I’m often asked why I ditched writing novels for political commentary. Usually I respond: “Because Donald Trump rendered fiction redundant.” That may sound glib, but it gets at something profound.
The aim of the novelist is to enlist others in his fantasies, immersing them in an alternative reality so emotionally compelling that they willingly suspend disbelief. Trump has dangerously conflated this sort of storytelling with real-life presidential leadership, casting himself in the role of the archetypal savior-hero, battling the forces of evil. He’s our first novelist in chief.
I’ve written several psychological novels. Unavoidably, I view Trump in psychological terms, as a character whose inner life dictates his actions, often for the worse. Others have been more circumspect. Many psychiatrists cite their profession’s “Goldwater Rule,” which bars them from diagnosing individuals they haven’t examined in person—including presidential candidates. Most journalists argue that objectivity requires them to report statements and behaviors as they occur, leaving readers to reach their own conclusions about the source of Trump’s solipsism.
No doubt their professional scruples are, in themselves, admirable. But by putting Trump in the usual analytic boxes—populist, businessman, exemplar of reality TV—most commentators have missed what is truly distinctive and dangerous about Trump. In fiction and in life, there is no question one person can ask about others more important than why they behave as they do, and how this prefigures how they’ll behave in the future. The media’s acquiescence in Trump’s fantasies—parsing his positions, pontificating about his strategy, and marveling at his intuition—has turned Trump’s inability to distinguish fiction from reality into a form of political genius.