Photograph by Sarah Lee for the Guardian
ON DONALD TRUMPFriday 12 August 2016 15.00 BST
When I think Trump, I instinctively summon Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry of 1926 – adapted in a brilliant film starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons in 1960, and after this US election I wouldn’t be surprised if a modern director was inclined to a remake. The eponymous antihero is a hypocrite and a conman. He has a patchy sexual past and a history of heavy drinking, yet sells himself as a convert to evangelical religion, teaming up with Sister Sharon Falconer, who leads impassioned revivals throughout the midwest. Manipulative and cunning, Gantry is driven to accrue wealth through religious hucksterism, but also power; he feeds off the roar of the crowd. He’s a narcissist and a fraud who has left multiple ruined lives in his wake.
The main difference between Gantry and Trump is that Gantry is portrayed as genuinely charismatic. Lewis’s preacher gets his leg over figuratively and literally because, as a performer, he’s mesmerising. Trump is not charismatic. He is artless and politically clumsy, and wears his egotism on his sleeve. Nor is Trump mesmerising, except in the sense that a train wreck is mesmerising. Gantry’s success in pulling the wool over people’s eyes is understandable: he has a silver tongue, and on stage he’s larger than life. Trump can’t string a single grammatical sentence together, and at the podium he is lumpen and awkward. As a fictional character, Gantry works, and Trump doesn’t. As Mark Schorer, an American academic, observed: “The forces of social good and enlightenment as presented in Elmer Gantry are not strong enough to offer any real resistance to the forces of social evil and banality.” Some things never change.
• Lionel Shriver’s latest book is The Mandibles (Borough).