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J.D. Long GarcíaJune 04, 2024
A person holds New York Times newspapers at the printing plant in New York City May 30, 2024, following the announcement of the guilty verdict on former U.S. President Donald Trump's criminal trial, over charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence adult film star Stormy Daniels in 2016. (OSV News photo/Stephani Spindel, Reuters)

Donald J. Trump became the first president in history to be convicted of a felony last week. And he may become the first convicted felon to become president of the United States in November.

Mr. Trump’s popularity has perplexed me since he announced his presidential run in 2015. I count Trump supporters among my family and closest friends, and in our many and ongoing conversations, I have learned they support the former president for a variety of reasons. Their support has not diminished in recent months.

While voters are still processing the felony convictions, I remain astonished that Mr. Trump, twice impeached, is the presumptive Republican nominee. Despite his checkered record as president, Mr. Trump and President Biden are virtually tied in national polls, and Mr. Trump is ahead in key battleground states. After the felony convictions, the Trump campaign raised nearly $53 million, according to reports. About a third of the contributions came from new donors.

Whatever happens this November, Americans must try to understand each other. And I think The Great Gatsby can be a path to understanding Mr. Trump’s robust and disparate backers.

My son just finished his junior year in high school, and he read Gatsby in his English class. I hadn’t read it in decades, so I had another turn through its pages. F. Scott Fitzgerald crafts a narrative that begins at the surface of the central character and allows the mystery of the man to unfold.

Six years ago, Rosa Inocencio Smith wrote in The Atlantic that Fitzgerald’s most famous novel can help people understand Mr. Trump. Ms. Inocencio Smith focuses on Tom Buchanan, the novel’s antagonist, as a reflection of the former president. The dislikable Tom, a Yale graduate who represents the upper class and old money, may resemble Mr. Trump in the eyes of his detractors. But such comparisons illuminate little about the mind of a Trump voter.

Instead of Tom, I suggest the title character, Gatsby himself, gives the greatest insight into why Mr. Trump is still popular. There are obvious similarities between the two men. Some are superficial, like their tanned skin or their fondness of marble. Both appreciate punctuality and could be considered nouveau riche—new money. One can also make the case that both Gatsby and Mr. Trump made their money in shady ways: Gatsby by bootlegging and Mr. Trump through fraudulent real estate deals. Gatsby has big parties, and Mr. Trump has huge rallies.

But the connection that I keep coming back to, especially after the verdict last week, is how Gatsby, a gaudy millionaire, gradually becomes a sympathetic character. At the onset, the narrator Nick Carraway describes the complexity of Gatsby, first as representing “everything for which I have an unaffected scorn,” and in the next sentence as having “some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…” As the novel unfolds, Nick is subsumed into Gatsby’s obsessive pursuit of his cousin, Daisy, who embodies the aristocracy. (Daisy is married to Tom, who is also having an affair.)

I’m not interested in rehashing the finer points of the plot, so I’ll just summarize the climax. The main characters travel to the city, and the lovers disclose the affair to Daisy’s husband, Tom. Daisy and Gatsby drive home in Gatsby’s car. Along the way, with Daisy behind the wheel, the car strikes Myrtle, the woman with whom Tom is having an affair, in a deadly hit-and-run.

Myrtle and her husband, George Wilson, represent the working class. George had suspected his wife was having an affair. Upon her death, he demands to know who owned the car that struck her. Tom, who never hesitates to reveal his disdain for the lower classes, seizes the opportunity to remove his wife’s lover from the equation. He reveals Gatsby as the owner. George kills Gatsby before taking his own life.

In the final chapters, Nick goes from an utter dislike of Gatsby to blurting out what would be among his final words to the man: “They’re a rotten crowd…. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

The sympathetic turn in Nick, I think, comes from the smallest of graces. Gatsby had told him that he would take the blame for Myrtle’s death if it came to it. He tried to get Daisy to stop the car after the accident. But there is still little virtue to the man, as Gatsby doesn’t turn himself in and cares little about Myrtle. He only cares for the trauma Daisy suffered in striking her. That does not mean, however, that he deserved to die.

We’re seeing a similar sympathetic turn when it comes to Mr. Trump. In 2016, the conservative editors at The National Review, for example, expressed their convicted opposition to a Trump presidency. Yet lately, the same editors are spilling a lot of ink on how Mr. Trump was unjustly convicted in the hush-money case. Republicans who have been at odds with Mr. Trump, like Senator Mitt Romney and former Vice President Mike Pence, have likewise questioned the verdict, calling it “political.” One business owner, who previously voted for Hilary Clinton, donated $300,000 to the Trump campaign after the verdict.

I am not taking a position on the litigation that awaits Mr. Trump. But I am trying to understand why, despite an onslaught of criticism and court cases, support for Mr. Trump remains steady. I believe it’s actually growing. Many, including undecided, moderate voters, believe the former president is being treated unfairly. And we don’t like that in America.

Like him or not, Mr. Trump epitomizes what has become of the American dream. At its core, the dream is about prosperity. If you come here and work hard enough, you can not only get by but you can get rich—like Gatsby and Mr. Trump. True or not, that’s the dream.

In the first lines of the novel, Nick shares advice his father gave him years before: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Unlike Gatsby’s parents, who were poor farmers, Mr. Trump’s father was quite successful and left his son millions. It may be hard to believe Mr. Trump didn’t have all the advantages. But when I look at the man, approaching his 78th birthday, it’s clear: Despite his wealth, this grandson of a German immigrant is still an outsider—a kid from the outer boroughs hell-bent on being accepted by the Manhattan set. Much like Gatsby.

Many of Mr. Trump’s most ardent supporters, those who have been standing with him since 2015, see themselves in the same way—outsiders, placed at a disadvantage and scorned by the cultural elites. But this year, they are being joined by countless Nick Caraways who don’t like how the former president has been treated. They see it as unjust. These Trump sympathizers may not like being associated with Mr. Trump, but they can’t stand being associated with the elite. And that’s why he can still win.

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