The death last week of Tom Wolfe, one of the all-time great American writers, sent me back to The Bonfire of the Vanities. No other book, it is generally agreed, better captured the atmosphere of mid-1980s New York. What no one foresaw at the time of its publication was that 30 years later a character from Wolfe’s New York would take over the entire United States.
As Maggie Haberman of The New York Times put it last week: “Tom Wolfe envisioned a Donald Trump before the actual one came into tabloid being.” But that’s not quite right. Trump had already come into being even before Wolfe turned from journalism to fiction. (The Art of the Deal was published the same year — 1987 — as The Bonfire of the Vanities.) We catch glimpses of Trump-like figures not only in Bonfire but also in the equally engrossing, although less lauded, A Man in Full.
From The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test to Radical Chic and The “Me” Decade, Wolfe the journalist had a knack for both capturing and puncturing the zeitgeist, combining the verbal pyrotechnics of a James Joyce or a Jack Kerouac with a Southern sensibility that subtly conveyed his contempt for 1960s and 1970s self-indulgence.
But the novels are Wolfe’s masterpieces, each one drilling deep into the American psyche, exploring mercilessly the country’s three great obsessions: money, sex and race. They can now be reread — and relished — as trailers for the Trump era. For Trump’s presidency is simultaneously, fascinatingly, horribly about all three obsessions.
First and foremost, there is money. You can easily picture the young tycoon Trump rubbing shoulders with Wolfe’s character Sherman McCoy, the bond-trading “Master of the Universe” whose downfall is central to The Bonfire of the Vanities. So Wolfean is the personality of Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer-fixer, that I found myself flicking through the book to see if he was lurking there. (The same goes for Stormy Daniels, the porn star whose silence Cohen appears to have bought on his boss’s behalf before the 2016 election.)
And there Cohen is in chapter 24! McCoy is waiting to see his lawyer, Thomas Killian, of Dershkin, Bellavita, Fishbein & Schlossel, who emerges from his office with “his arm around the shoulders of a pudgy . . . white man”.
“‘What can I tell you, Donald?’ Killian was saying. ‘The law’s like anything else. You get what you pay for. All right?’”
The protagonist of A Man in Full, Charlie Croker (“Cap’m Charlie”), is not quite Trump, as he is a Southerner and a former American football star. But he is a property developer. His business does teeter on the brink of insolvency. He does have a much younger “current” wife and an embittered ex-wife. And his inner monologue has more than a little Trump about it:
“A certain deep worry came bubbling up into his brain . . . Debt! A mountain of it! But real estate developers like him learnt to live with debt, didn’t they . . . It was a normal condition of your existence, wasn’t it . . . You just naturally grew gills for breathing it, didn’t you . . .
“He, Charlie, was a one-man band. That was what a real estate developer was, a one-man band! You had to sell the world on . . . yourself! Before they would lend you all that money, they had to believe in . . . you! They had to think you were some kind of omnipotent, flaw-free genius. Not my corporation but Me, Myself & I!”
The established giants of the New York literary scene, notably Norman Mailer and John Updike, looked down their noses at Wolfe’s novels, probably because they had sniffed his deep-seated conservatism. But Wolfe’s fiction is superior to theirs. I can think of no books that better capture the modern American predicament. For what Wolfe shows is that the obsession with money, and the status it confers, is only part of a triptych. Next to it, as each of the novels shows, is sex — about which Croker thinks at least as much — and race, America’s original sin, about which Wolfe always wrote fearlessly. (In each novel at least one transgression crosses the racial divide.)
Most intellectuals missed completely the potency of Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016. Not Wolfe. In an interview in March 2016 he shrewdly assessed the way Trump was “capitalising” on the widespread “distress and contempt for government”.
Wolfe continued: “He comes out and says things like, no more illegal immigrants from Mexico, no more immigrants from Islamic countries, and so on, and a lot of people say, ‘Hey, yeah, finally, someone has come out and said what I believe.’ He goes from gaffe to gaffe and it only helps him.”
With an insight born of decades of acute observation of his fellow Americans, Wolfe noted that Trump’s “real childish side” was part of his appeal. “He is a lovable megalomaniac,” as Wolfe put it. “People get a big kick out of going to his office and behind his desk is this wall of pictures of himself in the news. The childishness makes him seem honest.”
For many months I have been trying to explain that a man can be, at one and the same time, deeply flawed as a human being and in some ways effective as a president. Wolfe understood this too, recalling how Ronald Reagan had been “a huge success” as president, despite being “considered an idiot by half of the people in the political field”.
Trump is in a completely different league from Reagan as a man. Reagan had arrived at his conservative principles through reading and reflection on both economics and politics. It was conviction that led him to overrule his advisers and call on Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
Trump, by comparison, has all the principles of Cap’m Croker. We have abundant evidence that elements in his administration are corrupt; that he himself is a lecher and a philanderer; that he has no qualms about pandering to racial prejudice; and that he has no attachment to the constitution he swore to uphold and would do away with all its constraints on him tomorrow if he could. As a friend of his once told me: “He has no filter and he has no core values.”
Yet, as I argued last week, it is conceivable that this dissolute individual could be the president who successfully counters the various challenges to US power posed by China, North Korea and Iran. Or at least who gives the impression of doing so. In truth, very few Americans will read the small print of any deal that Trump does with their adversaries. Mesmerised by the spectacle of Charlie Croker in the White House — The funny money! The shameless sex! The racy racism! — they will, like Wolfe’s readers, keep turning the pages, wondering what grand guignol scene will confront them next.
The author Michael Lewis once observed that Wolfe never knew how to end his novels. I worry that Americans don’t quite know how to end the Trump presidency. His approval rating is up. The Democrats’ lead in polls for the mid-terms is down. Wolfe may have departed the scene, but the Donfire of the Vanities keeps burning.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford