Trump as Raskolnikov


I’ve pretty much stopped reading Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, but I glance quickly at her columns to check for literary allusions, in which department she leads all other columnists. In her latest she compares Donald Trump to Raskolnikov, the axe-wielding protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s a parallel I hadn’t considered:

As we contemplate crime and punishment in the Trump circle, it should be noted that our Russia-besotted president does share some traits with Dostoyevsky’s spiraling protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov.

Both men are naifs who arrive and think they have the right to transgress. Both are endlessly fascinating psychological studies: self-regarding, with Napoleon-style grandiosity, and self-incriminating. Both are consumed with chaotic, feverish thoughts as they are pursued by a relentless, suspicious lawman.

But it is highly doubtful that Melania will persuade Donald to confess all to special counsel Robert Mueller III and slink off to Siberia.

Since reading Brothers Karamazov a few years ago—it’s become my favorite novel of all time—I’ve fallen in love with Dostoevsky. Recently I finished listening to The Idiot, with its wonderful and saintly protagonist Prince Myshkin. I was devastated by the ending and essentially went into mourning for two days. I’ve come to expect mad men in Dostoevsky novels and The Idiot delivered.

I actually see fewer parallels than Dowd does, however. True, both Raskolnikov and Trump see themselves as Nietzschean super men (Ubermenchen), superior to mere sheep-like mortals who slavishly follow convention. But Raskolnikov has an intellectual vision that he is trying to live up to, only to discover that taking the life of another person is a far more profound matter than he realized. He might be mad, but he has depth as well (for one thing, he reads extensively), and much of the novel is about his inner torment.

I don’t know that Trump is capable of inner torment. From what I can tell, he’s driven by nothing more profound than fear of failure. He has always thrived by brazening things out, and he assumes that what worked in the past will work in the future. America has yet to show him that he is entirely wrong.

This also means, however, that he couldn’t be a Dostoevskian protagonist. Those who go crazy in Dostoevsky novels are extremely sensitive individuals who think too deeply. In addition to Raskolnikov and Prince Myshkin, there’s Ivan Karamazov and the Underground Man. Trump’s issue is not thinking too deeply.

Nor is Melania a Sonya, despite her Slavic roots. No prostitute with a heart of gold, she’s more an opportunist who saw Trump as a gravy train and climbed aboard. Don’t expect a repentance and redemption ending to their story.

Dowd may be on to something in comparing Mueller to the detective Porfiry, however. Porfiry figures that Raskolnikov is the murderer because of the way he keeps thrashing around. He figures that it’s only a matter of time before the student incriminates himself, and one can imagine Mueller nodding knowingly each time Trump let’s drop another clue.

In a sense, our own drama is how Crime and Punishment would read if we as readers weren’t shown Raskolnikov committing the murder. We see in Trump a man whose actions suggest that he’s done something wrong, but we still don’t know exactly what it is. (My guess is that Putin is squeezing Trump for laundering money for organized crime, but I don’t know that.) At any rate, Dowd is right about both Porfiry and Mueller: they are suspicious and relentless.

When, at the end, Raskolnikov sees an escape route open up for him—not to mention an opportunity to have committed the perfect crime—he chooses not to take it, preferring to save his soul instead: he confesses and turns himself in. I know for certain that Donald Trump would not make that choice.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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