​a post-empire perspective on trump

Patrick Bateman's obsession with Donald Trump is perhaps the earliest and most accurate foretelling of the tycoon-turned-would-be-politician's corrosive potential.

by Nathalie Olah
13 February 2016, 2:58am

What seemed like the clearest two-horse race in American electoral history even six months ago, has fast descended into an episode of the Wacky Races. There's beloved Bernie and his New England-via-Brooklyn drawl, preaching the good word of togetherness while batting off shade from her Royal Pant Suit, Mrs Clinton, whose controversial email inbox continues to impede her momentum towards the White House. On the other side, there's the steady monosyllabic plod of Pauls and Teds, Troy McCluring their way past Bloodhound Bush, whose faint whimpering protestations echo from between undulating jowls weighed down by a family legacy of a thousand Gulf Air Strikes.

And then there's Trump. A man who deflects questions from female journalists by insinuating that they're on their period. A man who finds breast-feeding disgusting. A man who describes women as "pieces of ass". A man who people claim to be shocked to see win primaries, but deep down, aren't all that surprised.

It was a question posed to him - whether he had presidential ambitions - from the get-go. But assessments of the tycoon-turned-would-be-politician overlook the principal weapon in Trump's arsenal: celebrity. He is, after all, a master self-publicist: a man who welcomed press attention where others opted for discretion. Whose abrasive manner might have been as alien to the Calvinistic complexes of Northern Europeans as Cheese Balls and Air Conditioning, yet still won him great popularity among a certain strain of aspiring businessman in the UK during the 80s and 90s.

Women, based on personal experience at least, were less enamoured. As a kid, my mum only winced at the sight of two men, and the other was Cliff Richard. The same TV appearances in which Trump is asked about his political ambitions are littered with sexist and xenophobic remarks, something that gets brushed aside for the purposes of getting to the main point about all the money. Letterman famously tried to gauge how much Trump was worth, while missing what now seems like the more obvious tack of nailing him on the salt of the earth persona he was trying to convey in the course of their interview. "I was a good solid child, very normal in a lot of respects," he insists, "I don't think of myself as driven, I just do what I love!" (In fact he inherited a lot from his father and is reputed to have been a tyrannical bully both as a child and subsequently, in most of his professional dealings).

But Trump's newness dazzled audiences. He served as a mirror to the US at it's so-called height - what many have termed the peak of empire - built as it was on the illusion of unending growth. He showed what could happen through a pure and unadulterated application of its founding principles of individualism, ambition and self-aggrandisement. But by extension, his recent foray into politics can be seen as an unambiguous warning of what happens when those same principles are tested to their limits. It didn't happen overnight. Trump's transformation from acceptable role-model to propagator of hate speech had been taking place since the moment he appeared on TV screens. The problem was, very few people noticed or seemed to care.

It's difficult to believe that American Psycho is 25 years old, and that it is still able to shed new light on the political climate of 2016, but in having Trump occupy the mind of the 90s' most famous serial killer, Bret Easton Ellis presented what is perhaps the earliest and most accurate foretelling of his corrosive potential. Trump haunts Bateman as he navigates life as a trader in New York city. He is the ultimate promise lurking behind every shoulder that Bateman stares past in glazed reverie. He's the only thing that Bateman expressly hallucinates. While cameos from other egomaniacs, Bono and Tom Cruise, tell us everything about the media climate driving the 27-year-old's inhuman exercise and grooming regime, the business cards and the restaurant culture, the fixation on the differences between mineral and spring water, the learning by rote CD track listings and the obsessive compulsion to fill his apartment with artists ordained by Larry Gagosian.

A lot has been written about Trump, his rallies, the aesthetics of fascism, how fascism seeks to persuade an audience through awe-inspiring theatrics. Much less has been written about how evil is placated by the casual dismissal of egomania as little more than eccentricity among elites - of the aristocratic, political and showbiz variety; much less still about the aesthetics of supremacy and their ubiquity in modern life.

A lot has also been written about Trump the baby boomer, poster boy for the most selfish generation ever to exist. Implicit in that assessment however, is the idea that we've overcome every last vestige of the culture he represents. When in reality, there's substantively very little difference between Bateman's preoccupations and this generation's obsession with wellness, LinkedIn profile endorsements, avatars, £20 hamburgers, Kanye West, Nike Flywire, juicing, fitbit Facebook updates, panel talks, the plane emoji, the word 'trailblazer', good socks, Pitchfork 'Best New Music' lists and Instagram feeds of artist collaborations with Opening Ceremony.

Is Sam Smith the new Huey Lewis and the News? Is Bao the new Dorsia? Perhaps not. But Ellis' greatest achievement wasexposing the insecurity and competitiveness that underscores the 'must have' economy at whose pinnacle stood the great, omnipotent and illusory Trump. God of stuff. He might be absurd, and he couldn't be further from the progressive world being created by many young people today, but it's important to remember that once upon a time Trump also seemed progressive and aspirational.

And while his empire might be firmly rooted in the New York of the late 80s and the early 90s, his example serves to demonstrate just how incrementally and almost imperceptibly, pop culture and its icons can turn ugly. How easy it is to become blind in our pursuit of the new.

It's an idea that came to me while reading a fantastic piece by Jonathan Meades in the LRB in whichhe mentions the fact that in 1939 the New York Times Magazine ran an 'At Home With…' feature on one Adolf Hitler. The example served to highlight how easy it is for journalists in their never-ending pursuit of feature fodder to wind up on the wrong side of history. Though Trump is not Hitler, and his fascism is thankfully confined to his odd, nonsensical speeches, the question still looms large of howthis man became the subject of not just one, but thousands of magazine features, and the acceptable face for a certain brand of success over a period of several decades.


Text Nathalie Olah
Photography Gage Skidmore

American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis
American politics
post empire