April 9, 2021

Perhaps Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous apopthegm is his brisk declaration that “there is no second act in American lives”. It’s a brilliant line, but if we take it at face value (and assume he’s talking about a two-act rather than a three- or five-act play) it’s not only off-beam; it ignores that the second acts of American lives are in most cases more fascinating than the first ones.  

Think, for instance, of Nixon in his later years — hunched and diminished, shooting his resentful barbs at David Frost. Or of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, magnificent in her ruin and delusion: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Think of Cheeseburger Elvis — sweating in the semi-darkness of Graceland amid the fumes of cooking grease and fried bananas. Of Salinger in his haunted retirement. Of Howard Hughes, that once beautiful man, shuffling around a hotel room with tissue boxes on his feet. Or deutero-Brando drinking pint after pint of ice-cream.

And now think of that cruelly compelling new example: Donald Trump, festering and raging in what he once rejoiced to call the Winter White House, issuing sporadic, mad-sounding all-caps communiques and having them only seldom and patronisingly attended to. For those of us who think Oedipus at Colonus the best of the trilogy, secretly prefer Tennyson’s Ulysses (“by this still hearth, among these barren crags”) to Homer’s perky cyclops-botherer, and Milton’s Samson (“eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves”) to the one in his prime, the out-of-office Trump is the version to take real delight in. That delight, I should admit, is on the face of it an unkind one; but it’s an aesthetic preference, and aesthetics have only a glancing relationship to morality and none to kindness.

The narcissist in power is a compelling spectacle — but there’s no real light and shade to it. It’s one-note: a scream for attention, unfailingly answered in the affirmative. The narcissist from whom power has ebbed is an altogether richer and more complicated psychological study. The metaphor that comes to mind, for me, is that of the now Lord Lawson’s diet. In his pomp as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1980s, Nigel Lawson was a Falstaffian figure. But after leaving power he lost five stone in just a few months by eating a diet consisting almost entirely of cabbage soup. It was a wholly admirable achievement but it had a curious side-effect. All of him shrunk except his skin, which remained the same size. It draped around him, pachydermously, like a collapsed tent.

This is a physical image of Trump’s ego: it was inflated and distended by his tenure as one of the most important men in the world, but it was punctured by the 2020 election. His importance wheezed out of him and continues to do so, and the great vast balloon of his ego now hangs deflated in folds and swags. What is he to do with all that baggy drapery?

There’s a website, of course, setting out an abbreviated and distinctly partial history of his achievements in office; as well as offering the opportunity to request a personal greeting or a drop-in at your event. (Shades, here, of Nigel Farage offering to record you a video message saying happy birthday for sixty quid.)  

And there are those communiques. Banned from the various social media platforms that gave him the attention he craved, he has taken to press-releasing his thoughts. They will, I hope, be archived in his Presidential Library. Did you catch the one he put out — because that’s what world statesmen are expected to do, and he still imagines himself one — wishing the world a Happy Easter? “Happy Easter to ALL,” read the statement issued to the press on his behalf, “including the Radical Left CRAZIES who rigged our Presidential Election, and want to destroy our Country!” A later, revised version read just: “Happy Easter!”  

The thing that I suspect will have pierced him is that the initial, rancorous version was greeted not with outrage and front-page coverage so much as the odd wry little smirk. “Jesus couldn’t have said it any better,” was the response of a writer for the New York Times. The libs are no longer triggered, still less owned. Trump is in the process of sliding gently from the news pages back to the diary columns or the “And finally…” section. 

And then there was his wonderfully bathetic intervention at the ceremony of a couple getting married at Mar-a-Lago. The ex-President somehow got hold of the mic and delivered a rambling address to the wedding party, like someone’s drunk uncle interrupting the toast at the wrong wedding in a Richard Curtis movie. Did he say a gracious few words to toast the young couple’s future happiness? Of course he didn’t. He spent several minutes, instead, blethering about how much of a mess Joe Biden was making of policy towards China and Iran, harping on immigration at the US border, complaining (again) that the election was stolen and asking: “Do you miss me yet?” Only finally, did he remember the event at hand, signing off cursorily: “I just wanted to say, it’s an honor to be here, it’s an honor to have you at Mar-a-Lago, you are a great and beautiful couple … have fun.” 

The most poignant expression of his state of mind, I think, is his reported intention to start his own social media platform. Here is the grandest of all his remaining delusions. He believed — and with some justice, at the time — that Twitter essentially revolved around him. Indeed, to be fair, it did. It’s a sign of his disconnection from reality that he can’t recognise that that was by virtue of his office (and his uniquely bonkers way of communicating as the holder of that office), not of his person. Yet — in the enduring absence of approval from his stony-hearted neo-Nazi of a father — he desperately needs to believe that an entire information ecosystem would grow up around Donald Trump just because he’s such a magnetic private citizen. He is likely to be disappointed.  

I’ve mentioned a handful of literary antecedents, but the one that really seems to fit is Pirandello’s Henry IV — whose protagonist has had a bump on the head and believes himself to be the Holy Roman Emperor. Everyone around him connives in the delusion — dressing his country villa as the Imperial Palace and pretending to be courtiers — for two decades. A Truman-Show coup while Trump was actually in office — bundling the poor maniac off into a replica of the Oval Office, letting him issue imaginary executive orders and feeding him imaginary news — seems to me to have been an opportunity missed. 

Of course in this case, the protagonist really was, so to speak, the Holy Roman Emperor for a bit. But not any more. He can only say, with Shakespeare’s Andrew Aguecheek: “I was adored once too.”