Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Life imitates art: what character is Trump, Ryan, Clinton?

With only four weeks left to the most bizarre election in a lifetime, I have been thinking about life imitating art, and specifically what literary characters our political stars resemble. My list so far:

Donald Trump: The Great Gatsby's Tom Buchanan on steroids. Tom is rich, with a string of polo ponies and a lavish brick colonial house in Long Island. He stands on his front porch with a swaggering air of command. He is a master of the universe. The world exists to serve him.

He is also a racist: When we first meet him, he  rants about the "Nordics" being overwhelmed by the "colored" races. He has read Goddard's The Rise of the Colored Empires, a barely veiled reference to a real book by Stoddard,  The Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy. Nick Carraway, the narrator, dismisses this ideology as pathetic and outdated, but oddly, it never seems to go out of style.

Tom is a moron. In a particularly apt insult, Nick says he reached his high point in life as a football star at Yale.

Tom thinks woman are his for the taking. Whether he or they are married makes no difference. He is also a brute: Daisy characterizes him that way and we witness him "breaking" his mistress Myrtle's nose as blood flows all over. It's not a stretch to imagine him grabbing "pussy."

Tom goes on the offensive as the dominant male when he it penetrates his dim brain that his wife has been having an affair with Gatsby. He strikes hard with words at Gatsby as a non-Nordic and jeeringly suggests that if Daisy and Gatsby get together, interracial marriage will be next. He is a bully who goes for the jugular. Gatsby, an upstart bootlegger, looks like a class act beside him. 

Famously, Tom doesn't care how much wreckage he leaves behind. If little people are destroyed, what difference: he can always retreat into his vast wealth.

Tom lacks self-awareness. He can't, for instance, understand why Nick, who he likes and respects as a college friend and member of his "Nordic" class, might despise him. 

My students often direct their ire at Daisy, calling her a "spoiled brat." But Fitzgerald points us to that buzzkill Tom as the villain of the piece. Sadly, Tom Buchanans remain with us and run for President.

I probably dislike Paul Ryan even more intensely than Trump, who, in the Hitler mode, is at least honest. (I think of the line in Wiesel's Night when a Jewish character in a concentration camp says that Hitler is the only one he can trust, because he is the only one who hasn't lied to the Jews.)  I can't read a statement by or look at a picture of the wide-eyed opportunist Paul Ryan  without thinking of the repulsive little boy in Jane Eyre who understand the rewards of hypocrisy. Mr. Brocklehurst, overseer of the harsh Lowood School where Jane is sent, says to her:
  I have a little boy, younger than you, who knows six Psalms by heart: and when you ask him which he would rather have, a gingerbread-nut to eat or a verse of a Psalm to learn, he says: ‘Oh! the verse of a Psalm! angels sing Psalms;’ says he, ‘I wish to be a little angel here below;’ he then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety.

As for Mr Brocklehurst, one of the most repulsive characters in literature: he is Ted Cruz. Let's mouth Christian pieties while inflicting suffering on others and living in comfort ourself. It's good for other people to freeze and starve: it motivates them and builds character.

As I watched Hillary Clinton in the last debate, stalked by Trump and enduring every insult hurled at her, I couldn't help but think of Cersei's walk of shame in Game of Thrones. Clinton might as well have been stripped naked and pelted with rotten tomatoes. Will the ritual humiliation she has been forced to undergo allow the public to accept her as president? 

Cersei is now queen, though at the price of being, like Lady Macbeth "unsexed:" the dudes who write the show naturally blame her for her son's suicide and she is left without a child to make her acceptable to the male mind. While I condemn the violence she inflicts (though I hardly blame her for her son’s death), she is a woman who takes matters in her own hands, who, in Clinton's words, "dares to compete." Cersei, without motherhood, probably will fare badly on the throne, and after all, no strong woman in that series can go unpunished. What of Clinton: will having a daughter and grandchildren and a husband save her? Or will she too have to go down?

What other characters do our political players bring to mind?


  1. A very interesting and original blog. I have shared it on my FB page.
    I do hope that Clinton will win the race; the others are - well, it is not my place to say anything as these are internal US matters, but as a foreigners, I am afraid of what would happen to the world would anyone else be elected. At least, Clinton seems sane with sane advisors and a sane environment.

  2. According to Nate Silver, as of this morning Hilary has an 87.3% chance of winning this bizarre election. I do enjoy seeing a strong woman like her beat up a sexist pig like Trump. But as Chomski said earlier in the year, when you look at the Republican candidates, they're really not that much different from him. Perhaps we can thank Trump for showing us what they're all about.

    Thanks, too, Diane, for the reference to Stoddard.

  3. Elaine,
    Three more weeks and hopefully ... :) Thanks for writing.