Or, When Did We Start Living in a Fictional Satire?
I’ve compared recent events—and, in particular, this presidential election—to many things: Armageddon, Alien, every Batman story, and almost every ’90s action movie.
But there is one painful metaphor that I have not explored: the 2016 election appears to have been written by writer and satirist Kurt Vonnegut.
I first started pondering the question of did Vonnegut write our current political climate this spring, when my aunt (a librarian) pointed out to me how much Donald Trump resembles a Vonnegut character.
I soon googled trump vonnegut and was surprised not to see more about it. I found a handful of articles, but none that fully explored the extent to which the candidate Donald Trump seems to have sprung straight from a Vonnegut novel. Nor did anyone mention the extent to which this entire election resembles a Vonnegut-penned narrative and universe.
America has become a Kurt Vonnegut novel.
Donald Trump is the quintessential wealthy Vonnegut anti-hero.
Beginning with his second novel, The Sirens of Titan—and continuing throughout the majority of his novels and short stories—Vonnegut loved to portray the impassioned, confused, wealthy white American male.
There is a multi-millionaire or billionaire in almost every Vonnegut novel: some are romantic alcoholics with inherited wealth, some are self-made Midwestern car dealers, all are troubled and confused.
Trump is the paragon of the Vonnegutian anti-hero. He is one of the few people who both inherited his wealth and pulled himself up by his own gaudy bootstraps. Consider the public figure Trump, and then consider this description of Malachi Constant of Sirens of Titan:
Everything Constant did he did in style – aggressively, loudly, childishly, wastefully – making himself and mankind look bad.
Constant bristled with courage – but it was anything but un-neurotic Every courageous thing he had ever done had been motivated by spitefulness and by goads from childhood that made fear seem puny indeed.
There are others, of course, who Trump resembles:
- Eliot Rosewater is a recurring Vonnegut character who, unlike Trump, is a socialist and a heavy drinker but who, like Trump, is a tuxedo-wearing populist propelled forward by quixotic passions.
- Slapstick‘s Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain is a lonely disfigured man living alone in a skyscraper as the world ends around him. He’s also the President of the United States.
- Andrew Macintosh in Galapagos is a self-styled adventurer and heir to a great fortune.
- Papa Monzano of Cat’s Cradle is less Trump and more the kind of man Trump would want to pal around with: an aging dictator of a third world country who ultimately destroys the world.
- Dwayne Hoover of Breakfast of Champions and Deadeye Dick is a self-made wealthy man whose wealth, privilege, and ambitions prevent anyone from realizing he is slowly slipping into madness.
No Vonnegut novel feels complete without this character. In the few that omit a brash, adventuring, privileged anti-hero, one wonders why Vonnegut is going so far off his own script.
In today’s America, our central character is the attention-seeking, self-congratulatory, ambitious and dangerous Donald Trump. He wants his White House, just like the Vonnegut characters who desire their wars, their planets, and their power.
But Trump is not the only way in which this election resembles a Vonnegut narrative.
Hillary Clinton is an expansion of one of Vonnegut’s female characters, representing a plotline he never fully explored.
One could never accurately accuse Vonnegut of sexism or misogyny. His female characters, like his male characters, tend to be mixed-up humans just trying to find their place in the world.
What better Vonnegut plot than a novel in which the man and woman are former friends and rivals for the same position? Perhaps one attended the wedding of the other? Perhaps both have troubled marriages that the entire country has watched through their ups and downs?
Perhaps they are both manifestations of this excerpt from Vonnegut’s book of essays, God Bless You, Dr Kevorkian:
I know what women want. They want a whole lot of people to talk to. What do they want to talk about? They want to talk about everything.
What do men want? They want a lot of pals, and they wish people wouldn’t get so mad at them.
What better platform for a woman to talk to everyone about everything than running for the presidency?
What better platform for a man to have lots of pals and wish people weren’t mad at him than a presidential bid?
But the extent to which Vonnegut could have written Clinton does not stop there. Let’s consider how disliked she is: as of August, she hit a record for the amount of Americans who have a negative opinion of her.
