Mat Johnson: I don’t think all of the pushback against our first black president is racial, or even most of it, but of course there is an element of race to this. I think what will be more accurate is to say that racist undertones have been used to push political and social agendas. Race is a tool. It has always been a tool. It’s America’s oldest wedge issue. And it has been used to rally opposition this time around, that is unquestionable, but opposition between the right and left is much bigger than that. Opposition to the left is by no means hinged on the idea of race or opposition to the right. But because of our demographics and history, ethnicity and class become inevitable factors.
CC: Milita uprisings seem to be a growing trend in pop culture. Several years ago, we had Jericho, and more recently Bryan Wood has enjoyed tremendous success with DMZ, both of which feature extremist militias attempting to take control of the nation. How much of what we’ll see in Right State is a reflection of the real-life militia movement?
MJ: For the book, I did research on actual separatist groups and drew from the larger militia movement as it currently stands. But I think what interests me the most about the militia movement is how it physically represents a schism in our culture. I wrote this book during the height of the Tea Party Movement, and one of the things I found very interesting about that was its new type of nostalgia. Not just longing for a generation ago but going all the way back to the founding of our nation. And like all nostalgia is, it said less about the time period in question than it did about the needs of those appropriating that period now.
CC: The preview materials for this book clearly state that the target is “the second African-American President of the United States.” Was this simply an effort to distance the subject matter from the current office holder, or will you be using the book to say something larger about African Americans in politics?
MJ: Yes, in part it was to distance the book from the current events. But the other element that was that I think it’s easier for people to see the government and the leadership as the other when the leaders are of another race or ethnicity. The more distance someone’s personal experiences from your own, the easier it is to have the false notion that their humanity is radically different from yours as well—that they can’t possibly share your values. I think that’s a key part of some of the reactions to Obama; there’s a segment of the population that will look at him and have a hard time imagining that he can empathize with the problems in their lives. And that has been consistently exploited. But I think a lot of the issues that we are having in our political sphere have more to do with tribalism than race.
You have two major political tribes in America: the right and the left. Each group has its own mythologies, its own distortions of the other group, its own strong points, and its own weak points that it clings to out of tribal loyalty. I don’t think the situation we have now would have been completely different if Hillary Clinton had become the president. Certainly it would have been different in some ways, but it’s not like that opposition wouldn’t be there. Likewise, if somehow miraculously Herman Cain became the Republican president, it’s not like liberals would have lined up to support him just because he’s black. Even black liberals. Long after the issue of race has become redundant and irrelevant, tribalism will still be a part of the human existence. It’s just the way our brains work. We group the world into the simplistic categories of Us versus Them. Our challenge as a nation is to get past that.
CC: The release of this book is timed to coincide pretty closely with the finale of the Presidential Election cycle. If there is one thing that you’re hoping people take away from the book as they head into the voting booth, what would that be?
MJ: Honestly, I don’t have any highfalutin intentions as far as impacting voters. This book is a thriller, but it’s my hope that this election, and every election, limits the thrills and drama to the world of fiction.
CC: The silly question: if you had to choose one comic book character to run for President, who would it be and why?
MJ: Well, honestly, my ideal president would probably be Mr. Terrific. I just love that character. He’s smart, he’s got the cool orbs thing going on. And how can you not love that jacket? Fair play. But he could never get elected—not because he’s black, but because he doesn’t have the charisma necessary to rally the masses. Green Arrow has the charisma, but he’d be the Ron Paul of the election and—worse—would probably want to run with the Green Party. Capt. American could win the election no problem, but do we really want someone with a 1940s understanding of the economy in charge of our country right now? No, it would have to be a B-Lister. I’ll go with Danielle Moonstar, Mirage; she could be all things to all people, and it seems like that’s what you have to be nowadays.