Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial

Trump Towers Vs. Downton Abbey

Fiction and your politics

Posted Mar 09, 2016

Stories are parables: they’re tools that put problems in a form that’s easier to think about. [1] Many stories take special significance during an election cycle, since audiences use them, wittingly or not, to think about the leaders and policies they’ll support in the voting booth. Some of these tales, such as Ronald Reagan’s tall tale of the black Cadillac welfare queen, are concocted with a particular audience and prejudices in mind. . Industrial-scale stories on TV and in the movies are usually more cleverly ambiguous, since they have to please a broader, paying audience.  Some of the these narratives are genre formulas such as the romance novel.  But even stereotypes suggest a message.  

This is one reason Downton Abbey caught my attention.  The show attracted a large, faithful audience, and PBS pushed it hard.  After the final episode on March 6th, the actors crowded into the frame to wave goodbye. The sheer number of them made it clear that the story is about groups of people and the social system directing their lives. Then, thinking how the plot brought so many earlier characters back to the house for Edith’s climactic wedding, I had a second flash. Downton Abbey dramatizes a cultural fantasy of inclusion.

By contrast, the stories Donald Trump spins in his campaign for president are fantasies of exclusion. Trump is famous for his stories about ignorant Mexican rapists, slack blacks, and a wall to keep out barbarian job thieves and Muslim terrorists.  Instead of groups, his campaign celebrates the Great Man theory of history, with You-Know-Who calling the shots.

Already in this contrast you can begin to see the psychological character of progressives and conservatives. It’s possible or even probable that progressives are drawn to Downton, while Trump conservatives applaud shows whose invincible heroes have the authority of strict fathers. 

