President Donald Trump, Unreliable Narrator

Jun 19, 2017
Originally published on July 12, 2017 6:48 am

President Trump did it again on Twitter late last week.

"I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt," he tweeted Friday morning.

Once again, a Trump tweet set off a media frenzy, this time making everyone wonder whether he was indeed confirming that he was under investigation for obstruction of justice. (The White House later said the tweet was not confirmation that Trump has been informed that he is under investigation.)

This isn't the first time that Trump has made trouble for himself in his tweets (see: the tweet that a judge recently cited in once again blocking Trump's travel ban). But his tweets are more than a potential legal liability, and they're even more than fodder for the occasional breaking news alert — his Twitter feed is groundbreaking in that he seems to be letting us inside his head. And in doing so, he is the first president to narrate his presidency in real time.

But he is not just any kind of storyteller. He peppers those tweets with things that most politicians strain to hide: factual inaccuracies, evidence of character flaws, unsupported allegations.

Social media have given America President Donald Trump, unreliable narrator.

A point of view that clouds the story

Trump's Twitter account — with its commentary on current events by one of the main players in those events — could someday be an obsession of postmodern literature professors. And just as it's impossible to put down Catcher in the Rye or Lolita or Gone Girl, Trump's Twitter feed has captivated Americans' attention. Every ambiguous post sparks a debate about not only what he means but also what prompted it: What is motivating him today? Why say this, and why now?

In literature, an "unreliable narrator" is someone who tells the story while layering a clearly distorting lens over that reality — there is a clear point of view (The Catcher in the Rye's angst-ridden teenager, Pale Fire's unhinged professor), and it shapes how the story is told. It doesn't necessarily imply malice (consider Huckleberry Finn or Tristram Shandy), but simply a point of view that clouds the story.

In The Art Of The Deal, Trump praised "truthful hyperbole" — a kind of purposeful truth-stretching to get people "excited." In other words, he has shown a willingness to distort the facts. With his regular usage of factual inaccuracies and disputes with the "fake media," Twitter Trump has given us a framework to figure out what exactly his lens on the world looks like.

Trump isn't entirely unique in this regard: Everyone is an unreliable narrator in some way. And Americans often regard politicians in general as unreliable narrators. When politicians explain their views of the world, we can easily guess at their basic motivations: advancing policies, winning for their party, protecting their legacies.

And that means we can easily determine for ourselves how big the gap is between what any given politician says and what we perceive to be factually true.

But with every Trump tweet, Americans have the unique opportunity to measure and remeasure that gap.

Trump demands our attention — over and over again

We occasionally get glimpses of presidents' inner lives (like Obama tearfully admitting his fury over the Sandy Hook shooting). And after presidencies, we get memoirs (George W. Bush writing about his decider-ness in Decision Points).

However, no president has narrated his presidency so heavily in real time. And Trump adds to that an aggressively unfiltered voice — his tweets present a man willing to be impulsive, say things that aren't true and take aim not only at members of his own party but also at his own administration. His Twitter feed seems to let us know when he wakes up, when he goes to bed, what he is obsessing over at the moment and even which cable news outlets he is watching.

It's the kind of hints that J.D. Salinger has Holden Caulfield drop for us in The Catcher in the Rye. Yes, Holden tells us what he is doing, but Salinger wants us to also pay attention to the lens through which Holden views the world. Holden himself is the story.

That second part — drawing our attention not only to the story but also to the point of view it's coming from — is what makes this kind of story compelling. A third-person Catcher in the Rye would be hopelessly dull.

Similarly, up until now, the presidency has largely been narrated in the third person, by the media, by political scientists, by pundits (some of them unreliable themselves).

We've been able to glean all of those usual political motivations from past presidents, but it has been dull in comparison to what we could only imagine was going on in their heads. What was going on in Clinton's brain when he hit on a young intern? What did George W. Bush think on Sept. 11, 2001? We had no way of knowing in the moment.

Is Donald Trump actually Nabokov?

If Trump is indeed the unreliable narrator, his Twitter feed perhaps best resembles Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, considered one of the greatest works of 20th century fiction.

A quick summary: In Pale Fire, a fictional poet and professor named John Shade writes a 999-line poem, which is presented near the start of the book. The poem is, by turns, poignant, mundane, funny and wrenching, telling about Shade's youth, his marriage, his daughter's suicide and his struggle to come to terms with death.

After Shade's death, a fellow professor, Charles Kinbote, writes a 200-page analysis of the poem. That analysis is a total misreading — Kinbote believes the poem to be about himself, and he also claims to be the exiled king of a foreign country named Zembla. And yet, even while it's a rambling, deranged delusion of grandeur, it's also utterly captivating.

