Illustration by Christie Chisholm

In the story of Trump,
there is no story

Media in the Age of Trump

January 13, 2017

Journalists are masters of narrative. The language of journalism reflects this: You have to get the “story”; the “story” will run on the front page; don’t get behind the “story.”

The very idea and promise of America is one great saga of humble beginnings, hard work, redemption and reward. This is why Hollywood plots still bear the influence of Joseph Campbell, the famous explicator of world myths, whose description of the hero’s archetypal journey–call to adventure, trial and travail, acquisition of wisdom/love/wealth/power, return as hero to ordinary life–is really a sophisticated variation on the old Horatio Alger tales of rags to riches.

Even when journalists are dismantling a narrative, they do so with another narrative. Consider The Wall Street Journal‘s remarkable recent story about Theranos director George Shultz’s grandson, who blew the whistle on the company and whose grandfather then hung him out to dry. The tale of the wise and good politician turned conscientious private citizen was abruptly replaced with the tale of the good and fearless young man. Or Edward Snowden, whose exposure of state secrets has spawned one story after another: the heroic whistleblower, the naive and tragic truth-teller, the unwitting traitor whose talents, appropriated by the Russians, led to Trump’s election. In every case, one story has been replaced with, or challenged by, another. But the permutations have always been in the service of building or dismantling a narrative.

What makes Trump so difficult to write about is that he presents no story. Like a cubist portrait, he changes your perception of reality by the minute.

Now along comes Donald J. Trump, and our first non-narrative presidency. Trump has not merely, at the behest of his supporters, disrupted the status quo. He has exploded the great American story that lay beneath it. What makes Trump so difficult to write about is that he presents no story.  Like a cubist portrait, he changes your perception of reality by the minute. At Wednesday’s news conference, he went from being a gracious president-elect, to spiteful winner, to briefly charming self-deprecator (“I’m also very much of a germaphobe, by the way”), to accuser, to bully, to defender of jobless Americans and neglected veterans, to wily evader, to…disappearing back up into his Ayn Randian tower. While his lawyer was talking, he could be seen looking out over the crowd with wariness and curiosity, as if searching for clues to who he was at that moment.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

For the people who oppose him, fear him, or despair of being governed by him, Trump is a disaster. But the media, expected to provide clarity, cannot agree on just what he is or will be. The peculiar effect of a cipher, and especially a cipher given to unpredictable statements, is that the emptier he is, the more he accrues the illusion of enigmatic depths. Trump’s emptiness is a magnet for one narrative after another. There are so many to choose from.

Trump is an authoritarian who will use the pretext of a war or a terrorist attack to curb civil liberties, repress elements of the population he finds undesirable, tighten the borders, and suppress the media.

Trump is an unusually greedy businessman who, like all businessmen, hates chaos and unpredictability and will keep the country on an even keel as he, along with his cronies, proceeds to empty the national coffers and strip the republic bare.

Trump is a needy performer, who will be too caught up in how he is treated by the press and the public to govern.

Trump’s hatred of the press, expressed on Twitter, spells the doom of a free press.

Trump’s hatred of the press, expressed on Twitter and immediately responded to by the entire press, guarantees that speech will remain free, even as it becomes sicker and more dysfunctional.

There has never been a presidential administration, at least in modern memory, that was not a product of a great history-making narrative. In the depths of economic despair, FDR was an American aristocrat with the common touch who did not give a hoot about turning against the interests of the class he was born into. In the heady atmosphere of victory that cost the lives of so many people from ordinary walks of life, Harry Truman was the humble son of a farmer who never graduated from college and became a haberdasher. Eisenhower, who had saved the nation from European and Japanese dictators, made America feel safe amid a perilous new world order. Then there was Kennedy, the handsome Harvard prince of Camelot who promised adventure after Eisenhower’s drab stability; and LBJ, the former teacher born poor in Texas devoted to freeing the country from poverty; and Nixon, the earnest common man who was the tribune of the silent majority who felt excluded by the war on poverty, and on and on.

In the end, journalists and eventually historians poked holes of various sizes in these narratives. But the exposures of falsehoods were also narratives, which drew their energy from stories that betrayed themselves.

Trump, on the other hand, offers several scenarios of the future, each of which refutes the other.

The booming economy will benefit media organizations and the creative class generally, which will have the result of keeping the resistance to Trump mostly symbolic.

The booming economy, which will benefit only the growing top of society, will have the effect of making the resistance to Trump all the more impassioned.

