Five Fictional Villains Endlessly More Fascinating than Donald Trump
Michael Shannon is an actor known for his talent for playing complex and often malevolent characters, so it was interesting to consider his response when he was asked in a Playboy interview if he would ever want to play current global arch-villain Donald Trump.
Of course Shannon exploded.
“This Fucking guy doesn’t even know what’s in the constitution. He doesn’t have any grasp of history or politics or law or anything. He’s just blindfolded, throwing darts at the side of a bus.”
The tirade continued. But in short, Shannon couldn’t imagine playing such a shallow, empty villain.
Maybe that’s one reason Trump is so doubly despised: the fact of his vapidity and complete lack of talent, and lack of any awe-inspiring qualities beyond his father’s money and tabloid personality. We want our villains to be capable. Evil is always more compelling when it’s less cartoonish than Trump.
Of course Trump’s followers point to his tremendous wealth as evidence of his greatness, but really there’s nothing more boring and less impressive than an inherited fortune. Neither is an impressive resume required for scoring points on reality television, as evidenced by Ozzy Osbourne, the Kardashians and the cast of Jersey Shore, &c, &c.
So that got me to thinking. Storytellers have a knack for crafting interesting villains. Through empathy, awe or a vicious suite of dark qualities, some of the greatest antagonists in literature and film have been endowed with a range of devious traits and moral complexities to render them endlessly fascinating.
And most of these are qualities that the current president lacks.
I’ve decided to list a few such villains whom I find more interesting than Donald Trump. I’m sure that plenty others abound, but these are the first to leap to mind.
I’m not referring to the Sun-Times film critic, but rather Richard Onslow Roper, the billionaire arms dealer in John LeCarré’s first post-Cold War novel The Night Manager. Famously portrayed by Hugh Laurie in Susanne Bier’s excellent BBC adaptation, this is the villain on my list whose biography most resembles Tump’s.
Roper was born into wealth and has lived is life with the sole purpose of increasing it. He has a particularly nihilistic view of capitalism, which his how he justifies the fact that his trade in weapons increases misery by fueling global conflicts. His reasoning: someone’s bound to get rich selling arms, so it might as well be him.
Like Trump, he also has a specific contempt for the laws and structures that constrain his capacity for making money and otherwise prevent him from doing whatever the hell he feels like doing.
But contempt for the rule of law and total self-absorption are where the similarities end.
Unlike Trump, Roper has an ideology, dark and soulless thought it may be. He also has a grace and intellect with which to clearly express it to his cadre of supporters, including the undercover protagonist, Jonathan Pine. An even though Pine considers Roper to be “the worst man in the world” for, among other things, murdering his girlfriend, you can still feel the protagonist beginning to succumb to Roper’s magnetism throughout the novel.
Roper is handsome, svelte and intellectual. While Trump’s grace, physique and intellectual complexity hearken a cross between an over-the-hill WWE wrestler and Newt Gingrich, Roper more resembles Roger Moore in his heyday. There is a dangerous sort of charisma around Roper that draws people to him for more reasons beyond just his vast fortune. He possesses a dark elegance, a refined taste and a firm grasp the geopolitical universe, which he uses to his own advantage.
Unlike Trump, he clearly reads his security briefings.
The arch villain in J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy resembles Trump in his one-dimensionality. His mind is a great, black hole. Not much subtlety going on behind that big, burning eye. And also like Trump, he inhabits a dark tower, though without feeling the need to stamp his name in three story letters on the outside.
Unlike Trump, though, Sauron has a plan. Trump’s rise to power seems largely accidental, aided by his inherited wealth, the broken system of the Electoral College, Russian election interference, the odd American phenomenon of reality television and the corrupt desperation of the GOP.
Sauron, though, wasn’t handed his position of power. Instead he played long game that lasted thousands of years. He rose through the ranks, serving as a lieutenant for an earlier dark lord. He’s the self-made boot-strapper of Republican mythology. His plan involved such cleverness as tricking the enlightened Elven craftsmen into forging him rings of power, which he would ultimately corrupt and bend to his own grand scheme.
Sauron was a student of ancient dark arts for millennia. He had preternatural patience and forethought. It’s hard to imagine Trump thinking much beyond the day’s episode of Fox & Friends or his next fish filet sandwich.
Add to that the fact that Sauron’s power is formidable. He reigns his kingdom with an iron fist. There are no leakers or defectors: no Omorosas.
