Bad Story #5: Trump Was a Change Agent

Steve Almond

Like many of you, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year and a half trying to get my head around the reality that we elected a proudly ignorant, grossly incompetent, morally bankrupt ghoul as the leader of our country. No shortage of hacks and pundits have stepped up to offer answers—the Elegiac Hillbillies, the Game-Theory/MFA-Ranking Guys, the Serious Conservatives that respond to any progressive rumblings with “well, this is why we got Trump”—but they only make me less hopeful that we’re asking the right questions. I’m grateful then that our friend Steve Almond—a writer of very good stories—has turned his attention to bad ones. His new book, Bad Stories: What The Hell Just Happened To Our Country, is an exegesis of the erroneous and lazy narratives that we’ve allowed to dominate the discourse for years, and which contributed to a climate where a racist, misogynist, game show host could stumble his way into a West Wing bathrobe. Almond, along with the good folks at Red Hen Press, have allowed us to pluck one such bad story from the middle of the book and run it herewith. I highly encourage you to seek out the rest.

—Tony Perez, Editor, Tin House Books

A few underlying dynamics help expose a set of interrelated bad stories we heard constantly over the course of the campaign.

The first was that Trump needed to pivot away from his extreme rhetoric to a more acceptable form of economic populism. When was he going to pivot? Could his advisors get him to pivot? He’ll lose if he doesn’t pivot soon! In fact, he won because he didn’t pivot. He refused to abandon the most virulent aspects of his rhetoric, and this defiance reinforced his disruptive mystique.

What marked Trump as disruptive was his attitude, not his ideas. He repudiated “politics as usual” by importing a brand of impulsive emotionalism into a milieu loathed for its cautious calculation. He refused to disavow or apologize for offensive statements. He reacted to slights with a defensive rancor most of us recognized from our own lives.

It’s important to acknowledge this psychic identification, because it helps explain why Trump proved such an alluring figure, not only to his loyalists but to his critics. To those of us deeply invested in the story of our own virtue, Trump served as public vexation and secret vice. It was exciting to watch a human being so completely liberated from the restraints of a functioning conscience. We woke up each morning itching to open our browsers. And Trump rewarded our devotion by continually generating new affronts to our decency. He was the tireless adolescent forever trolling the unsecured border of our adulthood. We watched and listened and clicked and posted and tweeted and did so with such urgency that we lost sight, rather quickly, of the dull fact that elections are supposed to be about policies.

Trump was an unpredictable character. That was the notion frantically promoted by both the campaigns and faithfully aped by most of the media. It was another bad story. In fact, Trump may be the most predictable character ever to arise in our public life. To understand what I mean here, it’s useful to consider the two basic types of literary characters E.M. Forster defines in Aspects of the Novel. Round characters are those who confront the dangers of self-revelation and change as a result. Flat characters remain static, incapable of change.

This does not mean that flat characters are incapable of taking action. On the contrary, they are very good at taking action because they are uninhibited by self-reflection. They often drive plots. Achilles, Iago, Kurtz, and (of course) Ahab are supreme examples of the genus. But to call these characters unpredictable is to confuse outcome with motive, instinct with intellection. They are unpredictable only in the narrow sense that an enraged bull is unpredictable.

There were moments during the campaign when I felt an acute sense of just how tiresome Trump was. He was capable of pivoting, but only between two poles of action: the pursuit of adulation and the desecration of his critics. Those were literally his only two dance moves. He displayed no sense of wonder or curiosity, no capacity to experience the emotions most closely associated with the soul: doubt, sorrow, mercy. He lived instead within a fortress of defensive emotions erected to guard against any hint of vulnerability. This was the source of his resilience. Because it turns out that human beings are constantly constructing two stories about themselves. The first is the story of how we want the world to view us, the polished act we perform in public. The second is the story of who we know ourselves to be, the secret script of forbidden thoughts and feelings we tuck under the pillow of our privacy. Voters had a visceral response to Trump because he told that second story without shame. He was, in some sense, a kind of super-hero, a man with no subtext or subconscious, all raw need and glaring projection. I’m not suggesting that Trump, the human being, is a soulless monster. On the contrary, any person so desperate to convey strength is obviously contending with an inner life plagued by weakness. My own hunch is that Trump never experienced a sense of being unconditionally loved, what psychologists call attachment. The best he could hope for within his family of origin was to please his domineering father through aggression. Because he never developed an intrinsic sense of self-worth, he can’t protect himself from feelings of inadequacy. I’m not defending Trump here, only noting that whatever we might wish to call evil within his character stems from a distortion of love. This is why Trump proved especially captivating to disaffected Americans. He embodied the fantasy that our most primal terrors—of losing status, of being unworthy of love or left behind—could be converted into omnipotence.

His campaign aimed squarely at psychic wounds too painful to be acknowledged and therefore impervious to rational discourse. Every time some pundit mocked the candidate or his supporters, or lectured them, or even asked them questions in a sober tone of voice, they were merely pouring more rocket fuel into the Trump Express.

