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IDEMA: Gatsby and Trump: Both tell lies to enhance image, cover up past

• Feb 21, 2018 at 1:00 PM

After one year into his presidency, how do you view President Trump? With a stock market at an all-time high, in a culture where the rich are getting much richer, and at a time when booze and drugs are afflicting so many Americans, I cannot help comparing our present time to the Roaring ‘20s.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel, "The Great Gatsby," captured the glitter and moral excesses of that era better than any other novel in our canon. Interestingly, at least to me, are the parallels between Donald J. Trump and Jay Gatsby. They are both larger than life, surrounded by beautiful women and the trappings of great wealth. They both live in palatial if somewhat garish surroundings. They both throw large parties where the hosts neither drink nor have meaningful relationships with the guests. The wealth of both men is tainted by mystery — where did it all come from?

Both men are also products of ancestors who were relatively recent immigrants, and both men rose from their origins to achieve the American Dream (e.g., wealth, power and fame). Gatsby was suspected of being a mobster by all those flappers and Hollywood types who attended his lavish parties; and many, at least in the media, suspect Trump of mob connections both in America and Russia.

In the novel, Nick Carraway, the narrator, overlooks Gatsby's faults, and much of the American public did the same with Trump in the last election, and continues to do so in spite of book revelations and alleged payoffs to women of the night.

We also seem to be living in a Gilded Age, just like the 1920s. Excess wealth is flaunted in mansions and yachts, real estate is in another bubble, and the price of stocks is paralleling the year before the 1929 crash. Americans both now and in the 1920s are obsessed with celebrity. We are still drawn to Al Capone types and movie stars and sports heroes who rake in the money far more than they deserve, if we consider their contributions to the common good of our society.

Where Gatsby and Trump diverge is in what motivates them. Gatsby built up his underworld empire and bought his mansion, where he threw his parties, motivated by a single romantic ideal, his love — his obsession — for Daisy Buchanan. He hoped that she would suddenly appear one night at one of his parties. Daisy was a Louisville woman he had briefly met and then briefly loved during World War I, when he was a poor soldier. Drawn by wealth and stability, Daisy decided not to wait for Gatsby's return from the war and married Tom Buchanan, a product of inherited Lake Forest wealth.

Fitzgerald is both critical and admiring of Gatsby's romantic dream. For the author there is something pure about a dream that transcends wealth, a dream that is centered on another person, however shallow in our eyes. Yet the author shows that using illicit means to attain a dream ends in tragedy and disaster.

I am still trying to figure out if Donald J. Trump has core beliefs and romantic ideals. The difference between romantic delusions and narcissistic obsessions is that the former are centered on another person, the latter are centered on the self.

Trump will most likely never be called "great" in the sense of the title of Fitzgerald's novel. President Trump has attained great power and wealth, but what makes a person truly great is having dreams, ideals, morals and a set of beliefs which draw us to this person — however sucked in we are ourselves by the glitter, wealth and sexual exploitation so on display in our society.

Jesus wondered in his teachings: What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose one's soul? Gatsby lost his life in the novel, but not his soul. He maintained his misguided delusion of romantic love for Daisy Buchanan right to the end. For us romantics, there is something admirable about that, even though many of us can look back at our own romantic illusions — if we survived their destructive nature — and wonder: What did I see in her (or him)? Gatsby did not live long enough to ask that question.

What I hope to see in the president's second year of office is a set of core beliefs, some clear ideals which draw us toward him, and a compassion for others and less obsession with himself. If he does that, history might yet judge him great.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune community columnist

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