Researching My Trump Novel: The Ex-President
23 May 2018
My new mystery The Ex-President is about a rightwing, billionaire, reality-TV-star president who, at the beginning of the story, suddenly resigns. But the allure of power proves too strong, and so, to the world’s surprise, he gathers his supporters on a luxury cruise to launch a comeback. This time his ambitious are even greater—and, to his opponents, more terrifying—than winning the presidency.
The name of the ex-president in my novel is Carlton Chomp. Similarities to any existing president are obvious and intentional. I believe mine is the first novel in world history to imagine our president’s resignation—and what might come after.
The detective in my novel, a travel writer named Jacob Smalls, finagles a ticket on Chomp’s comeback cruise, ostensibly to write a review but really to investigate the ex-president’s secret purpose. Since most of the story follows Jacob’s undercover investigation amid the ex-president’s supporters, I decided, as I was planning the novel, that I should have something like the same experience.
This was in the fall of 2016. What I did was I sign up for a Trump rally.
At the time, lots of writers were doing similar research projects; for much of 2016, it seemed like every magazine, newspaper, and news site featured a weekly “Dispatch from a Trump Rally,” spiced up with shocking soundbites from disaffected Trump fans. But my plan was not to cover the rally as a journalist. Instead, I was simply going to attend it with all the other Trump supporters. I would be undercover, just like Jacob, my detective.
The rally was in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I arrived early (with my wife and another friend, also undercover) and stayed until the end. I talked to a number of Trumpian true believers but said nothing about my own politics and asked few political questions. I already knew what Trump fans believed in. What I didn’t know, and wanted to experience, was how the energy of a rally would affect both the crowd and me. I wanted to feel the explosive thrill of being in the presence of so many true believers—and also the anxiety of being a spy among them.
The first thing I saw as I approached the massive line to enter the arena was a father waiting with his two adorable young children. He proudly wore a t-shirt that read “Hillary is a C***.” (Spelled out on the shirt; rhymes with blunt.)
It was a sign of things to come. Soon afterward, I saw a woman in a Hillary costume with a fake iron collar around her neck and a “Lock Her Up” sign across her chest. Later, I watched people buy mass-produced, off-color signs featuring pictures of Monica Lewinsky. Somewhat less disturbingly, I listened to man psychoanalyze the Clinton family:”You know,” he confided, “Chelsea has anxiety.” Contrary to my expectations, I never heard a single racist remark from anyone in the virtually all-white crowd. But the hatred and disdain toward Hillary Clinton (and toward immigrants, Muslims, and liberals in general) was ever-present.
However, I also saw half a dozen people jump to help an elderly woman whose a wheelchair got stuck in a treacherous patch of gravel. And I watched countless people cheerfully share stories, drinks, and snacks with strangers. Everyone around me seemed hopeful, sometimes to the point of ecstasy, about the prospect of a new kind of political leader. Trump’s bad poll numbers were easily dismissed. “You can’t trust statistics!” someone declared. I found myself sympathizing with, and even admiring, the general spirit of hope and goodwill. Everyone here was delighted to be on the same team—everyone except me and my companions, and we kept that to ourselves.
At one point I asked where all the reporters were. One of my line-neighbors replied, scornfully, “They just get their stuff early and go.”
We finally made it into the arena. When, hours later, Trump himself hit the podium, his affect on the crowd was instant and overpowering. His speaking style, while at times awkward—at one point he read favorable new poll numbers out loud off his cell phone—was perfectly in tune with his audience. They had come to howl at America, and he knew how to maximize their outrage. When he denounced the media, everyone turned to the reporters in the back of the arena and gave them the finger. When he jeered at Hillary Clinton, the whole building shook to the chant of “Lock her up.” What, I wondered, gave him that power over people’s emotions, the power that so completely eluded Hillary Clinton and all his other opponents?
“Is there anything more fun than a Trump rally?” he asked. In response, the crowd went nuts.
When it was over, I tried to imagine the same scene taking place on the top deck of my imaginary cruise ship, but this time the supporters would be even more resentful, furious, and determined; the energy level higher; and the danger to the undercover spy real.
In my novel, just before Ex-President Chomp makes his climactic announcement, a murder takes place on the ship. The victim is a supporter of the ex-president; the suspects include the ship’s crew, leftwing protesters who sneaked aboard, the ex-president’s staff, and the ex-president himself. In the background looms the mystery of the ex-president’s new ambitions, as well as that of his powerful personality. What makes him at once so detested and so beloved?
It’s a mystery that applies just as well to the real world. And one my novel tries to answer.
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