Trump’s Plot Against America
Fiction can be stranger than fact. What about the reverse? I note below three writers who penned their novels long before the electoral fluke that gave the world a Trump. One is German, one is Polish, and the last is an American Jew. They wrote their works in 1970, 1985, and 2004 when a Trump (from the French tromper “to cheat”) presidency was unthinkable.
My favorite of the three novels is Patrick Süskind’s 1985 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (German title: Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Mörders), considered a literary historical fantasy novel. It was a bestseller for years. The protagonist, a classic anti-hero, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an unloved orphan in 18th-century Paris has one strong suit, an exceptional sense of smell. Grenouille (frog in French) develops without any moral or ethical sense, a total deficit of compassion or empathy. Indeed, he seems to resemble a frog and has zero rapport with fellow humans who shun him in return. He expresses no pain of rejection and almost no human emotions—his psychopathology runs to the extreme. The plot develops and thickens with many twists and turns as Grenouille goes on to become a prodigy with his one “talent.” He learns the art of perfumery and soon he is murdering young girls in order to capture their “wondrous scents.”
His skill allows him to create an odor for himself that tricks people into liking him. No longer shunned, he is accepted by society. In the French provinces he gets politically involved with a Marquis (Republican Party?) who uses Grenouille (Trump?) to his end. Grenouille/Trump concocts perfumes/policies that help to distort the public perception of him from “wretched caveman” to “clean and cultivated patrician,” helping to win support for the Marquis (Republican Party).
It does not escape Grenouille how easily humanity is fooled, in his case by a scent, in Trump’s case by crude compulsive lying. While Trump crows of his ability to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still be revered by his adoring base, Grenouille’s hatred for his dupes deepens to contempt. His newer scents cause people to view him as superhuman.
Inevitably one murder is traced to Grenouille. He is on the way to the gallows in the town square, wearing a new scent of overwhelming power he has created from his victims. The scent causes the crowd to fawn in awe, even in the face of fact-based evidence of his guilt—even the father of one victim begins to adore him. The villagers become so convinced of his innocence that the court reverses its verdict. He is set free (given a presidential pardon?)
I haven’t really spoiled the plot for you as Grenouille goes on to detest people (his base supporters) even as they worship him, even as his ability to control the masses gives him no real satisfaction.
WE BE THERE
The first novel that came to my mind in 2016 when, unbelievably, Trump won the presidency (through the de-merits of our electoral system) was the 1970 satire Being There by Jerzy Kazinski. You might recall that even Trump was surprised at his unpredicted (Russia-assisted?) win. You might have seen the film with Peter Sellers. Chance, or Chauncey Gardiner, a distinguished simpleton unwittingly becomes a sought-after political commentator on the ways of the world by uttering facile phrases that have more to do with his inner (perhaps autistic) fantasy world, than external reality.
The Guardian describes the story as “a modern equivalent of the ‘feral child’ tales popular in central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.” Chance has been raised in isolation, except for TV. His simplistic pronouncements about gardening take on deep meaning for airhead pols who cement his celebrity. One Amazon reviewer notes, “The novel is somewhat prescient about the more recent notion of confirmation bias — that we hear what we want to hear, brilliance all too often being in the mind of the beholder.”
Another Amazon reviewer, remarks how Chance’s “innocence” is corrupted as his handlers use him to their advantage. One might substitute “ignorance” and “naivete” for innocence in Trump’s case. Chauncy Gardiner may be a “fool-innocent,” where Trump is simply a fool.
TRUMP’S PLOT AGAINST AMERICA
The New Yorker describes Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America as “a masterwork of counterfactual history, a what-if story in which Charles Lindbergh, the aviation hero and Nazi sympathizer, is elected President in 1940, leading to the widespread persecution of Jews in the United States.” The book was turned into a series depicting that what-if — America elects a populist celebrity demagogue as president who slides towards fascism. Roth wrote his novel twelve years before our country has approached that precipice.
In the novel, a segment of Jews support Lindbergh, looking past his Nazi sympathizing and cozy relationship with Hitler. Lindbergh takes office, federal policies are implemented to disperse Jews from urban communities into the American heartland. Non-Jews take over Jewish neighborhoods and it gets worse and violent. One premise for having Lindbergh win was his opposition to the U.S. getting involved in World War II, unlike Franklin Roosevelt. Whenever someone says Trump didn’t start any wars, I object. Just like the fictional Lindbergh he fomented more domestic terrorism than any president in my lifetime.
The narrative is filtered through the young Philip (Roth’s work might be called auto-fiction as he inserts his real family names). Similar to Trump’s base, even those who are hurt (Jews, for cryin’ out loud!) by Lindbergh’s policies support him. Philip’s aunt marries a collaborationist rabbi who revels in her invitation to Lindbergh’s state dinner in honor of the Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. The leading media critic of Lindbergh, gossip columnist Walter Winchell (who was Jewish), is assassinated. American anti-Semites launch a wave of pogroms against American Jews, smashing store windows, burning of synagogues, murdering. Not so what-if these days.
As Judith Thurman notes, “The historical Lindbergh was an isolationist who espoused a catchphrase that Donald Trump borrowed for his Presidential campaign, and for his Inaugural Address: ‘America First.’ The fictional Lindbergh, like the actual Trump, expressed admiration for a murderous European dictator, and his election emboldened xenophobes. In Roth’s novel, a foreign power — Nazi Germany — meddles in an American election, leading to a theory that the President is being blackmailed.”
Shortly before Roth died in 2018, he wrote, “It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed tremendous physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance and, along with Henry Ford, was, worldwide, the most famous American of his day. Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel — Melville’s last — that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”
Not one of the authors I mention intended his work as prophesy of the state of our nation. And the three works couldn’t be more different in a genre sense. What they have in common is a similar protagonist, all anti-heroes, granted one of them unwittingly so. All three protags are white males. All three, in the face of damning evidence to the contrary, are elevated to magisterial eminence. What should interest the reader more so than the con man archetype is the number of supposedly rational thinkers willing to be duped. The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Wizard of Oz, have nothing on our current mountebank. One might point to Jim Jones as a more Satanic con man. But the “poison” our charlatan president has spread and promoted is more global and will do its damage for a long time coming. Let’s hope I don’t have to write how Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale was prescient, even as women’s right to own their bodies has been and is being chipped away at.