There is nothing more elemental to the human experience than the crafting of narrative. It’s in our bones, it’s how we find meaning. The good guys are called out of their ordinary world to act, to struggle against evil forces, destined to almost fail, but ultimately, to triumph. Faith in this structure is not only prevalent in fiction. Whether you are a storyteller by trade or not, we all intrinsically apply this arc to our lives and to the lives of those we empathize with and are rooting for. It’s a well tested survival mechanism, meant to promote forward motion and an appetite for innovation and change. It’s the driving force of our cultural evolution. Even when this traditional narrative is objectively absent, or the story at hand is infinitely more complex than good against bad, it is in our nature to find some version of this arc and recognize it as something familiar. This happens every day, in our media and pop culture, as well as in the deepest reaches of our subconscious. It is our foundation.
This is why it can be so gut wrenching when the narrative goes awry. When the good guy loses, or the story takes a turn that feels “wrong” or antithetical to the theme or the intent, it feels like the rug has been pulled out from under us. Nothing makes sense, and the meaning falls away. The world becomes a dark and chaotic place, and the “truth” that you felt was being presented at the outset no longer feels viable.
In the weeks since the election, I have realized that one of the most profoundly upsetting things (among many) about the result was that it felt so deeply incorrect to me from a storytelling perspective. As a writer and director who lives his life deep in the “liberal bubble,” I think it really felt like the bad guy won. He was so clearly the wrong choice, so clearly the antagonist, based on a never-ending list of subtle and overt signifiers. To me, he could not have been scripted to be more clearly the villain. When he won, it just felt like my all my assumptions about our fellow citizens were being challenged. If millions of people voted for the bad guy, are they bad too? Is this the beginning of a larger story about bigotry, ego, and authoritarianism? Is this a story about the rise of a tyrant? Or about the end of the American experiment? What story is this?
This reaction is certainly a partial result of the blurred line that exists today between entertainment and news, and I definitely think that the media is at fault in many ways for presenting this election as a battle between personalities and brands more than a conversation about numbers, facts, and policies. But, ultimately, I think our own storytelling instincts are at fault as well. There had been many comparisons online between Trump and various pop culture bad guys, including Dr. Evil, Montgomery Burns, and especially Biff Tannen from Back to the Future 2. I happened to see Matilda the Musical on Broadway a few days after the election, and Matilda’s ignorant and smarmy salesman father was getting some pained laughs from the audience that were clearly a result of his unintended similarities to our new President Elect. The comparisons are all getting at the same archetype: Trump as a brash, ego-driven, thin skinned bully who wants nothing but power and recognition above all else. And since I believed in this narrative, everything that happened within the campaign reinforced it. The Khan family debacle, the Judge Curiel controversy, the Access Hollywood tape, and all of his flippant racism and sexism played into this crystal clear narrative in my mind. And so, on election night, I felt like many liberals did. It’s going to be closer than we think, but good will inevitably win in the end.
But what did “good” look like in this particular story? While I personally think Hillary Clinton would have made an excellent president and was more qualified than anyone who has run for president in years, I don’t think controlling the narrative has ever been her strong suit. Since the 90s, the anti-Clinton machine has been berating her with accusations and falsehoods, sullying her “brand” left and right, and as we saw on November 8th, she’s never really bounced back from that. We did our best to present her as a lifelong crusader for justice, as the hero of our story, but even some Bernie-leaning Democrats were never quite capable of getting past the thirty years of brand baggage that had miscast her as Dolores Umbridge, as Frank Underwood, as the Wicked Witch. While I saw her as measured, prepared and experienced, many saw her as duplicitous, manipulative, and self-serving. To them, she was clearly the villain in the story. Why the stark difference of perspective? There’s many possibilities, but in my opinion, it was a result of rampant sexism, party tribalism, and criminally biased news sources.
So, I can more or less understand how Hillary became the bad guy for these people, even if I think it was grounded in misinformation, but how could anyone rationalize Trump as the good guy? After reading many pieces about the “mind of the Trump voter,” and reflecting on the issues they bring up again and again, it slowly became clear to me. To them, I think, he was Han Solo, he was Dr. House, he was Batman. Is he troubled and deeply flawed? Of course. But it’s his maverick, outsider status that allows him to swoop in and use his unique set of skills to fight for justice against the established order. Just like Dr. House’s drug use or Bruce Wayne’s unchecked wealth, his character flaws did not succeed in undermining his candidacy for them because the thesis of this election’s narrative, from their perspective, had nothing to do with that. Sure, there is a way to tell a story about Batman in which he is held to task by the writer for his wealth, his vigilantism, and his inexperience within the criminal justice system, but that was not the movie they were watching. From the outset, he was the hero in their eyes, the revolutionary up against the establishment, and they were rooting for the revolution — nothing could change that.
So, what can be gleaned from this narrative point of view? I think first and foremost is that if the Democrats want to start winning elections again, we need to learn how to think in terms of narrative with the same dexterity that a born entertainer like Trump does. We can complain all we want about the sensationalist media landscape and its obsession with horse races, but in the end of the day, it isn’t going away anytime soon. And besides, Obama won twice, and won many people who voted for Trump this time around, not only because he was a superb candidate but because his narrative worked. As cynical as it may seem, it was much harder to find a compelling pitch for Obama as the bad guy. To many, he was Indiana Jones, he was Spok, he was Obi Wan. The only counter-narrative was that he was a muslim terrorist sleeper agent of some sort, and while plenty of people found a way to buy that, it was never believable enough to keep him out of the White House.
The other night, after Alec Baldwin returned to Saturday Night Live to mock Trump, the President Elect tweeted (again) to complain about it. “It is totally one-sided, biased show - nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?” Alec Baldwin tweeted back: “Equal time? Election is over. There is no more equal time. Now u try 2 b Pres + ppl respond. That’s pretty much it.” I think this interaction is so telling, and is such a clear signifier that Trump is stuck in the narrative mindset. And it makes sense that he’s stuck there, it’s really all that he’s good at. That's why he thrived in the world of reality shows, a format predicated on empty, inorganic narrative, packaged to feel like something happened but with no substance or staying power. He’s like James Bond the day after he gets the girl and wins the day. What happens next? What happens to a character defined by conflict when they vanquish their foes? I think, like James Bond being confronted with maintaining an actual relationship, Trump is dreading what comes next. The day to day business of running the country will never have the same narrative thrust that the campaign did, and so ultimately, he will falter, and there will be a clear opening for a new “hero” to rise.
Elections are epic dramas on a national stage, and whether we like it or not, we need to take that pageantry seriously. I know, it’s anti-intellectual, and we liberals hate that, but it’s a reality we need to embrace. We can never again be lulled into a sense of complacency, assuming our narrative perspective is as obvious to others as we think it is to ourselves. Again, this is also on the media, but it is also on all of us to see the spin, and instead of ignoring or attempting to rise above it, hitting back hard with a counter-narrative that speaks directly to the heart. So, in future elections, let’s make sure our story is loud and clear, and that we really, truly, believe in it. I think that the American people, for all their faults, have shown themselves willing to be pushed one way or another by a well crafted narrative. Therefore, In 2018 and 2020, when the curtains rise once again, let’s make sure we tell the better story.