In an interview in 2005, Ellis told me that Trump and those other tapped-out 1980s brand names belonged to his personal experience of yuppie despair at the time. Fifteen years on, he spoke of American Psycho, and all the brand names in it, as a museum piece. But Ellis also said that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line, “There are no second acts in American lives”, was demonstrably false. Ellis himself had been cancelled and attacked for American Psycho, a confronting book that it is impossible to imagine being published now, for its depictions of violence against women in particular. It was dropped by its initial publisher back then, too. Cancel culture was not born yesterday.
Trump’s resurrection from the 1980s dungheap inside Patrick Bateman’s sick mind still defies rational explanation. No logic can explain how this symbol of Reagan-era consumerism would become president in 2016, charging into the Oval Office as the champion of the white working-class underdog, and then, four years later, winning more votes than any previous sitting president.
(I was trying to think of a hypothetical Australian equivalent of an ’80s relic. Alan Bond, if he were alive? John Elliott? Fortunately the parliamentary party system that virtually guarantees the mediocrity of our leaders also limits the possibility for charismatic cultural symbols to gain political power.)
Cause-and-effect has not provided any satisfying answers to how Trump’s American life has had second, third and fourth acts. And yet we never learn. The erasure of Trump we are seeing now repeats the false promise of logic. Twitter and Facebook ban Trump permanently, as if this will lead to an end of his influence. Congress takes symbolic steps to remove him from office before Tuesday, to punish him for inciting last week’s violence. The justice system accrues evidence of his criminality and undertakes to hold him to account. These steps are destined to feed the Trump cult, because they mistake the actions of a person for the dark spaces of the American subconscious, conveyed through the power of brands, which Bret Easton Ellis dramatised.
The Trump name, a byword for outdated vulgarity in 1991, is now the brand name of American rebellion. The Facebook and Twitter bans, the impeachments and the prosecutions will reinforce that brand. The more Trump is condemned, the more the brand of anti-logic, anti-reason, anti-everything gains force. As has often been observed of Trumpism, and as Ellis perceived in 1991, violence is not a positive statement of rationality, but a negative expression of fear. Trump’s supporters are not voting for a man, but against cultural change.
With Democrats in the White House, the forces of reaction have a more concrete focus. Joe Biden’s electoral popularity resided in his being not Trump, and now that he is no longer running against Trump and faces the difficulty of making actual decisions, his appeal will naturally decline. He will also become a face for the reactionaries to rally against. The White House and a Democrat-controlled Capitol are now fully aligned with what reactionaries despise: elites in elite places.
A Trump in the White House (and on Twitter) was more problematic for these forces than a Trump outside, on the loose. He used the office of the presidency as a platform for insurgency, bombast and empty protest, rather than exercising its power. He might have been unhinged, but not enough to press the nuclear button, bother too much with policy, or even build his promised wall with Mexico. Indeed, his presidency might be seen as a four-year interruption to his lifelong project of complaint and rage. Inciting his followers to storm the Capitol was the most honest act of Trump’s four years, the act of a natural opposition leader, and a resumption of normality for those who prefer to be outside the tent pissing in.
The Trump cult is multi-generational and its story is yet to play out. Many of those energised faces in MAGA caps, USA hoodies and Viking costumes at the Capitol were young. They were not all white men with beards. Seventy-seven million Americans of all ages stand behind them.
When events are inexplicable, artists can provide a path to understanding. How did this symbol of the embarrassments of the Reagan era become president 25 years after American Psycho? How did he then win 74 million votes after four ignominious years in office? How will his name continue to move masses after he has been voted out, impeached, banned, prosecuted, and killed off yet again?
There is something in Ellis’s dark, imperfect 30-year-old novel that gives us a glimpse. American Psycho, like Trump, was discredited. Yet it came back for a movie adaptation in 2000 and a musical in 2013. For all its repulsive qualities, it still speaks. American lives have many acts. Something in that poisonous fantasy continues to connect with America’s darkest impulses and provide an insight into the assault on cause-and-effect, into a movement that feeds off unreason and cannot be subdued by reasonable responses.
Malcolm Knox is a journalist, author and columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.