He Who Must Not Be Named: why is Trump unnamed in so many books?

‘The dictator’, ‘this man’, ‘the president’ – over the last four years, authors have gone out of their way to avoid Trump’s name. But why?

During the Trump era – which, all being well, will draw to a close in January – the novel has flourished, with writers continuing to interrogate the purpose of fiction in a time when facts are crucial. But many novelists have been reluctant to name the man himself. It is as though Trump is Voldemort, or He Who Must Not Be Named. I first noticed this in Ali Smith’s novel Winter: “An American President is making a speech … The same American President is encouraging the Scouts of America, gathered at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, to boo the last President and to boo the name of his own opponent in last year’s election.”

Why, I wondered, not say his name? Then I read Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, in which he shifts into Trump’s voice without naming him: “I helped create her, Ivanka, my daughter, Ivanka, she’s six feet tall, she’s got the best body, she made a lot of money.” Then in Jenny Offill’s Weather: “There is a miniature American flag by the register now, right beside the postcard of Ganesh. But Mohan is not worried. ‘Even if this man wins, he will not stay,’ he tells me. ‘Now he has money, planes, beautiful things. He is a bird. Why be a bird in a cage?”

Why are novelists not naming this man? The reasons will naturally vary author to author, but it is not fear or superstition, as far as I can tell. There are many similar examples: in Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, in The Captain and the Glory by Dave Eggers, in Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Doubtless many writers did not want to feed Trump’s narcissism; Alam perhaps put it most neatly when he said in an interview that “one of the frustrations of sharing the planet with him is the way he’s forced us to see everything as somehow related to him”.

JK Rowling has said that she based the wizarding world’s fear of naming Voldemort on various authoritarian regimes, and the reign of the Kray twins. “The story goes that people didn’t speak the name Kray,” she said in an interview. “You didn’t talk about them, because retribution was so brutal and so bloody.” It brings to mind the omertà surrounding the mafia in parts of Italy.

But writers are not generally a fearful bunch. It was while reading an essay in Zadie Smith’s collection Intimations – in which she also doesn’t name Trump – that I wondered if his fictive quality has played a part in his going unnamed. “He speaks the truth so rarely that when you hear it from his own mouth – 29th March 2020 – it has the force of revelation,” Smith writes. Is it that Trump, who so blatantly inhabits a world of untruths, is stranger than fiction? A caricature so extreme that writers feel a need to yank back some agency by not naming him?

My colleague Jonathan Freedland has written three thrillers – To Kill the President, To Kill the Truth and To Kill a Man – during the Trump era, all of which refer to “the President”. “I knew from the start that I wanted the president to be off-stage in the novel, his antics recounted by others rather than seen directly,” he tells me. “That was partly because I suspected that the figure of Trump would loom so large in the mind of the reader that no fictional president could compete. Which also meant that there was no real need to describe him: the reader would already have a notion of such a president in their mind.” Hoping that Trump’s term would only last four years, he did not want his books to date too quickly.

In Patricia Lockwood’s forthcoming No One Is Talking About This, Trump is “the dictator”. “The trouble was,” she writes, “that they had a dictator now, which, according to some people (white), they had never had before, and according to other people (everyone else), they had only ever been having, constantly, since the beginning of the world.” Dictators are often absurdist figures, and Lockwood’s use of the term adds to the novel’s humour: “Twice a month she and her husband had an argument about whether she would be able to seduce the dictator in order to bring him down. ‘I don’t know that he would even recognise you as a woman,’ he said doubtfully, but she maintained that all she needed was a long blonde wig.”

Lockwood’s decision to not name Trump was a reference to this wider tendency to not name him, she says. “I was reading Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia just before the election, and noted that she had trouble naming Berlusconi. Refusal to name Trump is seen among my more leftist cohort as a sort of neoliberal indulgence, a useless piece of individualistic coyness. But for a writer, it has a purpose: it is the refusal to reproduce his trademark among the text, to put his brand on another building, a building where real people live.”

In Frantumaglia, Ferrante writes: “I drink another cup of tea, leaving on the monitor a long white space, then I began again from the beginning, still reluctantly. I wrote ‘Silvio Berlu,’ tapping the keys with one finger. ‘Sconi’ I added later and felt annoyed.”

It is annoying to use Trump’s name, just as it is annoying (to put it mildly) that the man is in power at all. There remains, even now, something unspeakable about him. For Polly Samson, her decision not to name him came from a place of strong disdain. In A Theatre of Dreamers, Trump is peripheral – “At the port this morning, as I idled with my one good bitter espresso of the day, watching the mules being led away from the boats with their cargoes, the news of the new President found me” – but he represents a failure of the dreams of the 1960s, “the world spinning backwards,” as she has it. “I would have found it impossible and the thought of his name being there forever, a bile-coloured blot, and having to read it aloud would make me vom,” Samson says.

Yet there can be power using a name, too. In Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann names Trump many times over the book’s 1,000 pages, but this is my favourite: “Trump called Melania a ‘monster’ when she was pregnant, and maybe she is a monster, but he’s one to talk, big fat bully.” In other words, she calls him exactly what he is.


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The GuardianTramp

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