Stranger Than Fiction
Back in 2010, when the Tea Party was all the rage, I started writing a novel about a right-wing demagogue named Bucky Dunn who decides to run for president and shocks everyone by nearly winning the GOP nomination.
I aimed to have the book ready for publication in time for the 2016 election season. But a funny thing happened on the way to that final draft: Donald J. Trump. Suddenly, my outlandish political satire was playing out, every night, on basic cable.
I set the novel aside. The 2016 campaign blew into town, with a seductive degeneracy now all too familiar. I couldn’t bear to look at the novel for months. When I finally did, it was mostly out of nostalgia. I was hoping to recapture that era of American history in which the story of a cynical egomaniac ascending to the presidency might be safely consumed as fiction.
What I discovered, instead, was a rather eerie document. Without meaning to, my novel had predicted the precise shape and tenor of the election—in particular how easy it would be for a figure like Trump to conquer our conglomeratized kingdoms of politics and entertainment.
Bucky Dunn Is Running begins with our eponymous hero enumerating his assets:
It was all humming along—my life, my legacy, my equity. I was that common American breed: a superhero made of assets and motion.
I had a radio program. I had a TV program. I had two bestsellers with the word “wisdom” in the title. I had a web-cast with downloadable curriculum. I had a stage production and a clothing line and an app. I had legions numbering fourteen million and sponsorship arrangements beyond measure. I had vertical integration. I had a boat I had never seen. I had a security team that hovered darkly in my periphery. I had two ex-wives and three children, beloved and despicable each of them. I had, at forty nine, the garish mane of a sophomore and a glamorously broken nose. I had the muzzle of a fox and trustworthy eyes and an official portrait to prove my resemblance to myself. I had a political action committee. I had the tired ear of the Almighty.
Technically, I was hosting a national radio program. But the cruel voices in my brain needed more—more strobe, more reverb—thus I had gathered around me, like a pretend family, five computers, ranging in size from pumpkin to postage stamp, by which I fired my bad whims upon the badder circuits of the world, haranguing the guardians of my wealth, floating allegations, denying rumors, berating the competition, firing schedulers. My thumbs were an empire.
In conceiving of Bucky, I had in mind a kind of cultural mash-up: the demagogue reborn as a needy star, with a code of conduct that includes manic self-promotion, gluttony, screen addiction, casual racism, sexual predation, and golf. It’s no coincidence that he winds up at a particular opulently branded resort twenty pages in:
Trump had refurbished a mile of coastline, rendering what had been a haven for seagulls and their filthy ways into a world-class destination. . . . This was a golf course, an Eden beyond the jurisdiction of public sector employees. The grass exhaled oxygen and the oligarchs made gentle thwacks. Somewhere close by, quail were being spun in centrifuges and released to the heavens. At each tee, a video of Trump greeted us, his lovely anus of a mouth extruding promotional syllables, his delicate hair panels radiating deserved self-love.
Bucky Dunn is a political novice but when it comes to the modern attention economy he’s an old hand, which is why he spends the early sections of the book barnstorming cable shows to tease his presidential run. His first gig is with a cable host who is, I must admit, directly inspired by Tucker Carlson:
How did one describe Spencer Fitzgerald? I thought of him as the rape baby of Mephistopheles and Little Lord Fauntleroy. He had the face of a plump child actor, the manners of a Confederate general, the conscience of a shark. I liked him very much while also wanting a piano to fall on his throat.
“Your announcement Monday morning that you would be seeking the GOP presidential nomination was a major wow,” Spencer said. “Can you explain to the American people why a man who has never held office, a man with a long history of womanizing, of making inflammatory statements, racist, sexist, homophobic—how do you convince mainstream voters to hand you the keys to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal?”
I nodded soberly. This was cable news, the rotting core of American civic perception, where I was routinely cast as a hillbilly Hitler. I did everything soberly on cable. “Terrific question,” I said. “You’ve put your thumb on the truth of it. I’m no politician. I don’t talk like a politician. I don’t think like a politician. I certainly haven’t lived like a politician.” My teeth made a small white billboard for my remorse. “I’m not sure that counts as a liability at this particular moment in our history.”
Spence stabbed out a camera laugh and yanked his face into a seething grin.
“I make no secret of my vices, Mr. Fitzgerald. That’s the difference between your kind and mine. The American people have had their fill of sanctimony and sweetheart deals. Political elites.”
