I Have Finally Learned From Aaron Sorkin, But Not What He Wanted
After Donald Trump’s victory, Aaron Sorkin wrote a letter to his wife and his daughter, Roxy. This response was published on the Vanity Fair website, so we can only presume that Aaron Sorkin was angry and distraught that Vanity Fair somehow got hold of his private correspondence this way. The “letter” was widely described as inspiring and beautiful. Even setting aside the colossal crassness of using one’s own family as a literary device, I only found it… instructive, albeit not for the reasons that its author intended.
Reading it, I had a sudden, crashing, perfectly-formed realisation. I actually understood why some people had voted for Donald Trump, an action I had previously thought entirely unfathomable for anyone who isn’t a complete and irredeemable imbecile and/or shit.
I should declare that I find Aaron Sorkin a thoroughly detestable screenwriter, but setting that aside and taking his letter on its own merits -
No, wait. I’m not sure I can set that aside. This isn’t about Sorkin’s scripts and I always make these things too long, so skip down to the endnote if you want to read how every part of his snivelling, self-dramatising “letter” just echoes the preening worldview of the man’s back catalogue. Otherwise, on we go.
Given Sorkin’s complete lack of interest in understanding anybody who commits the unforgivable crime of Not Being Aaron Sorkin, it’s ironic that one of his charges against Donald Trump is that he has ‘no curiosity to learn.’ But what’s interesting is the next paragraph, in which he lists Trump’s supporters. They are the Klan, bigots, racists and idiots. And that’s it.
Now here’s the thing; I’m sick and tired of hearing how the left need to engage with, understand, and ultimately appease right wing bigots who say thoroughly noxious shit. I’m tired of the pseudo-victimhood that comes from people who are upset at being called racist and misogynist, and then go and vote for a man who’s racist and misogynist. I’m also tired of the growing trend that people can spout racist / misogynistic / homophobic / just sheer hateful bullshit and then be offended when called on it, as if “racist” is a term of abuse rather than a description of a social philosophy. I’d place a conservative estimate that at least one third of Trump’s voters chose to vote for him for really nasty reasons, just as a good third of Brexit voters were overtly motivated by xenophobia. However, we must also accept that a huge number of Trump’s voters are not the comic-book villains of Sorkin’s imagination. These people were motivated by something else.
To Sorkin, of course, these people are literally not worth mentioning. It doesn’t even occur to him that they exist. No wait, that’s not true; he knows they exist, they’re just unimportant, a mass of people without any real agency of their own. They’re nothing more than a faceless demographic, there to be manipulated by the bad guys, a featureless group with no opinions beyond those they are fed by their betters.
Why would you vote for a wanker like that, though? For a start, why would any woman vote for a man who-
No, hang on.
The most blackly amusing part of the letter comes when Sorkin proposes his solution. ‘We’ll fucking fight,’ he says, and you think: YES! Finally he gets it. You can’t just wag a finger at these people; you can’t just offer platitudes; you have to fight. So what are you going to do, Aaron? ‘We fight for a woman to keep her right to choose. We fight for the First Amendment and we fight mostly for equality…’
‘I don’t think this guy can make it a year without committing an impeachable crime… and [if I'm wrong] we’ll make it through those four years. And three years from now we’ll fight for our candidate and we’ll win and they’ll lose…’
Are you serious? That’s what you mean by fight – just accept it, and hope to win the next election? That’s what you’re going to do to help those that you feel are threatened by Trump’s election – you’re going to wait?
And for a moment, I imagined I was somebody else, reading this appalling screed. I imagined I was a former automotive worker in the rust belt who’d lost my job. Lost my house in the subprime crash, maybe, and struggling to keep myself above the rising tide of debt. I imagined I was someone in dire straits who had nonetheless been appalled by – and rejected – the easy hatred that Trump represents, and voted for a Democratic candidate in whom I had very little faith. I imagined being that person, reading an article by a a man claiming to be speaking for people like me, saying he was going to fight for me… and offering not a single solitary concrete thing he was actually going to do, except wait four years and vote for another Democrat who was probably going to do the square root of fuck-all for me.
If I was that guy, the only thing I’d want to do would be to scream abuse into Aaron Sorkin’s self-dramatising, self-justifying, privileged face.
Just to make one thing clear. There isn’t one big reason that was Trump was elected, as many opinon columnists are trying to claim; there’s lots of little ones acting together, and I don’t pretend to understand all of them. So I’m not claiming this isn’t really about race, or misogyny; as a white man who doesn’t live in North America, I just don’t really feel qualified to talk about such a thing. What I do know is that my automotive worker is a hell of a lot worse off than me, whether s/he is white or not, and I’m just someone who rents a small flat with my girlfriend. Their troubles are not imaginary. I also know that it’s a damn sight easier to make people believe racist filth if they themselves feel angry, marginalised and abandoned.
For decades now, a generation of corporate politicians have called themselves leftwing while subscribing to a form of (sporadically) redistributive neoliberalism. These people have facilitated economic forces that have slowly impoverished an entire social class, they have removed all certainties of employment, housing and essentials. To compensate, they’ve thrown just enough crumbs to keep just enough votes from a working class who feared the alternative. Whenever awkward questions were raised, the Clintons and Blairs of this world simply deflected them. Electoral gold was to sound sufficiently caring while saying nothing of substance. That’s the legacy of the brand of politics that Bill Clinton pioneered; saying as little as possible, avoiding awkward questions, and pretending whenever they can that the awkwardly hollowed-out people on the fringes of society don’t really exist. These are the people who’ve never actually supported anti-immigrant rhetoric, but also never challenged it because it’s a vote loser; instead they’ve offered empty words about legitimate concern and then tried to change the subject.
