Donald Trump’s Tweets: The Great American Novel

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Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump attends a campaign rally at Blair County Convention Center in Altoona, Pennsylvania August 12. His campaigning methods have echos of those used by the Kremlin. Eric Thayer/Reuters

Presidential campaigns have more to do with stories than they do with arguments. Ronald Reagan’s story was about how morning would soon brighten a land darkened by the dour Jimmy Carter years; Bill Clinton’s was about the boy from Hope, Arkansas, who remained true to his humble roots, or at least pretended to.

These stories are frequently untrue, as with George W. Bush’s cowboy fantasy, conveniently eliding his years at Andover and Yale and all the drunken imbecility that preceded his Texas sojourn. That doesn’t matter. We want a good story, not necessarily a true one. Nobody reads a novel for verisimilitude, and nobody elects presidents for honesty. If we did, neither John F. Kennedy nor Richard Nixon would have come anywhere near 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, while the aforementioned peanut farmer from Georgia would have served seven or eight consecutive terms in office, telling us the tough truths about our collective malaise that we were too timid to tell ourselves.

For several years now, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has been writing a story of his own, now approaching novel length and expected to be concluded in early November. He has been serializing it on Twitter and, in a bow to the Homeric tradition of oral storytelling, reading aloud from it at rallies.

This is how Trump’s novel begins:

Trump’s magnum opus is a classic hero tale. He must restore a debased kingdom, a nation that never wins anymore (well, except in the recent Olympics). He can do so only by unmasking the sitting king as a fraud. Once that king and his minions are deposed by the upstart prince of unwavering fortitude, the nation will flourish again.

Twitter is not only his medium but also his weapon, so potent are his pronouncements:

Trump has recently made clear that he will resist any efforts at a “pivot,” and there is indeed a remarkable consistency to the fictional world he is creating. Despite the addled quality of his speech, the underlying narrative focus is singular (think of James Joyce’s Ulysses and how it moves with incredible complexity along an incredibly simple narrative axis).

Trump is, of course, the hero of his own story, the one who must undergo great privations for the sake of a nation he so deeply venerates. His vision of himself as the narrative’s hero explains his constant charges of media bias against him. A hero is only compelling, after all, when he is fighting off monsters.

Assailed from all sides, by journalists and liberals and facts, Trump quests on, a modern-day Odysseus with a comb-over, vanquishing foes with names like Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted. There awaits, though, the most formidable foe of all, the Voldemort of the 2016 campaign: Crooked Hillary.

Reading the Trump campaign less as a genuine bid for political office than as a novel about a man’s search for political office—a novel told largely through the medium of Twitter, without any editorial oversight—helps explain the Orange One’s maddening disregard for the truth. It’s not just that Trump’s supporters want to hear about a border wall and the return of waterboarding: He seems to genuinely revel in the pleasure his storytelling provides, the thousands of retweets, the packed stadiums. And if we are honest, we must admit that we are all transfixed. On that order, at least, Trump is the seeming equal of J.K. Rowling.

But a popular story may still be a bad one (see Grey, Fifty Shades of). Strip away the retweets and Trump is as bad at telling stories as he is at building casinos and paying bills. A novel isn’t just a pleasure-delivery vehicle. The good ones, at least, leave the reader with a sense of empathy, a broadened understanding of the world and those within it. There was a hint of that in Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and more than a hint of it in Barack Obama’s “yes we can.”

Trump’s stories have no empathetic characters, or even sympathetic ones. There are plenty of villains, but only one hero: “I am your voice,” Trump said darkly during the Republican National Convention.

His campaign—in particular, as it plays out on Twitter—reminds us of another book, published in 1925 and full of a fantastic evocation of an ancient greatness, as well as deeply dubious racial theories. The author was a failed Austrian painter, who within eight years was leading a crippled Germany back to greatness. The book was Mein Kampf, and a few months ago, it became a best-seller once again.