August 5, 2015


Recently, I had cause to reread Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 bestseller American Psycho. A lot has been said about this controversial comic novel’s violence, but I think it’s best classified with social satire like Vile Bodies or Speedboat (just with, you know, a homicidal narrator). And as it turns out, despite its twenty-four years, some of American Psycho’s social satire is very timely, particularly one running story line: Patrick Bateman is obsessed with Donald Trump. I had completely forgotten this, and upon revisiting the book, it dominated my reading experience. Here, as in real life, Trump has a way of hogging the spotlight.

Trump is first mentioned in a significant way during an extended argument (it plays out over about fifty pages) between Bateman and his colleague Craig McDermott over whether the pizza at Pastels is too crispy and “brittle.” At the office, McDermott shows Bateman an article “on your hero Donald Trump,” wherein Trump is quoted saying Pastels serves the best pizza in Manhattan. Bateman concedes that “if the pizza at Pastels is okay with Donny,” it’s okay with him.

donaldtrump61815The Donald comes up every few chapters and joins a long list of things held in high esteem by Bateman and his friends, things mentioned so often that the regularity of their recurrence becomes a running joke. Among them: fancy restaurants with stupid names, J&B whisky, Cristal champagne, cocaine, cigars, Nipponophobia, returning videotapes, “hardbodies,” Zagat guides, the Talking Heads, couture, sartorial advice, prescription-less Oliver Peoples glasses, and the fictional Patty Winters talk show, a non-sequitur joke that appears in almost every chapter, e.g. “The Patty Winters Show this morning was in two parts. The first was an exclusive interview with Donald Trump, the second was a report on women who’ve been tortured.”

Strange to think that perceptions of Trump were once positive, because he’s never projected anything but a tacky rich-guy persona. Still, the New York Times‘s first-ever profile of the man, from 1976, begins this way: “He is tall, lean and blond, with dazzling white teeth, and he looks ever so much like Robert Redford. He rides around town in a chauffeured silver Cadillac with his initials, DJT, on the plates. He dates slinky fashion models, belongs to the most elegant clubs and, at only 30 years of age, estimates that he is worth ‘more than $200 million.'” If there’s Timesian backhand in those sentences it’s pretty light. Such was the decade. My white-collar, progressive parents still speak fondly about how he reopened the Wollman ice rink in Central park. It wasn’t until 1988 that Spy magazine famously dubbed Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian,” and this is the public figure that Ellis tapped into for maximum satirical results.

Bateman has other instances of hero worship related to serial killers like Ted Bundy and Ed Gein, and Wall Streeters like Laurence Tisch (this is not a subtle book), but it’s clear that to Bateman, Trump represents a paragon of capitalism, glamour, and sanity. Accordingly, Trump seems to pop up at moments of extreme stress or dissatisfaction in Bateman’s life like a guardian angel, as if to reassure the psychotic narrator that there’s more to life than the emptiness he feels. Shortly before a baroque freak-out at a Meadowlands U2 concert, Bateman says the friend who brought him there assured him that “Donald Trump is a big U2 fan, and then, even more desperately, that John Gutfreund also buys their records.” (Bateman, who finds U2 too edgy, prefers Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis, and his chapter-long paeans to those artists are hyperbolic in the Trump extreme.) When a detective comes to his office to ask about the disappearance of someone Bateman murdered, Bateman recommends Trump’s how-to book The Art of the Deal, which is sitting on his desk. Bateman’s girlfriend Evelyn tries to get on his level before a discussion about marriage, despite their rampant infidelities, by saying she thinks she spots Ivana Trump behind him at a restaurant. She’s wrong, which infuriates him: “How could you mistake that wench for Ivana?”

Of course, another one of the book’s great running jokes is that nobody can tell anyone apart— everyone is constantly mistaking characters for other characters. This identify flux raises a question: If Bateman strives to be like Trump, can we find Bateman-like qualities in the real-life Trump? The recently resurfaced allegations that he assaulted Ivana after her plastic surgeon botched his bald-spot reduction (“Your fucking doctor has ruined me!” Trump allegedly told her) read like a scene from the novel. And there are times when Trump, that dumb orange shark, sounds like Bateman. I keep returning to his video for Trump Steaks, sold exclusively through The Sharper Image: “Believe me, I understand steaks, it’s my favorite food! And these are these best.”

But the biggest question, for me, is: What does it say about the country when we have a presidential candidate who is such a parody of ’80s excess that he literally served as the role model for a racist, homophobic, misogynistic character who is the ultimate parody of ’80s excess? For some, Trump must evoke, as he does for Bateman, a comforting sense of order. “I look up, admiringly, at Trump Tower, tall, proudly gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight,” Bateman says near the end, and then fantasizes about killing the black teenagers doing three-card monte beneath it. Trump, in all his grotesqueness, provides an antidote to the messiness of society, democracy, and debate. No one has to argue about the pizza at Pastels anymore. In a similar vein: “You’re fired.” “He’s not a war hero.” The man acts like he could turn the sky a different color by proclaiming it so. (Gold is what he’d go with, I’m thinking.)

And it’s not at all about belief. Politically, Patrick Bateman is all over the place. He hates the poor, women, minorities, gay people, all of whom he murders, along with one white guy. But when it suits him, he’ll lapse into stump speeches with semi-liberal bents like “We have to ensure that America is a respected world power. Now that’s not to belittle our domestic problems, which are equally important, if not more.” He tells his secretary who’s in love with him that “protecting the ozone layer is a really cool idea.” He also has a poster of Oliver North in his apartment. In all this, his support of Trump is unwavering: At one point, Evelyn reminds him that they have a Young Republican event at the ‘”the Pla…’ She stops herself as if remembering something, ‘at the Trump Plaza is next Thursday.'” (At the time, Trump owned the hotel and Bateman corrects anyone who forgets it.)

Both Bateman and Trump are all a façade, all surface. Trump is a security blanket, a crazed, decisive father figure who suggests order when Bateman’s own lack of belief becomes too overwhelming. Contradictory as this sounds, it’s a belief based in nihilism. This is why I think Trump can provoke such an extreme range of responses, from boos at sporting events to voter confidence. It’s hard to know whether Trump even believes half the stuff he says. His cynicism is so profound that it’s almost his salvation. Bateman’s the same way, he’s so over-the-top evil that it eventually becomes a joke.

Still, not even the twisted mind of Patrick Bateman could imagine that Trump would ever become a presidential candidate. This is not to say it’s impossible for the real-life Trump to make still more headway in the 2016 campaign. It certainly won’t be the first time that voters have misread a candidate. “I don’t believe it,” Bateman’s friend Tim Price says, watching George Bush take the oath of office on TV. “He looks so … normal. He seems so … out of it. So … undangerous.”


Dan Duray is a writer living in New York.