Donald Trump, "American Psycho" muse: How the "Art of the Deal" elitist became a poor man's Patrick Bateman — and now he's a real threat

"Art of the Deal"-era Donald Trump was a fictional serial killer's hero, but Trump 2016 inspires something scarier

Published May 14, 2016 4:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump; Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho"   (Reuters/Carlos Barria/Universal Studios/Salon)
Donald Trump; Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho" (Reuters/Carlos Barria/Universal Studios/Salon)

Three-quarters of the way through Brett Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho,” a detective visits Patrick Bateman’s office on Wall Street to inquire about a missing banker. Bateman, who has already told us how he murdered this man, does his best to remain calm. During an uncomfortable silence, he points to a book on his desk ― “The Art of the Deal” by Donald Trump. “Have you read it?” asks Bateman. “No,” says the detective. “Is it any good?” “It’s very good,” Bateman replies.

If we believe his narrative, Patrick Bateman is a rapist and a murderer, a psychopath whose life is a struggle between the violent, chaotic drives of the id and the critical, ethical constraints of the superego. In the above encounter, Bateman represents the id and the detective the superego, a symbolic enactment of Bateman’s core neurosis that constantly threatens to tear him apart. By showing the detective “The Art of the Deal,” Bateman is attempting to symbolically substitute one superego for another, his hero Trump’s sociopathic non-values for the detective’s legal and moral code, an alchemy that, in effect, invalidates the superego altogether.

Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” was published in 1987, four years before “American Psycho.” Critics remain divided about the reliability of both narrators — the fictional Patrick Bateman, whose crimes may or may not be hallucinations, and the very real Donald Trump, who has been challenged over many of his claims, including his family origins (Swedish versus German), the quantity of money his father loaned him to launch his real-estate empire in the seventies, and his record with regard to race- and gender-based discrimination. With regard to both books, however, one could argue that factual veracity is less important than the way each narrator attempts to present his persona to the reader.

Throughout the 367 pages of “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump tells us almost nothing about his emotional life. He describes his first wife, Ivana, only as “a natural manager,” “the most organized person I know,” and when he mentions the premature death of his brother from alcoholism, all he can say is: “It’s very sad because he was a wonderful guy who never quite found himself.”

When entrepreneur Steve Wynn calls to say he and his wife are divorcing, Trump is baffled by Wynn’s assertion that “we’re still in love, it’s just that we don’t want to be married anymore.” The emotional complexity of this statement is so baffling to Trump that he has to end the conversation then and there, describing Wynn as “a very strange guy.”

On one occasion, early on in the book, he reports being “moved” by the plight of a widow about to lose her farm, but his response is to call the bank and say, “If you do foreclose, I’ll personally bring a lawsuit for murder against you.” We are left suspecting this display of aggression was his motivation throughout. Indeed, his “forceful character” is a trait he is consistently proud of as evinced by his tale of punching a teacher in the eye while in second grade, and of how he liked to make “a ruckus in the schoolyard and at birthday parties.”

“It wasn’t malicious,” he says, “so much as it was aggressive,” a quality that, at New York Military Academy, he says he learned to channel into “achievement.”

Achievement, or winning, as he usually terms it, is Donald Trump’s ultimate goal. As he tells us on the very first page of “The Art of the Deal”: “I like making deals, preferably big deals. That’s how I get my kicks.” He uses this word, “kicks,” several times, that adrenaline high that comes from winning, the only feeling he valorizes or will admit to. “I don't have time to think about my problems,” Trump told Time magazine in 1989. “When you start studying yourself too deeply you start seeing things that maybe you don’t want to see.”

In “The Art of the Deal” Donald Trump presents himself as a man wholly untroubled by his inner voice, unaffected by doubt, guilt, or shame. He derives his sense of worth entirely from achievement and personal gain, and considers emotions, values and ethics to be signs of weakness.

