What does ‘American Psycho’ tell us about Donald Trump? – 17/07/2020

In Brett Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel, his protagonist, the Wall Street lawyer Patrick Bateman, cares about very few people. He certainly does not care about his girlfriend Evelyn, and definitely not his co-workers, one of whom he chops to death with an axe. But there is one person that literature’s nastiest serial killer looks up to: Donald Trump.

Bateman is obsessed with Trump. The property tycoon is mentioned over 40 times in the novel. Bateman wants to know where Trump’s eating dinner, what clothes he wears, and at multiple points he mistakenly believes he’s caught a glimpse of him. At one point, Bateman ranks getting ‘myself invited to the Trump Christmas party aboard their yacht’ as a crucial personal goal. As he careens through New York, leaving death in his wake, he inexplicably wanders up to Trump tower, as if seeking guidance from a holy site.

So why did Ellis decide to include this Trumpian obsession in his book? Well, American Psycho is based in no small degree on the author’s own experience of living in New York in the 1980’s (also the period in which the book is set). Following the success of his debut novel Less Than Zero in 1985, Ellis became a member of the so-called literary ‘Brat-Pack’, and entered New York’s social elite. It didn’t suit him, and he became disillusioned with the highly materialistic world he had gained membership to. In very basic terms, American Psycho is a satire of the culture he discovered, but Bateman’s preoccupation with Trump is based upon Ellis’ own interaction with Wall Street hotshots while he was a member of the East-Coast’s literati. For some reason, these smart, ambitious graduates of Ivy League colleges looked up to the Donald. This from an interview with Ellis in 2019:

‘He was ubiquitous, he was kind’ve all over New York (…) He bothered me because I couldn’t understand why all of these Wall Street guys aspired to be him (…) Trump was their idol (…) a father figure.’[1]

And this from Ellis’ book White (2019):

‘The young men, Wall Street Guys, (…) were enthralled by him. Trump was an inspirational figure, which troubled me’.

Ellis thought that Trump’s popularity with the New York elite was amusing, which is why it makes its way into American Psycho as a running gag (by the way, the book is a comedy). The joke works because to many, Trump personifies an 80s culture which valued narcissism, selfishness and materialism. Naturally, these are Bateman’s core values as well.

However, the fact that Trump was well liked by young professionals in New York should give those of us who dislike him (of whom I am one) food for thought. Trump was considerably older than those Ellis recalls looking up to him (he was into his 40s by the mid-80s), and he was already exhibiting his uniquely buffoonish qualities. Yet still they liked him. It seems Trump was masterful at cultivating his own image. This from a 1976 New York Times profile:

‘He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford.’[2]

Today, the Times’ editorial line is habitually hostile to Trump (in fact, boringly so), which makes this line bizarre reading. But back then, the current president was able to convince them that he was the man to watch. This, combined with the popularity Ellis alludes to, should serve as a warning to those who remain convinced that Trump is stupid. He isn’t. He is unusually talented at appealing to particular groups, and is extremely good as discerning what stance/issue will boost/damage support from his base. Admittedly, he doesn’t do any of this elegantly, with any verbal eloquence, or with any regard for common decency, but he does it nonetheless.

A little digging into the president’s past even provides evidence that he has skills beyond polishing his image. For high school, he attended the New York Military Academy, and his yearbook shows that he rose to the post of supply captain, making him among the most highly ranked cadets in his year group. His classmates remember a peer who was both academically sharp, and athletically gifted [his yearbook also shows he played varsity baseball, football and soccer]. And though it’s important to note that given their fellow alumni’s present job, they might be embroidering their memories for effect, I think it’s safe to conclude that Trump has more going on between the ears than his enemies give him credit for.

Ellis’ book should remind us that Trump has long managed to gain disciples within groups that aren’t natural supporters. All of this should be borne in mind by Joe Biden and Co. as November approaches. Democrats are far too easily given to despising Trump (to be fair, that’s not hard to do). But as Michael Corleone says in The Godfather: ‘never hate your enemies, it clouds your judgement’[3]. For him to be beaten, Trump must be recognised for the skilful political maneuverer that he is, rather than just a foolish bigot. Acknowledging this is difficult, not least because it actually makes him scarier. But it is also necessary. With Biden currently ahead in the polls, it would be easy for the Dems to assume victory. That happened last time, and for the sake of America, it mustn’t happen again.

[1] Interview with Dion Fanning for Ireland Unfiltered podcast – 6th of May 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=It29INlFGo4

[2] Article, Judy Klemesrud, New York Times Nov 1st 1976: ‘Donald Trump, Real Estate Promoter, Builds Image as He Buys Buildings’. https://www.nytimes.com/1976/11/01/archives/donald-trump-real-estate-promoter-builds-image-as-he-buys-buildings.html

[3] The Godfather: Part III (1990), Paramount Pictures and Zoetrope Studios, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

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