• • •

It was difficult, watching Trump bluff his way through the debates, not to think of Mencken: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

What reverberates here is the first sentence. Trump represented, and was therefore able to exploit, crucial aspects of the national character: our intellectual incuriosity, our hunger for distraction, a credulousness arising from our immersion in the razzle dazzle of marketing. He sold himself as a populist not by adopting populist policies but denouncing elitists. His tax plan funneled billions to the economic elite but nobody bothered to read the fine print. He successfully spun his political inexperience as purity because of our own fevered mistrust of government. His boasts that he knew better than career politicians mirrored our own arrogance. Consider the 2015 Pew Survey in which 55 percent of the respondents claimed “ordinary Americans” would do a better job than elected officials.

Trump embodied the duality at the heart of this nation’s cult of success. Objectively, he tanked everything he touched: casinos, airlines, marriages, football teams, fake universities. But he reacted to these flops by defiantly— almost poignantly—declaring victory. He became the con artist lurking within all of us, the Facebook self-promoter and resume padder writ large. Each scam produced a new ledger of debts and lawsuits. But Trump skimmed his take and kept moving. He became the miraculous bearer of a fragile capitalist fairytale, the one in which impregnable self-belief is enough to spin disgrace into gold.

The election became, in many ways, a moratorium on the state of the American soul. Clinton went with cautious preparedness. Trump bet on profane bluster, understanding that an unholy crusader stood at least a puncher’s chance against a holier-than-thou politician.

• • •

None of this—the rise of an outsider populist, the psychic triumph of personality over policy—is especially new. Consider this dispatch from the campaign trail: “He gets enormous crowds wherever he goes . . . He has caught on as a personality even if his policies have not. It is common to hear, ‘OK, so a lot of his ideas are cockeyed, but at least he tells you where he stands. He isn’t afraid to speak up, the way others are.’” This is Gore Vidal writing, in 1964, about the dark horse GOP nominee Barry Goldwater.

This brings us to a second bad story, the one about how Trump was going to shake up Washington. Media outlets provided breathless coverage of his brazen statements and his violent rallies. They marveled at his repudiation of political tradition and ritual. But they largely ignored the reactionary nature of his policies. He provided the spectacle of disruption, for which he was magically accredited with the reputation of a change agent.

If you were properly attuned, you could hear him working this angle during the debates, in which he deftly hung the mantle of the status quo on Clinton: She’s been in politics for the last 30 years. She never gets anything done.

Clinton won the debates, but she never attacked the fallacy at the heart of his campaign. Neither she, nor our Fourth Estate, ever forced him to explain how his policies— tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, scapegoating people of color—qualified him as a change agent. Every single proposal he made echoed back to some mythic past in which American prestige would be restored, our factories and mines would boom again, our streets would be made safe, women would know their place, and globalization would magically disappear, along with climate change, feminism, and other modern abominations.

The Trump agenda was about resisting change at all costs.

• • •

The musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron diagnosed the situation years ago, when another entertainer ascended to the presidency:

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can—even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse . . . someone always came to save America at the last moment—especially in “B” movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at like a “B” movie.

Scott-Heron was writing about a political regression he assumed had reached its zenith with the star of Bedtime for Bonzo napping in the Oval Office. But he had underestimated the forces aligned against the evolution of American democracy. It might be said that, in 2016, when Americans found themselves having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like Ronald Reagan. Because Ronald Reagan was no longer available, they settled for Donald Trump.

• • •

At this point, biographers and journalists have done a thorough rototill on Trump’s childhood. We know that he worshipped his dad, who owned a bunch of low-income buildings in Queens. We know Fred Trump was arrested at a Klan rally as a younger man, that he didn’t like renting apartments to African Americans, that he was sued by the federal government for discriminatory housing practices and forced to desegregate his properties. We know he used to take young Donald around with him to collect rents, and later employed him in the family business. We know that he urged his son to be “a killer” and shipped him off to a military boarding school at age twelve.

We know that Trump, as a budding real estate magnate, sought out as his mentors Roy Cohn, the menacing lawyer who served as Joseph McCarthy’s attack dog, and Roger Stone, a Nixon-era dirty trickster, who reinforced his father’s creed. Trump came to see life as “a series of battles” in which threats, insults, and deception helped you win. His upbringing and his moral training represent a hothouse for the authoritarian mindset. When he told New Yorkers, “maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done,” he meant it.

Although born into affluence, Trump developed a worldview indifferent, or perhaps hostile, to noblesse oblige—the notion, exemplified by the Kennedys, that nobility extends beyond lineage and requires compassion for the less fortunate. From early on, Trump favored a social dominance orientation, which describes the sort of person hung up on creating a hierarchy so he can be at the top of it. Narcissistic Darwinism (a term I believe I just invented) might also apply. It sounds like a pretty miserable way to live, frankly, which is why Trump’s aggression has always struck me as a shoddy disguise for despair. For all the glitz and frolicking of his professional life—casinos, pageants, TV shows—he never seems happy. When he spoke on the campaign trail about how much fun his rallies were, he was referring, more often than not, to the abuse inflicted on protesters or reporters. So much of his behavior registers as cruel, even sociopathic. But what I often sense is something closer to the abject: a young child who never experienced tenderness, who was told to be a killer rather than a little boy, who never internalized any sense of forgiveness and is therefore unable to forgive the world around him.

Steve Almond is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His short stories have been anthologized widely, in the Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Erotica, and Best American Mysteries series, and he hosts the New York Times Dear Sugars podcast with his pal Cheryl Strayed.