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In a time of many questions, literary journalism provides an answer

Media in the Age of Trump

December 5, 2016

If ever there was a time for the speculations, generalizations, and associative leaps of literary journalism, it is now, in this unimaginable moment that has become our everyday reality. Where the hard facts of reportorial and investigative journalism end, and where the fact-based judgments of opinion journalism reach their boundary, literary journalism–the rational application of the imagination to facts and events–begins.           

You might start here, for­ instance: In front of Port Authority Bus terminal on Eighth Avenue, just across the street from The New York Times, there is a large statue of Ralph Kramden, The Honeymooners‘s fractious, lovable, hapless hero, who lives in Brooklyn and drives a New York City bus for a living. Seeing the photographs, and reading the transcript, of Donald Trump’s meeting at the Times a couple of weeks ago, I thought not of the looming madness of the wealthy reality-TV star as President of the United States, but of the similarity between the lowly public servant and the soon-to-be exalted one.

There is a mannerism exhibited by certain men who have had their pride hurt and have felt themselves humiliated by more powerful men, or by circumstances that they could not master. I used to see it in my father. They jut their chin out, move their neck as if making themselves more comfortable around the collar, and lift and stiffen their lower lip. That was what Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden did, the more he realized that his impossible schemes and dreams for a bigger and better life were coming to naught. And that is what Donald Trump did, time and again, during the various debates and at public appearances.

Trump utterly lacks Ralph Kramden’s tenderness and humanity, but the Queens-born billionaire (or not) is a creature of the old neighborhood, circa 1951. For all his wealth and the cosmopolitan circles he travels in, he is struck dumb by men who are better educated and more cultivated and articulate than he. Face to face, at last, with The Enemy during his meeting at the Times, he was spectacularly tongue-tied and accommodating. And when he encounters a commanding wit and intelligence in a woman (“To the moon, Alice!”), fuggedaboutit.

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Trump’s fraudulence has elevated him to the highest echelons of business and, now, politics, but his fraudulence is what makes him so aggressive the minute the slightest resistance to him reminds him that he is a fraud. That is why, at the end of his first day in Washington after winning the election, he fled from master politicians like Ryan and McConnell and, above all, Obama, to the comforting sanctuary of his Manhattan penthouse. That is why he has not held a single press conference since the election, preferring to communicate to an apprehensive country via video on YouTube. That is why he seems determined to spend half his time as president living not in the White House, but in his penthouse.

Trump flees to his tower the way Kramden ensconced himself in his tenement apartment, both figures–the little man with his wounded ego and his big heart, and the big man with his wounded ego and his shriveled heart–only truly at home with their fantasies.


Literary journalism that takes up social and political issues seems to flourish in times of great crisis or ferment. Think of Joan Didion’s essays on the counterculture of the ’60s and early ’70s; Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, about the 1967 march on the Pentagon, and Mailer’s accounts of the 1968 Democratic and Republican conventions; James Baldwin on the Civil Rights era; Michael Herr’s Dispatches; Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which appeared in 1965 and captured the anxiety and apprehension of an atmosphere of impending upheaval.

It is hard to deny that we are in the midst of a crisis and a ferment. Perhaps it is only with the license of literary journalism that one can hope to grasp our astounding new circumstances.

Trump flees to his tower the way Kramden ensconced himself in his tenement apartment, both figures–the little man with his wounded ego and his big heart, and the big man with his wounded ego and his shriveled heart–only truly at home with their fantasies.

Trump is not an ideologue whose hatred is arid and abstract. He hates out of vanity. You insult him or stand in his way and he excoriates you. You stroke his ego and he embraces you–maybe he’ll even put you in the cabinet. There is a psychiatric term for Trump’s rapid transitions from hatred to undying affection and back again. It’s called “splitting,” and it is the essence of a gangster’s personality. Think Tony Soprano, who one minute is hugging an associate and declaring his love for him, and the next is beating him to death with a baseball bat after the man stands up to him in business.