“Just to clarify, you view drunk driving and fornication as points in your favor with voters?”
“I don’t see people as voters, Mr. Fitzgerald. I see them as citizens, taxpayers, mothers and fathers, cops and firemen, that kid down the block who took an oath to defend this country’s blessing with his life.”
Bucky intuits what Trump would affirm: that contempt for the political class among certain voters is so intense as to cancel out issues of character. Bucky also recognizes that his best play, on almost every occasion, is to hijack the news cycle, which he does in this case by accusing the sitting president of being impotent:
Blood swirled beneath the crumbling varnish of Spence’s youth makeup; his right forelimb quivered. “Are you questioning the president’s manhood? Because that’s what it sounds like, that you’re saying, Mr. Dunn, this president has some kind of, I hesitate to use this kind of language—erectile dysfunction. Or perhaps an issue with size. I’m not going to put words in your mouth, genital warts, premature ejaculation, I’m not going to do it on national TV . . .”
This exchange would now go viral, along with the search phrase President’s Penis Problem. Spence’s contract would be renewed for another quarter, facilitating the purchase of a second slave girl to pour hot wax on his gonads. The technical term was show business.
You see the problem, folks? I could say anything. Nobody was stopping me. I lacked what the Freudians call containment. The crueler and more insinuating I became, the more publicity I generated for myself and my colleagues in the Opinion Industry. It was so upsettingly perfect.
Bucky is describing the exact symbiosis Trump used to launch his insurgent campaign. He understood that the networks needed him to juice the ratings, and would award him the kind of relentless coverage reserved for a celebrity, not a politician. This meant rallies aired wire-to-wire, interviews on command, tweet storms blown across front pages, media scrums even for his crass branding stunts. It didn’t matter that this coverage was sometimes sneering, just that it was.
None of this was any secret. Here’s how CBS Chairman Les Moonves described Trump’s run in February of 2016, speaking at a media conference sponsored by Morgan Stanley:
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. . . Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Like Trump, Bucky is essentially a performer, devoted to working the emotions of his audience and unencumbered by the pieties of traditional media. His job is not to inform or enlighten, but to stimulate. Here he is on the set of his TV show, excoriating his staff for failing to pull together a segment on illegal immigration.
I roared for raw meat and an unpaid intern brought me raw meat. The studio was crawling with unpaids, young patriots rotated through to earn college credit toward degrees in Televised Communication and True History. They rushed in to re-humanize my skin, to steam iron my lapels, to sniff the musk of their own infant dreams. Tammy. Pammy. Sammy. I wanted to rape all of them.
My underlings scrummed up and I stared at all of them until things were awkward, then I explained how it would happen, enunciating so as to suggest antic grades of fury: B-roll of wetbacks, the headless corpse stuff out of Juarez, day labor sites in groomed suburban areas, a dash of mariachi music played at 78 rpm. Racial panic. How goddamn complex was that?
Back in 2011, when I was churning out this prose, I considered it all quite radical, a wild parodic extrapolation. And because (like Donald Trump) I had very little idea how traditional politics worked—fundraising, party hierarchies, and so on—I conceived of a campaign strategy entirely predicated on free media and massive rallies.
Bucky makes his formal announcement in Sioux City, Iowa. But he conceives of the event as an entrepreneurial entertainment, something more like a motivational speech, with a dash of rock and roll televangelism.
I would orate in auditoriums named after famous salesmen and racists and where licensed campaign merch would be made available to you, the neglected electorate, along with recordings of each speech, which would then, via some magic of accreditation executed by the eventual suicides of the legal department, serve as required texts at the on-line university known as the Dunn Institute for Human Redemption.
In early drafts of the novel, Bucky treats his run for the presidency as more of a marketing ploy, intended to juice his flagging brand. But as I revised the book, I allowed Bucky to take the quest more seriously. He begins to conceive of the presidency as the ultimate platform.
It was a role, a rendition of national belief performed in the epic mode then reduced to the size of the nearest screen. Reagan had intuited this, but his successors had refused to confront the new paradigm. They lurched about in a haze of dignified irrelevance. I saw it all play out each day: the robotic ceremonies, the scripted pressers, the cycle of hyperventilated scandal by which the press transmuted the dreary doings of democracy into morally fortified drama.
