Why America as a nation, is a mirror image of the mythical, fictional Dorian Gray, the infamously vain, self-absorbed but undeniably attractive man.
Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray, scandalised and entranced its Victorian audience. It tells the story of an aesthetically gifted, but morally compromised, young man who, while his portrait is being painted by a skilled but all-too-adoring acolyte, is persuaded that a life of self-indulgence is the best way to live. Realising that his own youthful beauty will be degraded by this way of life, he condemns his portrait to bearing the burden of his hedonism rather than himself.
Dorian moves ahead with his life of narcissism, creating pain and misery for those who fall for his allure. Early on, after causing a lover’s suicide through his callousness, he notices that his portrait, true to his wish, now shows a streak of cruelty in an otherwise faultless face. He hides the portrait in a locked attic and carries on unaffected.
After years of debauchery, with his own youthful beauty outwardly unchanged, his portrait becomes grotesque and disfigured. Dorian, tired of his depravity, and, seeking some sort of salvation, checks to see if his portrait reflects his own recent conversion to rectitude.
The portrait is even more hideous than before, so Dorian, with his underdeveloped sense of personal responsibility, decides to destroy the evidence of his misspent years. He cuts the picture up.
Cries of distress are heard and the locked room which holds the portrait is opened by Dorian’s servants. They see the famous portrait, still as beautiful as ever after all these years, and an unrecognisable, disfigured, old man stabbed to death. They cannot identify the corpse until the rings on the dead man’s fingers identify the lifeless body as Dorian’s.
Dorian Grey as the American Nation
In its time, The Picture of Dorian Gray was a sharp critique of a society that was clinging to a lost grandeur and a mythic past by valorising a veneer of moral probity while its day-to-day grim reality was kept from sight. It is a subtle and multi-layered portrayal, but it still was deemed obscene by the Victorian establishment, who preferred pretence to honesty. Today, it can be retold as a simpler American tale – a parable of vanity, willful blindness and moral shirking - hidden from view by a lustrous myth of virtue, which all become apparent when the portrait becomes visible and its utter ugliness can no longer be ignored.
No, this is not “The Picture of Donald Trump” despite its seeming fit.
In this parable, America, the nation, is Dorian Gray. A vain, self-absorbed but undeniably attractive nation, clothed from birth with the nobility of the European Enlightenment, a nation raised on the mother’s milk of justice, liberty, opportunity, equality and freedom - of speech, ideas and religion. The darker (pun intended) but essential parts of the young nation’s nutrition – slavery, racism, indigenous land confiscation followed by rapacious exploitation and amoral capitalism – were not denied or hidden but rather reimagined as “manifest destiny” - a divine right of light-skinned immigrants to flourish at the expense of others. The ugliness was there from the start but perhaps was perceived as a transient blemish, like acne, or, more likely, as a necessary but unmentionable bodily function. Whatever the justification for the ugliness, it certainly would not be part of the portrait painted by countless admirers. In the early 20th century, the “American Dream”, a fantasy that anyone could, with the requisite ingenuity and determination, rise to the top of the heap, began to find common expression. Not expressed, but a necessary feature of “the Dream”, was a “heap” of humanity that could be climbed over, or trodden down, to serve as a pedestal to exhibit one’s success.
Donald Trump is, in this parable, the Portrait, the representation of the American Dream. His rise in New York was noticed, even celebrated in some circles, but not closely examined, much like a pretty, paint-by-numbers, garage sale piece titled “The American Dream”. He, of course, trumpeted his glories as loudly and crassly as possible. He spun a tale of a plucky kid from Queens who made his way in the cutthroat world of real estate by outsmarting his opponents, by seizing opportunities that frightened others, by being bold rather than timid and was duly rewarded with riches, fame and an seemingly endless stream of beautiful consorts.
It was all a lie, a grift. Before the fraud was fully exposed, he starred in a second-rate reality show where he lorded it over a series of supplicants, all hoping to emulate his greatness. He became famous for being famous much like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Trump as the embodiment of the “American Dream” reached its fabled pinnacle when he was elected President of the United States.
Trump’s Presidency has forced America to stare at its own portrait. Many see the grotesque hideousness of the nation, but many continue to see only American purity and beauty. However, it seems that the majority think that Trump is not a portrait of America, not the natural progeny of its fundamental way of being, but rather an inexplicable poseur who somehow managed to get rich, famous and powerful while America was distracted.
Trump is a pathetic, small, mean, corrupt and wounded man-child. He has lied, cheated, bullied and raped his way to his current state. He is, in actuality, the complete antithesis of the hero of the American Dream narrative yet, at the same time, he is the inevitable product of it. His outward successes are built not on virtues extolled in public but on vices exploited in private. Such is the American way. He is President because he genuinely reflects American values. He really is a portrait of America.
Trump will win again in November if enough Americans still find their ugliness, as revealed in their analogous Trumpian version of Wilde’s portrait, attractive.
If, however, Trump is defeated, struck down by the American electorate - proverbially stabbed in the heart - will America see its own ugly, distorted and disfigured corpse, recognisable only by the Constitutional ring on its finger? Or will it, once again, avert its gaze and turn to the pretty picture of the American Dream, now restored by Joe Biden, and once again be infatuated with its image of unblemished youthful beauty and vitality while the ugliness and corruption that are its lifeblood are denied, justified or simply ignored.
Trump is not, it must be said, a portrait of Americans. America is home to all human types: saints and sinners, artists and philistines, geniuses and morons, heroes and cowards. Americans are not represented by Donald Trump but, as a nation, America bears his image because it has refused to countenance its self-serving, disgraceful and unconscionable journey to its present state. Sadly, it may continue to do so.