In his own words: Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Academy Award nominee Tony Kushner
Smoky Mountain News: When you look at American society today, what do you see?
Tony Kushner: Oh, my god. [Laughs]. Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “American society.” The news in the last 24 hours is so horrifying, it’s hard to talk about anything but that.
When I look at American society, I see a country that the majority of which voted for Hillary Clinton for president. It’s increasing ethnically diverse. And it’s struggling to emerge from the last, very long period of political misadventures, which began with Ronald Reagan in 1980. And, of course, has roots going back before that, but has come to its full flowering with this monster in the White House. I feel like the country is a complicated and extraordinary place, full of really remarkable people. And it’s very important for us to hang onto the truth of the situation, which is that Donald Trump doesn’t represent a majority of Americans. And the majority of Americans still respect democracy — still respect the idea of government by law. Even some people who voted for Donald Trump are patriots, who actually believe our country has sovereignty and integrity worth guarding against foreign interference, whereas the evidence is mounting to staggering proportions that Donald Trump and the people that surround him in the White House are traitors — without any hyperbole at all — who are basically doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin.
SMN: President Abraham Lincoln is one of the few characters both political parties point to as a voice of reason. With your screenplay and research [with the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln”], what’s your takeaway on Lincoln?
TK: I think Lincoln is inarguably our greatest president. And I think he understood some fundamental things, that bigotry and slavery was antithetical to democracy, that equality under the law was the absolute bottom line for a democracy to function. There were speeches that he made where he talks about “equality of opportunity,” too. He believed in capitalism. He wasn’t an early socialist by any means. But, he was a centrist. I think Lincoln was very aware that vast economic disparity is a great danger to democracy. When people evoke him in that way, it makes sense. Because I don’t think anyone who has ever sat in the White House — or really any human being who has ever lived — has spoken more beautifully and had a deeper understanding of what democratic government is and what it means. And the fact [Lincoln] developed this understanding as president during a time of very grave national crisis makes it all the more impressive. When somebody like Donald Trump mentions [Lincoln], it’s obscene. It’s as obscene as when Donald Trump mentions God. This man has absolutely no understanding of Lincoln, I’m sure he’s never read a word that Lincoln wrote. The Republican party has always tried to claim Lincoln, this whole history going back to Reagan of just making up quotes that “Lincoln said” about free markets — this sort of nonsense. But, then of course, they shy away from one thing that Lincoln said, “The problem with conservatives, in general, is that they’re too interested in power to the exclusion of everything else, this makes them susceptible to the virus of succession.” Whereas the radicals, [Lincoln] called them the “unhandiest devils in the world to work with, but we need them because their eyes are facing Zionward.” They want power for a purpose that is a recognizable social good. And I think we’re in that same situation today.