Villains, Democracy and Reality


I suppose you could create a fictional character who was xenophobic, misogynistic, grotesque and despicable. And for good measure, you could give him a ridiculous hairpiece and have him run for President.

But what would be the point of that? Would anyone want to read it? It’s generally supposed that for a book to work, its main character needs to be likeable. Which is why we get works of fiction that focus on politics, but not a lot that focus on politicians.

There are exceptions. Notably House of Cards, the modern day spin off from Richard III. In both cases we know from the outset – because the main character tells us – that we’re dealing with villains. The reason these dramas work is because we’re fascinated – yet horrified – by the dastardliness and cunning of Frank and Richard. And also, of course, because we’re eager to see their comeuppance.

That would be one way of doing it. Let the protagonist succeed up to a point, but make sure he gets his just deserts in the end. The problem being that if we respect reality, our loathsome character, even if he never gets to be President, is likely to go unpunished.

Is that such a problem, though? One reason for the success of Game of Thrones is precisely that, dragons and White Walkers notwithstanding, it does conform to reality in one important respect: sometimes the bad guys win.

But Game of Thrones is set in a distant, mythical past – when villains are that far removed, we can put up with them getting their way now and then. Today though? We’re fed up enough as it is with the blackguards and crooks who rule us going unscathed – we don’t want it in fiction too.

So how else can we deal with it? Laughing at them is a possibility. We love to see our politicians skewered on Spitting Image or The Thick Of It. And we rejoice in freedom of speech, because in Russia or China they can’t even do that. Orwell got it wrong, we say – democracy won in the end.

But Orwell didn’t get it wrong, because he wasn’t predicting anything, he was warning. Be careful or it might happen – don’t let it! Where he was wide of the mark was in supposing that for it to happen, you’d need the whole arsenal of Thought Police, censorship, brutality and repression. You don’t. All you need is people sleepwalking into a nightmare.

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t poke fun at our politicians. There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam that way. But lately, to be honest, things have been getting scary, and not just in the U.S. When you get a bunch of self-serving oafs changing the course of a country’s future by telling whatever lies they think will work, it really isn’t funny any more.

But then, it’s often said that we get the politicians we deserve. So do the right thing, America. Don’t let the rest of the world say you deserved it.