I’m going to try to turn Donald Trump into a character we can empathize with.
But before I do, I feel a burning need to say something: there are millions of people like me who are obsessed with Trump. We’re obsessed with serious Trumpian flaws—his attacks on women, minorities, courts, law enforcement agencies, the press, and the Constitution. It’s the stuff of despots. But we’re also obsessed with Trump in a more voyeuristic way—the same way we would be with any compelling reality TV star. His Twitter rants, self-indulgent indignations, and see-through lies are the kinds of moral failures one might expect to see on a Real Housewives show. They’re of course dangerous—because duh, he’s our President—but that doesn’t diminish our viewing pleasure. Trump is entertaining if nothing else. Let’s not take that away from him.
It’s probably obvious from the outset that I am not a fan of Trump’s politics. My early admission is done by design. I want readers to know right away that I’m a liberal, but one who recognizes his biases. As a debut novelist of a sci-fi political thriller, and someone who used to teach political science at a university, I am acutely aware of the role of bias in political beliefs, especially my own Northeast-liberal-condescending-utopian-ivory tower-preachy-elitist views. I have spent much of my writing and academic life showing how characters, as well as their real-life inspirations—otherwise known as humans—allow their overarching predispositions to color their specific political views. Countless novels, not to mention political science textbooks, have been written on the subject of how well-entrenched identities predispose individuals to specific views. In other words, we’re all biased.
One more thing about politics before I transform Trump into a sympathetic figure. Lately, I’ve had a renewed interest in the importance of empathy in political discourse. Trump can do that to a person. Many years ago, I wrote a doctoral thesis and published an article called, “Tolerance as Understanding: Live & Let Live or Love Thy Neighbor.” It was the typical young naïve doctoral candidate stuff brimming with idealism. It was the kind of thing a Fox News commentator would laugh at. But it had one thing going for it. It was sort of right.
I argued that our current understanding of tolerance—a kind of live and let live philosophy—is deeply flawed. I argued that a brand of tolerance where we empathize with others, show compassion for those espousing contrary and even racist views, and exercise humility about our own political arguments is a morally superior version of tolerance. My heroes are Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, not John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.
Now that I’ve gotten the politics out of the way, I can turn to the true task at hand—using Donald Trump as a literary vehicle to emphasize the importance of empathy in creating characters. I chose to discuss empathy in politics first because it’s a useful proxy for understanding the role of empathy in writing. Empathy, I would argue, is a cornerstone of great storytelling. The best novelists artfully create multidimensional characters, ones with layers upon layers of contextual complexity. Readers need to fall in love with a character’s strengths and weaknesses. Think about the people we love most in our lives—spouses, parents, children, friends, significant others. For sure, they are not perfect. In fact, they are probably deeply flawed, as humans tend to be. But we love them in spite of their faults, because we understand who they are, and more importantly, why they are. We empathize with them. This same need for empathy holds true for a reader getting to know a character. Our favorite writers build rich narratives that allow us to understand the totality of their characters.
One of my favorite characters, Tyrion Lannister from the Game of Thrones series, is just such a character. He’s brilliant, but boorish, fervently sexist yet frequently kind to women. He has a “my daddy hates me” complex—one rightfully deserved, and his sister hates him too. He is a little person—frequently referred to as the “Imp.” He has different colored eyes and is considered physically grotesque. There’s much more to his character than this; but suffice it to say, we understand his moral failings, in part, through the indignities he suffers as a “half-man” hated by his family.
Similarly, for the main character in my novel Game of the Gods, I tried to create a character with depth and dimension. I had to do so with one-bajillionth of the talent of George R.R. Martin, but it was important for me to bring as much empathy to my character as I could. This character, Max Cone, is disillusioned and frequently dismissive of others’ opinions. My character wants to disengage from the world when he clearly should not. It’s a profound moral failure, but one that I hope the reader will view in the context of his tragic life. I want the reader to truly love Max—warts and all.