Patrick Bateman, in “American Psycho,” is equally averse to sharing his emotions. As a fictional character addressing an implied reader, his confession is necessarily private, but whereas Trump is publicity-seeking, bombastic, Bateman is masked, neurotic and private, a dark Batman to Trump’s Superman. When Bateman’s former lover asks why he bothers to work at all given his inherited wealth, Bateman replies, “Because I… want… to… fit… in,” a starkly different motivation than “doing it for kicks.”

Whether or not Bateman actually commits the crimes he describes, he is certainly psychopathic. The difference is that while Trump’s pathology motivates him to scale greater heights, Bateman’s impels him toward perpetual breakdown. It is a distinction that Trump, in a rare moment of psychological awareness, describes in “The Art of the Deal”:

I think of it as a controlled neurosis, which is a quality I’ve noticed in many highly successful entrepreneurs. They’re obsessive, they’re driven, they’re single-minded and sometimes they’re almost maniacal, but it’s all channelled into their work. Where other people are paralysed by neurosis, the people I’m talking about are actually helped by it.

The neurotic paralysis that Trump refers to is symbolized by Bateman’s encounter with the detective during which his id and superego are so evenly matched that his ego, required to mediate between the two, begins to crumble. This happens throughout the novel and, frequently, he tries to resolve the crisis by invoking Trump’s name or form as one might a god’s (30 times in total):

“Is that Donald Trump’s car?” I ask, looking over at the limousine stuck next to us in gridlock…

Faded posters of Donald Trump on the cover of Time magazine cover the windows of another abandoned restaurant, what used to be Palaze, and this fills me with a newfound confidence.

When Bateman meets his brother he tells him, “We’re going to a party Donald Trump’s having… Big fun. Very big fun… Donald’s a nice guy. You should meet him… I’ll… introduce you to him.” But this is fantasy. Bateman does not know Trump, only worships him from afar. At one point his fiancée explodes: “Not Donald Trump again… This obsession has got to end!” But it doesn’t end. It can’t. Donald Trump is all Bateman has to validate his increasingly deranged impulses.

For the first third of the novel, Bateman hides behind a smooth, sophisticated persona, although we, privy to his inner life, are aware that his fixation with designer clothing, furniture, beauty products and restaurants suggests a disturbed and obsessive mind. At a dinner party in the first chapter he gives an impromptu political manifesto that turns out to be compassionate and liberal, a sharp contrast to his openly racist and misogynist peers. Bateman even reproves them for using racist and anti-semitic slurs, and when one brags about teasing beggars with dollar bills, advises him to “Just say no.”

The turning point comes exactly halfway through, when he speaks kindly to a black homeless man, offering him money and food, before saying, “Do you know what a fucking loser you are?” and stabbing him repeatedly: “There’s a quarter. Go buy some gum, you crazy fucking n***er.” Bateman’s barbarism, we learn, is far more severe than that of his peers. He has a raw, deranged hatred for women and minorities, lacks any empathy, and fantasizes constantly about rape and violence.

Unlike Trump’s, however, Bateman’s narrative cannot help but reveal his humanity, the pain he labors so hard to hide from himself and the reader. By piecing together odd scraps of information, we learn that he is “a child of divorce” whose father died when he was young and whose mother is in an insane asylum. When he goes to visit her she says, “You look unhappy,” and of course this is true: Patrick Bateman is an intensely suffering young man whose longing to hurt others conflicts with the feelings of shame, remorse and doubt he cannot successfully smother until finally he ends up sobbing: “I just want to be loved.”

Near the end of the novel, Bateman has killed, or claims to have killed, 14 people, including his former lover and a child. Broken and exhausted, he is filled with contempt for everything he sees, with the one exception of his hero, to whom his loyalty is constant:

Walking down Fifth Avenue around four o’clock in the afternoon, everyone on the street looks sad, the air is full of decay, bodies lie on the cold pavement, miles of it, some are moving, most are not. History is sinking and only a very few seem dimly aware that things are getting bad. Airplanes fly low across the city, crossing in front of the sun. Winds shoot up Fifth, then funnel down Fifty-seventh Street. Flocks of pigeons rise in slow motion and burst up against the sky. The smell of burning chestnuts mixes with carbon monoxide fumes. I notice the skyline has changed only recently. I look up, admiringly, at Trump Tower, tall, proudly gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight.

