at stake is the future of our democracy. The country has become much more divided, in a way that now affects people’s lives on very personal levels. The convergence of Trumpism, racism and nationalism in this extremist movement prevents people from talking to each other as they used to. It’s frightening.
Are these divisions irreconcilable?
pH : Nope. If people on both sides of these divisions found themselves in a life-threatening situation, such as a forest fire, I’m sure they would come to each other’s aid, regardless of their political affiliation. This solidarity in hardship is at the heart of what makes our country. But I think the way we talk about politics has changed. The anger, the resentment, the class struggle, the conflicts, have always existed but the way we manage them, the way we talk to each other, inflames these debates so that instead of talking about the problems , we talk about identity, core values, who we are.
On either side of these trenches, the two sides hurl insults at each other without any real debate of ideas. The rhetoric encouraged by Donald Trump turns people of different opinions into enemies and delegitimizes them. In Washington, Congress is divided to the point of paralysis. People lose faith in the electoral process and feel cheated.
I don’t know what it would take for us all to see ourselves as Americans again. Perhaps a cathartic conflagration will be needed. It can’t go on like this without violence. There are so many weapons in the country. We had Charlotte, Oklahoma City, 9/11, 6/6, 2020… These eruptions are going to continue, they’re going to get worse, and reckoning will eventually come.
At the same time, a silent majority wants pragmatic solutions…
pH : I hope that’s true but, according to polls, more than 40% of voters have a positive opinion of Trump. It’s not a majority but it’s a huge part of the country that seems immune to decency. In Colorado, Idaho, and Montana, I’ve seen Trump country up close on the ground, passionate people, probably a lot more than the Democrats in the cities.
If we look at civil society and the private sector, the United States remains a very dynamic country. Does the ability to find solutions and improve things exist?
pH : Yes, I think so, otherwise we would have to take refuge in the mountains and live far from everything. I am not that misanthropic. The United States is a country of good people. The phenomenon we are witnessing results from the ferment caused by the feeling of having been excluded for years from the system, from the decision-making process. The urban/rural division is real. The vast majority of people living in rural areas feel they have been ignored. At the same time, small towns are full of people of goodwill who just need to be pulled out of this situation.
It’s like an argument between two brothers who need to be separated by adult intervention to stop fighting and talk to each other again. One day it will take something that shakes us to our core to realize that we are together in the same boat and that we need to take care of this beautiful country and our democracy.
When you look at America’s political elite, do you see any reason for hope?
pH : The rise of authoritarianism in the world has its roots in the degradation of the planet. It’s something that I feel intuitively. Climate change, the induced stress on the economic and political system, is real and this is already reflected in large movements of refugees around the world. These stresses are accelerating and will get worse. None of the efforts to reduce carbon emissions are up to par. It will become more and more difficult not to fragment into a tribalism where people will try to protect what will be threatened in their lives. We missed the opportunity in the 1970s. If we had listened to Al Gore, we might not be here.
What to do in these conditions?
pH : We need to take care of each other, have a sense of fun and humor, find joy in the world, and take responsibility for the mess we’ve made. If we do all of this, it will make us more resilient and we will have a fighting chance.
His great book on America
The Constellation of the Dog
Translated from English (United States) by Céline Leroy
Actes Sud, 334 p., €21.90
In the middle of a post-apocalyptic Colorado, Big Hig, flanked by his dog and armed with his gun, tries to survive. An epidemic passed through there, which devastated everything. Man here is a wolf to man. And Nature overflows, magnificent and grandiose. It’s beautiful and very visual, funny and violent. An ecological fable out of proportion to the great American spaces as much as a social fable, the first novel by this keen kayak traveler, released in 2013, was a critical success and a bestseller. Other novels and adventure stories will follow, between thriller and poetry, almost all borrowing from American “nature writing”.