I am not a political writer, so tackling this business of Donald Trump through my perferred métier of murder mysteries and musicals seems apt. In my lifetime, I have never seen so bizarre a drama unfold in the top echelons of politics, and I survived George W. Bush! America is essentially run by a two-party system, and one of those parties is imploding before our eyes. The most aberrant aspect of this is the Republican nominee, a man who, in your typical murder mystery, might be the killer, if he were smart, but in the case of Trump, would be the victim.
Consider Sigsbee Manderson, the financier who is murdered in E.C. Bentley’s 1913 classic, Trent’s Last Case:
“Many a time when he ‘took hold’ to smash a strike, or to federate the ownership of some great field of labor, he sent ruin upon a multitude of tiny homes; and if miners or steel-workers or cattlemen defied him and invoked disorder, he could be more lawless and ruthless than they. But this was done in the pursuit of legitimate business ends. Tens of thousands of the poor might curse his name, but the financier and the speculator execrated him no more. He stretched a hand to protect or to manipulate the power of wealth in every corner of the country.”
Does that sound familiar? Trump accumulated his fortune (after dad staked him a loan) by taking advantage of every legal loophole and creating a legacy of cheating and disrespecting those who worked for him, mostly women and people of color. He reneged on payments, declared bankruptcy and profited by it at the expense of others, escaped paying taxes, and in doing so amassed one enemy after another in business. Let’s face it: half of Nero Wolfe’s cases revolve around businessmen of this type, tycoons who garner enough animosity to paint a multiple targets on their backs or, conversely men who murderously lash out at those who stand in their way of their financial or romantic perfidy in the belief that they alone are entitled to the world.
Need more suspects? Trump’s personal life is stuffed with them: two ex-wives and a third he seems to have cheated on (at least in his heart), two ambitious sons, both chips off the old block (one of them fond of spouting comments straight out of Hitler’s playbook), two beautiful daughters, one for whom Trump has admitted to harboring lustful feelings, and a bunch of women oozing out of the woodwork with accusations of inappropriate behavior. Think of Rex Fortescue, the business tycoon whose murder starts off Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye. Rex is a disgusting figure: an egotist, a gross sensualist, a cheater at business and marriage; it even turns out that his brain is rotting, which explains his increasingly erratic and indecent behavior before his death.
Throughout the course of this political campaign, we have seen Trump act like a colicky baby, a petulant child angered at not getting his way, an ADHD sufferer, a schoolyard bully who rallies his lieutenants to take down the enemy, (“Lock her up! Lock her up!”), a paranoid teenager who refuses to take responsibility for his actions and lies when caught not doing his homework. This might be amusing if it wasn’t so dangerous. Trump is seeking the highest office of our land, not through any understanding of world situations or any particular business acumen. It’s a power grab, which Trump seeks to effect by tapping into and fomenting the legitimate anger that Americans have been feeling for some time and manufacturing real violence out of it. There is no sense of thoughtfulness here, no appeal to the best in our natures, no well-prepared list of policies as to how to make our country better. Everything is “smash and grab,” and underlying it all is the unpleasant suspicion that everything Trump says and does is for his personal aggrandizement and profit. Although he accuses the political establishment of not having the best interests of the people at heart, we have seen no evidence that Trump cares about anyone but himself.
In 1887, Lord Acton made his famous pronouncement in response to actions by the King and the Pope:
“Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
Literature, including mystery fiction, is packed with characters who have been corrupted by power or who have used the machinery of power to feed their corrupt natures. Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Glass Key (1930) concerns the murder of a senator’s son and the efforts by Ned Beaumont, the best friend of a crooked political boss to solve it. The revelation of the killer is truly shocking but perhaps not surprising, given the ugliness of the political scene that Hammett paints for the reader. Christie tackles a similar notion in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe but from a completely different angle, showing within the confines of a traditional mystery the moral decay power creates in those who wield it. At the end of that novel, the killer puts before Hercule Poirot the argument that the lives and accomplishments of the victims – an oily blackmailer, a silly woman, a grouchy dentist – mean little compared to the accomplishments on the murderer’s resume. In the end, Poirot literally jeopardizes the political health of the nation because he places justice for the individual above the common good.
