Optimists are hoping that Donald Trump’s inaugural speech will reveal who is — or perhaps that he isn’t what he appears to be. Others hope the assumption of power will bring gravitas, sobriety and prudence to a man who often behaves like an ADHD adolescent. Realists say 70-year-olds don’t change, what you see is what you get.
Still, Trump is not easy to figure. Kahneman and Tversky, the psychologists who star in “The Undoing Project” have taught us what poets and dramatists have known forever. Humans do not naturally think rationally but by analogy, metaphor, stereotype and storytelling. So perhaps the way to make sense of Trump is by trying to find characters who resemble this character, to fit this odd duck into a picture of the world we understand.
We have learned that his grandfather fled Germany to make his fortune in the Gold Rush as a shady entrepreneur running a hotel/restaurant/brothel. We have learned his father was a driven, bullying man who broke the world down into killers or losers. Trump learned to kill; his brother was broken. Does this help?
Those who despise Trump may view the transition from Obama as Hamlet viewed his father’s replacement by his uncle Claudius – a descent from “Hyperion to a satyr,” from a noble gentleman to “a mildewed ear,” a “smiling, damned villain.” But there’s no Fortinbras on the horizon, our Elsinore is going to have to live with the usurper for years.
But live with what? Is Trump akin to the huckster/conman of literature – a Harold Hill who always believes there’s going to be a band, a Bill Starbuck who makes it rain for a fee, the charismatic Harry Lime of “The Third Man” who gets away with murder while his followers take the rap, a Willy Loman if he’d made good, the Duke and the Dauphine from “Huck Finn?”
There’s certainly a bit of the grifter in Trump, a P.T. Barnum quality, like Allardyce Merriweather, the snake-oil salesman in “Little Big Man.” Or is he the robber baron character, the capitalist Mr. Big play by Edward Arnold who seeks to profit from the populist puppet in Frank Capra movies like “Meet John Doe” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?” Or perhaps he’s a version of the empire-building war profiteer from “Catch-22” whose motto is, “What’s good for Milo Minderbinder is good for the country.”
One also can’t help but think of Augustus Melmotte, a mesmerizing Victorian Madoff who takes naïve investors to the cleaners in Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now.” There’s also a touch of the megalomaniac, womanizing, germaphobe Howard Hughes about Trump, or of Charles Foster Kane who never had enough stuff to satisfy his appetite for love and admiration. Or the relentlessly social climbing Undine Spragg in” The Custom of the Country.”
In the political sphere, where populist demagogues are familiar, there are loads of bad Kings and Caesars to consider. The only presidents to whom Trump has been compared to regularly are Jackson and Nixon, in both cases for appealing to the “silent majority” of their time, and for their penchant for settling scores and getting even. Alas, duels have gone out of style, replaced by Trump’s weapon of choice – nuisance litigation.
But in literature a couple figures based on Huey Long bear resemblance to Trump. First, the crude, populist pied piper Willie Stark in “All the King’s Men,” and President Buzz Windrip who abolishes the other two branches of government in “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis. And then there is Jack Merridew who leads the boys to barbarism in “Lord of the Flies.”
The funniest analog for Trump I’ve heard was a tossed off reference by Stephen Colbert to Biff Tannon, the dimwitted bully of the “Back to the Future” movies. He uses a stolen almanac from the future to make a fortune gambling on sure things, founds a garish casino, lolls with women of easy virtue in a hot tub wearing a gold chain and dyed blond hair, and corrupts an idyllic town while styling himself “America’s Greatest Living Folk Hero.”
This seemed like a witty notion until I learned from a “Daily Beast” article of October 2015 that Bob Gale, the screenwriter of the movie franchise, consciously modelled Biff on the Trump of the 1980s. So, this was art imitating life, not vice versa. Not a key to Trump, but a parody of the real thing.
Perhaps the Trump of the tweets is most like Miles Gloriosus, the braggart soldier of Plautus, the Roman writer of comedies. He appears in an adaptation of Plautus, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” He sings a song whose lyrics might have been written for Trump by Sondheim.
Soldiers: “Look at that foot! Look at that heel!! Mark the magnificent muscles of steel!”
Miles: “I am my ideal. I, Miles Gloriosus. I, slaughterer of thousands. I, oppressor of the meek, subduer of the weak, degrader of the Greek, destroyer of the Turk, must hurry back to work.”
Soldiers: “A man among men, paragon of virtue, with sword and pen.”
Miles: “I, in war the most admired. In wit the most inspired. In love the most desired. In dress the best displayed. I am a parade.”
And no doubt Trump’s goal today will be to upstage his own parade. But as to where he will march us all tomorrow, we are in the dark. It’s possible that Trump is too. Like an improv comic, he may turn out to be our first ad lib president. A character who’s always on, who lives for applause, who has no face behind the mask.
Perhaps he’s Norma Desmond, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Or Archie Rice from “The Entertainer” or Lonesome Rhodes, the Andy Griffith character from “A Face in the Crowd,” or Howard Beale from “Network,” mad as hell and now going to take it anymore.
One thing alone is certain, he is probably not going to be playing a president who promises “malice toward none and charity for all.”