Published on October 16th, 2016 | by Padraic Coffey1
American Psycho: The many references to Donald J. Trump
Now a quarter of a century old, Bret Easton Ellis’ acerbic reflection on the consumerism rampant among Wall Street brokers is still a deeply disturbing work of fiction, though the notion that men such as Patrick Bateman exist in the world is difficult to shake. The book is divided into a series of anecdotes which present grotesque acts of torture side-by-side with tediously verbose descriptions of then-state of the art technology, but there is little in the way of plot
Nor do we ever observe any detail of how the Harvard-educated Bateman earns the money splashed out on his now-laughably dated household appliances. Ellis’ achievement, if it can be called one, is to present a truly reprehensible character, and then have him become even more reprehensible in the eyes of the reader as the story progresses. Fleeting appearances by Reagan, both as current and former President, hint at a possible allegorical political subtext. On the other hand, Ellis may have just wanted to shock people.
Subtext or not, there is one figure who looms surprisingly large in the background of a novel, mentioned several times, and representing the pinnacle of what Ellis’ New York-dwelling yuppies aspire to be. It is also a figure whose status in 2016 has utterly changed from what it once was, in the context of the current, mud-slinging US presidential election. That figure, of course, is Donald J. Trump.
Trump, as his name would suggest, is employed as the ultimate counter-argument when Bateman and his equally vapid fellow investment bankers clash over Manhattan restaurants and night clubs. When McDermott, one of Bateman’s friends, suggests ordering a pizza at Pastels, Bateman chastises him for the food’s perceived lack of quality, insisting that the “crusts here are too fucking thin because the shithead chef who cooks here overbakes everything!”. Several chapters later, McDermott brandishes a copy of an article on Donald Trump (“your hero”), and childishly confronts Bateman on his diverging opinions on the calibre of Pastels’ pizza. Bateman responds by alluding to the real estate mogul with an affectionate nickname, and deferring to his superior knowledge of fine cuisine: “Listen, if the pizza at Pastels is okay with Donny… it’s okay with me.”
“Donny” comes up again later in the story, when Bateman notices a now-closed restaurant festooned with images of Trump on the cover of Time magazine. New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman has noted that Trump himself continues to use his multiple appearances on Time as a symbol of status, seemingly oblivious to how the internet has shrunk the readership of such publications to a fraction of what it once was. “His cultural references are all sort of preserved in amber of the 1980s”, Haberman said. “One of the things he loves to talk about on the trail is ‘I’ve gotten my fourth cover of Time magazine’, and the crowd looks at him with slack-jaw.”
Trump is everything Bateman wants to be – wealthy, established. “This obsession has got to end”, his fiancée Evelyn tells him at one point. Landing a spot on the guest list of Trump’s Christmas party is one of Bateman’s aspirations for the year. He watches (fictional) talk show host Patty Winters divide an episode between Trump, and a report on women who have been tortured. The dovetailing of gauche celebrities like Trump and harrowing issues such as torture is almost prophetic, predicting how the highest office in the United States, one inextricably linked with thorny issues such as the legality of waterboarding, could some day come within grasp of a reality TV star. Incidentally, Trump has also made it clear that he supports waterboarding in cases of Islamic terrorists, despite its classification as torture by the United Nations. In his own words, “We have to fight fire with fire.”
Back in 1991, of course, Trump was known as a celebrity and a real estate developer, not for his political views, though he had often been asked by the likes of Oprah Winfrey if he’d consider running for president of the United States – something he always declined. It would be years before he would stand at a podium and tell listeners that Mexico was sending “their rapists” into the country, or called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. Such blatant intolerance was shocking to many who had tuned in to see Trump on The Apprentice, and his pronouncements only became more extreme as his 2015-2016 presidential campaign went on.
Bateman, like Trump, is a man known to shift his political views. Just as Trump has described opponent Hillary Clinton as a ‘bigot’, Bateman criticises his a colleague for telling a racist joke. Another he tells to “cool it with the anti-Semitic remarks”. He even recites a carefully-worded speech at a dinner party on ending “apartheid… the nuclear arms race… terrorism and world hunger.” But Bateman himself refers to Jewish characters as ‘kikes’, and Mexicans as ‘wetbacks’. He is an outright racist, masquerading as a progressive, though visible minorities are only one of countless groups he views with disdain.
Ellis himself has given no indication as to who he will vote for in the upcoming election, though he did describe the “political theater” of Trump as “thrilling”, and claimed many in LGBT-dominated West Hollywood would be voting for the billionaire without ever admitting to it publicly. In an interview with The Guardian in April 2016, Ellis said that Bateman may not have supported Trump in 2016. “Trump today isn’t the Trump of 1987… Now he seems to be giving a voice to white, angry, blue-collar voters…. I just thought it was funny that ‘OK, well, Patrick Bateman’s gonna be obsessed with Donald Trump. He’s gonna want to aspire to be Donald Trump.’ And I don’t know if he would think that today.”
It would reductionist to say that Donald Trump and Patrick Bateman are two sides of the same coin. Bateman personally murders several people throughout the course of American Psycho. Donald Trump, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, has never murdered anyone. Nonetheless, it is interesting to read Ellis’ novel in 2016, and see how the grotesque satirical elements seem, if not less grotesque, perhaps less outlandish.