Trump will withdraw from the presidency almost immediately upon assuming it. He will allow the Republican leadership, as well as his cabinet appointees, to run the country.

Trump has been only performing the appearance of being the captive of Republican leaders. The moment he becomes president he will seize on the first occasion on which Republicans do not accommodate him, accuse them of obstructing him, and cause his supporters to rise up in outrage and indignation.

The opposition to Trump will eventually tire of becoming hysterical over his every act or utterance and quietly evolve to adapt itself to Trump’s own daily evolutions.

Of course, Trump’s people insist they have a grand narrative, and one that got Trump elected. Making America Great Again consists of disgust with a status quo that has the elites keeping everyone down, of preening nationalism on the world stage, strident economic nationalism, and the freedom to be politically incorrect.

Yet Trump is a born parodist and ironist. He delights not only in deconstructing his own narratives; he takes pleasure in turning them into travesties of themselves. He hires Goldman Sachs bankers even as he rails against economic elites. He allies himself with Putin even as he proclaims that America will once again be the dominant power in the world. He seems to welcome the public refutation of his declarations that he has saved American jobs. He relishes substituting crass indecency for contrarian political incorrectness. His blatant, defiant ironies and parodies are the proof of his power.

The peculiar effect of a cipher, and especially a cipher given to unpredictable statements, is that the emptier he is, the more he accrues the illusion of enigmatic depths.

Journalists can oppose a narrative that is made up of empty platitudes about truth and justice. But it is almost impossible for a journalist to get an effective handle on actions guided by nihilistic irony.

How do you settle on a story that makes sense of Trump’s real/imagined/tenuous/opportunistic/troubled/wary/dangerous relationship with Putin, and his seeming allegiance to the ruthless Russian leader? Whichever interpretation you choose, it is a burlesque of patriotism, Realpolitik, good, old-fashioned decency, and political horse sense.

How do you build a story out of Trump’s antagonism with the country’s intelligence services, which were once the mendacious bête noires of the American left and the cherished assets of Republican presidents, and now are heroes of the American left and the chief bugbears of the incoming Republican president?

A dramatic reversal has taken place in American politics. It used to be that the elite, cosmopolitan segments of society scorned the reassuring tales provided by religion and the comforting mythology of American life, regarding them as fictions that the masses needed to live by. Urban cosmopolitans believe that they don’t need stories with which to console themselves. But now it is those very people, the heartland people, the masses beyond the cities so hungry for inspiring stories, who have dispensed altogether with the gripping American narratives that have, through all their fluctuations, kept the country together for so long.

He delights not only in deconstructing his own narratives; he takes pleasure in turning them into travesties of themselves.

Of course, narratives can limit and oppress–for example, the pernicious narratives that led us into wars in Vietnam and Iraq. A powerful lie can have the alluring shape of a beautiful story. But such tales sow the seeds of their own destruction. A story needs to hang together. Its various parts all have to add up. A journalist can pull on the weakened component of a story, on a contradiction or inconsistency or fabricated fact, and the story, no matter how powerful, starts to come apart.

By contrast, Trump’s wild unpredictability deconstructs itself. That is one reason why it is, in the eyes of Trump’s followers, immune to being exposed and condemned by the media. When the very nature of the man is contradictory and self-undermining, it is difficult to contradict or undermine him. The media cannot use a narrative woven out of the truth–e.g., the integrity of the country depends on the integrity of its elected officials–in order to expose lies that are composed of fragments. It is like trying to use water to remove an oil stain.

Is Trump deliberately creating, or causing to be created, one contradictory narrative after another in order to keep the media and everyone else off balance? It hardly matters. A press without a story to begin with is like a sculptor with clay but no idea what to do with it. Anything seems possible, and the result is paralysis. 

Trump will start one or more wars in order to distract the country from his plunderings and depredations.

Trump is surrounded by rational people who will restrain his most dangerous impulses.

Trump is surrounded by rational people dependent on Trump for power and wealth who will justify and rationalize their self-interest even as Trump becomes dangerously irrational.

Trump’s children and his son-in-law, mindful of their futures, will restrain Trump’s worst impulses.

Trump’s children and his son-in-law, intoxicated by a level of power and privilege they have never experienced, will afflict the country with one scandal after another.

Trump will rise to the occasion, act like a statesman, and after four years retire and write his most sensational bestseller yet, The Art of Personal Growth.

No one has any idea of what will happen, and when it does, it will both be something that no one had even conceived of, and, finally, for better or for worse, a story that journalists can set to work on.

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.