The dislike for Hillary Clinton often seems to stem from two things: she does everything we expect out of a politician, but nothing we expect out of a woman. She’s certainly not a woman that Vonnegut ever wrote about, as most of his female characters existed within the roles expected for them (even when that role was to become a school teacher on Mars or live in an exhibit for time-transcending beings.)
Vonnegut would regularly amuse his audiences by describing American society from a detached, ethnographic-esque perspective. Here’s his description of a minor character in Breakfast of Champions:
Patty Keene was stupid on purpose, which was the case with most women in Midland City. The women had big minds because they were big animals, but they did not use them much for this reason: unusual ideas could make enemies, and the women, if they were going to achieve any sort of comfort and safety, needed all the friends they could get.
So, in the interests of survival, they trained themselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines. All their minds had to do was to discover what other people were thinking, and then they thought that, too.
What we get with Hillary Clinton is a female character who both breaks this mold, but doesn’t. She’s making enemies and has left comfort and safety long ago, but she’s managing to do it while attempting to continue the efforts and policies of the Democratic Party. She is proving, perhaps, that a woman doesn’t need any unusual ideas to be hated by half the country.
She has nothing in common with Patty Keene – or most of Vonnegut’s other women characters, who frequently kill themselves if they do find any escape. Vonnegut’s women choose safety or suicide, while Hillary Clinton has chosen a very different path. But all the same, she seems to have sprung from the pages of satire.
But if this is a Vonnegut novel, isn’t there still a central character missing?
Bernie Sanders is our befuddled, aging Kilgore Trout
There has perhaps never been a more lovable character than Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout. He is cranky, lonely, frustrated, unsuccessful, and thoroughly entertaining.
Initially inspired by Vonnegut’s friend Theodore Sturgeon, Trout increasingly became a surrogate for Vonnegut in his own writing. As his career progressed, Vonnegut would retcon Trout’s life and biography, always expanding and revising the world of Kilgore Trout while regularly providing his readers with summaries of unwritten sci-fi stories by Trout.
Like Sanders, Trout is several things:
- A controversial figure with some very fervent fans
- A socialist
- A brave man
- A man known for his determination and optimism
Of course, in some ways, Sanders is more Vonnegut than he is Trout. Vonnegut has legions of devoted fans, just like Sanders, while Kilgore Trout had very few fans in most of his narratives.
Vonnegut, like Sanders, was a frequent defender of socialism. One example can be found in his book of essays A Man Without a Country:
“Socialism” is no more an evil word than “Christianity.” Socialism no more prescribed Joseph Stalin and his secret police and shuttered churches than Christianity prescribed the Spanish Inquisition. Christianity and socialism alike, in fact, prescribe a society dedicated to the proposition that all men, women, and children are created equal and shall not starve.”
And so we have, in this narrative, our two central characters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as our narrator Bernie Sanders looks on, increasingly dismayed and distraught.
But are there any other characters worth mentioning? Of course there is: all the inanimate ones.
A sum of money…
It’s hard to choose the best Vonnegut novel, but God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is certainly up there. This 1965 novel displays its humor and perspective from its opening sentence:
A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.
Vonnegut’s novels frequently had non-humans in central roles: computers, spaceships, planets, buildings, and sums of money.
Likewise, in this election, we have some recurring characters who are certainly not human:
- A theoretical wall to be built on the border between two countries
- A mysterious email server that draws endless speculation and investigation
- Steaks, cell phones, pantsuits, speeches, golf courses, skyscrapers and, of course, lots and lots of money.
And then, of course: all the entertaining and detailed subplots
What is a great book without all the details, the subplots, the stories that tie in?
In the America of 2016, there is hardly a moment that doesn’t become something for the candidates to discuss. Comments over a woman’s weight, conspiracy theories about birth certificates and JFK’s assassination, reminders of the painful pasts of both major candidates.
But which subplot has become more enduring than that of the National Anthem?
