For anyone with a platform, Donald Trump’s presidency comes with a choice. Should they – the artists, the creative types, the famous ones – defend what they believe in? Or should they refrain from “going political”, at a time when fans might readily forsake an artist’s output if they don’t land on the same side?
For Don Winslow, there is no debate. The author, with 22 books to his name, is one of the most heralded names in contemporary crime fiction. He’s also one of the most outspoken anti-Trump activists in the current American literary landscape.
Winslow’s Twitter timeline is the most direct reflection of this occupation. “Dear Eric Trump,” reads one of his recent messages, addressed to the US president’s second son, “Name one person who ever hired you for a job that wasn't your dad? You can’t.” “Dear Republicans, How can Joe Biden take away your guns?” he asks in another tweet, this time about gun legislation. “Didn't @BarackObama take away your guns in 2008 and 2012? HE DIDN'T. IT NEVER HAPPENED. THEY THINK YOU'RE SO STUPID THAT THEY ARE TELLING YOU THE SAME LIES.”
Activism used to be a side gig for Winslow. He’s been at it at least since June 2017, when he took out a full-page ad in The New York Times to denounce Donald Trump’s “woefully ignorant” approach to the war on drugs, a theme relevant to his Cartel trilogy. In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, Winslow’s advocacy work has ramped up. Novel writing has been placed “on the back burner”, he tells The Independent – although future books are “simmering nicely”.
Winslow, whom Stephen King has deemed “one of America’s greatest storytellers”, never envisioned himself as a political person. But while some think of art and politics are two separate endeavours, the contrary proved true for him. Through his work as a novelist, he has researched topics such as drug policies, policing, prisons, and immigration, which in turn deepened his political beliefs.
“These are extraordinary times – our democracy is under greater threat than at any time since the Civil War,” he says. “We’re either going to resume trying to live up to our democratic ideals or we’re going to slide deeper into the shoddy sort of fascism that this criminal, corrupt, racist and incompetent collection of sleazy dirtbags has been.” As an aside, he notes that “it’s an interesting question whether you’d prefer a competent tin-pot dictator or an incompetent one”.
Winslow’s most recent book, a collection of six novellas titled Broken, came out in April this year, as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the US. He hopes he can go back to being “just a storyteller” soon – but in the meantime, he’s comfortable in his new role. Rather than fighting the noise of the news cycle, he absorbs it, checking five newspapers every morning before setting it all aside and getting to work. Support has “far outweighed” backlash – and backlash, when it happens, doesn’t worry him.
“Not everyone is going to like everything you do, and there are always going to be crazies out there,” he says. “You still get up in the morning and work.”
Earlier this month, Winslow found a collaborator in Bruce Springsteen. The musician granted Winslow permission to use his track “Streets of Philadelphia'' (crowned Best Original Song at the 1994 Academy Awards) in a spot highlighting Pennsylvania’s importance in the 2020 race. Nils Lofgren, a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band, happens to be a fan of Winslow’s books, as is Springsteen’s manager and producer Jon Landau. Director, screenwriter, and producer Shane Salerno (who is lined up to write the third of three planned Avatar sequels) is also Winslow’s agent, and “made cut after cut after cut, working crazy long hours with our editor”, Winslow recounts.
The prospect of showing Springsteen the finished product was “incredibly intimidating”, but the musician proved “generous and gracious enough” to give an enthusiastic green light. It paid off: the video, a montage of political speeches, news clips, and voter testimonies set to Springsteen’s tune, now has more than 7m views on Twitter.
In his crusade against another Trump term, Winslow has learned a few things about changing people’s minds. Namely, “that you have to meet them where they are. That you first have to listen to their concerns. The only thing worse than not talking to people is talking down to them.”
He knows that some people – the ones he calls “hardcore believers” – won’t be swayed. What keeps him going is his belief that the things that unite us outnumber the ones that divide us.
“Most of want the same things – food, shelter, clothing and a better life for our kids,” he says. “Most people believe in fairness. The question is then how do we achieve those things, and that’s what the conversations need to be about.”