Storytelling in the Age of the Gilded Presidency

“A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When a society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates.”
Like many fledgling screenwriters, I internalized Robert McKee’s excellent book, “Story”, which cuts through the mystique of cinematic storytelling with the cold precision of a scalpel. I learned a lot and, more importantly, I thought a lot about the art and function of storytelling in our society.

As I contemplate the story of the Trump Presidency, it occurs to me that the narrative emanating from the White House is a prime example of bad storytelling. Every presidency is defined by a narrative, a through line which defines its direction. When the president is a Republican, the narrative leans toward foreign threat (real and imagined) and tax cuts aimed to stimulate the economy. A democrat will usually spin tales of a disenfranchised middle class.

Our current president’s consistent message is that he has no consistent message. Perhaps this is to be expected from a president who has relegated facts to subjective interpretation and substituted glitz for substance. As during the Gilded Age, the glitz is superficial and its main function is to mask the vapid corruption underneath. It’s a shame, for glamor has always been part of the presidential sphere. Mention First Lady and most people think of Jackie Kennedy, not Lady Bird Johnson.

We expect the president’s wife to wear a world-class outfit and to exude class. But that is just a jump-in point. Jackie Kennedy knew how to dress but, unlike Melania Trump, she could also express herself clearly. This is not a dig at Melania’s accent. It has nothing to do with pronunciation and speech patterns but the lack of substance behind them. Grotesque as it seemed during the Republican National Convention, it is no surprise that Melania Trump’s speech was plagiarized from Michelle Obama, a truly substantive First Lady. Poor Melania. You can’t buy class, but you can try to steal it. Alas, when your values can be summed up by the price tag of your dress, there is not much to say about your character.

Glitz notwithstanding, The Trump Presidency is every screenwriter’s worst nightmare. Even a train wreck has a beginning, middle and end, but this presidency is a circular enigma, a snake eating its own rotting tail. According to screenwriting wisdom, a protagonist must be a willful character. He or she must want something. But what does Trump really want, other than to be Trump?
There was a time, not too long ago, when presidents who wandered off the straight and narrow followed a cohesive, albeit warped agenda. Nixon’s paranoid brand of leadership was an extension of his persona which had the moral gravity of a drug pusher. Still, no person who does evil believes himself to be evil. Undoubtedly, Nixon was convinced of his righteousness all the way until he traded his resignation for a full pardon.

Even Kim Jong Un, the lone star throwback to a line of dictators who end up as cautionary tales in history books has his twisted logic. In a system overshadowed by nations who disavow North Korea’s very existence, it makes sense to test the hydrogen bomb when most of your citizens are starving. The Trump Presidency has no such clarity of purpose. Its truth shifts with every one of Trump’s temper tantrums, never settling to a recognizable baseline.

One almost feels sorry for the poor scribbler who will be tasked to write the story of the Trump Presidency. At first, it seems no difficult task. Unlike historians, who have to wade through documents of epochs long gone, the Trump biographer has easy access to the words of this administration. They are immediate. But so are the rants of the subway prophet, who, depending on your point of view, is either a visionary of a schizophrenic mental patient.

Trump’s lack of clear narrative is also a major frustration for news anchors whose job it is to sum up presidential action in pithy bullet points. The major news anchors and their journalistic brethren are like the generals who are still using strategies from the last war. They are desperately holding on to their integrity and professional reputations before an audience who has respect for neither. All that fact checking and cross referencing falls like a house of cards the moment Trump of his minions yells “fake news”. Today’s audience doesn’t want facts. CNN has a hard time admitting the sad “fact” that the truth shall set you free, but it shall not entertain you.

Television journalists are not the only ones trying to make sense of an administration that is more elusive than the head of a cocaine cartel. The bastion of journalist-intellectuals hold on to the old ways of dissecting politics as if it’s business as usual. Following the latest White House implosion, the New Yorker usually publishes an article that follows this title: What (Trump’s latest manifestation of lunacy) means to (democracy, trust, any abstract noun which used to matter). In this, writers of The New Yorker are like the botanist who travels to deep into the rainforest, armed with The Complete Guide to the Plant Species of New York State.

Storytelling aside, Trump’s real talent is getting Republicans to see a plan where there is none. Like a grumpy teenager on a family trip, the GOP denounces him even as it dutifully follows along. Scaramaucci was wrong. It’s not Steve Bannon who is engaging in fellatio, but Republicans who line up to bow down to the presidential member. Maybe those GOP hardliners know something normal people don’t. In a town where being guided by one’s values is as anachronistic as the horse-drawn carriage, power is the only thing that means anything.

This is the true (and simple) story of the Trump Presidency. Observed through the lens of power and its poor cousin, political survival, the choice is clear. Fasten your seat belt and get ready for a bumpy ride. Turning a blind eye to presidential treason is preferable to admitting to the public that you were wrong in supporting the president in the first place. Sure, he may be colluding with Russia, our archenemy since the Cold War, but things could be worse. He could be a Democrat.

As a last ditch effort to make sense of a phenomenon that resists all such attempts, one hopes that the contradictory messages and stories coming from the White House will eventually settle into some semblance of a pattern. The same way certain non-linear or abstract movie plots nevertheless conform to a grand design, perhaps the verbal short-circuting will eventually lead to something of a direction. A motive. A strategy.

Or just a good story.

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