And this is why, in idle moments, I conjured a more candid approach: live video feeds from the Oval Office, the Situation Room, the Executive Dwelling. Backstage access to State Dinners, cabinet meetings, diplomatic romps. Hidden cameras nestled in congressional cloakrooms and saunas. Citizens had a right to such transparency. We’d spent 250 years staring through a keyhole at our government, captive to the ruses of mandarins who divvied up our treasure in dim back rooms. Remember: it’s not surveillance if the President serves as Executive Producer.
I cannot tell a lie, people. I had a program in mind even then, an entire slate of programming.
As the nation’s first bachelor-in-chief—a twice-divorced dad with a history of public weeping—I might select a soulmate from among a buffet of beauties on the weekly drama Find Me a First Lady. Making use of a surplus F-2 fighter leftover from the Cold War, I envisioned ambushing citizen critics for the raucous debate show In the President’s Grill. Viewers eager to whittle down our federal deficit would love Cut That Out! the only prime-time show devoted to line-item vetoes. Secrets of the Secret Service. Rose Garden After Hours. The Prez Just Ate What?
Put aside ad revenue, product placement, and digital partnerships. Put aside whatever you might think of my “politics.” Can any one of you do-gooders think of a better way to reignite our civic passion for governance? We needed a leading man who recognized entertainment not as a diversion but the central engine of the American experiment. I get misty thinking about it still.
On the stump, Bucky continually complains that America has gone soft, and harkens back to a golden era of unquestioned white privilege. He connects to his followers not by staking out policy positions, but by giving voice to their primal emotions: shame, resentment, despair.
All this came, rather transparently, from the Tea Party. For all its baying about lower taxes and small government, the movement’s driving force was nostalgia: the desire to restore power to a population in decline, to grant white people the righteous ire of an oppressed minority.
I could see that a determined operator would be able to capitalize on all this, especially if he knew how to convert the mainstream press into his most dependable foil. Note how Bucky deals with an investigative reporter sent to profile him:
“How do you respond to critics who call you a demagogue?” Ms. Foreman said. “That you pray on the fears and prejudices of your followers?”
“Plato made the same claim 2500 years ago,” I replied. “He preferred the aristocratic model of leadership, power passed along to power, secret handshakes, hidden kickbacks. Demagogue is what they call anyone who attempts to return power to the people. From the Greek, demos, meaning people, and agein, meaning to lead.”
“How exactly are you returning power to the people?” she said.
“I give them the power to feel, Ms. Foreman. What do you give them?”
“Right,” she said. “I’ve seen you do this, like, a million times. You put the question back on the questioner.”
For the first time, Ms. Foreman showed me her spectacular teeth. “You vilify immigrants, minorities, homosexuals, labor unions, activists, poor people, social workers, teachers…” She droned on like this for a while.
“I think I see where you’re going,” I said. “I preach doctrines I know to be untrue to men I know to be idiots. Is that your point? I believe the things I say, Ms. Foreman. And I don’t talk down to people. I don’t consider them idiots. They are simply more honest about their impulses than my friends on the left. They don’t lie to themselves. That, I would warrant, is the job of the elites Plato so adored.”
Does Bucky really believe any of this yak? That’s not the point. He’s engaged in a performance. What matters to him, and to his audience, is that he dominate any exchange. He’s hit upon guiding principle of the conservative media: people who feel powerless crave the malignant charms of the bully.
Thus, Bucky constantly trolls for conflict. Here he is doing battle with an aspiring leftist demagogue by the name of Nathaniel Hominy.
Hominy had a column in one of the leftist rags, a MacArthur Genius grant, the face of a depressed spaniel. “The one percent possess more capital than the poorest 90 percent,” he explained. “Mr. Dunn’s primary role is that of an economic minstrel. He pretends to represent the interests of the poor while safeguarding the obscene fortunes of his corporate masters.” Hominy touched at his thinning hair.
I stepped into his personal space and let my belly bend him backward for a moment. “The poor in this country worship the rich,” I said slowly. “They do so because wealth implies power and we all emerge from the humiliation of childhood ravenous for power. America is the greatest country on earth precisely because we are the most honest in our reverence of wealth. Those who resent this candor are free to go elsewhere. Go to Chengdu, Hominy. Go to Goma. You will be greeted as a hero in those precincts—because you are from America.”
Hominy exploded with laughter. He began sputtering about the top tax rate under Eisenhower, which he put at 91 percent, a vile figure.
“Your eventual point, Hominy, will be that the rich don’t create jobs. I have some news for you. They were not put on earth by God to create jobs. They were put on earth to create dreams.”
