Villains, Democracy and Reality


I suppose you could create a fictional character who was xenophobic, misogynistic, grotesque and despicable. And for good measure, you could give him a ridiculous hairpiece and have him run for President.

But what would be the point of that? Would anyone want to read it? It’s generally supposed that for a book to work, its main character needs to be likeable. Which is why we get works of fiction that focus on politics, but not a lot that focus on politicians.

There are exceptions. Notably House of Cards, the modern day spin off from Richard III. In both cases we know from the outset – because the main character tells us – that we’re dealing with villains. The reason these dramas work is because we’re fascinated – yet horrified – by the dastardliness and cunning of Frank and Richard. And also, of course, because we’re eager to see their comeuppance.

That would be one way of doing it. Let the protagonist succeed up to a point, but make sure he gets his just deserts in the end. The problem being that if we respect reality, our loathsome character, even if he never gets to be President, is likely to go unpunished.

Is that such a problem, though? One reason for the success of Game of Thrones is precisely that, dragons and White Walkers notwithstanding, it does conform to reality in one important respect: sometimes the bad guys win.

But Game of Thrones is set in a distant, mythical past – when villains are that far removed, we can put up with them getting their way now and then. Today though? We’re fed up enough as it is with the blackguards and crooks who rule us going unscathed – we don’t want it in fiction too.

So how else can we deal with it? Laughing at them is a possibility. We love to see our politicians skewered on Spitting Image or The Thick Of It. And we rejoice in freedom of speech, because in Russia or China they can’t even do that. Orwell got it wrong, we say – democracy won in the end.

But Orwell didn’t get it wrong, because he wasn’t predicting anything, he was warning. Be careful or it might happen – don’t let it! Where he was wide of the mark was in supposing that for it to happen, you’d need the whole arsenal of Thought Police, censorship, brutality and repression. You don’t. All you need is people sleepwalking into a nightmare.

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t poke fun at our politicians. There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam that way. But lately, to be honest, things have been getting scary, and not just in the U.S. When you get a bunch of self-serving oafs changing the course of a country’s future by telling whatever lies they think will work, it really isn’t funny any more.

But then, it’s often said that we get the politicians we deserve. So do the right thing, America. Don’t let the rest of the world say you deserved it.

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  1. Bravo! Superb, Curtis. To pick out but one part I adore, it’s this: “But Orwell didn’t get it wrong, because he wasn’t predicting anything, he was warning. Be careful or it might happen – don’t let it! Where he was wide of the mark was in supposing that for it to happen, you’d need the whole arsenal of Thought Police, censorship, brutality and repression. You don’t. All you need is people sleepwalking into a nightmare.” BOLD EMPHASIS IS MINE.
    Might I have the opportunity to share that line (bolding) on social media with a link back here? I’m at work on a Trump (and Clinton) literary interview and might also incorporate a link to it there, if okay with you.
    As to the matter at hand, I don’t think Drumpf will prevail. But, trust me on this, many of us are doing our part to ensure that never, ever happens. There’s an old Southern saying (or maybe it was just my grandfather): “I wouldn’t hire/elect him (or her) to be dogcatcher.” I’d go farther than that and say I wouldn’t even suspect him of being human. In any case, thank you for sharing your perspective; I hope, if there is anyone on the fence at this point, that this pushes them over to the side of reason and away from blatant racism, misogyny, and xenophobia (among many other legitimate grievances).

    • Thank you, Leigh, and yes of course, it’s there for you to use however you want. If it does serve some purpose, so much the better, though I suspect we often preach to our respective choirs. Like you, I don’t think he’ll win, especially given the (to us somewhat quirky) voting system you have, with (if I understand it correctly) a few swing states having crucial importance. But this post was inspired by a BBC report I watched, and given the Brexit result, I’m jittery. My daughter was on the phone in tears after Brexit. I don’t want us crying again.

      • Thanks, Curtis. I’m hoping for the best, too, but I’m also a little nervous, either way (as you’ve probably heard the “get your muskets ready” rhetoric if Trump loses the “rigged” election). To be honest, I don’t completely understand the Electoral College process, back-to-front and vice versa, myself. No more crying doesn’t seem like much to ask for; I’ll do my part to ensure no more tears for a lot of people around the world (Putin excepted).

  2. It’s been so ugly and divisive lately, I’ve had to stay away from social media or just hit Hide Post again and again. If only this was a bad story I was reading, I could close the book and throw it across the room. But no … it must be lived. And yeah, to a certain degree it is scary. Let’s hope for the best.

    • Thanks for the comment, Sylvia. You’re right, it’s reality, and it’s scary. If it was simply confined to the U.S., I could shrug it off perhaps. But unfortunately it isn’t – and I didn’t even mention France, where I live. I’m not so much worried about this or that forthcoming election but the underlying trend for the future. Deeply disturbing.

    • Scary indeed, Elle. To me right now (as an outsider) the right thing is to stop him. But I quite understand that the alternative is ‘business as usual’, which is in part the very reason he’s come as far this. So although to me the choice you have is clear, it’s not an enviable one. And I fear that in a few months, we’ll be in a similar situation in France.

  3. Thanks for this, Curtis. My biggest fear is that reasonable people who have become thoroughly disgusted by this campaign season will stay home in droves on Tuesday.

    (An aside, I forced myself to watch House of Cards based on friends’ recommendations. I gave it a fair and honest 1 star on Netflix. I’m not a fan of “entertainment” populated by only despicable people and joyless plot lines. I admire Joss Whedon’s advice: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”)

    • The abstention issue is partly what prompted the post, along with my nervousness after Brexit. The long term trend is towards greater mistrust of politicians, which seems to me entirely justified. Unfortunately, we have no viable alternative – although Belgium went for over a year without a government at all and they’re still alive.
      As for House of Cards, yeah, they span it out too long. But in five acts of Richard III, it works a treat (even without any jokes).

      • We hold on to the myth that America’s Founding Fathers were respected by the populace, but there is evidence people distrusted politicians even then. As Douglas Adams said through the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “It is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

        I believe this is true of anyone seeking an elected office at any level of government from School Board and City Council, up.

  4. There’s nothing funny about what’s happening over here, so I don’t think we’re going to taking playful jabs at President Trump. It’s scarily serious. And believe me, there’s no reasoning with the people who are voting for him. They have drunk the Kool-Aid, to use an old American expression.

    A week from today I hope we can all look back and say, “Whew! Dodged a bullet!”

  5. In the election for POTUS in 2016, Americans who abstain or vote for 3rd party candidates are in effect voting for Trump. Yes, they are much like sleepwalkers, aside from being strangely proud to be neither pseudoconservatives who support Trump openly nor pragmatic progressives who hold their noses and support Clinton. In my own small (and idiosyncratic) way, I have been trying to wake up a few of these sleepwalkers with some of my posts. It is like rowing upstream near the edge of a waterfall. The current is strong and the oars are small.

  6. As a country we have already gotten what we deserve as evidenced by how we limited ourselves to the two current choices. We have revealed who we are and it isn’t pretty.

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