Rachel Custer’s “How I Am Like Donald Trump” and Light Instead of Heat
During World War II, the brave Allied servicemen in the Pacific theater were missing the comforts of home. Instead of Mom’s cooking, they were trying to swallow cold MREs in an unfamiliar climate halfway across the world. The men were scared: for their lives, for their country, for the relationships they put on pause to do their duty.
The political and military brass of Empire of Japan did the perfectly natural thing: they tried to take advantage of these feelings in order to demoralize the enemy force. Enter Tokyo Rose, the collective name for the sweet-voiced women who narrated radio broadcasts intended for American soldiers and sailors in the Pacific. The Pentagon and private agencies did their best to help the men keep their minds occupied while in theater–distributing radio programs, movies, paperbacks, comic books–but there was always an audience for any English-speaking voice they could catch over the airwaves.
Tokyo Rose told the Americans how beautiful Japan was and softly, sweetly urged them to give up hope that they would defeat the mighty forces of the Empire. She cooed into the microphone and told the guys about their girls back home, how Sally Strongheart from All-America, Kansas, wasn’t waiting like she promised. No, she was going to the sock hop with that 4-F she always said was just a friend.
See for yourself:
Of course, the propaganda effort didn’t work because Americans are so awesome (USA! USA! USA!), but the story reveals an important lesson about craft. The rhetoric of Tokyo Rose was not bombastic. She didn’t scream. No, she calmly appealed to the fears of her listeners. See how this relaxed and logical approach was a much better idea than, say, endless screeching?
We write because we have stories we need to tell, ideas we need to share. Our hearts burn with the need to commit our thoughts to paper and share them with others. But here’s the problem: we can’t get our message across if all we do is burn. No, the heat must be focused and have a purpose. In the words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens: “heat is not the antithesis of light but rather the source of it.”
Here’s an example of heat that produces no light, that casts no illumination whatsoever on the world or the human condition. This young woman was not pleased to see a Donald Trump banner on her campus. I think you’ll agree with me that she doesn’t make a very compelling argument.
I think you’ll agree with me that this young woman did not win any hearts and minds to whatever the heck she was thinking.
We are in a new and fascinating age of political literature. (I wish this age had begun fifteen years ago, but so it goes…) As reading rates have declined, the writing community has become ever more liberal, or whatever term you would like to use. On some level this makes sense. Writers have always been curious about others. We’ve always used empathy to put ourselves into the lives of others. But I think it’s reasonable to admit that the balance has shifted even further to the left than usual.
There are such amazing opportunities for writers! There are so very, very many things to say in this absolutely crazy political climate. We all want writing to remain what it has always been: a vehicle for entertainment social chronicle and change. Unfortunately, our work becomes less useful and less effective if we figuratively prance around the yogurt-puddled quad screeching at people who both agree and disagree with us.
Protest literature is boring and pointless when it’s all heat and no light, when it’s a screech instead of an argument. That is why I was so pleased to read a protest poem that actually meant something. Rachel Custer’s “How I Am Like Donald Trump” appeared in Rattle’s Poets Respond feature. Published a couple weeks before the election, the poem is not at all pro-Trump, but it’s also not packed with breathless hyperbole and unchanneled anger.
First of all, look at the title. Ms. Custer literally identifies with Trump and makes it clear that she is employing empathy. A writer can hate a character all they like, but they must empathize with the person about whom they are writing. No, this doesn’t mean that you forgive or even like a person. You must understand, to paraphrase the great Lee K. Abbott, who the character is in the dark.
Then Ms. Custer dedicates the poem, “for D.T. and other lonely people.” I know. I agree. Trump is bad. I don’t like his policies. I don’t like some of the things he has said. Did we gain anything from yet another affirmation against Trump? No. But we do get something out of thinking of the “villain” as a real human being, in this case a “lonely” one. For some reason, many of us are forgetting that the old-fashioned mustache-twirling bad guy who is just bad has fallen out of style. No, we like our villains to be complicated and to resemble real people who have real motivations. Thinking of Trump (in this case) as a real human being also makes your protest art more effective. Instead of arguing against a strawman, you’re arguing against a flesh-and-blood man.
The poem itself, it seemed to me, was quite sad and evocative. Ms. Custer could have been like so many other writers and written:
OMG I HATE TRUMP
HE SAID MEAN THINGS ABOUT THAT BEAUTY PAGEANT CONTESTANT
AND RUINED BILLY BUSH’S
See? Only heat. No light. Ms. Custer’s Trump is revealed to be a sad and pitiful man; her work is more effective than a thousand screeching undergrads. You can’t unseat a politician unless you understand them and why they do what they do. You can’t make a deal with a person unless you understand their psychology.
Ms. Custer uses the heat in her heart to generate light instead of merely adding to the fury that we find in so many places. Let’s try to do the same thing when next we try to change the world with our words.