In perhaps the nastiest campaign in our lifetime, both the Democratic and Republican candidates have painted each other as corrupt. Trump recently said that Hillary Clinton “has evil in her heart,” while a conservative radio host suggested that Clinton and President Obama are literally possessed by demons, to the point that “they smell of sulfur.” The main argument against Hillary is that she is both a career politician whose long career trail contains frequent pit stops in dishonesty. There is no doubt that, like most people who have held office, Clinton’s stand on issues has undergone radical change, that she has presented herself in different lights before different audiences, that she made, at the very least, poor choices over her e-mails. I have no doubt that she has lied about things. This makes Clinton the perfect target for Trump’s argument that she is an insider, a part of the system that doesn’t work, and that only an outsider like him can make the changes necessary to fix the system.
Except . . . I can’t recall a candidate who seems less capable of effecting change for the better. Cutting through the erratic way Trump speaks, his megalomania, and the paranoid temperament he evinces in response to critics, it’s hard to find a single idea that will truly help anyone but Trump himself and those of his ilk. His financial policies amount to “trickle down” economics with a vengeance. Just look at his child care plan, which involves tax write-offs that working class Americans do not earn enough money to claim. Every policy comes down to the potential for making more money. We should charge our NATO allies more protection money (sounds like a mob boss). We should have taken the oil from Iran, ostensibly to keep ISIS from financing its terrorist machine. (A lot of Trump’s ideas sound like the “rape and pillage” tactics of barbarian leaders of old.) We should eliminate Obamacare, our first, admittedly imperfect, attempt at national health coverage, and privatize health care to make rates more competitive. (Taking cable television as a model, this doesn’t work.) We should stop wasting time on the issue of climate change and up our commitment to coal energy because it’s there. (Same with increasing fracking and drilling for oil deposits, never mind the cost to our environment.) We should smash those who disagree with us or even look at us the wrong way. We should isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. This is all a part of Trump’s presentation, and if it cost Hillary Clinton some points to say that the folks who support Trump’s plan are “a basket of deplorables,” I can understand from watching the rallies on TV whereof she speaks.
I am reminded of “King” Kane Bendigo, the billionaire munitions maker in Ellery Queen’s The King Is Dead, who creates his own fascist government on a private island and kidnaps Ellery to solve the mystery of who is threatening his life without offering the detective a choice. Trump seems to take a page from the fascists at every turn, drumming up support for a “revolution” without a single solid idea of how to make life better. Watching him churn up the crowd to take down the powers-that-be – with violence if necessary – is chilling and has ramped up national anxiety a thousand fold. He whines that he is the victim of a massive conspiracy between the Democratic Party and the media. The number of conspirators rises each day with each new revelation of Trump’s past behavior. As of this writing, he has added the Republican establishment to his list of enemies. Yet, despite the apparent antagonism between the candidate and his party, there is nothing that incites my anger more than the teetering back and forth by the Republicans regarding their relationship to Trump.
The GOP put forth a dozen candidates of varying degrees of experience and position and watched with awe as Trump used his media savvy as a national celebrity and reality television host to . . . well, trump each one of them. Trump presented himself as the consummate outsider. He said that the White House needed a businessman instead of a politician, one whose financial acumen could get us out of a multi-trillion dollar economic hole and solve the problems of our working class, as well as the issues we face overseas, all this using the mentality of a CEO rather than a political wonk. Except that this CEO has cheated and stolen – mostly within the framework of existing tax law – to get what he wants. He has reneged on paying his contractors. He has declared bankruptcy and left whole cities to bear the brunt of these actions while he used the situation to avoid taxes. He had bullied and threatened his adversaries. This is the man our Republican party would seat in the White House.
This past week, as positive proof of their candidate’s misogyny was paraded across our television screens 24/7, Republican leaders have pulled their support and then re-gifted it back. I can only imagine that each morning a memo goes out to every one of them with talking points. This explains why Trump surrogates like Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, and Kelli Ann Conway sit in front of our TV screens using identical language in an attempt to diffuse each horror story that emerges about Trump and to deflect it onto Clinton. My favorite is the counter-accusation that Hillary is the true misogynist because of the awful way she treated the women with whom her husband dallied. There is no doubt that Bill Clinton used his power for sexual conquest. He was impeached for it. His wife was not, and interpreting her anger at the multiple situations in which she was placed due to Bill’s infidelity as misogyny on her part is quite a reach.