His euphoria does not last, however, as he notices two black teenagers “ripping off tourists” and has to fight away the urge to kill them. This is the end for Bateman: All he can do now is to gaze up at the tower and pray for his savior to come down. But by the final page we know he is on his own, condemned to lifelong torment without redemption. The last line sees him looking at a sign that reads “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.”

Twenty-five years after “American Psycho’s" publication, Donald Trump has descended from his gilded tower. But he has not come to Wall Street. Instead, he has styled himself as a savior for those white males who share Bateman and co.’s sense of entitlement, but lack their economic status. Both groups oppose political correctness, feminism, gay marriage and the election of America’s first black president, but thus far, only privileged elites like Bateman and his peers have been able to flaunt their bigotry, white machismo and contempt for the weak and vulnerable with impunity. Trump’s strategy as candidate for the Republican nomination has been to offer these privileges to the people. In “Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again,” Trump’s latest book, he describes this constituency as:

… the bedrock of this country… those 45 million Americans stuck in poverty [who] have seen their incomes decline over the past 20 years. Understandably, their disenchantment and frustration at what’s happening grows every day, and it gets worse and worse and worse.

It is something Brett Easton Ellis commented on in a March 2016 interview for Rolling Stone, when he suggested Bateman might have been embarrassed by Trump’s campaign:

Trump today isn't the Trump of 1987. He's not the Trump of "Art of the Deal." He seemed much more elitist in '87, '88. Now he seems to be giving a voice to white, angry, blue-collar voters. I think, in a way, Patrick Bateman may be disappointed by how Trump is coming off and who he's connecting with.

Whereas Bateman and his peers direct their hatred downward―at homeless blacks, street “faggots” and prostitutes―Trump’s support base looks upward, at the liberals and “career politicians” who they believe, while funded by Wall Street, have outsourced American jobs to the Mexicans and Chinese, and allowed Latinos and Muslims to enter the country causing murder, rape and terrorism.

If the Trump of “The Art of the Deal” was Tower Trump, the Trump of “Crippled America” is Millenarian Trump. Whereas Tower Trump was brash, outlandish, but relatively calm, Millenarian Trump is permanently angry, bullying and macho, the sort one would be wise to steer clear of in a bar. On the first page of “Crippled America,” he writes:

Some readers may be wondering why the picture we used on the cover of this book is so angry and so mean looking. I had some beautiful pictures taken… I looked like a very nice person, which in theory I am… But I decided it wasn’t appropriate… I wanted a picture where I wasn’t happy, a picture that reflected the anger and unhappiness I feel…

And yet, Trump is not amongst those “overwhelming numbers of Americans who have not participated in the economic growth of the past year, or of the past 20 years.” Trump, in fact, has directly benefitted from all those things he rails against ― free trade, declining wage rates, outsourcing of manufacturing to Mexico and China, even illegal immigration. He is the corporate super-rich he accuses the politicians of serving, so why should he be angry? The clue is in “The Art of the Deal”:

The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration―and a very effective form of promotion.

Trump’s rage, then, is a made-for-television mask designed to attract as much attention as possible. It is a targeted rage too, aimed at mirroring and enhancing the anger of those disaffected white males, the so-called real Americans who believe their nation has been mortgaged to foreigners and minorities. Tellingly, in “The Art of the Deal,” he says of such people, “I categorize them as life’s losers, who get their sense of accomplishment and achievement from trying to stop others.” And now he has become their champion, a fact he makes explicit in "Crippled America":

Nobody likes a loser and nobody likes to be bullied. Yet, here we stand today, the greatest superpower on Earth, and everyone is eating our lunch. That's not winning.

