This week, the Republicans will nominate for president a man who, when he watches the film Fight Club, would have no trouble believing that Brad Pitt's Tyler Durden is the hero.
That's a problem.
If you haven't seen Fight Club, it's about an insomniac loser, played by Edward Norton, who meets his polar opposite, a devil-may-care nihilist soap salesman, Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, and joins him to compete in an underground fight club. (First rule of Fight Club: Find a good synopsis and link to it!). The movie appears to celebrate Durden's brashness, his visceral sexuality, his umbrella of certitude, and his anti-consumerism. But then this group of men transforms from a fight club into a terrorist movement, with Durden as its leader. Durden is everything Norton's character — who has no name — is not. At the end, amidst a massive terrorist attack against an American city, Norton realizes that he actually is Durden — and tries to kill himself.
David Fincher directed the movie, based on a book by Chuck Palahniuk, and in the press hype surrounding the film, Fincher went out of his way to note that Durden was not, to him, a hero in any way. Normally, a director wouldn't have to label his characters for an audience, but such is the convention and talent of Fincher's filmmaking that, as you watch Fight Club, you can easily be consumed by its fantasy of unbridled anti-capitalist revenge and miss the veil of satire that Fincher has created over its unbridled celebration of impulsive living. As Fincher said, Tyler Durden "can deal with the conception of our lives in an idealistic fashion, but it doesn't have anything to do with the compromises of real life as modern man knows it."
Now, Donald Trump is not Tyler Durden. He's actually more like the nameless Edward Norton character, just with better luck. But Trump's voters admire their candidate for many of the same reasons that so many Fight Club viewers looked up to Durden.
Donald Trump is unexceptional. Despite his proclamations of enormity and superiority, Trump is an average human being. He just has a lot of money and a talent for being clever, and he's found a way to project an avatar of himself — "Donald Trump" — onto the stage at just the right moment. But "Donald Trump" isn't really real.
Trump is not curious. He doesn't seem to read. He has no talent for running organizations — the best anyone can say about him is that he has a real-life aversion to firing people in person and has no discernable, above-the-level-of-platitude business philosophy. He gets off on impulsive decisions. He knows that Americans get off by celebrating success that derives itself from those types of decisions. He was lucky with a television show, which resuscitated his brand at a time when his real estate empire was crumbling.
Every time Trump the TV personality clashes with reality, reality wins. Trump the personality hopes that Crooked Hillary will collapse under the weight of her own mistakes, but Trump the person can't figure his way out of his own head. Trump the personality wishes for a splashy vice presidential rollout, one of the three things between now and the election he controls entirely (the debates and the conventions are the other), and it fizzles because he can't seem to make up his mind, and is anxious about being upstaged. Trump the personality insists he doesn't need the press, but he craves their approval and cherry picks their adjectives.
So why is Trump so popular?
A large chunk of the Fight Club audience assumed that Durden was the hero. That's why Fincher had to explain that he didn't intend for Durden to be the hero. Voter affection for Trump mimics this dynamic. He is popular because he seems to live in the now, free of constraints and limits. Trump gave the GOP base a great time in the primaries by ridiculing, by bullying, by bloodying his opponents. He gives us a good time, often at his own expense, even when he doesn't realize it.
Living in the now, as Tyler Durden found, was a great way to avenge the bastards who set the rules that held him down. He's a great character in a great movie. But he's not a hero, and the world he inhabits is not the one we actually live in.