  • In the Trump story, Donald Trump is a solo act: a strongman and forceful winner who intimidates opponents and flips properties and contracts with casino-style daring. He’s the ruthless big boss who insults and fires losers on TV. He estimates the worth of his name alone at $3billion.  He threatens to sue anyone who gets in his way, as if he embodies the force of law. [2]
  • In Downton Abbey, society is a system. In practice, authority is widely shared and conditional. The nominal strict father is Robert Crawley, the earl. But in fact, he is a peacemaker and compromiser, not to mention a teddy-bear of a dad.  He helps the wrongly imprisoned Bates and ultimately promotes to butler the gay Barrows, who has managed a Scrooge-like sentimental reform. His mother, Violet Crawley, has a waspish tongue and regal manner. But she too turns out to be wise and forgiving about matters of the heart.
  • Of sterner stuff is the traditional butler Mr. Carson. Yet Carson’s authority has to yield to modernity too. Though he becomes a curmudgeon about equality and gender roles, his wife, the mild Mrs. Hughes, domesticates him, calling him “my curmudgeon.”  In the end the earl gracefully eases Carson out to pasture.  Retired, he and his wife call each other by their first names at last (Charlie and Elsie), and the gay Barrows steps into Carson’s shoes, a once unthinkable adjustment.
  • Trump acts the military Superman, able to cow all enemies, whereas in Downton, war is out of control and wasteful.  The great house is turned into a hospital, and Mrs Patmore the cook is devastated to learn that her traumatized nephew has been unjustly shot for cowardice during WW I.
  • By boasting and mocking losers, Trump plays up a cult of personality. His put-downs have physical force, like a tackle in football, partly because of their calculated vulgarity.  They turn their targets into losers. This is a partly a consequence of conservative rhetoric and rant media, which keep escalating the language of indignation and attack in search of some knockout authenticity. But the climactic blow never comes. Instead feeling veers off toward hysteria, as in: "China’s unbalanced trade with the United States, [Trump] said Tuesday night, is “the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
  • In Downton Abbey, the social code values modesty, even self-effacement or sacrifice. It’s as if the open display of privilege produces a reflex regard for temperance.
  • To be a winner, as countless researchers have demonstrated, Trump exults in brazen lies.  But he’s like a great conqueror, whose force entitles him to remake reality to suit his vision. [3]  As John Oliver has pointed out, Trump has made his name a brand name, and in funhouse of American advertising, brand names are meant to make people gullible.
  • Despite the hypocrisy built into the social code, upstairs and downstairs at Downton want to believe that what’s proper should also be what’s right. It’s as if the artifice of manners makes honesty especially valuable. After soul-searching and near disaster, Lady Edith tells the truth to her new mother-in-law. It’s soap opera of course, but the need to believe is real. Sometimes only the artistry of the production is able to disguise the soap opera artifice.
  • Trump and conservatives emphasize strict morality. If you fail, you’re a loser and it’s your own fault. If another country such as China competes in a troublesome way, they're "ripping us off" and you retaliate. The conservative language of authority and absolutes favors an "us vs. them" mentality. When prejudices complicate the purity of judgment, Trump and others rely on code words to disparage blacks and the poor, for example.  His mockery of PC political correctness, for example, is conservative code for hostility toward gay rights and feminism. "Socialism" is code for an attack on inclusion and visions of community. 
  • In Downton, character and society try to be flexible because as the plot insists, everybody’s vulnerable to accidents and misinterpretation. Mr Bates and Anna are wrongly accused, while infatuation led Baxter to crime in the past. People make peace with their prejudices. When Marigold’s illegitimacy comes to light, Bertie and Lady Edith break off at first because it seems right. In the end, the house comes to appreciate the gay Barrows, and Baxter’s empathy saves him from his suicide attempt.
  • Trump equates economics with smart business practices. The sharp deal is the cure for unemployment and poverty.  Examples include buying distressed contracts and flipping them, as in the casino finance that climaxed in the banking catastrophe of 2007-2009. “Get back to business,” he says—that is, make a profit. Trump’s billionaire genius would replace the thousands of incompetent hacks who work in government. He “loves” some trade partners such as China, but indicts them for “ripping us off.” We’re suckers, but he can wise us up.
  • Downton Abbey dramatizes guiltless wealth purified by the mists of history. It’s a system, with yeoman farmer and estate manager both knowing their parts. Sweat and oppression are dissolved by tradition. Lady Mary and Edith accidently stumble into management responsibilities and, as it happens, love it.  Mary’s new husband Henry teams up with Tom to start an auto dealership. They’ll sell cars to wealthy buyers. Capital for a startup is no problem, nor are competition, monopoly, and sharp practice. It’s not corporate, it’s personal.
  • Trump is in sympathy with the servants at Downton in his respect for Medicare and social security. Conservatives these days repudiate public investment and public insurance, keeping tax money private. In his actual practices, Trump shows some sympathy with the usual conservative convictions.
  • In Downton, taxes are a burden magnified by the limited productivity of landed wealth.  The estate’s economic stress rationalizes the skimpy wages paid downstairs, though the servants' frugality pays off. With Mrs Patmore the cook owning her own B&B, and the Bateses and Carsons enjoying houses, Downton’s servants seem relatively well-off by historical standards. The rosy blush at the bottom is partly soap opera economics.  But it also points to another deep political difference.
  • Trump and this year’s conservatism foregrounds aggressive growth.  The candidates bite each other in debates the same way they attack social insurance: for the implied payoff of more growth. Stress and expectations are the elixir of prosperity. Needless to say, stress and expectations are not really conservative values. The term “conservative” is radically misused—but that’s s story for another day.
  • Downton Abby is built around a fantasy of stability that’s presumably so cherished that everybody pitches in and accepts some cutbacks here and there in order to enjoy less stressful steady-state lives. 

If we had to sum up, one of the crucial differences between these public fantasies is that Trumpish conservatism pumps for go-go deal-making and growth, along with a freedom to rebel against everyday economic hypocrisy and oppression. In Downton Abbey’s history, all is decorum.  Beauty is gently struggling to stay as eternal as it is in Keats’ “Ode.” Thanks to the script, the beauty of surroundings is supposed to be mirrored by the beauty of inner life.

You can see the difference when Trump goes to a Values Voter Summit and flashes the Bible his mum gave him. His gesture is a gesture. He’s using religion theatrically, as many in politics do: as advertising. At Downton, the traditional weddings have Anglican authority. To some extent it’s play, but participants observe the code, keeping solemn. Even attitudes toward the great house and its past have that solemnity. The system says that in an obviously imperfect world, people want to believe in community: that people can help one another.

In this way the two fantasies become clearer. In one direction Trump is making it and bidding for dominance while enjoying some boastful self-satisfaction. In the other direction, it’s trying to maintain a house and a system that—once upon a time at least—sheltered everybody: or at least the happy ones that squeeze into the camera’s view-finder for that nostalgic, sentimental wave goodbye as the curtain closes on great house.

1. For a fascinating account of stories as parable, see Mark Turner, The Literary Mind. In his many books George Lakoff does a similar sort of cognitive analysis.

2. The quality of research into Trump’s background as well as the comic treatment make this John Oliver monologue must-listening.

3.  Trump’s excesses stand out as what I call berserk style in American culture.  See The Psychology of Abandon (:Leveller’s Press, 2015).