I fear that Sauron is the type of leader that Trump wants to be, and also the one that his supporters dream about.
But thankfully there are complications that prevent it. First, Trump’s not that smart, patient or devious. And then there’s that whole democracy/constitution thing.
It’s hard to separate the deplorable Kevin Spacey from the deplorable character he played in House of Cards. But both have something in common with the deplorable Donald Trump. They’re all sociopaths and see the nation and its political system only as a way to further their own ambitions. And none of them have any particular problems with sexual assault.
But Spacey’s Underwood is solely focused on power, while Trump is only interested in the trappings of power and the ability of the presidency to increase his own wealth and gild his toilet seats.
And another difference: Underwood is incredibly adept at governing, something which confounds Trump and the GOP as a whole. Spacey’s character orchestrates deals between rival factions with such clever scheming that it exposes the fraud of Trump’s self-proclaimed deal-making prowess.
There are other dissimilarities. While Trump gravitates toward trophy wives, Underwood’s contractual marriage is merely a brokered power deal. He’s chosen his wife Claire for her smarts and ruthlessness, not as adornment. While this doesn’t make him more admirable, it does add some of the depth that Trump lacks.
Underwood isn’t concerned with appearances or tawdry displays of wealth and privilege.
And then there’s the character’s whole rowing-machine obsession, showing that, unlike Trump, Underwood isn’t adverse to some exercise.
Javert most resembles Trump in his pathological obsession with the protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean. Javert relentlessly pursues Valjean. Ample evidence of the fugitive-hero’s goodness and innocence matter not to the inspector: Javert wants to “lock him up” because he’s promised to do so. In his black and white view of the world, it is the only reasonable course of action.
Trump’s obsession with the equally tragic figure of Barack Obama, as well as his obsession with locking up Hillary Clinton (not due to any understanding of legality, but just because it sounds good when a crowd chants it in front of him) is where his resemblance to the complex Javert begins to fade.
The good inspector was born in prison, not into a fabulously wealthy family. He also read books, if begrudgingly. He wasn’t interested in his own comfort or power, but rather a dogmatic felicity to the rule of law. Trump, if he even understands the concept of rule of law, only has contempt for it as a constraint upon his own wealth and power.
Like all great antagonists, Javert embodies a certain moral complexity and his adherence to his sense of duty and loyalty to his beliefs. The reader can relate to the more human and tragic elements of him, so that when he throws himself into the Seine at the end of the novel after 1,200 pages of pursuing our hero, we feel not relief but an ambiguous sort of sadness.
I suspect that we wouldn’t feel that same pinch of conscience for the cartoonish and one-dimensional Trump should he meet a similar fate.
It may not be fair to include Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter in this list of villains…he might be considered more of an anti-hero. But then he did kill and eat people, so that’s still pretty bad.
But unlike Trump, Lecter had a sense of justice. His victims deserved it. Trump, though, doesn’t work from any sense of morality, warped or otherwise. All that matters is what’s good for him. Was someone on his campaign embezzling money? Were his business partners guilty of fraud? Paying off porn stars? What about groping women (or just bragging about it)? Is courting Vladimir Putin’s favor a gross violation of our national geopolitical interest? Doesn’t matter as long as they are loyal to Trump and serve his own twisted sense of vanity.
Another difference: Lecter is a refined man of taste. While his “fava beans and a nice Chianti” line has become something of a cliché, one would never imagine Trump uttering such a phrase given his limited vocabulary, his penchant for McDonald’s and his gauche exhibition of the “dictator chic” style.
One small similarity may be the narrative. In Silence of the Lambs, the devious and imprisoned Lecter somehow manages to convince an inmate in the neighboring cell to commit suicide by swallowing his own tongue. I wouldn’t doubt that Trump could manage a similar feat, as anyone locked in solitary next to him for any amount of time might be tempted to do the same.
So those are my top five. I’m sure there are plenty of others, and I’d love to hear suggestions.
Of course, there are a host of real-world counterparts who rival Trump in their clownish mendacity, from Putin to Maduro and Duterte. But somehow they’re all just a little scarier. With the exception of Kim Jong Un, they don’t quite reach Trump’s overtly vapid narcissism partnered with such a stark absence of intellect or talent. I suppose the most frustrating thing is the notion that our democracy might ultimately be undermined by such a banal figure.