In Four Score and Seven, my recently published novel about the 2016 election, there is a character who, some say, resembles Donald J. Trump. Which raises the question: How do you fictionalize a character who already seems made-up?
First, exaggerate his flaws. How would one do that? Well, it is difficult but not impossible. When Trump says “I never said that,” there’s over a 50 percent chance he said it. When my Ronald Crockenstock denies saying something, you know with certainty he said it. Denying it is his tell.
On many days when I was making stuff up about Crockenstock, I felt that Trump knew what I was doing and was competing with me. He was making stuff up too—with such frequency and brio it was tough to keep up. It was as if he were novelizing our collective lives. The star of reality TV was conjuring a reality that didn’t exist, but resonated with voters.
My first job was to give Crockenstock a different occupation. Something classy and innovative. Presto, he was the founder of the pay toilet colossus Pay As You Go. His toilets charged fifty cents a pop, but the real genius of the operation lay in the change-making machines attached to each marble-floored, gilt-mirrored porta-potty. You put in a dollar and got back 85 cents. Such capitalist alchemy leads Crockenstock to crow he could balance the federal budget in three months, maybe two.
This “turd mogul”—as he is fondly known to his enemies and, okay, his friends—is not above Olympian feats of pandering. To display his religious bona fides, he refers to the miraculous conversion of Peter, Paul and Mary on the road to Damascus. When corrected by a viciously pious senator who is fighting him for the nomination, he quickly regains his balance by saying he might well select God as his running mate—if He was available. (I guess that would be a short vetting process.)
Crockenstock is also something of a philosopher. When Abe Lincoln—yes, the sixteenth president is so horrified by our republic’s woes he comes back to life for two weeks in an attempt to restore sanity—accuses Crockenstock of being a compulsive liar, the pathological prevaricator says, “One could almost argue that, in helping to highlight by contrast what is true, false statements are actually more valuable than true statements.” Say what? This conspiracy nut who is more likely to read the National Enquirer than Foreign Affairs extends this logic by denying that an event in the book with 3,000 attendees ever occurred, pointing out that 323 million Americans were definitely not there. “You do the math,” he reasons.
Ultimately, it is only the candidate’s affection for violence, his mistrust of Hispanic surnames and his remarkably thin skin that threatens his bid for the presidency. And now I will give away part of the ending. Crockenstock does not become president. Phew.
Alas, that’s what happens in my fictional world. You and I have to cope with reality—even if what we see each day seems such a poor excuse for reality as we once knew it. Hey, I knew before now that many people, especially Republicans (I mean Herman Cain, really?), ran for president because even losing had career benefits (Fox talk show, book sales, speeches), but I didn’t know until recent Federal Election Commission filings that Trump and his family were profiting directly from the campaign.
You can’t make this stuff up. (Heck, I’m just upset I didn’t.) In the recently-reissued TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald, Timothy O’Brien admits to being entertained and amused by Trump but concludes that the man is, above all, a “huckster” like P.T. Barnum, who was a pioneer in telling people that everything he touched was the biggest, best and most spectacular. Trump’s lust for attention is matched only by his greed, which may explain why he’s been involved in so many sleazy, if not outright fraudulent, deals that ultimately cratered. And it might also explain, if anything could, the fact that Trump appears to have billed the campaign for the fake “Trump Steaks” displayed on the table at a Mar-a-Lago press conference, even though that failed brand was discontinued at least two years ago.
Hmm, making campaign contributors foot the bill for fake stuff that contradicts the true “lies” that opponents are telling about you. That shows initiative. Imagination. Leadership.
I wish I’d thought of it.