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.
Watching this process as a fiction writer made me sort of, well, crazy. To write a novel, I would sit down at my desk and enter an imaginary world in which, out of predisposition and necessity, I wholly believed. The characters I wrote about became, in that moment, as real to me as family. I’ve spent a bit of time pondering whether the drive to create fiction emanates from psychic scars: the need to distance oneself from reality, or to assert a control unavailable in real life, or to resolve conflicts in more satisfying ways than actual experience affords. In particular, I understood from the get-go that one of my most popular characters, an American president, reflected my human desire to somehow resurrect Robert Kennedy.
But when I got up from my desk, real people awaited me. I saw my kids as the distinctive individuals they were, not as self-projections in a tableau of wish fulfillment. My career may have reflected some form of psychic adjustment, but it was also a means of sending my daughters and sons to the college of their own choosing. Because I never confused my fictions with my life, I remained, at least arguably, sane—not least because I understood the ineradicable boundary between me and an external world driven by other people and their needs.
To me, Donald Trump was more than the prototypical protagonist of a psychological novel—he was a fiction writer run amok, the hero of his own impermeable drama, resentful of editors who would prune his imaginings. He feels little need to heed advice, or to learn anything much from anyone. Most of what he says is provisional, ever subject to change, and based on nothing but his transient and subjective needs.
But the crucial difference between Trump and a novelist is that his fancies are not confined to the page, and Americans can’t put them back on the shelf.
Like any other best-selling novelist, I had publicists who helped me. But Trump has an army: the media, particularly cable news. In the run-up to his nomination, cable gave Trump $3 billion in free media—effectively, a sustained infomercial consisting of his rallies and rambling press conferences. This open microphone made him unique among all candidates.
Trump used it like a novelist would—to re-create himself as a fictional archetype, the lonely sheriff who drives the bad guys out of town. In his acceptance speech, he proclaimed, “I alone can fix it,” then amplified this in an inaugural address in which he portrayed himself as a gunslinger rescuing a cartoon country. He evoked a national dystopia: cities awash in carnage; sclerotic schools; shuttered factories; predatory nonwhites; the crooked denizens of swampland Washington. Like Gulliver amid the Lilliputians, Trump’s America was a helpless giant tied down by tormentors at home and abroad.
But at last Donald Trump had arrived, the solitary symbol of salvation. Simply by virtue of his inauguration, the supposed carnage “will stop right here, and stop right now,” and “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no more.” All the problems of a complex society, however exaggerated, would evanesce overnight. As Ernest Hemingway wrote to climax perhaps his greatest work of fiction, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
For millions of Trump’s followers, this fantasy world is too pretty to relinquish. Relentlessly, Trump has induced the sine qua non for any successful novelist: the willing—indeed, willful—suspension of disbelief. On some level, Trump’s followers know that he is lying, and choose not to care. For them, his false narrative is so emotionally enveloping that it sublimates truth to what Coleridge called “poetic faith.”
He engenders this enthrallment by a classic fictional device: pitting himself, as the protagonist, against an imaginary world filled with pitfalls and peopled by antagonists who evoke fear, hatred, and contempt—the deep state, the media, Muslims, immigrants, minorities, freeloading Europeans—as well as fictionalized versions of real people such as Robert Mueller. In turn, Trump’s blustery pretense of intuitive expertise on subjects as varied as climate change, trade, counterterrorism, and geopolitics licenses the angry and insecure to spurn the expertise of a despised elite, whether they be economists, globalists, environmental scientists, in favor of bogus nostrums that corroborate what they wish to believe. By governing through seductive fictions, Trump has substituted fancy for objective fact as a basis for political discourse.
Watching this, I’m reminded of my writing mentor, a very fine novelist who called fiction “a collection of lies which are ultimately true”—by which he meant true to human nature. Trump’s lies are true to his deepest needs and those of his followers.
Among them is Victor Davis Hanson, a conservative classicist and military scholar. In a New Yorker interview, Hanson describes Trump as the tragic hero of a classic Western—Shane, High Noon, or The Magnificent Seven. “They all are the same—the community doesn’t have the skills or doesn’t have the willpower or doesn’t want to stoop to the corrective method to solve the existential problem, whether it is cattle barons or banditos,” Hanson explains. “So they bring in an outsider, and immediately they start to be uneasy because he is uncouth—his skills, his attitude—and then he solves a problem, and they declare to him … ‘We don’t need you anymore.’”
For millions, Trump’s alternative reality is now a source of comfort and escape, a balm that simplifies a harsh and complex world, the gateway to an America that never was or will be. The question now is who will write its final chapter—and whether Trump’s fantasy of self will end in catharsis or in tragedy.