Yet Trump is no gangster. He is a sybarite. He responds to whatever stimulates his centers of pleasure. Like his mentor Roy Cohn, he enjoys unilateral aggression, but he has no taste for prolonged conflict. By all accounts, Cohn was a lousy litigator whose success as a lawyer, such as it was, consisted of bursts of bullying bluster on the telephone and working his social connections. When it came to actual confrontation, Cohn withdrew. Even Trump once described him as someone who rarely followed through for his clients.

Tearing someone down on Twitter from the solitude of his tower, insulting an opponent in a debate with whom he is not interacting beyond one-sided mockery and invective, Trump can indulge the illusion of being king of his realm. Things change when he steps outside. After claiming that Obama was not an American citizen and subjecting the President to all manner of derision, Trump appeared next to Obama at the White House after the election falling all over himself as he praised the former object of his anger and contempt. There Trump was, jutting out his chin, adjusting his neck and stiffening his lower lip as Obama smoothly displayed his mastery of the crowded room. Trump immediately shrank back into the unintelligent, unwitty, barely articulate schlub from Queens.

The pleasure of unilateral aggression was gone. Now he had to engage another man and a crowd of journalists, politicians, and others with conversation. And he couldn’t do it. He fell back onto his usual bombast of superlatives–something is either great or it stinks–and muttered an incoherent fragment of a sentence about “high-flying assets,” which might have been a reference to drones, celebrity supporters, or beautiful–a woman is either beautiful or a fat pig–flight attendants.

It is the way businessmen talk, their conversation consisting not so much of words as of verbal merchandise—“small talk,” simple exchanges of superficial facts that fill up the spaces of time between making money, rather than words that occupy their own worlds of meaning irrelevant to the pursuit of profit. When Trump told the Pakistani leader that he lived in a “fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people,” he was admitting that he had nothing rational, intelligent, or even interesting in the most basic sense to say.

Superlatives are the lingua franca of this discourse because superlatives are commodity words, tokens of value, measurements of worth, exact correlatives to the world of buying and selling. Trump, with his great this and great that, his big, beautiful wall, his sudden weak knees in the presence of his erstwhile bogeyman, Barack Obama, the best and greatest political product on the market, is the absurd creation of this world, a kind of Frankenstein patched together with all the disparate parts of the marketplace.

Beyond quantified expressions laden with value–I love you, I hate you, he’s great, she’s a disaster–he cannot express himself.


Unlike other citizens, journalists use two languages when writing or talking about public events. The first is the language of their profession, expressed within still firmly fixed parameters of judgment, taste, and discretion. The second is the language they use in private, filled with everything they know, think, intuit, and feel that they cannot express within the boundaries of their professional discourse.

Trump is now bursting the parameters of both the journalist’s private and public language. What journalists think, feel, and intuit about this entirely original and unpredictable figure is, to a great degree, the most significant journalistic response to him. The challenge of the next few years will be to discover new ways to balance or perhaps integrate journalists’ two linguistic worlds.

Literary journalism, however, does not have to worry about the propriety or ethics of balancing public and private journalistic expression. Its very essence is the fusion of thoughts, feelings, and intuitions that would be unassimilable in a more bounded journalistic context. Plunging into Trump’s psyche is, in the context of literary journalism, as appropriate as supporting your conclusions with facts and evidence in a reported piece.

Consider the nature of Trump’s ego. There are figures who are more comfortable as politicians than as statesmen–Bill Clinton is a fine example–and figures who are better equipped to conduct themselves as statesmen than to play politics, i.e., Obama.

Both roles, however, that of politician and that of statesman, require engagement with other people using the tools of intelligence, charm, guile, and wit. They require a certain leap of confidence into complex social worlds away from the reassuring confines of ego.

Plunging into Trump’s psyche is, in the context of literary journalism, as appropriate as supporting your conclusions with facts and evidence in a reported piece.

But Trump does not feel comfortable away from the tower of his ego, and that is why he only feels comfortable in the tower that he constructed as a testament to himself, a place in which he finds his greatest freedom speaking only the language of his ego: denunciation of his enemies, praise of his friends. Taking their cosmic importance for granted, politicians have a pathological need to be loved. Indifferent to or perhaps incapable of love, Trump has a pathological need to be affirmed as someone important.

