What a difference a day can make. As of November 7, 2016, Garrison Keillor’s distinctive voice, as instantly recognizable on the page as on the air, retained its signature avuncular warmth, despite increasingly political subject matter occasioned by the presidential election. By November 8, 2016, what had been cozy and familiar for decades took on a new emphasis, not because Keillor had changed his tune, but because the world had shifted around him. Years of the drip-drip erosion of rational standards for political discourse had finally yielded to an all-out flood of posturing, fabrication, and lies, leaving the majority of voters feeling soaked. Since then, primarily through his newspaper columns, Keillor has emerged as one of the most trenchant critics of the president-elect, indicting his behavior on the grounds of common decency and doing so in the simple, straightforward language of his beloved Midwest.
When he comes to town on Sunday, January 22, Keillor will do so as a prime example of the loyal opposition, as in those who pledge themselves to resisting the majority in power while at the same time supporting the fundamental principles of the government to which that majority has been elected. First formulated to protect members of parliament from politically motivated charges of treason, the concept of the loyal opposition has never been as necessary in the American republic as it is today, and Garrison Keillor, without ever having held public office, nevertheless represents one of its most important voices. With a commitment to political satire that extends back to his 1999 novel Me by Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente, a takedown of then Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, Keillor has thought long and hard about what to say about a hyped-up, thin-skinned, self-absorbed con man who holds high political office. At a moment when even the most seasoned writers in American politics have thrown up their hands in disbelief, there’s at least this one level-headed man with a laptop who can claim relevant experience wrestling against this particular type of heel.
In the following email conversation with Keillor last week, I heard America singing, and it sounded like early Elvis Presley. What follows is a transcript of that exchange.
In your Washington Post column of November 9, 2016, the one titled “Trump voters will not like what happens next,” you quoted Elvis Presley singing, “Don’t be cruel.” This seems like a fundamental principle of morality, that when ranking the badness of the various vices, we have to put cruelty first, because it involves the intention to cause others pain regardless of what that may or may not do for ourselves. Could you say a little more on this subject? Elvis sang, “Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true,” and I was proud of Meryl Streep for pointing out again the terribly indicative moment of Trump mocking and miming the handicapped reporter for the Times. What he did was so startling, the sort of playground cruelty I remember from the ’50s, so odd for a 70-year-old multibillionaire. In my grade school, there were several children who were easy targets, a couple girls and a boy, and the memory of them is painful because even though I was brought up by good Christian people, I did not leap to the defense of these kids — Shirley who had suffered crippling polio, Dorby who was desperately poor, Ronnie who was retarded. In childhood, a person learns empathy from reading imaginative literature — The Ugly Duckling, Black Beauty, The Diary of Anne Frank, and so on. A child of privilege, such as Trump, may never develop this quality: For him, it’s all about winning.
In my line of work, you deal with the fact that though comedy involves a degree of cruelty, the audience does not laugh when a certain line is crossed and they feel that the weak and vulnerable are being targeted. An audience can go cold very quickly in that case. If I make fun of the privileged, tone-deaf, illiterate tycoon, that is cool, but if I make fun of his supporters, that’s different. My grandma was a secret liberal in a family of small-town, hard-shell fundamentalists who believed that welfare was for the indolent, education was unnecessary beyond the 6th grade, and cities were a cesspool of wickedness: She held out for the equality of men and women, of whites and Negros, and for the fundamental decency of offering medicine to everyone and paying people a living wage so that, no matter how humble their work, they could raise a family. To her, cruelty was a fundamental flaw of character.
You recently handed over A Prairie Home Companion to Chris Thile. How are you feeling about that transition? What are your emotions as you look back on the years you spent doing radio? I miss doing the show, and so I find it eases the loss if I don’t listen to the Thile show. But I hear good things about it, and I wish him well. I’m working through the transition by keeping busy. Screenplay, memoir, weekly column, touring, and working on a musical. A man with a warm laptop.
Apart from all the overtly offensive remarks Trump and his followers have been making in public over the last year or so, there’s the phenomenon of the so-called “dog whistle” phrases. Should there be dog whistle phrases for the rest of us? We’re on the outs for the next couple years. Amazing, that so few people in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin carry so much power, but they do. I feel a strong division between left and right in my own family — the Trump voters have clammed up about it, don’t want to explain themselves, are avoiding the rest of us. I think they find him embarrassing and can’t admit it. So we have to help our friends and allies who feel desperate right now, and we can do that openly. No need for dog whistles.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents “An Afternoon with Garrison Keillor” on Sunday, January 22, at 3 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.