“Never a dull moment, eh?”
I’ve heard it so many times. Someone asks what I do for work and remarks upon how working as a journalist in the Trump era must be a rollercoaster ride of excitement.
In art, and in particular literature, there must be some conflict. A good man with demons, or an evil man with a yearning to be better. Someone so ambitious they fly too close to the sun. Unresolved conflict that drives the narrative.
That is where intrigue lies. That is what makes politics so fascinating; hundreds of mostly well-meaning but deeply flawed human beings get to run entire countries. We don’t elect Gods, we elect men. And even someone as inoffensive as Joe Biden is a whirling snow globe of competing impulses and contradictions; he’s a blue-collar hero who’s a millionaire figure among the Washington elite, he’s a grandfatherly counterpoint to the rage of Trump but can and does flare up in anger when his weak-spots are probed, and he is – unquestionably – a proud and successful father and grandfather who’s also tenaciously wrestled with an at-times wild and reckless son.
Donald Trump, by contrast, is utterly one-note. He is pure Id. There’s no superego kicking into moderate, or an ego to adjudicate. It’s one big episode of Supermarket Sweep; see it, want it, grab it. Fireworks are exciting in theory, but attend a display every night and you’ll soon tire of the bangs and fizzles.
Place him as a character in fiction and he’d be circled in endless red ink – “where’s the character journey?” an editor writes – and they’d be right, there isn’t one. He leaves office the same as he entered it. He is utterly unchanged.
A rather guilty pleasure of mine during previous administrations was to find and read those deep, insidery, 10,000-word fly-on-the-wall Oval Office insights, laying out the full network of power. It would have who liked who, who hated who, who had the president’s ear, and the array of competing forces that etched the successes and failures of a presidency.
It hit me recently that there hasn’t been a real classic of that genre for four years, because the president is the Sam Allardyce of US politics. (To US readers, and non-soccer fans, he’s a manager known for having his players hoof the ball upfield in an unelegant manner, hoping something, anything, would get through the opposing defense).
Setting aside policy successes and failures, is it wrong to yearn for complexity of character; think Bill Clinton, with his charm and ability to reach across the aisle shattered by his sexual pursuit of a young intern in a scandal that stained his presidency; or a George W Bush, with a disarming, almost bumbling nature that disguised a ruthless political brain that won two-terms; or even his father – a chummy, almost meek, friend-to-all who led the world’s most powerful spy agency and ascended to the highest office in the land.
If you were to pitch Donald Trump as a fictional character winning the 2016 presidency, having the story end with him refusing to acknowledge defeat, cheerleading a Capitol Hill riot, then declining to attend his successor’s inauguration would have been less a character arc than a straight, flat line.
“Why would someone spend so much time plowing through this just to discover what we suspected from the start?” the editor would say.
The rest of America had no choice.