In chapter two of “The Art of the Deal,” Trump lists the key strategies for success (“Trump Cards,” he calls them). These include “KNOW YOUR MARKET,” “USE YOUR LEVERAGE,” “GET THE WORD OUT” and “FIGHT BACK.” This is exactly how he has run his campaign. He has found his market in those disaffected white “losers” and presented himself as the only one who can turn them into winners. His leverage, his unique selling point, derives from his being self-funded, free from having to bow to pressure groups and the political correctness he despises, and therefore free to use the sort of abusive and bullying language career politicians do not dare to use. When his opponents have called him out for this, he has taken advantage of the publicity, “fighting back” with yet more invective and slander, and in doing so has succeeded in dominating every media outlet the world over. In “Crippled America,” he says:

I don’t mind being attacked. I use the media the way the media uses me―to attract attention… So sometimes I make outrageous comments and give them what they want… I’m a businessman with a brand to sell.

To Donald Trump, the presidency is a deal—a big deal, one he is determined to win at all costs. He continues to be motivated by the same thing that has spurred him on for the last 30 years — “kicks” — which in the context of his presidential bid seem to mean power, fame, celebrity, grandeur and, his ultimate goal, winning.

To these ends, Trump is quite prepared to turn America’s white barbarian id loose, that same force that created the Ku Klux Klan, the same force that led a 21-year-old to open fire inside a church during a prayer service in Charleston, that led a man to murder three Muslims over a parking dispute in Chapel Hill. By combining white male entitlement with economic frustration and the rhetoric of decline, he has turned what used to be a largely private, masked pathology into a mass, public phenomenon. His rallies have been attended by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and Klansmen, characterized by racism and violence; in 2015 two of his supporters beat up a homeless Hispanic man with a metal rod in Boston.

And this would appear to be only the beginning. Even if Trump goes no further than winning the Republican candidacy, he still has at least six more months to continue to displace that legal and ethical superego (that he calls political correctness) with his own brand of American psychopathy. Even if a Democrat is inaugurated in 2017, it may be years before this damage can be undone.

Twenty-five years ago, Simon & Schuster cancelled their publication of “American Psycho” (Vintage picked it up almost immediately) owing to its “sadistic contents,” while Otto Friedrich wrote in the New York Times that, “I think that this repulsive novel will contribute to the violence that afflicts our society.” Ironically, however, it was Simon & Schuster who published “Crippled America” in 2015, calling it “the must-read book of the year,” and it was Otto Friedrich who wrote Time’s famous cover story on Trump in 1989, concluding that he would probably end up like Howard Hughes, “a multibillionaire living all alone in one room.”

Yet here we are in 2016, with Donald Trump poised to become the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidency of the United States. In 1991, Brett Easton Ellis showed us the psychopathic culture of mergers and acquisitions on '80s Wall Street, but if Donald Trump becomes president we could see an entire nation sway in this direction. We could witness poorer, economically disenfranchised versions of Patrick Bateman come out of hiding and into the streets to claim what is “rightfully” theirs. Even if Trump should fail in his bid for the presidency, history will surely adjudge "Crippled America" as a more harmful book than "American Psycho," and Donald Trump a more malevolent figure than any other American psychopath, one who stands poised to change the moral character of a nation for decades to come.

By Rajeev Balasubramanyam

Rajeev Balasubramanyam is the author of the Betty Trask Prize-winning "In Beautiful Disguises" and "The Dreamer." In 2004 he was awarded the Clarissa Luard Prize for the best British writer under the age of 35. His newest book, "Starstruck," is a novel in 10 parts each "starring" a different celebrity. It will be serialized from May 16 by The Pigeonhole. You can sign up for it here.

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2016 Elections American Psycho Books Bret Easton Ellis Donald Trump Editor's Picks The Art Of The Deal