The Access: Hollywood video we have watched ad nauseum is truly revolting, so the outrage expressed by figures like Paul Ryan and John McCain is understandable. Yet where were these men when Donald Trump spent a week bad-mouthing Alicia Machado, a Latina and former Miss Universe winner whom he had denigrated for gaining weight? Where were Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence when Trump appealed to racist ideals with his comments about Mexicans and African Americans, when he sought to criminalize the Muslim faith, or when, as part of his “support” for our nation’s police force, he ignored the fact that the Central Park Five were innocent of the charges that earned them years of jail time and demanded they be put back in prison?
Trump trades on the worst impulses in our nature, the jealousies and fears we feel about those who are different from us. It’s bad enough in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body that the murderer kills a rival in love; the fact that the slaying is rendered even more brutal due to the culprit’s anti-Semitism makes the whole affair even uglier. Trump wallows in such ugliness. He expected us to embrace the idea that a judge of Mexican heritage (though a U.S. born citizen) could not sit impartially at the Trump University trial because of the candidate’s urgent desire to build a wall on our borders. He similarly called Muslims to task for an attack in Florida by a man who had been born and raised not far from Trump himself in New Jersey. I call this racist; Trump calls it reality.
In one week, I will be presenting the musical Evita at our school. Although nothing I put on stage can top the bizarre drama unfolding in our nation, the choice of show is timely. Like Trump, Eva Duarte Peron began her life as a media star. She engaged in many sexual relationships that furthered her hold on the upper echelons of Argentinian society, putting up with the pawing of many powerful men. Her husband, Juan Peron, like Trump promised to improve the lot of the working class citizens, although unlike Trump he was willing to finance much of this by seizing the wealth of the poor. The musical presents Juan and Eva Peron as political opportunists and suggests that many of their plans were corrupt and that the authoritarian nature of Peron’s regime approached fascism, something Peron had studied close at hand during an extended stay in Europe during the 1940’s.
The crowds of common folk admired Peron’s rolling up of his shirt-sleeves and calling himself a man of the people. But they loved Evita. She was a movie star, she was beautiful, and she looked them all square in the face, reminded them of her own roots in poverty, and seized the wealth of the richest citizens for them. (How much of that money actually made it into the pockets of the poor is a matter of dispute.)
Donald Trump channeled his boorish businessman persona into a successful role as host of The Apprentice on TV, encouraging real life people and celebrities to channel their inner shark. He made his way through the Republican primary by flinging zingers right and left, claiming center stage, appealing to the media for his ability to raise their viewership, and essentially saying “You’re fired” to each of his rivals. Then he promised that these media skills would serve the country well on the world stage.
I believe he has more than met his match in Hillary Clinton. If it is necessary to accept that Clinton is part of the political machine, she has used it beautifully to illuminate to the public Trump’s unsuitability for office. Both in her presence and at his rallies, Trump has exuded boorish behavior and spouted offensive taunts rather than ideas. During the past two debates, he has been unable to focus on any one topic long enough to offer a measured argument for his position. He simply hurls mud. If Hillary is guilty of the same mudslinging, at least she does it with grace. Is Hillary as egoistic as Trump? Who knows? She may be. But she has balanced that with a career in public service that has done more good than harm. She has demonstrated a fundamental respect for humanity as opposed to Trump’s contempt for it. And when she faces accusations regarding the e-mails or Goldman Sachs or Benghazi, again she responds with grace. She is a complex person, and some of her layers contain dark material. As a result, she is almost as disliked by her adversaries as Trump, and the race for President, at least until recently, has remained tight.
I for one would rather have a president who can speak with grace, who can look the American people in the eye and diffuse tension rather than foment it, who sees compassion as an adjunct to strength and not as a moral weakness. I would rather have a president who, if this were a murder mystery, would play the part of the problem solver, not the victim or the murderer. I don’t think of the choice this time around as “the lesser of two evils.” Without hesitation, I will be casting my vote for Hillary Clinton.