This is perhaps the reason that this recent member of the Democratic Party, with his cosmopolitan mores and his countless social connections among Manhattan’s liberal establishment, now finds himself the more or less contented tool of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party.

As he selects, in banana-republic style, one cabinet secretary after another who seems to be committed to destroying the very departments they are supposed to lead–the Attorney General given to racist remarks and homophobic outbursts, the Education Secretary dedicated to privatizing public education, the Health Secretary bent on turning healthcare over to market forces, and on and on–it is clear that Trump is in no intellectual or emotional position to negotiate with the Republican leadership.

He has struck his most inventive deal. He will give them what they want. They will let him play the role of President and agree to leave their hands off the question of who he really is. They want him to be their Ronald Reagan, stripping the country bare behind the appearance of avuncular gravitas as he rules from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He wants to dance around his living room high above Manhattan wearing a Mussolini Halloween mask. Done. He’ll commute.

Given Trump’s time-bomb of financial conflicts of interest, not to mention his faulty judgment and total ignorance of world affairs, he serves at the whim of the Republican-controlled Congress, which would just as soon impeach him if he continues to breach the big, beautiful wall separating sanity from insanity, thus demonstrating their integrity and installing a more reliable and genial extremist, Mike Pence, in the White House. Behind his performance of scary volatility, Trump has to tread carefully and defer to his handlers.


From the beginning, money possessed an unreality for him. He grasped viscerally that, as a Roman emperor once put it, money has no odor. It can be wielded with absolute amorality without stigma. Trump saw his father bend the world to his will with the right check here and the right check there to New York City’s Democratic establishment. Money in this sense was not a medium of material exchange. It was an emanation of personality, like charm, or wit, or intelligence, all of which qualities money could efficiently replace.

People are valuable when he is in possession of them–when they flatter him or serve his purpose–worthless when they fail to yield a profit–when they criticize him or refuse to accede to his demands.

In the latter case, he walks away from them as from a business or a loan and heaps scorn on them as on a bad investment from which he has severed himself. Enter Twitter, a creation of money culture if there ever was one. There in the privacy of your own screen, feed, and head, the outer world acquires the abstract fungibility of money. It dissolves into stick figures marching to the tune of your imagination.

He has struck his most inventive deal. He will give them what they want. They will let him play the role of President and agree to leave their hands off the question of who he really is

One minute Trump is flattering an adversarial journalist in person, thus gratifying himself by witnessing the journalist’s gratified expression; the next minute he is gratifying himself in the privacy of his own head by attacking the journalist on Twitter. In this way, Trump restructures–as though it were an onerous debt–every human relationship into a simple transaction.

Trump will eventually fall, in one degree or another, into the chasm between business culture and political culture. In the former, you either make a profit or you don’t. In the latter, you derive your gratification from the power you feel when you have successfully concluded an arduous set of negotiations, trade-offs, and compromise for the sake of some policy that will yield you, personally, nothing. Trump goes haywire in the area of nothing material to be gained.

In business, Trump could simply throw up his hands and walk away from situations that brought him no gain. In politics, he cannot walk away from anything. Even if he managed to, he would walk into another part of politics.

Though the media has anointed and mystified Trump as an “enigma,” he is about as mysterious as Chauncey Gardiner in Being There. Without the medium of money, his inherited oxygen and language, Trump will not be able to function in politics. That is why, to the extent that he engages in politics, he will try to make it as much about money as he can.

In the meantime, as he finds himself in one different world after another, and among people speaking one different idiom or professional dialect after another, he will keep blustering and boasting, speaking either in silver dollars or bad checks, jutting out his chin, adjusting his neck, stiffening his lower lip.

Kramden: “I’ve got a big mouth!”

Trump: “It’s gonna be great.”

Lee Siegel , a widely published writer on culture and politics, is the author of six books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism.