By Ralph Benko
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” Donald Trump continues to dominate and fascinate. Why? Politics, like comic books, thrillers, detective stories, science fiction, professional wrestling, movies and TV is a pulp medium. We Credentialed Members Of The Media Elite wish to sanctify it (and, thereby, ourselves). But come on.
It’s pop culture. In reality, politicians are creatures with a simple, and noble, gift. As Harry Truman said to the Reciprocity Club in 1958, “I’m proud that I’m a politician. A politician is a man who understands government, and it takes a politician to run a government. A statesman is a politician who’s been dead 10 or 15 years.”
What’s going on now in Campaign 2016 isn’t strictly politics. It is melodrama.
First, Chinatown, interpreted by Mark Hughes at Quora: “Something horrible happens, a great injustice is done, powerful people get away with abusing that power, corruption continues and the weaker people must suffer for it — and that’s the way of things. In Chinatown, in the country, in the world. ‘Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown’ means ‘you can’t change things, it’s the way things are and the way they will be, regardless of how much you tilt at windmills.’”
Donald Trump, “Reality” TV star, grasps the conventions of the pulp world better than any of his (far more qualified, far more distinguished, and far more likable) rivals. Trump is getting the best ratings because Trump is presenting a more compelling pulp Story.
It surely is no coincidence that Trump’s emergence comes in the era where Breaking Bad entered the Guinness Book of World Records as “the highest rated TV series” of all time. Popular culture now is dominated by stories of antiheroes: Walter White, Don Draper, Barksdale, Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano … the list goes on. Meanwhile Kardashians dominate “Reality” TV.
Does this convey a creeping nihilism in the culture? Despair after 15 years of economic stagnation? Is it contempt for the Washington-Wall Street axis? Let me it leave it to much deeper thinkers than me, such as Forbes.com’s own Rick Unger, to parse out what this may say about the national culture.
That said, there also is a structural explanation that casts some light on Trump’s surprising fascination. Shawn Coyne (h/t Seth Godin) is a cultural critic (doing business as an Editor/Agent) in his indispensible blog StoryGrid and book of the same name. (Coyne’s work changed my worldview and may change yours. He explains, as no one else I have encountered, the Secrets of those other great prestidigitators: novelists. Even if you never plan to write a single novel it’s fascinating. And it has wider implications. Coyne’s work has implications for presidential campaigns.)
This is what Coyne has to say about writing best sellers:
It’s very useful to remember that the BEGINNING is all about HOOKING your reader…getting them so deeply curious and involved in the Story that there is no way they’ll abandon it until they know how it turns out. The Middle is about BUILDING progressive complications that bring the stress and pressure down so hard on your lead character/s that they are forced to take huge risks so that they can return to “normal.” The ENDING is the big PAYOFF, when the promises you’ve made from your HOOK get satisfied in completely unique and unexpected ways.
STORY distilled is…HOOK, BUILD, PAYOFF. That’s it.
Trump has the first two conventions of STORY — HOOK and BUILD — down cold. (PAYOFF remains to be seen.) As Coyne teaches good Story structure is morally agnostic:
There are innumerable reasons why the premise of Lolita (pedophile pursues adolescent and succeeds) should alienate an audience, but for the great majority of readers, it doesn’t. … He knew that writing about a taboo subject, not just writing about it, but writing about it from the point of view of the predator, was a ridiculous business decision.
[H]e used the power of Story form to take a seemingly impossible “what if” and make it viable. He knew that the most irresistible element of a Story is to give his protagonist a mission, a quest, something in the offing that the reader can’t help but want the protagonist to achieve. Was story form so powerful that it could drive a reader to cheer on a pedophile?
Lolita is a classic “quest/hero’s journey” story, the one that is so deeply ingrained within our cells that we can’t help but root for even the most despicable protagonist like Humbert Humbert to get what he wants. Nabokov knew that the structure of the Quest story seduces readers. He knew that with a lot of hard work, he could use it to get people to not just sympathize with a monster like Humbert, he’d get them to even perhaps empathize with him. Talk about powerful.
“The structure of the Quest story seduces readers.” Donald Trump has engaged the popular imagination by embodying the “quest/(anti-)hero’s journey” — here a naked quest for power and glory. Trump’s Story is that of striving to crown himself, much as did Napoleon, Emperor.
Contrast Trump’s Story with the Stories presented by the rest of the field. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton present narratives of distinguished and legitimate Heirs Apparent. Marco Rubio presents a winning Horatio Alger style rags-to-riches story. Scott Walker is a Sundance Kid who managed to survive the assault by, and beat, the Bolivian army. Bernie Sanders is presenting himself as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Rand Paul appears as Luke Skywalker preparing, heroically, to blow up the Death Star. Ted Cruz weaves us a Lion Tamer narrative, complete with whip, starter pistol, chair and a penchant for sticking his head between the jaws of the Great Beasts.
All of these represent strong, classic, narratives. And yet, we live in an era where a huge share of the audience is transfixed by the quest of Walter White. As White said to his wife, Skyler, at the end: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.” Viewers, too, wish to feel really alive, even vicariously. Voters do too.
There is a certain charm to penetrating the pretentiousness of politics. We all know that the presidency is the Holy Grail of political objects. Beneath the obligatory rhetoric of service… it’s the coolest job in the world. We don’t begrudge the ambition. Viewers have proven transfixed by the machinations of Frank Underwood’s unscrupulous, successful, ascent to the presidency and his wielding of power.
Will we as voters behave differently than we do as viewers? Time will tell. Ultimately, politics is the most human of professions. It’s all about catering to regular people like us in order to achieve and retain office … and to rise to higher office. Politics also is very much about telling stories that people yearn to hear.
What story might that be? Donald Trump’s campaign theme, and Story, and promise, however implausible, is to “Make America Great Again.” It is a theme that is consistent with his own quest for grandeur — or grandiosity — and so he personifies it. Trump’s is a much bigger Story than ascent-to-the-throne, rags-to-riches, or even “Defeat The Washington Machine And Unleash The American Dream!”
Will Trump make it all the way to PAYOFF? Or will the plurality, and maybe even majority, of voters tire of grandiosity and pivot to a less thrilling, but more inspiring, Story when it comes time to vote?
Let us not forget Napoleon’s abrupt debacle. Meanwhile, however, let us neither forget: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
Donald Trump is politics noir.
Originating at Forbes.com.