To explain the origins of the New York billionaire’s outrageous presidential candidacy, many politicians and pundits have persistently turned to Frankenstein, one of the foundation myths of modernity, a colossal monster who rebels against the scientist who created him. These observers point out the toxic atmosphere generated by the Republicans over several decades, with Trump as the extreme incarnation of forces that have fanned the flames of fear, racism, and xenophobia, an illegitimate monster who is now impossible to control.
This one-dimensional formula, this equation that compares Trump to the Monster and his party to the Creator, however undeniably true it may be, doesn’t help us, however, in resolving the most urgent problem: how to deal with the belligerent billionaire and put a stop to his run for the White House.
To this end, we would need to consult the novel “Frankenstein,” envisioned two centuries ago in the dreary summer of 1816, by a young woman named Mary Shelley. A reading of it would let us go beyond the oversimplification to which her complex and enlightened fable has been reduced by popular culture.
I admit to having succumbed, as a child, to the pleasures of that simplification. I met the monster for the first time through the movie “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” I was seven years old and I remember that I held on tight to my mom’s hand all the way back from the movie theater in Manhattan to our house in the borough of Queens – where Donald Trump, who had just turned three, also lived. I guess that Trump might have knocked the cadaverous giant out with a punch right in the face, to quote one of the boasts that he hurls at anyone who protests his rallies, but I confess that I was trembling with fear. Although I was fascinated at the same time, I decided to conquer my fears by seeing his many incarnations, from “Frankenstein,” James Whale’s film version, to “The Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Son of Frankenstein,” and also including “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” in which Lon Chaney replaced the previously ubiquitous Boris Karloff.
My mother didn’t want to go to all these films with me, as long as I promised her that in the future I would read the original novel, where I was going to discover that Frankenstein, as she made clear, “is not the monster, but the arrogant genius who created him. And that will raise doubts that are not going to be easy to resolve.” And, in fact, having drunk from that spring in my late adolescence, a question has tormented me that must have bothered Mary Shelley when, on vacation in a Swiss mansion, together with Lord Byron and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, she began writing “Frankenstein”: Who is the real monster, the deformed creature who comes to life against his will, or his overly ambitious creator?
Revisiting that agonizing question today permits us to elaborate on what is really frightening about the Trump insurgency: the fact that thousands of people are voting for a man who is nourished by fear, and takes vicarious pleasure in torture and mass deportations. Without those disturbed crowds who project their uncertainties, nightmares, and desires onto him, Trump wouldn’t exist. Aren’t the real monsters the men and women charmed by his charisma and belligerence, by his unceasing celebration of greed and machismo?
The temptation to construct a big wall around those opponents, distancing them from our life and from our view, is often overwhelming. All the more reason that it’s necessary to be careful not to imitate Trump’s followers, putting them down and demonizing them as if they were an invading and malicious horde.
It is precisely this dehumanization of the Other that Mary Shelley’s novel critiques. Although the majority of the film versions portray the monster as mute, in the book, he possesses a fragile and despairing soul, capable of articulating his loneliness, demanding that we not judge him by his deformed exterior. Am I delirious, am I being too naïve, if I suggest that what we should feel about the Trump supporters is something more like sadness and compassion? Setting aside the violent and irredeemable neo-Nazi fanatics who occupy the margins of the movement, might not the immense majority of those who vote for Trump reside in an existential desolation that is summarized in the epigraph from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” cited on the title page of “Frankenstein,” the invocation of Adam to God who made him: “Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?”
It is possible that his army of supporters has created Trump and encouraged his revolt. But what merciless god raised them out of obscurity, made them feel so deserted and defenseless, so furious and overwhelmed by the economic crisis, that they need to glorify a demagogue who appeals to their basest instincts and exploits the sadness and insecurity of others to increase his power?
Although Trump may in the end be defeated, these confused citizens will remain widespread among us. They constitute the real challenge. The darkest corners of U.S. history give rise to them, stimulating a wish for a Superman like Trump who might save them. The bright, shining part of that America would then have to convince them, after a long, hard look in the mirror, to respond to the frustration of those angry ones, to stop conjuring up false demons from the abyss, and to begin struggling against the so much more tangible demons of war, poverty, racism, gender inequality, and the ecological catastrophe that threatens all of us equally. These are the true terrors and monsters that we can only defeat standing shoulder to shoulder.
Only if we find a way to strip those Trump followers of their illusions and suspicions, finding a way to include them in the solutions to the problems of our time, only in that case will the final words of Mary Shelley in her novel become marvelously prophetic, when she says goodbye to the monster and to the monstrous in all of us: “He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.”
Ariel Dorfman’s latest book is “Allegro,” a novel narrated by Mozart. He lives with his wife, Angélica, in Chile and in the United States.
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