Posted Thursday, August 11, 2016.
Burt Lancaster as one of Donald Trump’s literary forebears in the movie adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry. I think if Lancaster could be brought back to life at any age between 40 and 70 he’d be perfect casting as Trump and I’ll bet he’d get a real kick out of playing the hell out of the part.
Being blissed out on on Percocet and Valium has taken some of the fun out of watching Donald Trump and the GOP’s collective meltdown. It’s left me feeling too detached. Instead of reveling in the malicious glee I would normally be enjoying, the most intense reaction I can manage is a Spock-like “Fascinating.”
And it is fascinating. Trump is fascinating. As a story as much as anything. His is an American tale, practically a folk tale, and I look forward to the day when some great storyteller---biographer, historian, novelist, or filmmaker---is able to tell it in full. In whatever form it’s told---as a biography as riveting as T. Harry Williams’ Huey Long, as a movie both epic and intimate like Citizen Kane, as a dramatic sociological study of a time and place like David Simon’s TV miniseries Show Me a Hero, or as a documentary as comprehensive and devastating as ESPN's O.J.:Made in America---it will be one of those stories that tell us not just what happened to us as a nation at a given moment in history, that doesn’t only relate the events, culture, and temper of a particular moment in time, but helps explain who and what we are as a people. Trump is decidedly in the American grain, a type who exemplifies something essential about our national character.
We need to hear the stories of our heroes and saints in order to inspire us and give us hope, but I believe we can better understand ourselves through the stories of our failures, scoundrels, and villains, because we are all always in danger of becoming one of them. Theirs are cautionary tales with a similar theme: we are all more like him or her than we’d like to admit. Richard Nixon’s story is more morally instructive than Bobby Kennedy’s or Martin Luther King’s because he, far more than either of them, was in a lifelong revolt against his own ordinary Americanness. In short, what he hated most about himself was his likeness to the rest of us, so an important part of Nixon’s story is that likeness.
Same deal with Trump, I think. Maybe even more than Nixon was, he seems driven by virulent self-loathing. He’s a populist who despises that part of himself that’s most like the people whose champion he’s pretending to be---that is, his ordinary Americanness. So,again, as with Nixon, the hero/anti-hero/villain’s ordinariness---his likeness to the rest of us---is a major theme of the drama/comedy/tragedy. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are the types of do-gooding high achievers we’d like to be and teach our children to strive to be. Donald Trump is who we’re all in danger of becoming if we don't watch it.
I didn’t include a novel on that list of story forms because offhand I can’t think of one comparable to what I’m hoping for. American literary novelists haven’t shown much interest in politics or money or, when it comes down to it, social observation on a scale large enough to accommodate the cast of characters and the various plots and subplots it would take to tell even a quarter of the story.
Time for one of my patented sweeping generalizations.
Just about all all American fiction considered “serious literature”, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James to Scott Fitzgerald to John Updike and Toni Morrison and on up to Jonathan Franzen is genre fiction. The genre is domestic drama and it’s as self-confined and convention bound as any of the other supposedly lesser genres like mysteries, romances, science fiction, fantasy, and westerns. Do high school English classes still teach that there are four basic narrative conflicts: Man against Man, Man against Society, Man against Nature, and Man Against Himself? There’s a fifth. Man/Woman/Child against Family. And that’s the one that one that drives the plots of the great majority of the novels on high school and college reading lists and that fill the shelves in the Fiction and Literature section at Barnes & Noble.
Whatever the “story” summarized in the Cliff Notes or on the inside flap of the dust jacket, the real story is usually about the intimate strife and turmoil among a small group of people related by blood, sex, or friendship trying to work out their mutual dysfunctions and dissatisfactions with the personal happiness of the main character being the outcome most at stake.
