I heard something in November that I can’t stop thinking about. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the man behind stories like the “Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Social Network” and “West Wing,” predicted in an NPR interview “that you will seldom see [a fictionalized version] of Donald Trump as anything but an off-screen character … Having him as a character in a story with real people is very difficult, because it’s implausible.” Sorkin went on to cite examples in Shakespeare, contending “that there’s no such thing as an interesting character who doesn’t have a conscience.”
Did I at first agree? Possibly. I’ve already endured too many inane conversations that began with “Can you believe what he did?” And guess what, I always could. Because that’s the thing about Donald Trump. At his core, he is a consistent and unsurprising man. In that sense, then, Sorkin is right. Not much about Trump ever changed, so why would we be interested in a story about him?
American mythologist Joseph Campbell got us into this mess. He posited that all stories — especially the ones that endure, that turn to myth — follow a similar structure. From our earliest tales (“The Epic of Gilgamesh”) to our newest (“Star Wars”), all stories have fit into his taxonomy of quest. Change, according to Campbell, is the name of the game. Without it, you don’t quite have a story to tell. Of course, his theories primarily applied to heroes — the idea that a character would have to undergo change to complete the quest, to return home different and, in Campbell’s theory, heroic. In the years since his seminal book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” this observed pattern has become synonymous with what all stories ought to be. Arguably, it’s why the stories we tell continue to be narrow in structure and form.
But why do we continue to tell the same stories over and over again?
It’s because we are drawn to what we want to believe about ourselves. Until Trump, possibly, it’s what we did believe. And yet, here is a man who defies the arc we invented to scaffold our beliefs. He’s the perfect counterexample to our aspirations of being better, what we’ve designed as the bedrock to the stories we tell. Is it fair — or even productive — to exclude him from the narrative just because he challenges what we didn’t want to be true?
So when Sorkin says that Trump is an implausible character, I think that does some damage.
We need Trump the character because we still need fictional stories about him. If Trump has taught us anything, it’s that fact doesn’t always suffice. If it did, people would wear masks, voters wouldn’t contest verified elections, and lies wouldn’t be the equal and opposite reaction to truth. Republican senators disregarded footage of the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. When fact looked them dead in the eye, all they had to do was look away. Stories are different because they can entrance you in horror, delight, and absurdity. In many ways, stories function like funhouse mirrors. They reflect truth off of curved surfaces, so no matter how distorted we look, it’s always us staring back––transfixed by what we see.
To think that we can only celebrate and become invested in stories with characters who learn from their consciences … Well, clearly, that doesn’t always happen. In fact, I think good cases can be made against character evolution even in even the most archetypal hero’s journeys. How much did Odysseus really change if he returned from war only to massacre his own people? The lack of change, then, doesn’t mean that characters are uninteresting, it just means that they are more like us than we thought. Stories let us imagine who we want to be, but they also teach us who we are.
Since we learn from the stories we tell, exiling Trump to “off-screen” does little to protect us from the next “implausible” character. Trump is unlikeable, sure, but a person who lives and breathes can’t be called “implausible.” And even if we did invent him, if he were subject to the metrics of plausibility, I don’t think whether he seems real or not is the most pressing question. No matter how unlikable or unbelievable Trump is, he is the clearest example of how the seemingly unreal and real can coalesce whether we like it or not.
There will be a lot of bad stories about Trump that present themselves as new evidence of the same conclusion: Trump wasn’t a hero. However, there can be some good ones too, stories that don’t see the need or utility in drawing hard lines between what seems real and what doesn’t. The stories that are brave enough to put someone “implausible” on the screen are the ones we need. Even if Trump can’t learn something, maybe we can.
ELLA ATTELL is a rising sophomore in Davenport College. Her column, Toil and Trouble, runs every other Wednesday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.