Jan. 28, 2019, was her first day back at work in five weeks, yet the prospect of another shutdown loomed. A Sacramento TSA worker attempted to describe the character of the shutdown of the U.S. federal government that resulted in nearly a million other U.S. workers missing two consecutive monthly paychecks.
“It’s cruel,” she concluded.
Whether authorizing the separation of migrant children from their parents or proclaiming himself proud to shutter the federal government, thereby depriving 800,000 U.S. workers of the ability to feed their families, it has become clear in the two years since the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States that to him cruelty, in the defense of ego, is no vice.
Yet “cruel” here may be an understatement. The lowest-paid workers who were denied work during the shutdown won’t get back wages.
“Sadistic” might be more accurate.
Near the end of his April 2018 book The Road to Unfreedom, historian Timothy Snyder coined the term “sadopopulism” to describe the politics of Trump and of Vladimir Putin, Trump’s idol. A sadopopulist’s policies are “designed to hurt the most vulnerable part of his own electorate. Encouraged by presidential racism, such people could understand their own pain as a sign of still greater pain inflicted upon others.” Whereas supporters of a sadopopulist regime lose wages, their perceived opponents lose family members.
A New York Times story by Patricia Mazzei in early January 2019 makes historian Snyder sound like a prophet. Comments another federal worker about Trump, “I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this. I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
In his conclusion to The Road to Unfreedom, Snyder adds, “Such a voter can believe that he or she has chosen who administers their pain and can fantasize that this leader will hurt enemies still more…. Some Americans can be persuaded to live shorter and worse lives, provided that they are under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that blacks (or perhaps immigrants or Muslims) suffer still more.” Blacks or immigrants or Muslims or gay people or trans people or indigenous people or anyone assumed to be of lower value than the straight, white male ideal of white supremacist heteropatriarchy.
Amid all the public suffering, I’ve heard more than a few conversational claims that “the president has no character” and even more uselessly vague claims that “character matters.”
Character? Which Character?
Comparisons of Trump’s character to that of a normative standard such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are persuasive—despite, or perhaps partly because of, King’s few character flaws. Yet normative approaches to character risk an all-or-none dualism that robs them of explanatory power for describing character in a way that actually aids understanding rather than merely communicating superiority and inferiority.
Interrogating descriptive character—“What character is Donald Trump?”—rather than normative character forced me to return to a book I long had been glad to be rid of, Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel “American Psycho,” which I wrote about in the 2000 book that inspired this website’s name.
Buried in the footnotes of Citizen Critics is the reason I chose my first book’s title: to memorialize the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (376 U.S. 254), wherein Justice Brennan secures for another generation’s public memory what is to me Madison’s most poignant chaismus: “The censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.” As I finished revisions on this commentary, New York Times v. Sullivan was thrust into the headlines again, this time by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, arguing for its reconsideration, perhaps to help prosecute cases like this.
Rather than another, redundant investigation into normative character—“Is the president of good character?”—I am here posing a descriptive question redolent of news analyst Jack Beatty’s comment on WBUR’s “Here and Now” moments after Trump announced on Feb. 15, 2019, that he would declare a national emergency to build a wall on the southern U.S. border: I am asking a question about “the fabric of Trump.”
In the face of arguments that “the president has no character,” I maintain instead that “the fabric of Trump” is #AmericanPsycho.
As I documented in “Publicity, Artistry, and ‘American Psycho,’” Chapter 4 of Citizen Critics, both Spy and Time magazines ran excerpts of American Psycho, which enflamed controversy around the novel, controversy already fueled by Simon & Schuster refusing to publish it after editorial and art staff refused to work on its production:
“On October 29 (1990) an excerpt from the most violent chapter—describing a woman being skinned alive—appeared in Time under the headline ‘A Revolting Development.’ In December, Spyran a passage in which the narrator had intercourse with the decapitated head of one of his women victims.” (Spy is the same publication that gave us the phrase “short-fingered vulgarian” to describe Donald Trump during the same era.)
The published excerpts caused Simon & Schuster to cancel publication of the novel. Although Knopf, part of Random House, accepted the novel for publication just 48 hours later, the novel was so controversial that Random House waited to publish it until after the first U.S.-led ground war in the Persian Gulf began. Pause, please, and dwell on that for a few seconds.
The scenes of murder and rape in the novel received the most critical attention. Yet the novel’s main character, Patrick Bateman, is a white supremacist, misogynist homophobe who engages in repeated abuse of women, homeless people, people of color, animals, and others portrayed as less powerful or less valuable than himself.
Whom does Patrick Bateman, a young and wealthy specialist in mergers and acquisitions at a Wall Street investment firm, idolize?
Patrick Bateman idolizes Donald Trump.
Since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy in earnest, at least one other critic remarked on Bateman’s idolatry of the Donald Trump of the 1980s, the era when the rich started getting much, much richer and conspicuous consumption became a spectator sport. Writing in Bookforum in 2015, Dan Duray saved me from having to look at the novel again by highlighting some of the passages in American Psycho where Trump appears.
