If you’re at all like me, you spent a good hour or so yesterday trying to follow Donald Trump’s rambling press conference. While we can certainly debate the merits or lack thereof of his arguments against the media and his own assessment of his first month in office, one thing that struck me as I was listening to him was that for all of the tangents he took, President Trump essentially stuck to one of the classic narratives or story-shapes that Kurt Vonnegut describes in his essay collection A Man Without a Country. That story-shape is the “Man in the Hole” narrative, and Vonnegut charted it on a graph like this:
This diagram illustrates what Vonnegut saw as one of the essential shapes a story can take. In this instance, the X-axis is time, and the Y-axis represents fortune. The way the story works is that things are going along okay for someone, but then bad fortune strikes (e.g., falling into a hole), but through trials and tribulations, the man gets out of the hole, and everything not only returns to normal but is actually better than it was before.
We see this story-shape all the time — especially in movie trailers. For example, how many movie trailers have you seen that begin with something like “It was just another day for Steve Jenkins…” and then go on to describe the rug being pulled out from under the hero only for the hero to fight his way to victory? The reason so many stories share this shape is that it’s one we understand. We’ve heard it so many times that we don’t have to think about it. And because we’re so used to it, it’s a story that’s very easy for us to digest.
The genius of Trump’s press conference is that whenever he returned to his notes, he came back to this very story-shape. Everything was going fine for him–great, in fact! He’d just had an amazing inauguration in which, according to him, the clouds parted and the rain stopped while he was being sworn in. But then he fell into a hole–in this case, the mess he claims to have inherited upon taking over as President of the United States. As if that weren’t bad enough, he then embarked on a series of trials and tribulations: according to Trump, the press was creating fake news, leakers were leaking classified information, and the confluence of the two forced him to let his National Security Advisor go…
But then there was the payoff. Starting next week, he promised, things are going to be great (again). He’s going to roll out some new plans that will change everyone’s lives. Sure, the press will still continue to hound him and give him a hard time, but the American people will see through their lies and very quickly begin to reap the benefits of Trump’s new plan.
It’s a good story, one whose basic mechanics have been tested time and again in books and movies and deftly illustrated in Vonnegut’s chart. What’s more, whether one believes the story is almost beside the point. What matters for Trump is that he’s fitting into a narrative that we understand–the narrative of the everyday man who falls upon bad fortune but emerges a hero.
What could be more American than that?