Which brings me to Donald Trump. He’s a man with larger-than-life warts—ones that are at times difficult to overlook. So how do we turn Donald Trump into a “character” worthy of our compassion and sympathy? It starts with empathy. I sincerely believe that it must be very hard to be Donald Trump. My sense from reading numerous reports about his childhood, teen years, and adult life is that Trump is someone who has struggled his whole life to be accepted—accepted by the press, his father, the Washington political establishment, old money New York, and others.
Trump’s father, who had amassed a fortune of almost $300 million as a real estate developer and had a public profile, cast a very large shadow for someone as driven and proud as his son. If money and fame are the measures of success, then a young and ambitious Donald Trump had a long way to go to surpass his father. As a businessman starting out, Trump repeatedly lied about his wealth to reporters, including a well-documented tape recording to a Fortune magazine reporter. Interestingly, Trump lied and said he had taken over his father’s business. Using a fake voice and the alias of John Barron, Trump lied to the Fortune magazine reporter, padding his own wealth by hundreds of millions of his father’s money.
Without trying to be a dime-store psychologist, it seems that this Oedipal competition may have had its roots in Trump’s childhood. (I emphasize may, which is a great word to consider when trying to explore individuals in their totality and write with empathy.)
At 13, Trump went to New York City without telling his parents and purchased a switchblade. When his father, who by most accounts was an extremely stern man, found out, he abruptly shipped Trump off to a military academy. Without much notice, Trump went from living a life of luxury in a mansion with his family to living with strangers in a military academy dorm. This could not have been easy for a 13-year-old boy to process, especially one who may have had issues about being accepted. Trump has described his father as his hero. But I wonder if that’s not just another lie, another way of coping.
Trump’s father almost certainly had a profound effect on his son’s views about race and his distrust of government. Trump’s father was arrested for refusing to leave a Ku Klux Klan march. There is some ambiguity over whether he was a sympathizer or bystander, but he was there, refused to leave, and got arrested. Years later, when Donald Trump was 27 and president of his father’s company, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department brought a suit against Trump’s father’s company for refusing to rent to blacks. There were numerous reports in the press about Trump’s father’s racism and even folksinger Woody Guthrie, a tenant in his apartment complex, wrote a song about “Old Man Trump” and how he stirred up racial hatred. Trump’s views on race, government prosecutions, the press, and even liberal entertainers were surely shaped by these years of tumult, and no doubt his father’s attitudes shaped his.
There’s a great deal more we can explore about Trump. His mother’s background as a poor immigrant who became enormously rich and fell in love with all the trappings of wealth is certainly a relevant area for Trump’s “character development.”
Similarly, the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where President Barack Obama and host Seth Meyers aggressively lampooned Trump portraying him as a fool in front of the press and Washington political establishment, profoundly affected Trump.
We could go on and on, but the main point is that Trump’s views have a context. He is more than just a collection of racist and anti-immigrant positions. He’s a product of every moment of his life. Whether we’re citizens wondering about our political leaders or writers trying to create convincing characters, we need to ask the kind of questions that lead to a fuller appreciation of the humanity in every individual.
Did Trump learn to be racist or anti-immigrant from his father? Is Trump’s opinion of law enforcement colored by investigations into his father’s behavior? How did his father’s rejection of him—shipping him off to military school for simply being rambunctious—impact his life? Did his mother’s poverty and early hardships influence how Trump approached wealth, power, and fame? How much did Obama and Meyers’ jokes truly hurt Trump?
There is obviously much more we can do to try to empathize with the real Donald Trump or even a fictionalized version. I am not trying to make excuses for any of Trump’s repugnant views. I am simply trying to understand the man as best as I can.
As writers, this is what we should do.
Jay Schiffman is a writer and entrepreneur committed to creating socially responsible businesses. He has started a number of successful companies in entertainment, education, and technology, including an entertainment studio dedicated to developing unique digital content for the public sector. His studio creates award-winning apps, games, digital stories, and animations for public interest organizations, educational institutions, and governmental bodies. Prior to starting his businesses, he was a practicing attorney, taught political science at N.Y.U., and worked in the public and private sectors. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and children.
His debut novel, Game of the Gods, is available now in print and digital.