“Trump” is mentioned 27 times in the novel. But Donald Trump never appears: The Donald is beyond Bateman’s social grasp despite Bateman’s wealth and clothes and ability to get a certain table at a certain restaurant with a certain “hardbody.” While the characters surrounding Bateman consistently misidentify Bateman and each other, Donald Trump is their north star. Donald Trump is the architectonic topos of American Psycho.
Of the many passages in American Psycho that have haunted me over the decades, one snapshot of sadism seems most pertinent to understanding the character of #AmericanPsycho: Bateman’s torture of a black homeless man and his dog. You can find it on pages 128-131 of the novel, and I will not excerpt it here. Bateman’s sadism is a logical consequence of the economic system in which he prospers.
While the sexual violence and racism of the novel were subordinated to satire in both the film and musical versions of American Psycho, for some readers, the satiric excesses of Bateman’s style and behavior made the novel funny.
Thus there is something about which Duray and I deeply disagree: that rape and torture can be reasonably understood as “a joke.” From Duray:
“The Donald comes up every few chapters and joins a long list of things held in high esteem by Bateman and his friends, things mentioned so often that the regularity of their recurrence becomes a running joke. Among them: fancy restaurants with stupid names, J&B whisky, Cristal champagne, cocaine, cigars, Nipponophobia, returning videotapes, ‘hardbodies,’ Zagat guides, the Talking Heads, couture, sartorial advice, prescription-less Oliver Peoples glasses, and the fictional Patty Winters talk show, a non-sequitur joke that appears in almost every chapter, e.g. ‘The Patty Winters Show this morning was in two parts. The first was an exclusive interview with Donald Trump, the second was a report on women who’ve been tortured.’”
“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said, in response to a question after her testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh. As reported by the Associated Press:
“‘Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,’” said Ford, referring to the area of the brain where traumatic memories are stored. ‘The uproarious laughter between the two and they’re having fun at my expense,’ she said, her voice quaking. She looked down again.
“‘You’ve never forgotten that laughter, you’ve never forgotten them laughing at you?’ (U.S. Sen. Patrick) Leahy asked.
“‘They were laughing with each other,’ Ford replied.
“‘And you were the object of the laughter?’ Leahy pressed.
“‘I was, you know, underneath one of them while the two laughed,’ she said.”
Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.
Dr. Ford’s hyperbaton—words out of their usual order—deserves a place in public memory, non-fictional context for understanding the kinds of characters who could construe rape, dismemberment, and torture as funny, even while they’re looking down, doing it.
Yet there are different kinds of laughter.
Another kind of laughter I’ve spent the past two years studying very closely is what I have written or typed in my notes scores of times now as “President [Noselaugh] Trump.”
Elbow-deep in a study of actor, writer, composer, and transmedia satirist Harry Shearer’s “Le Show,” a weekly one-hour radio program (and podcast) now in its thirty-sixth year, I’ve listened intently to Shearer pronounce the name of the 45th president of the United States almost every week since the inauguration. The very few weeks when “Le Show” hasn’t included news or satire about Trump, Shearer has noted that absence explicitly, suggesting listeners will get through an entire 59 minutes without hearing the name and thus perhaps without thinking about who is president of the United States, a respite indeed.
The sonic rhetorical force of the way Shearer delivers “President [Noselaugh] Trump” combines incredulity regarding the facts of the matter—people apparently did indeed watch “The Apprentice,” which in turn somehow infected their vote—with unabated, yet exhausted, disgust at those facts.
Shearer has long been studying Trump’s character as closely as he studied Nixon’s, and the often painfully satiric results are manifold: Every month or so Shearer invents, writes, produces, and delivers on Le Show another heteroglossic episode of “The Appresidentice,” reprising recent news about the administration and, of course, voicing all the characters. (You might hear echoes of some of Shearer’s voices on “The Simpsons” in the way he voices Trump, Obama, and other political figures.)
The most revolting depiction of Trump’s character by Shearer—one that takes another tack to comment on “the fabric of Trump”—is in his motion capture short “Too Soon?”, Shearer’s imagined version of the Nov. 10, 2016, Oval Office transition meeting between just-elected Trump and his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Produced with hyperreal VR developers John MacInnes and Remington Scott, “Too Soon?” was released just three days after the election as a teaser for a series Shearer hoped to develop.
It appears Shearer’s ekphrasis was too soon: “Too Soon?” was the only episode released. You can see more about the making of “Too Soon?” here and here and read about it here.
Shearer’s “Too Soon?” manifests in me the sickening mix of incredulity and disgust I feel almost every time I remember who is president of the United States. Claiming he has “no character” teaches nothing. But trying to describe his character—and putting those attempts before our eyes and in our ears, as Shearer does—can move us to reflect on the character of a nation that would end up with him as president.
Rosa A. Eberly is associate professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and English at Penn State University.