Stranger Than Fiction

Meet our president: the most unreliable narrator of all


Now that a serial liar occupies the office once held by I-cannot-tell-a-lie George Washington, Honest Abe, and No Drama Obama, my literary-criticism skills are finally paying off, for what is fiction but alternative facts?

Donald Trump is the ultimate in unreliable narrators, transforming what should be a nonfiction narrative into an ever more bizarre epic of shaggy-dog stories, megalomaniacal myth-building, character assassinations, and give-the-people-what-they-want fantasies.

When a rapacious, self-proclaimed billionaire who has a long track record of swindling the little guy is elected as a man of the people, every day is a surreal trip through the looking glass. How does one separate the truth from lies? How to parse the words and actions of someone who revels in muddying the very meaning of the truth?

By using your critical-reading skills.

As any good reader knows, a character’s physical description offers valuable insight into his true nature. Trump’s vanity is evident in that brassy blonde glaze of a comb-over and the badly applied tanning makeup. His mouth has four settings: the ring-of-fire pucker, the Muppet grin, the yawning lacuna of hate, and the resting bitch face frown. His bad posture and ill-fitting suits bespeak a certain discomfort with his own skin. He has an unfortunate predilection for the closed-fist salute.

An unreliable narrator will try to charm you by telling you what you want to hear. But pay close attention to what he does, not what he says. Though he promises you cheaper and better healthcare, he doesn’t actually care about your health. He may vow to defeat ISIS, fight the opioid scourge, and repair our crumbling infrastructure, but as he well knows, talk is cheap.

What is the one thing that his young presidency has actually accomplished so far? It is that which has always been the only thing that has interested him: enriching himself. Since his inauguration, he has doubled the membership fee for Mar-a-Lago; his new Washington hotel has enjoyed a flood of business from foreign governments and lobbying firms; and his sons have taken international business trips subsidized by U.S. taxpayer.

Despite calls from ethics watchdogs, Trump has refused to fully disentangle himself from his business empire. His spokesperson told people to buy his daughter’s goods on a TV news program.

Our president is systematically dismantling consumer and environmental protection laws so that corporations can make more profits. He has stocked his cabinet with the one percent.

Is everybody in? The kleptocracy is about to begin.

Trump admires Vladimir Putin not just for his authoritarian leadership, but because he’s been so successful in diverting Russia’s wealth into his own pockets.

Look at the healthcare proposal to which Trump gave his approval. It takes from the poor to give to the rich. Look at his proposed budget, which aims to cut or eliminate funding for a vast array of programs that assist the poor, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

Instead of offering his angry white base economic assistance, he has opted for what he thinks is the cheaper way to keep their loyalty: sowing hate and division. He has twice tried to impose a travel ban on majority-Muslim countries (excluding ones where he has business interests) derided by diplomats and security experts. He has issued requests for proposals to build a wall on our southern border, which Mexico will not pay for and security experts say will not make us safer.

Despite his claim that he is “the least racist person” ever, Trump and his father were sued in 1973 for discriminating against African Americans. In 1989, Trump spent $85,000 to place full-page ads in four New York City newspapers calling for the death penalty for five minority teens falsely accused of raping a white woman in Central Park.

For years, Trump questioned President Obama’s legitimacy to be president. Past is prologue, and Trump launched his presidential campaign on the backs of Mexican rapists, Muslims celebrating 9/11, black criminals who slaughter white people, and money-grubbing Jews.

As for what he thinks of women, let’s hear from him: “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful women. I just start kissing them, it’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.”

As Maya Angelou said, “When people show you what they are, believe them.”

The plot gets ever more complicated, with new developments breaking every day. How to tell the red herrings from the telltale hints of foreshadowing? Anything that comes from his Twitter feed or his campaign rallies are red herrings. Don’t be distracted by tweets about overrated Meryl Streep or threats to cut federal funding from universities that won’t let Milo Yiannapoulos speak.

Don’t believe his sweet-nothing promises to bring back coal-mining jobs and make huge charity donations to veterans groups. The real hints about upcoming plot developments are in his tax returns and his involvement with Russia.

To live in Trump’s America is to live in a world that is stranger than fiction. If Trump were the anti-hero of his own novel, people would scoff at such a relentlessly unlikable character. The man can’t even spell, and he’s POTUS? He’s just not believable.

Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Washington Independent Review of Books. She will appear on the "Across the Cultural Divide" panel at this year's Washington Writers Conference on Sat., Apr. 29th, in College Park, MD.​

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