Sometimes the truth truly is stranger than fiction. I am currently reviewing the final chapter of my thesis in preparation for a supervisory meeting next week. It focuses on Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, which features a protagonist with an unhealthy obsession for Donald Trump. Being set in the 1980s, the era in which Trump and the “greed is good” ethos reached the peak of their popularity, it is no surprise that Ellis chose him as his main character’s idol.
Of course Trump was also severely criticized during the 1980s, and even a brief glimpse at his Wikipedia page would show the lazy lay reader that Patrick Bateman’s admiration for the man was somewhat undeserved, even back then. Ellis’ novel does not omit this dimension of Trump’s public image, and Patrick is frequently ridiculed by friends and colleagues for basing his lifestyle, including his choices in food, on Trump’s tastes. American Psycho is all about artificiality and the creation of imaginary identities, and it seems only fitting that someone who is widely known for his unusual hairdo is described as the personification of everything “the greedy eighties” stood for.
American Psycho also routinely blends fact and fiction. Gordon Gekko, the fictional character from Wall Street, is discussed on the same level as Trump and other real business people, such as Michael Milken and Leona Helmsley. Combined with Patrick’s unreliability as a narrator, the novel becomes an uncomfortable in read in which even its own characters cannot decide what is “real” and what is not.
I was reminded of this narrative trick the other day when I was watching the news, and saw Trump, now running for president, calling for all Muslims to be banned from entering the country. Forgetting, by accident or on purpose, that the San Bernardino shooters had been US residents well before radicalizing, and conveniently overlooking the herd of angry white Christian men who have turned their guns on fellow American citizens over the years, it is easy to dismiss Trump as an idiot who does not deserve the attention he is getting.
Yet he seems illustrative of the American love for good stories. Obviously this love is not unique to the States. Who doesn’t enjoy a good tale? But more than any other country, there seems to be a need for myths, legends, narratives, in order to construct and communicate political ideas. My own thesis explores this tendency in the context of the 1980s, the Christian Right, and Ronald Reagan’s idyllic picture of the safe and wealthy country his neoliberal policies would construct. Surely, as I’m writing this, there is some scholar preparing a research proposal to analyse Trump’s latest gaffes.
Many would describe Trump’s statements as false or untrue. But by uttering them, and gaining support for his ideas, he makes them part of the reality of his political framework. Whether they are factually “true” or not, they are shared, communicated, and commented upon. People often ask me while I analyse extreme novels such as Ellis’s, with all their violence and extremity and weirdness. At least right now, I can just direct them to their TV: no matter how strange Ellis’s world may be, it is nothing compared to our own.