by Jeremy Fassler
A very smart writer friend of mine suggested that I use my skills in dramaturgy to analyze the Trump presidency as an unfolding dramatic story. He argued that a weekly column analyzing events – “The Week in Trump-a-turgy,” perhaps – could make sense, from a writerly perspective, what was believable and what wasn’t. “If this was a TV show,” he argued, “it would be the most fantastic story ever told.” I thought this a great idea and promised to take him up on it – but when I sat down to write the first column, I couldn’t get very far. Upon reading Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury last weekend, I realized why: Donald Trump is not an interesting character, or person, to write about.
Much has been written about Fire and Fury, a lot of it focused on Wolff’s methods researching the book and whether or not his claims are all factually accurate. He’s not above criticism on both, but they’re of less concern to me than the structure of the book itself, which moves from incident to incident containing the same setup and payoff:“Trump did something crazy, here’s what they did to contain it.” When you start reading it, you think to yourself, “Wow, this is fascinating,” and then by the end it’s like, “OK, how are they going to get out of it this time?”.
Given that binge-watching is now our viewing method of choice, the entire Trump presidency itself has felt like an epic binge-watch, an overwhelming array of content that excites us at first and then leaves us senseless by the end – especially since many dramatic shows start off exciting but struggle to hold our attention in their follow-up seasons because they rely on plots that feel tired by season 5. You’re intrigued at first – “he thought he’d lose the election?” – and by the end, you’re bored – “Oh, he thinks Nazis are ‘fine people.’ Of course he would.” While the structure of the book mirrors the dramatic structure of his presidency, Wolff cannot escape the conundrum at the heart of Donald Trump – his complete and total predictability. No matter what the occasion calls for, he will always do or say the wrong thing.
And this makes him incredibly frustrating to analyze, because he never learns anything. As a character, Trump lacks any dimension: he’s a cartoon character come to life. In the long term you can’t get very far writing or analyzing Trump, because he never analyzes himself. All he wants is power and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. That makes him boring to read about because we never sense any contradictions that gnaw away at his inside. The greatest villains, even real-life ones, are more complex than their reductions. Donald Trump has already done the reducing for us.
Wolff must recognize this too: as Fire and Fury progresses, Trump becomes less of a lead and more of a supporting role as the book focuses on Steve Bannon and the civil war for control in the White House between him, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner, with Bannon as the anti-hero and Kushner as…not the “hero,” per se, but someone who passes the very low bar of not being totally crazy, either. The book climaxes with Bannon’s firing from the administration and ends with his ominous threat to the Republican Party: “It’s going to be wild as shit.” (Of course, since Bannon has been fired from Breitbart, this line has lost a lot of its power.) By focusing more on Bannon than Trump, Wolff has essentially admitted that he’s run out of options as a dramaturg, putting Bannon front and center because Trump can’t hold our attention.
Future generations who want to write dramatic stories about Donald Trump will have to take bold liberties to his character to make him engaging. In writing this piece, I’ve come to realize the similarities between Trump and Shakespeare’s Richard III, since both are characters who mow down anyone standing between them and what they want. Richard III has often been derided as having thin characters, which makes some sense – Richard is such a dominant figure that he swallows up everyone around him. And like the Trump presidency, the structure of Richard III is repetitive: every scene is about Richard either seducing or destroying another person in his quest to sit on the throne.
But the play has endured for more than 400 years, and will be around in another 400, because Richard is a fascinating, multi-dimensional character. Although he never strays from his motivation, in every scene he does something different to achieve his goals. Besides, when the play begins, we sympathize with Richard. He’s witty, he’s charming, and we would probably want revenge on our family if they made fun of us for having a disability. By the end of the play, we lose that sympathy when we realize just how deplorable his methods are.
Shakespeare took the historical Richard, who was a pretty forgettable king, and imbued him with complexities that make him a great character. Part of this is because he wrote at a time when historical records were incomplete, so nobody could criticize him for changing the facts to get a good story. I’m sure he knew he was changing the history when he wrote the play, but he didn’t care, and thank god he didn’t. Wolff and other non-fiction writers may not have the luxury of taking dramatic liberties, but future dramatists who read their words will have to take them to imbue Trump with dimensions that will make him a character worthy of examination. Because right now, watching and writing about the real man, who possesses no self-awareness and will probably have even less by the time he leaves office (whenever that day comes), is more boring than a Transatlantic flight. And at least on one of those, you can change the channel.