And so Donald Trump offers, at least, a narrative. His excuse for a plan may be incoherent, economically illiterate and entirely repugnant, but that doesn’t matter much if you are up against people who don’t offer any narrative at all. What the Trumps and Farages of this world have realised is that you can get away with shouting stupid bullshit if the other side consists of people who don’t say anything whatsoever; you can win any argument if you’re taking on people who view making arguments as election-losing territory. Donald Trump has said he’ll slap enormous tariffs on foreign-made cars should Ford move to Mexico. That probably won’t happen, and won’t work if it does; however it’s still a more substantial statement for former industrial areas than anything I’ve heard anybody say, in the US or the UK or Ireland, since I started taking an interest in politics as a teenager. In fact, if I had a couple of decades of being ignored by fluently duckspeaking leaders, I might even view a millionaire as an “outsider” if he broke a cardinal political rule and said something.
So here’s the thing, Aaron Sorkin and your incredibly irritating ilk. You might need to accept that a chunk of Trump’s voters looked at the man, found him appalling, but looked at the alternative and decided he was still the best chance they had. They did this because you, and people like you, have failed them utterly. They know there’s a risk of economic disaster, but that’s not particularly frightening when you perceive yourself as being economically fucked anyway (which is why Sorkin’s first terrible consequence of Trump’s election, that the Dow future market has fallen, is so infuriatingly disconnected). Deep down those people know he’s a bigot, but when you live in a post-industrial unemployment blackspot you don’t have the luxury of caring about that. They find his “make America great” rhetoric ludicrous, but it’s still less obnoxious that the message that essentially things are fine and just need a few tweaks. Besides, given that Sorkin himself has pontificated in his usual patronising manner about how America was last Great in the forties, his lampooning of Trump is a bit rich.
Of course, not all his voters thought this way, not even close to all of them. I’ll wager it was enough to have turned this election into the heavy Trump defeat it could, and should, have been.
These people need to be engaged with. And – how strongly can I put this? – that emphatically doesn’t mean nodding and talking about “legitimate concerns”. That’s not engaging – that’s just hoping the problem goes away, just you like did before. It means recognising that bigotry doesn’t always come from bigots. It means calling the hate-filled shit for what it is, but still listening to whoever said it because you recognise that the person might have a genuine grievance as well as a prejudiced one.
Aaron Sorkin is able to create marvellous fictional worlds in which everyone is comfortably middle-class, doesn’t ever have trouble making the rent, takes it for granted that they are in control of their own life, and can fight for justice by rapidly reciting facts at cartoon racists. I’m sure it makes him feel virtuous, but that’s not the world we live in. Who knows, maybe one day Roxy will write him a heartfelt, private letter to explain it. She can publish in Vanity Fair.
Sorkin started out by being the screenwriter of A Few Good Men, still the only thing of his I’ve seen which I enjoy. It showcases one of Sorkin’s real, solid talents: an ability to come up with reams of quotable lines. In its “you can’t handle the truth” scene it showcases the other: Sorkin realises that actors love monologues, and the great ones can deliver long, wordy speeches into something that sounds like its genuinely stream-of-consciousness. Allied to a director who knows exactly how to pitch this material, and you’ve got a fun spectacle in which Tom Cruise gets to do That Tom Cruise Thing while Kiefer Sutherland, J.T. Walsh and Jack Nicholson chew the scenery with aplomb.
So it’s fun. But… for a moment, let’s treat it as a serious drama, the way Sorkin expects his other work to be treated, and the way that – beneath the enjoyably OTT presentation – this script wants to be treated. What we find is a drama with skewed priorities and an extraordinarily platitudinous outlook. It’s a story about institutionalised, homicidal bullying that never actually questions the institution, and sees the conviction of Jack Nicholson’s boo-hiss baddy as the end of the problem. It’s about a murdered private, but it’s so uninterested in him that neither he nor his family even get any lines; their experience is secondary to Tom Cruise’s struggles with lawyering and resolving his daddy issues. Demi Moore plays the only substantial female character, and her role is to nearly mess up the trial while inspiring the talented man to be the best he can be. The accused marines are the only two characters we meet who aren’t middle-class Sorkin surrogates or arch-villains, but they don’t have any real character; they’re there to represent the Nobility Of The Marine and the Naive Following Of Orders, but they don’t have any interests or texture or agency of their own. They’re non-people, who Sorkin has no interest in understanding.
Since then, since Aaron Sorkin became That Aaron Sorkin, his shtick has hardened. He writes dramas that think they are intelligent, because characters have long monologues in which they recite facts he’s looked up on Wikipedia. He writes trite morality plays which shows the heroic sacrifices made by political servants, lawyers, newspaper editors and producers of awful TV shows as they go through the Herculean task of going into work. He writes about how hard it was for television types to speak out during the Iraq invasion, like a man who views the struggle with his conscience as the real struggle of that period, like a man who wants a medal and daily fanfare for his amazing achievement of not being racist or sexist (and if you look at the way his heroes are exclusively men, or the way he behaves in this interview, that latter is up for grabs). He writes shows where the character moments frequently involve someone reciting their resumé. He writes TV shows that don’t even try to do the most basic research, that don’t do anything to understand the motivation or the often-putrid arguments of people who don’t agree with him (witness that appallingly smug scene in The West Wing when President Bartlett wins an argument with a homophobic bible-basher by reciting batshit chunks of Leviticus at her, before demanding she stand up: the witless demand for subservience is bad enough, but Sorkin seems unaware that any religious arsebiscuit can refute that line of attack by saying homosexuality is condemned in the New Testament as well as the Old).
You can call somebody a bad writer because they’re untalented, or you can call them a bad writer because they’re just talented enough to make millions of people enjoy their terrible work. By the latter definition, Sorkin is simply the worst screenwriter currently working in the English language.