To really understand our president, you should delve into the biographies written about him that explore his insecurities, his inferiority complex, and his drive. You should thumb through the best magazine profiles that contemporaneously documented his rise, fall, and rise again. You should read the stories about his rallies, how he inspired and entertained (though maybe not in that order) his legions of fans. Consider the long arc of economic decline that has hit some of the communities that voted for him after backing Barack Obama. Watch his speeches.
Or you could take a shortcut and read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a 38-year-old sci-fi parody novel that predicts Trump with improbable accuracy. Trump is many things, but mostly (as has been pointed out before) he’s Zaphod Beeblebrox.
To explain for the uninitiated: The Guide started out as a BBC radio miniseries in the late 70s, was adapted by creator Douglas Adams into five novels (and a sixth written after his premature death in 2001 by Eoin Colfer), and also became a TV show and a 2005 Hollywood movie that, for the record, is… fine. In any incarnation, the Guide follows a befuddled and homeless earthling named Arthur Dent as he tries to navigate a universe filled with hyperintelligent but depressed androids, sentient mattresses, multiple dimensions, extremely bad customer service, and so on and so forth.
The series is beloved and, for all its absurdity, predicted several bits of modern technology with spooky prescience. The Guide the series is named after, for instance, sounds a lot like Wikipedia, and Adams actually started a Wikipedia precursor called h2g2 in 1999. It still exists and is more fun and rather more British than Wikipedia (check out this old entry about buying a rail ticket in India).
The Guide‘s main character is Arthur, but the real stars are the odd aliens he runs into while roaming unhappily around the universe(s) after the Earth is destroyed, including the two-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox. I’ll let Adams describe him: “adventurer, ex-hippie, good-timer, (crook? quite possibly), manic self-publicist, terribly bad at personal relationships, often thought to be completely out to lunch.” He is a jerk to Arthur, a terrible partner to his girlfriend Trillian, and relentlessly self-obsessed. He’s also president of the galaxy.
Adams doesn’t muck about with how Beeblebrox became president (and he only stays president long enough to steal a spaceship), but the impression is that everyone was shocked by the whole affair, not least Zaphod. “I freewheel a lot. I get an idea to do something, and, hey, why not, I do it. I reckon I’ll become President of the Galaxy, and it just happens, it’s easy,” he says at one point. “It’s like having a Galacticredit card which keeps on working though you never send off the checks.”
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Zaphod has very, very few of those self-aware moments. He’s a narcissist who, maddeningly, is actually quite a big deal. When captured by his enemies, he’s plugged into a torture device that reveals to its victims their actual place in the universe (the resulting sense of insignificance drives people insane). But in Zaphod’s case, it just shows him that he is actually the most important person in the universe—which of course he already knew.
If that sounds like Trump, how about this?
Of of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn’t be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn’t understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid. He was renowned for being amazingly clever and quite clearly was so — but not all the time, which obviously worried him, hence the act. He preferred people to be puzzled rather than contemptuous.
Matching the famous and powerful to fictional analogues is a fun parlor game, but these connections can color how we view someone like Trump. Imagining him as a dictator, a sadistic bully along the lines of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future Part II, leads us to think of him in terms of how his personality might make America a crueler, coarser place. If he’s an echo of Willie Stark from All the King’s Men (a character based on real-life Louisiana demagogue Huey Long), he’s an overt threat to the republic.
But if Trump is Zaphod, he’s something a bit less threatening: a grifter, skilled at manipulating people, improbably lucky, but in way over his head. If Trump is Zaphod, he’s mostly a distraction.
“The job of the Galactic President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it,” writes Adams. “The qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character.”
The media and public have some decent reasons for being fascinated by Trump. He does wield actual power, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. But for all the rallies and rants, he’s been startlingly absent on major issues. Healthcare policy is being driven by Republicans in Congress, generals have more discretion than ever when it comes to fighting wars, Jared Kushner is doing everything, and Trump’s specific pledges on things like infrastructure and tax reform have gone so far totally unfulfilled.
Trump’s most impactful moves so far have been to give power to the most extreme right-wingers in government. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviving the most absurd parts of the war on drugs; Kris Kobach, the man investigating “voter fraud,” is widely regarded as the nation’s foremost practitioner of voter suppression. The EPA has been captured by the industries it’s supposed to police; the State Department is in shambles.
Then there are the advisers seemingly cashing in on their proximity to Trump—billionaire Carl Icahn apparently pushed Trump to change a biofuel regulation in a way that would benefit a refinery he owned; Kushner’s family was caught two months ago selling investment opportunities in China by implying giving money to the Kushners would result in visas.
If Trump distracts from those things by tweeting or ridiculously delaying saying that he was committed to NATO’s mutual defense pact, it may not be a conscious thing. He sometimes doesn’t appear to have any more idea of what he’s doing than Zaphod Beeblebrox did. (And Beeblebrox got that way because he gave himself a lobotomy… long story.) But that doesn’t mean he’s not very, very good at his job—which is at this point less about running the country than keeping it very befuddled and entertained.
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