And could we have chosen one that would have pleased Vonnegut more?
Beginning in the National Football League’s preseason and continuing until today, professional athlete Colin Kaepernick has chosen to sit during the Star Spangled Banner.
Why would this so please Vonnegut? Consider these words from the first chapter of Breakfast of Champions:
Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously.
He goes on to print the anthem in its entirety, before saying:
There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem that was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.
But he does not leave it at that.
…the anthem and the vacant motto might not have mattered much, if it weren’t for this: a lot of citizens were so ignored and cheated and insulted that they thought they might make be in the wrong country, or even on the wrong planet, that some terrible mistake had been made. It might have comforted the some if their anthem and their motto had mentioned fairness or brotherhood or hope or happiness, had somehow welcomed them to the society and its real estate.
Consider this depiction of lost Americans, then consider the rhetoric of not just Colin Kaepernick but of Clinton and Trump. Consider Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and his economic populism. Consider Hillary Clinton’s quote:”Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times, but the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”
What is happening here? Are all of our public figures reading Vonnegut?
A world beyond satire?
There are those who bemoan this election, and Trump in particular, for one surprising characteristic: they are “beyond satire.” As The Economist puts it:
… their extravagant tastelessness and shared macho posturings—Mr Putin’s on horseback, Mr Trump’s at the podium—both also, alas, leave very little room for satire.
When the world becomes satire, how does one satirize it? South Park, soon to be on their fourth president, has solved this by never directly mentioning Trump, using Mr. Garrison as his surrogate. Staples like The Onion and The Daily Show have found themselves simply depicting reality, rather than satirizing it.
The hardest part about finding humor in this election is that the election itself is an absurdity. You have a woman who used to live in the White House trying to live in the White House again, running against a troubled man who insults half the world in his efforts to live in the White House too.
Meanwhile, America watches this man and this woman yell at one another, and about one another, and is told to choose sides. For many Americans, there is no discernible protagonist. For others, we can’t imagine how someone could support that candidate.
But if this is a Vonnegut novel, then how does it end?
And so that is the question: how does it end? Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Will Donald Trump, like Malachi Constant and Eliot Rosewater before him, have some kind of epiphany, becoming a good-hearted and generous benefactor who apologies for his previous faults? Will Bernie Sanders get abducted by aliens? Will we all become unstuck in time? Or have we already?
Where should we look for our answers?
Perhaps I shouldn’t be making these comparisons at all. Perhaps the reason things have become so troubled is because we confuse our lives for fictions. Consider when Vonnegut says in Breakfast of Champions that the trouble with storytellers is their “tendency to make people believe that life [has] leading characters, minor characters, insignificant details, that is [has] lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
As he tells us in Breakfast of Champions,
…I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.
And so on. Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done. If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead. It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done.
And let us remember one more Vonnegut philosophy. A philosophy that is particularly difficult at the moment, from what must be his saddest novel.
Something from the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, in which Vonnegut employs the first person and tells us about his actual life, including his time spent as a prisoner of war of the Germans in World War II:
I think about my education sometimes. I went to the University of Chicago for awhile after the Second World War. I was a student in the Department of Anthropology. At that time they were teaching that there was absolutely no difference between anybody.
They may be teaching that still.
Another thing they taught was that no one was ridiculous or bad or disgusting. Shortly before my father died, he said to me, ‘You know – you never wrote a story with a villain in it.’
I told him that was one of the things I learned in college after the war.
What are we to do with this? Could there be a less appealing notion to an American today than the suggestion that this world contains no villains? What are we to do with the options in front of us without resorting to demonizing the enemy?
Or is Vonnegut wrong about this one? Does it even matter what he would say?
Perhaps there is no right answer. But when the world is full of questions, it’s important to continue asking questions and to do everything we can to learn the answers.
One more Vonnegut quote:
So it goes.
Enjoy what you just read? Check out Why Everyone Should Calm Down and Take Vonnegut’s Approach to Talking About Big Game Hunting or Books by D. F. Lovett.