I enjoyed listening to Bucky go off like this, rubbing Hominy’s nose in the great con of modern conservatism. I saw my hero as burlesque in these moments, a kind of mustache-twirling villain.
I had no idea that in just a few years Donald Trump would descend a golden escalator to announce his candidacy. “What amazes a lot of people,” he crowed, “is that I’m sitting in an apartment the likes of which nobody’s ever seen and yet I represent the workers of the world.”
As for Bucky’s attitudes around gender, they are rather simple: women exist to service him. Before setting off on his campaign tour, he travels to Las Vegas, where he finds a gift from a donor awaiting him in his suite: “Two naked apparatchiks, direct imports from the Tartar region of Siberia, along with a tiny purple pill to be dispatched with Scotch.” Depravity ensues:
I leaped toward my sexual sherpas and embedded my tongue in warm natal cleft. Ah, the human flavor! The salted flank! The loamy glutes upon which I hung like a truant. We repaired to a bed of Chamberlainian proportions. These were seraphs carved from filthy snow, the one Biggie, the other Smalls, the both frantic with buttery acrobatics. Noises of their merger proceeded like a Chopin nocturne, with much in the way of chaotic erotic staccato.
The drug took effect. A vascular whoosh rocketed me sideways. The air smelled of hay, the rank metals of estrus. I mounted Biggie and sucked at Smalls in a very disorganized manner. The fragrant fuzz of her perineum tickled my nostrils. Then both the girls rolled away from me, leaving my purple Geraldo exposed. Biggie fetched a nylon kit bag, from which she removed religious garb. She lit a lump of Frankincense on the coffee table and handed me a false beard. Things became strange.
Biggie, feeling religious, bound my arms in leather twine and plunged an oiled cross into the inflamed knob of my prostate gland. A burst of guttural Tartarese, the sort expelled to avenge stubborn vampires, accompanied this ungentle action.
“Feel in your shit hole,” Smalls translated, helpfully. “Big faggot talker man.”
Waves of anguish sluiced through my nerve bundles. Was there a safe word, I wondered. Then Smalls reached out a dainty hand and boxed the cuff of my ear. Complex systems of pleasure and persecution began to take shape. I thought of Nixon, forced to quit the Oval Office by ravens in dirty neckties. I thought of John Rambo and of Natty Bumppo. I thought of Tiger Woods and then realized with a start that he had occupied this room. I could feel his financial remorse, settled on the furniture like a mist, a sad exploded aura.
The kicker, of course, is that all this bucking about has been filmed by his political enemies.
I’m not sure I can express the queasy sense of vindication I experienced when news emerged, shortly before Inauguration Day, of a dossier containing allegations that Trump had been filmed engaged in urinous sexual hijinx with a pair of Russian prostitutes in the presidential suite of a Ritz-Carlton.
As Bucky rises in the polls, he gets more serious about the task at hand, which means assembling a professional campaign team on the fly.
Glen Vandell (Political Psych Ops) was one of Mark Foley’s early sex slaves, a graduate of the Naval Academy who had made excellent use of his self-hatred. Harvey Blank, frail, hirsute, perspiring, captained the Polling Unit. Ellery Tish managed Monetizing. His protégé, Blaine Tork, handled Messaging, Press Relations, Cyber Dynamics, and Product Integration.
“Wowza,” I said, staring down the long wooden table. “It’s like presiding over a board meeting. I hereby order you to displace indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands! Can I do that? Seriously. How does this work? Is someone going to take minutes?”
My team was not amused. I’d poached them from respectable firms for precisely this reason.
The first order of business was political viability.
Blank wobbled to the front of the room. His PowerPoint was entitled “Winnable Vectors.” For years, he argued, the electoral math had been predicated on outdated binaries—rich/poor, urban/rural, white/brown—which foretold a GOP death spiral. This was a misread. Americans didn’t have political attitudes. They had emotional lives, particular affinities and aversions. These lay concealed beneath the thick fur of vanity, impervious to traditional polling, which recorded how voters wished to view themselves, not how they actually thought or acted. “Consider bigotry,” Blank said.
“I wish you would,” I said.
“Americans don’t give a gerbil’s sperm about diversity. It tests well in focus groups. That’s how you know it’s a false data point. Ditto justice. Ditto equality. Ditto governance.”