History, politics, current events, economics, and the way a society or a community organizes itself and enforces its conventions and imposes its traditions and culture are background to the domestic drama. Even Robert Penn Warren’s classic All the King’s Men is less a political drama than it is a family tragedy. To the degree Willie Stark is a villain, his villainy seems to lie mainly in his being an unreliable friend and a bad husband and only incidentally in his ambition to make himself a populist dictator. It’s still a great novel. There are many great novels among the type I seem to be treating dismissively. What I’m getting at isn’t that there are no great American novels but that there aren’t many novels around that tell the kind of a story I’d like to see told in the way I think it needs telling. Politics, current events, money, and social conflict tend to be subjects writers of mysteries and thrillers are more drawn to and in their stories those issues are naturally treated as provocations of criminal activity, psychology is reduced to motive, and everything plays itself out to neat, melodramatically satisfying conclusions. A Donald Trump type might be an important character but he’s more likely to show up either as a stock villain or a deservedly dead body than as a protagonist whose story tells us more than just why he committed his crime or deserved to be murdered. In a “literary” novel, however, a “Donald Trump’s” story is likely to be about what’s “really” going on between him and Ivanka and/or why his sons are compelled to go out and kill elephants.
Like I said, I’m making a sweeping generalization. There are plenty of exceptions. It’s just that offhand I can’t think of a single, exceptional novel that would fit in with my list of movies, biographies, TV series, and documentaries that provide models for the telling of the story of Donald Trump. William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Edith Wharton have probably come closest, with an honorable mention to Bud Schulberg. Flem Snopes, Elmer Gantry, Undine Spragg, and Sammy Glick are literary cousins to the character I’m imagining based on Trump, self-aggrandizing opportunists exploiting the weaknesses and vices of everyone they come in contact with, using and allowing themselves to be used as it fits in with their scheming, ruthlessly on the make, taking swift advantage of every opportunity opened up to them by a social order that seems geared to reward hypocrisy, double-dealing, cynicism, and amoral intelligence and to actively and by design punish virtue and common decency, on their apparently unstoppable way to wealth, status, power, and apparent happiness. But The Hamlet, Elmer Gantry, The Custom of the Country, and What Makes Sammy Run? are local stories and fairly apolitical. And because they’re local, that is, they play out on small stages, their protagonists just don’t have the grand opportunities for mischief and villainy that Trump has had. Frenchman’s Bend isn’t as wide-open a town as New York City by a longshot and contains a much more greatly limited number of suckers, victims, marks, and foils. There isn’t enough money to steal or power to acquire to satisfy a Trump. Flem Snopes and the others are monsters of ego, vanity, greed, and ambition, but they aren’t close to being as monstrous as the Donald.
(It’s interesting to note that in It Can’t Happen Here Sinclair Lewis wound up treating the coming of fascism to America as pretty much a local story and Philip Roth did the same in The Plot Against America. I’m not sure what to make of that.)
For a while I considered Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full as a possible model for what I’m looking for. But fiction writing brings out the worst in Wolfe. Not only does his prose suffer but so does his insight into what makes people tick. His characters turn into stock figures and clichés. Worst of all, his own politics, a bland and misanthropic conservatism which is mostly an expression of a parvenu’s self-serving snobbery, takes over. In A Man in Full, his worship of power and money casuses him to make a hero out of someone whose real life counterparts tend to be dangerous and destructive villains.
Gore Vidal would be chortling in his joy at the prospect of writing about Trump, although I think he’d be laughing more at us than at Trump himself, enjoying watching us getting just what he was always sure we deserve and secretly want. Vidal wrote one of the best political novels of the 20th Century, Washington D.C., but its actual insight is limited by its being mainly an extended piece of family gossip. Lincoln is a pretty good book, but all but one of the other novels in the mordantly and a little too patly titled Narratives of Empire series are fairly mundane and melodramatic period pieces, distinguished only by Vidal’s increasingly desperate need to prove that American history since Lincoln has been a drawing room comedy version of the Wars of the Rose, a saga of a few aristocratic families playing with the destinies of an unseen and practically irrelevant common citizenry with no heroes and no heroic villains only cynical schemers motivated by vanity and a petty lust for power and that includes Franklin Roosevelt. The exception is Burr, one of the great satirical novels and it might be funny, assuming he never gets close to the presidency, to read Trump’s story told from Trump’s point of view, although I’m not sure even the most talented parodist could sustain a three or four hundred page novel made up entirely of a madman’s obsessive tweeting.
