Vail Daily column: Trump is not a fictional anti-hero
Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.
Actor Ewan McGregor was asked the following question in a Reddit interview: “What do you prefer to play, heroes or villains?” To which he responded, “There are no heroes or villains in my book. Bad guys don’t think they’re bad guys.”
McGregor’s perceptive observation seems obvious, but it is one that I had not previously considered. Fiction and movies are typically constructed around the conflict between an unambiguous protagonist and antagonist. Antagonists are rarely depicted deviating from their diabolical schemes or undertaking any soul-searching.
Recently, however, television has witnessed the rise of the anti-hero — a deeply flawed character who often commits terrible deeds and yet still enjoys the support of the audience. Tony Soprano, Walter White and Francis Underwood all come to mind — a brutal mob boss, a methamphetamine manufacturer and a murderous, corrupt politician, respectively.
What is it about the rogue that is appealing? According to Dr. Arthur Raney, of Florida State University, “They must be morally justifiable.” Tony Soprano did navel gaze in the confines of his therapist’s office. Walter White only turned to illicit drug manufacturing to pay his medical bills. Francis Underwood’s appeal is more complex, but in the viper’s nest of Washington politics, no one is truly a protagonist.
Once a connection is made with a character, a degree of leniency is allowed, something psychologist Dr. Dolf Zillmann called the “latitude of moral sanction.” This latitude allows us to excuse behavior in fictional characters that we ourselves find objectionable.
Furthermore, Dr. Dan Shafer, of Baylor University, whose research coincides with that of Raney and Zillman but focuses more specifically on video games, found that gamers participating in violent games morally disengage in order to continue to enjoy the game and cheer for the anti-hero/protagonist. He points out that, “Theory and empirical research demonstrate that moral disengagement is utilized in real, hypothetical and virtual moral choices.”
Currently occupying the White House is an individual who blurs the line between real and fictional. With photo-ops and carefully crafted spin, all politicians could be accused of contriving an image that appeals to voters. But never has a reality star ascended to the highest post in the land. Most Americans knew him first through his own deftly constructed image as a successful businessman grooming the next generation of industry titans on his reality television show. Viewers remained either ignorant of or undaunted by the trail of failed businesses and bankruptcies found in his wake.
Trump supporters cite his straight-talk and disregard for political correctness as qualities they find refreshing in him and which set him apart from his competitors. This euphemistic assessment may have developed from the partiality already established during his 14 years on “The Apprentice.”
Another component to the Trump anti-hero appeal is the vicarious experience his supporters derive from his antics. Many people want to say the things he says and bring low those seen as the condescending elite or foreign governments that dare to criticize the United States. Trump supporters share with him the smug satisfaction of striking a blow for the common man.
Trump’s attacks, however, have spanned the gamut from political, media and entertainment industry elites to the obscure and powerless. The only thing they all have in common is that they dared criticize or oppose Trump.
He is only striking blows for himself.
The essential problem is that the presidency is not the domain of a fictional character. It is the very real seat of executive power in America, as well as the tangible face of America abroad. Trump may not realize he is a bad guy — but it is abundantly clear to anyone who observes his words and deeds. The office of the president should not be subject to moral disengagement.
President George Washington was praised for his inability to tell a lie. President Abraham Lincoln was praised for his mercy. President Theodore Roosevelt was praised for breaking up monopolies. And President John F. Kennedy was praised for his vision of the future. Each man was far from flawless, but each left a constructive mark on the presidency and our nation.
Mendacious, profane and wholly incompetent are thus far the only descriptors Trump embodies entirely. The office of the president deserves better. Our country deserves better.
Claire Noble can be found online at clairenoble.org and “Claire Noble Writer” on Facebook.