I started to make sense of Donald Trump when I learned about story structure from Donald Miller, an
author originally from the Houston area. Understanding the elements of what makes a story great in books and in life helped me see pain and suffering – the kind our country is experiencing – from a lens of necessity versus inconvenience or unfairness. And by doing so, I’ve stopped asking “why?” I know why.
"Writing a story isn't about making your peaceful fantasies come true,” Miller wrote in his book A Million Miles In a Thousand Years, describing his interaction with a creative writing instructor teaching him about story. “The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn't think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it's conflict that changes a person. You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That's the only way we change."
If that’s true, which I believe it is, this country is on the brink of great change, because the joy of seeing our first black president – our peaceful fantasy come true – wasn’t meant to permanently change our country, because it didn’t. If it did, we wouldn’t be having outdated conversations about equality, civility and humanity.
No, it’s the pain Donald Trump has inflicted on this country – the kind that makes little kids cry out of fear of losing their families in Jorge Ramos’ documentary Hate Rising – that will determine our character arc.
Miller hypnotized me with story when I first read Million Miles, which chronicled his experience writing a movie script with two Nashville filmmakers for his first best-seller Blue like Jazz, a book described as a collection of essays about Miller's evolving understanding of God.
In the process of writing the script for Jazz depicted in Million Miles, he and the two guys from Nashville insert fiction into the story of Miller’s real life character to make the story more interesting. That bothers him. He realizes that if he lived better stories maybe they wouldn’t have to make stuff up to ensure his movie mattered.
He goes on an academic exploration of what makes a good story, learning the dynamics of heroes (think Daniel LaRusso in Karate Kid), guides (think Mr. Miyagi), villains (Cobra Kai) and character transformation (who Daniel becomes after the crane kick). As a result, Miller starts living a riskier, more adventurous and meaningful life, which is what Million Miles is about. He inspired thousands, like me, to do the same. In the journey of understanding story, Miller finds that when something grand is at stake – like a life, lives, or a country’s identity – the story can be great.
We can’t see it now, because we’re in the middle of our own story, but Donald Trump won’t go down as bringing out the worst in America, but the best. That’s what villains do. At some point in Rocky IV, you stopped seeing Drago as the guy who killed Apollo. You saw him as the person who inspired Rocky to do the impossible. At some point you stopped seeing the Cobra Kai as the bullies who beat up Daniel LaRusso. You saw them as the group of kids who carved him into a champion.
Donald Trump is no different. That’s why he’s here, whether we know it or not; whether he knows it or not. He’s here to be our villain and to bring out the best in us. That’s how we will remember him. Somehow that gives me peace in an atmosphere of anxiety.
In December of last year, I took a road trip from Houston to Tennessee with a good friend of mine going through a major life transition, so that I could study under Miller for a couple of days. I thought it would be a good story and what we both needed at the time. There, nestled in the beauty of Franklin, Tennessee, Miller told me heroes and villains are more alike than they are different. They both have a backstory of pain. The difference is how they metabolize it.
Heroes have a redemptive quality to them. They find meaning in the pain. They want to save people. The villain, on the other hand, seeks vengeance for their suffering. They want to make you pay for their pain. Miller taught me something else: Heroes and villains are both victims, but only one takes on the role. I see a lot of pain in Donald Trump’s eyes. I see that he wants to make communities that have made America great for a long time pay for that pain.
And that’s why we must defeat him. So that this country can become its greater self and shed its dead skin of hate and intolerance. Reads like a line from a trailer about a great movie, doesn’t it? It could have been a terrible one. Had Donald Trump resigned his candidacy – like many called for him to do – a great story would have been lost. Imagine Drago not taking the fight against Rocky because they couldn’t agree to deal terms, or if the Cobra Kai decided to fight at a different tournament last minute, leaving Daniel LaRusso high and dry with no chance at redemption. Those movies would have never saw the light of day.
You need the enemy to show up in order to tell a great story. There's the "why" of Donald Trump’s candidacy for president, if you’re looking for it.
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I have written about President Barack Obama being a peaceful fantasy come true. That’s not to minimize him or the work done by people who elected him, but to put his moment into proper context. We saw Obama as the beginning of a new era but it was really the ending of a great story – the signal of a new one about to begin. He represented joy after lots of pain. Obama becoming president was the Rocky “everybody can change” speech. It was the “Daniel being hosted in the air with the trophy” moment.
Everything that came before that was hard. Women’s suffrage in the United States, The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Act of 1965, Roe vs. Wade, Brown vs. the Board of Education, same sex marriage becoming a nationwide right. These are all civil rights milestones that may have brought joyful celebrations. But they cost lives, human dignity, and physical, emotional and mental hardship that lasted decades.
That’s how this country has evolved. That’s how we’ll continue to evolve. Because that’s how stories are written. Characters being put through hardships so they can find elation on the other side of hell.
You didn't think joy could change a country, did you?