“You understand what you’re being told, Mr. Dunn?” This was Vandell. His hair was exceptionally blond, perhaps clear. His skin was the color of clotted cream. “You have no discernible qualifications for office, a severe case of ADHD, and moral liabilities that compare unfavorably to David Duke. In a mature democracy, you would be warehoused in a dungeon.” He paused to let all this upset me.
But I was enthralled. My temples pulsed with a warm savory broth. I was paying Vandell an absurd fee for this abuse; he was worth every doubloon.
“You have to win six blocs: the Fat Vote, the Bored Vote, the Angry Vote, the Divorced Vote, and the Lazy Vote. Those are your people, Dunn.”
“That’s only five.”
“Right. And they only get you to 39 percent.” Vandell’s contempt was a kind of radiant fog. “Nobody wants you to win, Mr. Dunn. It would be a disaster on almost every conceivable level. Can you sell that?”
“Can I sell what?”
“Wake up, Dunn. We’re talking your secret weapon. The Loser Vote.”
I wasn’t sure how to take this. But they’d done the algorithms, these guys. Vandell had helped elect a former Nazi to the Illinois State Senate, and a Louisiana parish had a convicted pederast as county judge thanks to Blank. “You want a puncher’s chance in this thing,” Vandell said, “stay focused on your base. These people don’t want to be governed. They want to be understood.”
Again, I don’t claim to be any kind of psychic. I was just crafting a broad satire based on what I’d seen happening over the past three decades: the steady degeneration of our discourse, the false prophecies of media and polling, a creeping nihilism openly engineered by and for the modern Republican Party. In a realpolitik impervious to logic and facts, why shouldn’t a guy like Bucky take his shot?
So what happened to Bucky Dunn?
That part of the story is a bit more complicated. Within the world of the novel, Bucky travels a pretty well-worn path. He meets shady SuperPac donors. He wins debates by making offensive statements. His candidacy gains momentum. But he is eventually brought low by his insatiable need for attention.
A rival demagogue, Charlie Barker, invites him to appear on her program, The Gauntlet. His political team urges him not take the risk. But Bucky ignores them and his most damning secrets are revealed in real time: that he lied about his biography, that he once experimented with homosexuality, that he pressured his ex-wife to get an abortion.
In the midst of his humiliation, Bucky realizes that he has been manipulated by economic and political forces much larger than himself, powerful conspirators who carefully promoted then torpedoed his campaign. He flies into a rage, assaults Barker on live TV, and winds up in prison. It’s a liberal wish fantasy.
I pitched the book to editors as a picaresque aimed at skewering “a world of instantaneous hype and commodification.” Their concerns centered on two issues: plausibility and likability. Nobody, I was told, would ever vote for a guy like Bucky. And nobody would root for a character like him. Bucky couldn’t just be an assembly of appetites and bilious insights. He needed to have a soul, or at least something like it.
And so I began to second guess my hero. Or rather, I began to encumber him. I handed him a young son to parent (while on tour) and an estranged daughter who was, in early drafts, kidnapped by Somali pirates, and later morphed into a recovering addict. Bucky became more “sympathetic” but in the process—and there’s a cruel lesson here, for those not afraid to see it—he became less authentic.
Alas, I began to fall out of love with Bucky. I’d conceived of him as an outgrowth of our civic dysfunction. But there was a part of me that adored his antics. He was a creature energized by his id: anarchic, shameless, joyful in his repudiation of liberal guilt. Another way of saying this would be that I’d created Bucky to give life to my own repressed fantasies. Then I’d strangled the life out of him, using my superego as the murder weapon.
Bucky was the part of me, of all us maybe, who awaited the arrival of Donald Trump, and who secretly reveled in watching him assault our common decency.
I don’t mean the folks who fed off his hate or fell for his sales pitch or even the ones who voted for him out of tribal allegiance. I mean the other 73 percent of the electorate, who didn’t care what happened or who simply couldn’t look away from the spectacle, who kept pumping oxygen into his crusade.
We convinced ourselves that a presidential candidate so openly cruel and fraudulent would inevitably crash, and that his crash would serve as a tough but necessary lesson in the resilience of American democracy. We didn’t realize that Trump was starring in a story of his own, an epic about the cleansing power of wounded masculinity and racial panic and unfiltered rage.
Bucky Dunn was trying to tell me where American politics was headed. I listened for a while. But I didn’t believe him. And then I looked away.