Even for Hollywood, which can reduce the White House to rubble with one blast from an alien spaceship, Donald Trump is too over the top.
If he were a fictional character running for president, a movie about him would likely bomb, a TV series would get the hook and a book would quickly disappear from the shelves.
Masters of make-believe from Hollywood and publishing say the real-life Trump, a flesh-and-blood character who wasn’t conceived inside a Hollywood writer’s room and didn’t spring forth from a novelist’s imagination, is running right through all the red lights of believability – and still upstaging his fictional counterparts.
“You watch the story unfold and the moment you think, ‘OK. He can’t go any farther than that,’ he goes farther than that,” said Ward Just, for whom politics is often a backdrop for his quiet novels about the human fallout of lives built around secrets and power.
And he’s getting the ratings. His rallies are standing room only. His fans are passionately devoted. And he did, after all, win the Republican primaries.
So take a bow Mr. Would-Be President Trump – although there’s probably no need to tell you to do that – you’ve eclipsed Frank Underwood, Selina Meyer, Josiah Bartlett and a host of other fictional occupants of the Oval Office. The only limitations on their behavior were what their creators thought might seem too outrageous for audiences to accept.
My one rule for fiction: Don't compete with the real world. The real world will always out-crazy you.
Best-selling thriller novelist Brad Meltzer
Indeed. In Hollywood’s hands, the president of the United States can be a conniving murderer, such as Kevin Spacey as President Underwood in “House of Cards.”
He can be a square-jawed action hero who single-handedly dispatches a team of Russian terrorists after they have hijacked Air Force One, as Harrison Ford so neatly accomplishes as President Marshall in the movie named for the plane.
The nation’s chief executive can also be its chief goofus – think of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as President Meyer in “Veep” – or a leader who so personifies liberal benevolence that you’d think there were feathered wings stuffed under his bespoke suit. We’re talking about you, President Bartlett, as portrayed by Martin Sheen in the quintessential televised political drama, “The West Wing.”
Then there’s Trump, the soon-to-be-crowned Republican presidential nominee, a boastful, serial exaggerator with no qualms about alienating pivotal voting blocs with racial and misogynistic insults. He stiff-arms his party leaders, is unfamiliar with issues and turns national tragedy into a self-congratulatory hug.
And yeah, he also bragged about the size of his male equipment, not your everyday campaign issue.
You really can’t make this stuff up.
“If I created a character like Donald Trump in one of my thrillers, my editor would throw it back to me and say, ‘No one will believe this,’ ” said best-selling author Brad Meltzer. “My one rule for fiction: Don't compete with the real world. The real world will always out-crazy you.”
You mean like Trump suggesting darkly during his primary battle against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that Cruz’s father was connected to Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President John F. Kennedy?
Or the real estate mogul’s efforts to woo – apparently with some success ‑ evangelical Christians, despite a history of philandering that he has boasted about publicly?
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” said Jon Lovett, a former Obama White House speechwriter and co-creator of “1600 Penn,” a television comedy about a dysfunctional first family. “Maybe this is a good case of that.”
It seems every year I want to make a new political film and every year it doesn’t match the insanity of the campaign. I didn’t think it could get any crazier than in 2008. . . . This is something else entirely.
Film director Rod Lurie
Rod Lurie has written and directed several political films, including “The Contender,” about a vice presidential nominee embroiled in a scandal about her alleged sexual past.
He wrote a script a few years ago for a movie with “a big, loud, abrasive, sexist businessman based on Donald Trump, and now I read what I wrote and it was so tame,” he said. “If you simply wrote this character, it would just be deemed ridiculously unrealistic. My character didn’t have anywhere near the level of racism, misogyny and shamelessness that Trump has brought to the campaign. . . . He’s a Daddy Warbucks gone bad.”
In the land of make-believe, a strong dose of reality is necessary so audiences will accept the character and, therefore, the behavior.
“What you’re trying to do when you create a character for TV or movies is create somebody who seems authentic,” said Eli Attie, a writer for “The West Wing” and speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore before that. “It allows a suspension of disbelief so you can take flights of fancy for the plot. The character must be grounded in reality . . . so you can believe that this might have happened.”
Attie said that if he saw an idea for a Trump character, his reaction would be: “OK. We have a lot of work to do here. Let’s roll up our sleeves. . . . This is a guy who talks about how hot his daughter is? He’s crushing everyone in the field by mocking them, belittling them? First of all, everyone’s going to hate him when he comes on the screen.”
Maybe not everyone.
Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said he wasn’t so sure how hard it might be to accept the Trump story if he did not exist but were created out of whole cloth. After all, his rallies draw big crowds and his followers are fiercely loyal.
“This guy emerges from privilege, becomes a millionaire, hosts a reality TV show and, through the kind of fictional and bogus nature of reality TV, reinvents himself and – surprise, surprise – this joke,” Thompson said, referring to Trump’s bid for the presidency, “that everybody thought couldn’t happen, does.”