Everyone Thinks The Great Is About Donald Trump — and They're Not Wrong

The parallels are so specific it's hard to imagine they were not drawn intentionally.

The Great Nicholas Hoult Donald Trump
Photo: Photo Illustration/InStyle.com; Photos: Hulu, Getty Images

Watching The Great, Hulu’s gleefully anachronistic take on Catherine the Great’s (Elle Fanning) rise to power in Russia, and specifically Nicholas Hoult’s Emperor Peter, I was struck with what by now has become a familiar observation. Oh god, it’s Trump.

The parallels are so specific it’s hard to imagine they were not drawn intentionally. Peter is a thin-skinned narcissist clinging to the belief that everyone around him loves him, even as they are all plotting his death behind his back. He responds to threats with torture and murder. He is fabulously stupid and criminally clueless. He hates women, science, and advice. When asked what it’s like to rule a country, he shrugs, “It’s not that hard, actually.” In a running gag, whenever he makes an offensive joke and no one laughs, he turns to the crowd of sycophants constantly in orbit and repeats, “Did you hear? I said…” and they all laugh dutifully.

In fact, the character so closely mirrors the current Commander in Chief that the series feels prophetic of Trump’s coronavirus response nearly two centuries later. For instance, while Peter is drawing up battle plans with generals, he spitballs, “What if we snuck up on them in the dark?” When a smallpox outbreak hits the castle, he briefly flirts with Catherine’s science-backed inoculation idea before going ahead with the original protocol of simply setting all infected and possibly-infected peasants on fire. Receiving word someone is plotting a coup, he takes the practical step of just torturing everybody. Trump’s public musings on disinfectant as a virus cure, his outright rejection of scientific expertise, his practice of summarily firing and pillorying anyone he views as a threat, all are represented here.

Several filmmakers have often said, “all film is documentary,” so it’s likely that the show’s timing isn’t a coincidence. Telling, since so much of the plot revolves around a familiar debate — is it possible to influence the emperor from within the administration or is this a blow-the-whole-thing-up situation? I think what makes The Great’s version of Trumpian leadership so effective is that it hits at a particularly uncomfortable truth: that President Donald Trump is a joke we’re forced to take seriously, and how degrading that can actually feel.

Since Trump became president, and even before, there has been a proliferation of Trump-inspired or Trump-like characters in popular media (including Trump himself), some intentional and some incidental. But it’s telling that the depictions of Trump that feel most true to life are comedic.

The Hollis Doyle character in Scandal uses Seedy Businessman Trump as a model. In a review in Time, Daniel D'addario observes that Scandal’s take on Trumpism fell short of the full-range of Trump excess, unfortunate in a show built around politics in its most off-the-rails imagining. Perhaps by taking the character a little too seriously, in ascribing to him some canniness, the show missed what’s most captivating and horrifying about Trump — it’s not just bad principles, it’s a lack of principle altogether, compounded by true clownishness that is hard to square with any kind of sober depiction.

Veep comes closer. In her 2016 Best Actress Emmy acceptance speech for playing Selina Meyer, just before the 2016 election, Julia Louis-Dreyfus noted, “Our show started out as a political satire, but it now feels more like a sobering documentary. So I certainly do promise to rebuild that wall ― and make Mexico pay for it.” That it wasn’t until three seasons later that the show began to take direct swipes at Trump is a testament to what low-hanging fruit Trump as a figure truly is.

The Great’s absurdist framing allows the creators to take Trumpism to its logical conclusion, which is, at its core, dark slapstick. In this world, a cruel joke or passing thought is the same as public policy. And when the joke collides with its resulting horror, the show is briefly jolted into the harsh light of cold reality. When Peter revives after an attempted poisoning, for instance, he cheerily brushes past the four hanging bodies of innocents he’d ordered executed for their unintended involvement, an unexpectedly gruesome image that sent me hurtling back to our current political climate gut-first.

Watching characters attempt to temper Emperor Peter’s alarming and nonsensical ideas brings to mind Dr. Deborah Birx’s attempt to explain to Trump, with a straight face, that no, sunlight is not a cure for Covid-19. It’s funny, until you remember that people are dying. Liberal pundits and politicians rail against the “incompetence” of the Trump administration, but this feels like a hollow assessment. Incompetence implies at least a degree of seriousness, if haphazard. Trump is more like a Monty Python sketch come to life.

The Great Elle Fanning

To see the current leader of my country, whose character is already so sinister and absurd it doesn’t need exaggeration, reflected so closely in this piece should perhaps make me depressed. But I actually felt oddly… comforted.

That the characters in the show, from Peter’s best friend, to Catherine and her co-conspirators, to the noble whose only crime was keeping his beard, see no way to stop the madness short of military coup feels frankly cathartic. It gives me a sense of “you see it too right?” that no amount of grave “the emperor has no clothes” tweets can do. I’d like to imagine Melania Trump as a sort of Catherine the Great, quietly plotting a hostile takeover from behind the scenes (even if I don’t believe it).

If broad satire is the only genre far-reaching enough to meet the moment now, we might as well call this presidency what it is. A joke.

The Great is now streaming on Hulu.

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