How ‘The Great Gatsby’ Explains Trump
Last week, Rosa Inocencio Smith wrote about the “superficial but telling ways” President Donald Trump resembles Tom Buchanan, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
As a high-school English teacher, I found your article informative, refreshing, and full of new takeaways to consider.
While I agree with many of your points, I believe one consideration is missing. First, though the similarities between Tom and our president are apt, I believe the parallels between Gatsby and Trump must also be explored. Their similarities coalesce around a relentless ambition for social promotion. Gatsby, in his disdain for poverty, sees Daisy as the final piece in his lifelong effort to remake himself and find acceptance in the elite, old-money society he so desperately wants to join. Trump, as well, has based his entire life on being accepted into the elite Manhattan social scene, something his Queens upbringing has prevented. After all, the working title for The Great Gatsby was “Trimalchio”; as a former slave in Satyricon, by Petronius, Trimalchio pursued wealth through rather ruthless means.
As you note, Gatsby was indeed blind to his dreams, and in no small part this led to his downfall, though by means he never imagined. That someone like Gatsby could plummet from dizzying heights just as quickly as he climbed the rungs of wealth and influence suggests the limits of power and wealth. To the external observer, our president, in his previous life, seemed to have all the trappings of wealth and power; however, his own insecurity and narcissism became the direct catalyst for his unceasing devotion to climbing the social ladder, or simply to spiting certain people. This is quite the opposite of Tom, who never sought to continually climb the social ladder but rather to maintain the undisputed status quo he occupied. Tom is free to spout unmerited claims about race and other topics; in no way is his societal position altered. But Trump’s blindness is rooted primarily in arrogance and lack of intellectual ability. Without a doubt, our president never seems to have asked himself what might happen if past deeds he’s never had to account for were to become a topic of national interest, or what might happen if his policy and executive decisions were confronted by the many layers of power in the government. Just as Gatsby assumed that a relentless pursuit of wealth would open his path to the pinnacle of society, Trump assumed his self-perceived skills and accomplishments in business would gloss over his gross deficiencies. We must consider Gatsby and ask ourselves what a downfall might look like in respect to our president. Such an event should give a shudder to any American concerned about the future of democracy.
St. Paul, Minn.
A particularly pertinent theme from the book is Nick’s observation about Tom and Daisy being careless and smashing things up and leaving it to others to clean up the mess. From day one of his presidency, Trump has been doing just that.
Rosa Inocencio Smith replies:
Thank you to these readers (and to the others I’ve heard from!) for their thoughtful reading and responses. As a lifelong literature nerd, I love nothing more than a good book discussion, and I’m thrilled to see English teachers in my inbox. Maybe I didn’t have to leave class after all.
Mary’s point about Trump’s presidency is a good one: Nick’s “smashed up things and people” line was actually the inspiration for this piece. My editor and I wondered what, exactly, was behind this attitude of carelessness, and I settled on a kind of stubborn hold on power. But as David points out, there’s much more to the president than that, and much more to the novel. Trump’s apparent desire for his power and wealth to be taken seriously (my colleague McKay Coppins has called him “the outer-borough president”) animates much of his diplomacy, and certainly his Twitter feed. His narrative of his life—if not necessarily his actual experience—has always been marked by striving, and the assurance of “more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats” that he gives his supporters is precisely the Gatsbyesque dream that Fitzgerald’s novel interrogates.
All of which goes back to why I love book discussions—and, more seriously, why I think they’re crucial to education and even, in a broader sense, to democracy. There’s always more to listen to, more to think about, more of our own assumptions to question. We should read the world around us as we read literature: thoroughly, critically, generously, and with the grateful knowledge that others’ conflicting interpretations can help us understand it better.