The former president fits into a long line of ravenous, miserable literary characters.
Shel Silverstein’s poem “Hungry Mungry” appears in the author’s 1974 collection Where the Sidewalk Ends, a favorite of giggling American kids. It’s the story of a kid named Hungry Mungry (what did his parents expect, giving him a name like that?), who has such a ravenous appetite that he eats everything: all the food, his parents, the United States, the world, and finally himself.
It’s an absurd image from a poet who revels in silliness, a tale meant to tickle grade schoolers’ funny bones. But the pathos, however goofy, is undeniable. Hungry Mungry’s parents try to stop him, and he gobbles them up. Police arrive to halt his lawless rampage, and he chomps them down. The president sends the US military to halt his wanton munching, and they, too, go down the hatch. Hungry Mungry eats pyramids and puppies, churches and Chicago. No one can stop him.
The final stanza paints a bleak picture:
He started with the moon and stars and soon as he was done
He gulped the clouds, he sipped the wind and gobbled up the sun.
Then sitting there in the cold dark air,
He started to nibble his feet,
Then his legs, then his hips
Then his neck, then his lips
Till he sat there just gnashin’ his teeth
Cause nothin’ was nothin’ was
Nothin’ was nothin’ was
Nothin’ was left to eat.
Hungry Mungry, having fed his insatiable need to absorb the whole world into himself, is left utterly, completely alone. He is — to bastardize a misquote — like Alexander the Great: Weeping, for there are no more worlds to conquer.
In the morass of my pandemic-era mind-mush, Hungry Mungry emerges as linked to a larger narrative archetype, a character who crops up consistently in stories that are absurd and surreal. He is the narcissist who must consume, colonize, destroy, or transform everything he touches into some reflection of himself. He is rapacious, grandiose, and utterly miserable, driven by a fear of some unbearable solitude. His solution is to fill the world with himself.
He sounds, in so many ways, like a certain former president.
He also sounds like Shakespeare’s Richard III, who — haunted by his hunchbacked appearance — has nurtured his soul into deformity, rendering himself incapable by his cruelty and cravenness to earn the love of either a woman or a country. So he must grab those things through fear and force, inspiring loyalty in some and imprisoning or slaughtering anyone who stands in his path. Richard III longs for everyone to bow to him and him alone; for his troubles, he is left abandoned on a battlefield, yelling for someone, anyone, to bring him a horse.
He sounds like Norman Bombardini, a secondary character who looms over David Foster Wallace’s bizarre 1987 debut novel The Broom of the System. Bombardini is first glimpsed seated in a restaurant, ordering nine steaks for his dinner. When the waiter objects, Bombardini eviscerates him and orders the waiter to let him be:
Tonight I will eat. Hugely, and alone. For now I am hugely alone. I will eat, and juice might very well spurt into the air around me, and if anyone comes too near, I will snarl and jab at them with my fork … I’m going to grow and grow, and fill the absence that surrounds me with the horror of my own gelatinous presence.
It transpires that Bombardini, a wealthy businessman who’s been left by his wife, has vowed to eliminate the possibility of loneliness by unorthodox means. “We each ought to desire our own universe to be as full as possible,” he pompously declares to our heroine, Lenore, who works for the company he owns. Bombardini has decided that “the Great Horror consists in an empty, rattling personal universe, one where one finds oneself with Self, on the one hand, and vast empty lonely spaces before Others begin to enter the picture at all, on the other hand. A non-full universe.” Bombardini’s plan, he tells Lenore, is to “fill the universe with Self” by growing to “infinite size.”
By the end of the novel, Lenore discovers via a mutual acquaintance, a psychiatrist named Dr. Jay, that Bombardini has begun “talking with some earnestness about … consuming people.” Lenore is horrified. “All metaphorical, I’m firmly convinced,” Dr. Jay hastens to add. We’re not so sure. Bombardini’s longing to live in a world where only he may exist, the better to avoid rejection, logically suggests a world that cannot contain anyone else. Like Hungry Mungry, he must consume them all.
Variations on this same pathetic figure appear throughout Charlie Kaufman’s oeuvre — certain scenes from Being John Malkovich spring to mind — but his 2015 animated film Anomalisa is probably the best example. The main character, a miserable businessman named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), is spending the night in a Cincinnati hotel, one of those cookie-cutter corporate places that look the same no matter what city you’re in. He’s the keynote speaker at a convention for customer service professionals.
Michael is a married father with a nice job, but hates everything about his perfectly pleasant life. As the movie begins, the main factor in his misery (whether it’s the cause or the effect) quickly comes into focus.
For Michael, everyone on earth — cab driver, hotel desk clerk, ex-girlfriend, his own child — has the same bland face and the same bland voice. It’s not that he’s face-blind. Michael has just lost, or more likely ceded, the ability to see the world as populated by different people. To him, they are all one mass, a group of indistinguishable nothings. He has chosen to cope with his personal unhappiness by wiping out the feelings, the distinctiveness, the essential humanity of everyone else. He is utterly bored by anyone who isn’t himself, immune to the differences and dignity of those around him, and he copes by simply checking out.
Michael springs to life when in the hotel bar he suddenly hears the voice and sees the face of Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom he finds fascinating because she is different. But the morning after they (awkwardly) have sex in the nondescript hotel bed, Michael comes to a horrifying realization over breakfast: Now that he has, in a sense, absorbed Lisa into himself, he’s incapable of keeping her humanity in view. Her Lisa-ness starts glitching out, her face and voice transforming into the same bland nothingness as everyone else. And Michael falls into deep despair.
