What the Rules of Fiction Tell Us About the Election (and the Danger of Trump)

Electing a President is an act of imagination and storytelling.

In 2008, my brother and I sat in a bar with some friends, watching Obama give his now famous “Yes We Can” speech after the New Hampshire primary. We were amped, all of us, on what the possibility of his presidency might mean. Change and unity and maybe even the beginning of the end of racism (how little we knew of the backlash that was coming on all fronts).

A few minutes into his speech, I turned to my brother and asked, “Does he remind you of Dad?”

Matt’s eyes widened. “I was just thinking that,” he said.

It had taken me a while to figure out why Obama felt so deeply familiar to me and when it hit me, I’d laughed into my drink. The similarity was remarkable: the quiet confidence in the way he carried himself, his gestures, his intonations, even the length of his pauses recalled my father. The more I thought about this, the more the similarities accumulated. It was the entire ethos of Obama which I recognized: the balance of hopefulness and realism, the way his respect for — even admiration of — his wife showed on his face, his tendency to listen when people spoke and respond thoughtfully to their question, the dual registers of gravity and levity that he slid comfortably between and, above all, his seemingly inhuman patience in the face of ignorance, prejudice and vitriol.

I was recently accused by a friend of succumbing to Obama’s charisma. And perhaps this is true. His personality was certainly part of what inspired me. But charisma to me implies something superficial and distracting. What does it really tell us about the policies someone will implement or the President they’ll be? Well, according to the rules of fiction writing, a lot.

I teach creative writing at Cornell and something I hear constantly in the workshop (indeed, a favorite line in all the workshops I’ve participated in) is, “I don’t buy it.” Usually, because character X wouldn’t do Y or say Z. I had a student confess recently that they didn’t understand this reaction. They’d invented the character after all, so weren’t they free to invent the character’s actions and dialogue?

Actually, I replied, this is what writers mean when they talk about “the work taking over” or “the characters acquiring a life of their own.” It sounds like mystical mumbo jumbo, but really what it means is that all the actions and dialogue you construct have to be rooted in the personality you’ve built for your character. So, yes, you can obviously write a bombing or an affair or a murder if that’s what you want to write, but you have to first create a character that would conceivably do these things.

Or put another way: Get to know the character you’ve created and you’ll have some idea of where the plot can feasibly go. This is what inspired me about Obama. He was not my Dad, of course, but so many of his fundamental characteristics were things I saw in my father, and I’d had a front row seat to watching those traits play out over my lifetime. They were the things that made it possible to anticipate my Dad’s reactions to setbacks and major decisions — the reasons he was and remains an exceedingly reliable parent. The same is true of Obama — it’s an issue of being able to anticipate the actions to come. It was easy for me to imagine Obama focused and graceful under pressure, listening to the concerns on the table, making informed and thoughtful decisions. And it’s been widely reported by the people with him in the Situation Room that this is indeed how things have gone. Faced with a sudden economic recession, an oil spill, an Ebola outbreak, he has demanded sober action and rejected hysteria. Just last week, no one was surprised to see him respond to a heckling protester with a call for respect.

Electing a president is an act of imagination. How will they interact with foreign leaders? How will they respond to the next mass shooting? Will they abuse their power? What will they do with the nuclear codes?

Electing a president is an act of imagination. How will they interact with foreign leaders? How will they respond to the next mass shooting?

A phenomenon I often hear writers discuss is the surprise of watching reality come to mirror their fiction. Donald Barthelme wrote about trying to save the life of Bobby Kennedy; only two months after the story was published, Kennedy was killed. Jennifer Egan wrote about a terrorist plot in New York City shortly before 9/11. On a micro-level, I’ve heard writer after writer confess that a story they based on someone they knew has played itself out in reality. Writers aren’t clairvoyant, of course, but these aren’t necessarily coincidences either. With a clear enough handle on your character, it makes sense that you will sometimes accurately predict where that character winds up.

This is where the right-wing narrative of doom comes from. Put aside for just a moment the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman (which is its own, towering hurdle about which essay after essay after essay could and should be written). Despite a surplus of evidence to the contrary, Trump and a bevy of Republican leaders have pushed the notion that Hillary is the most corrupt, least honest candidate the nation has ever seen (projecting, much?). And when so much of the country comes to believe these attributes are central to Clinton’s character, it’s no surprise there’s so much fear surrounding her potential election.

But what we actually know about Hillary Clinton is that she’s a relentless fighter. That she listens to concerns of the public. That she is willing to accept blame. To apologize. To learn from past mistakes. That in the face of abuse, she continues working. That she has held her cool for forty years in the public eye and that no amount of pressure seems liable to shake that.

No, under President Clinton, we’re not likely to see a sudden dissolution of government gridlock. But the President we can imagine her being is one who continues the steady growth of our economy. One who strives for further inclusiveness of marginalized communities. One we can depend on not to antagonize our allies or embolden our enemies.

Let’s stick for a moment with things we do have evidence of. We know that Donald Trump has an ego that bruises easily. That his impulse is to silence his critics, to perceive slight and ensure that the offending party suffers for it. That he makes no apologies. That he’s impulsive and unwilling to take advice. That he has no interest in educating himself on matters beyond his expertise. That his sense of fairness and justice revolves around that which benefits himself. That women are objects to be attained or discarded or used as he sees fit. That people of color are an “other” in whom he consistently fails to see humanity.

We know where the plot goes with a President Trump. Any fiction writer or reader can tell you the end of that story. The particulars of how things go awry will vary from telling to telling. But the consistency — the certainty about Trump as protagonist — is that the story ends in destruction. Whether it’s of a certain marginalized population or another country or the freedom of the press or American democracy, we know there is wreckage ahead. It’s a tragicomic writer’s dream and a human being’s nightmare.

Today, we gather for an act of collective storytelling. Which narrative do we want to live out?

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