Kinbote's analysis seems to have entirely lost touch with reality in a way that Trump's tweets have not. But just as the reader can look at the "reality" of the poem and then at Kinbote's commentary to decide how big the gap between reality and his commentary is, we can see what is going on in the real world, then look at Trump's tweets and decide for ourselves how big that gap is.

And on top of all that, there is yet another layer.

After all, Trump's tweets have led to endless conjecturing about why he tweets. Does he simply lack a filter? Is it red meat for his base? Is he carefully planting distractions when the news isn't going his way? Does he secretly want his executive order to fail? Is covfefe a coded message????

Literary critic Wayne Booth, who is credited with coining the term "unreliable narrator," expounded on what makes this kind of narrator work.

"All of the great uses of unreliable narration depend for their success on far more subtle effects than merely flattering the reader or making him work," he wrote in his The Rhetoric of Fiction. "Whenever an author conveys to his reader an unspoken point, he creates a sense of collusion against all those, whether in the story or out of it, who do not get that point."

So the question is who is colluding with us as readers. Essentially, one of the great debates over Trump's tweets boils down to this: Is Trump Kinbote, or is he Nabokov?

At one extreme, some Trump opponents consider him to be Kinbote — delusional or, at the very least, showing his weaknesses while being oblivious to the fact that he is doing it. There is a sort of collusion for these readers in the sense that Trump is unconsciously colluding with them by — in their minds — letting them know how far his perceptions are from reality.

At the other extreme, some supporters consider Trump to be Nabokov. They think he is playing "four-dimensional chess." Just as readers "collude" with Nabokov, seeing Kinbote's flaws as Nabokov lays them out, some Trump supporters feel they are colluding with the real-life Trump, the one who carefully draws our attention away from scandals and uses secret codes.

This point of view squares with his affinity for "truthful hyperbole." (But then again, potentially damaging tweets like his Friday message about being investigated for firing FBI Director James Comey undermine this point of view.)

In each case, each group feels like it's privy to a secret the other group just doesn't get.

The upshot seems to be that Trump has discovered a way to push the president of the United States even further into the spotlight. As Catcher in the Rye makes Holden's internal monologue a part of the story, Trump has found a way to make the president not just a person who does things; he is a person whose very thoughts seem to be on display. (And, as has been reported, Trump loves being the center of attention.)

But it's also possible that he loses something in the process — namely, a portion of his potential symbolic status. The president is always a symbol. Yes, he gives off flashes of humanity from time to time, but he exists at a remove from Americans. And despite the constant clamoring for "authenticity," this kind of remove is, arguably, how many Americans want it.

"People want the president to be a symbol, like they want the monarch to be a symbol, but there's always this curiosity about the gossip about the royal family," Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, told NPR last month. "But we don't know, and we get to muse about it. There's a comfort level about not knowing."

That arm's-length president, shown in TV news shots shaking hands and striding purposefully from meeting to meeting, is the norm. But then, Trump isn't one for norms. Our brains try to push him to that arm's-length symbolic status we're used to, but he resists, yanking us back in. Every tweet eliminates the distance, putting us right inside his head with him (or, some might argue, that is what he wants us to believe).

This kind of whiplash happens in books like Pale Fire as well. The story is humming along, but then it jolts to a stop. Wait. Am I being played?

That whiplash may be one reason why Americans seem to be souring on his Twitter feed. Fully 69 percent of voters, including 53 percent of Republicans, believe the president tweets too much, according to a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll.

The difference between Trump and Kinbote, of course, is that Trump is real, and his policies have real effects on people. So do his tweets, says one literature professor, creating a sort of Rube Goldberg machine of tweets.

"Especially in real time, the narrator has to keep going on the same storyline," said Nathalie Cooke, professor of literature at Montreal's McGill University. "So as Trump fuels the storyline with the populist Trump, the polarization in his readers actually fuels the continuation of the story."

And as the story continues, Trump has more to tweet about, creating more news — and more fodder for that polarization among readers about whether he's Kinbote or Nabokov. That kind of polarization arguably fuels even more tweets — tweets in which he further intensifies his us-vs.-them point of view.

But Trump's tweeting is also a risky pastime. His tweets have weakened the case for his "travel ban," for example. And his Friday tweet further intensified the nation's focus on the Trump-Russia investigations storyline.

And this is the nature of the dilemma that Trump's addictive Twitter account presents. Unreliable narrators are fascinating, but it's often because they say too much.

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