Unlike Richard, or Bombardini, Michael lacks the power to twist the world around him to his liking; he’s not out murdering people or eating everyone. But all three men share the same goal. Faced with a world they can’t control, and a loneliness they refuse to overcome in ways that would make them vulnerable to others, they set out to reshape the world into some reflection of themselves. To fill it with sameness and eliminate difference. To see themselves, or at least not anyone else, everywhere they look. But in the end, they find themselves ultimately more alone.
Which, naturally, brings us to the most real-life exemplar of this character I’ve ever encountered: dubious businessman, tawdry celebrity, reality TV host, and 45th president of the United States Donald J. Trump.
Trump’s need to stamp himself all over the world around him is indubitable. Any New Yorker saw it coming. Take a walk around the streets of Manhattan, and you’ll bump into some building with his name on it, probably a large one in a prominent spot — near Central Park, or on Fifth Avenue, or across from the New York Stock Exchange. It’s been that way for as long as most people can remember, and it’s pervasive.
To cite just one notable example: After fighting for decades to develop land south of Lincoln Center into a massive apartment complex — first named “Television City,” then “Trump City,” and eventually Riverside South — Trump’s grand ambitions never came to fruition. But driving down the West Side Highway recently, just where “Trump City” would have been, I spotted an ADOPT-A-HIGHWAY sign sporting a familiar name.
Trump’s skill at garnering media attention is part of the same impulse. It’s not just his full-throated melding with Fox News, which substantially predated his presidency and ensures that whenever he turns on the TV, he sees himself. Susan Mulcahy, a former Page Six editor and New York magazine columnist, wrote in the summer of 2016 that “if you worked for a newspaper in New York in the 1980s, you had to write about Trump,” partly because back then he still was landing big business deals but more often because he was simply outrageous.
Others have reported that in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, Trump would pose as his own spokesperson, planting stories and grabbing headlines whenever possible. He knew how to make sure that no matter what newspaper landed on his desk that day, he’d find himself in it; in his most famous book, 1987’s The Art of the Deal, Trump boasted that “if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”
His penchant for belittling and insulting everyone around him, whether long-time foe or newly disloyal advisor, stems from the same place. If you aren’t of use to him, then you don’t deserve to exist. You are persona non grata. And if you don’t look like him — if he can’t see himself when he looks at you — you’re even worse, something less than human. Women, in general, fall into this category, which accounts for decades of degradation and alleged assaults. And Trump is far from the “least racist person” he claims to be.
Trump’s election to the presidency was the culmination of his bulldozing, the natural end, for him, to warping the physical and virtual worlds to his match own image. Now, he could absorb people, too. Close advisors like Rudy Giuliani seemed to internalize both Trump’s personal vanity and his bizarre ways of satisfying it — possibly by using mascara to cover a septuagenarian’s gray hair, rather than hair dye, for instance. Young radical supporters donned a uniform — polo shirt, khakis, MAGA hat — that seemed oddly similar to the president’s golf ensemble.
Millions of his followers picked up Trump’s pet phrases, his favorite ways to exaggerate and disparage: fake news, no collusion, believe me, China virus, enemy of the state, losers, witch hunt. They shouted “lock her up!” at rallies long past the point where the chant held meaning, wore identical red hats, and injected Trump-speak into press releases. To some Trump supporters’ family members and friends, it began to feel like their loved ones’ bodies were being taken over by the alien being of Donald Trump.
That feeling has long palpable even if you can’t stand the guy — the urge to always talk about him, to read his tweets, to blame everything on his failures, to interpret every bit of pop culture through the lens of his looming silhouette. At times Trump’s tactics for hoarding attention seem borrowed from some of the livestreamers who, if they can’t get their audiences to adore them, court hate instead. Anything to keep from shrinking, or disappearing altogether.
It is no shocker that Trump has found himself, at the end of the presidency — after inciting his followers to insurrection, then reportedly watching it with delight — slowly (too slowly) abandoned by former allies and advisors. This often happens when narcissists reach the end of their quest to own the world; if they’re not able to strongarm their way to absolute mastery, they wind up deserted by those who were only loyal as long as loyalty was expedient. They must confront an unflattering truth: They’ve made themselves impossible to truly love.
Because thus far the world, outside of children’s poems and absurdist novels, refuses in the end to cow to one man’s will. People simply are not the same, and the world is too big to be contained within a single ego. Fascists succeed for a while, but not forever; there will always be pushback from those on the margins.
Authoritarians seek to reduce the citizenry to a docile herd that will bend to their will; as the political theorist Hannah Arendt puts it, they wish to eradicate “spontaneity itself as an expression of human behavior and of transforming the human personality into a mere thing.” In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she describes the target of the would-be totalitarian as “difference” — the characteristics and desires that make us unique from one another, individuals with individual minds and bodies and histories living together.
Affirming and celebrating that difference — in friendship and in the public square, Arendt says — is what keeps us from being wholly consumed by the Hungry Mungries, the Richard IIIs, the Bombardinis, the Michaels. Our pluralism is what keeps our democracy alive, however rickety it gets. Humans’ drive toward beautiful difference is the force that subverts, again and again, the narcissists’ need to consume us all.
At the end of a long four years, merely the culmination and continuation of many more years, perhaps that lesson has grown more weighty. Maybe it’s more clear. Or maybe we’ll refuse to learn it and keep letting strongmen set the terms of engagement. For now, though, it’s time to pause, and breathe, and be glad that there’s still a world left to rebuild.
Author: Alissa Wilkinson