It’s been too long since I read Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold, but that might be a something like what I have in mind. And Bellow and Vonnegut could have handled it, although they’d have come at it in very different ways. Thomas Pynchon might already be on it. And I’d love to see what T.C. Boyle would make of it, although I’d expect him, being something of a regionalist, to tell a more localized version of the story. Anyone else you can think of who could handle the story? I’m leaning towards Don Delillo, although Underworld is missing a central villain so I’m having a hard time imagining what he’d do with Trump.
Human beings have more vices than virtues, and so people tend to have have more sins, failures, and weaknesses in common than they do acts of nobility, decency, and heroism. And times, circumstances, and cultural pressures and trends increase certain temptations. It’s long been a flaw in the American character---sometimes a comic flaw but usually a tragic one---that we think the purpose of life is not to be good or even to be happy but to be “successful,” and it’s how people define success that gets them into trouble. Too often it just means being better than everyone else is some less than admirable way and then lording it over people. And that appears to be the driving theme of Trump’s life.
I’m sure someone will get to it sooner or later. It’s not really important to me who or when. My point here is that Trump is a fascinating story but he himself is not the story.
Of course he’s one of the leading characters in the news story of the day. But who he is, what made him, how he’s gotten to where her is and whose fault that is are academic questions. Trump is a type. There have been many versions of him before and there will be many more to come. There are many varieties of Trumps out there being Trumps at this very moment. Where does a Trump come from? Anywhere and everywhere. There’s some version of him in every town and city, in every office and college dorm. In churches and classrooms and on playgrounds. Aboard ships at sea and in army barracks and high school locker rooms. The country is full of spiteful, malicious, rapacious bullies and con artists on the lookout for the main chance. They just need the opportunity to open up at the right moment. And that’s the story. How did this opportunity open up for Trump? And a good working title for that story is The Decline and Fall of the Republican Party.
I’m not sure where that story begins? With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln? With the assassination of James Garfield? With Rutherford B. Hayes’ corrupt deal with Southern Democrats to get himself installed as President by the Electoral College despite having lost the popular vote in exchange for ending Reconstruction? With the decision by some short-sighted Republican party bosses who looked at the waves of immigrants arriving in the Northeast and said, What do we need them for? And so left the way open for the Tammany Hall ward heelers to go down to the docks and greet the new arrivals with offers of jobs and meals and places to live, asking only in return the small favor of voting early and often for the Democrats in the next election? With takeover of the party by the business interests who drove Theodore Roosevelt from the scene and allowed Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats to claim the mantle of Progressivism? With FDR driving those same interests so crazy with rage and frustration that they decided to devote the next eighty years to undoing the New Deal? With their welcoming into their ranks the likes of Strom Thurmond and other segregationists? With William F. Buckley’s intellectual justification for opposing Civil Rights? With Nixon and his Southern Strategy? With Ronald Reagan’s making common cause with the Religious Right with its zealots’ ambition to impose their perverted form of Christianity on the rest of the us? With Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America that was essentially a promise to restore straight white male supremacy to a country that had for almost its whole history prided itself on being the melting pot?
Wherever you choose to start it, that’s the story. That’s been the story. It will be told---it’s starting to be told---by historians, biographers, and documentarians. I’m sure novelists will get around to it. But the thing is, it’s a story that should have been the bread and butter of political journalists for at least the last twenty years. They should have started telling it the day it became clear the Republicans were willing to impeach a Democratic president for no good reason other than to overturn an election.
Most of them, though, missed the story.
Too many of them are still missing it.