The Genealogy of Caspar Ulmer

Image 2D

I was recently asked by a reader whether Caspar Ulmer from Reintroduction was based on Donald Trump. Ulmer was created as a character about seven years ago, before Trump even registered for me. Although the overall narrative has evolved considerably over time, I never re-imagined Ulmer as I did with several of the others.

Looking at early drafts, the version of Ulmer who appears in the published book is consistent with the original. Much of his dialogue is unchanged other than for it being trimmed in places or slightly augmented in others. He appeared on paper almost fully formed and the narrative developed in response to him and what we come to understand as his ultimate ambition.

I had not formed a view on Trump when I started writing the book. I was aware of him as that guy from the Apprentice, a divisive figure who occasionally appeared on the news spouting what seemed at the time like nonsense in terms of his ambition to run for president. He did not figure as a model for Ulmer. Any resemblance—which I concede is there to be found—was incidental and perhaps to be expected given the vision of the future I envisaged.

So, where did the character spring from and who were my models? They are more likely literary than figures drawn from the modern political theatre. I drew on Dostoyevsky when considering the character. I had old man Karamazov in mind, a licentious, opportunist who is also witty and conniving, a self-centred man, willing to destroy his own children for the satisfaction of his baser urges.

Another influence or model would be the Advocate from Kafka’s The Trial or more specifically the performance delivered by Orson Wells in his screen adaptation of the novel. I used Wells’ voice and deportment when listening to Ulmer speak or when visualising him. The rhythm of Ulmer’s speech is directly modelled on the voice Wells uses for this performance. The Advocate’s guile and the way he exerts power over Block or cavorts with his assistant Leni also fed into the character of Ulmer.

The final—and perhaps most important—influence came from life, from my own observations of people in positions of authority. I noted many differences but some striking similarities among the most senior people I encountered in my working life. People who may in fact be high-functioning sociopaths, charismatic individuals who don’t bother to hide their lack of empathy beyond a certain point. When relaxed, they can often come across as callous, obsessed with bottom lines and their own continuing power.

That these models converged to create a Trump-like character is unsurprising. I had parked Reintroduction as a trilogy in part because I felt Ulmer might appear OTT as a character. Once Trump was elected, I was faced with the possibility of Ulmer reading as too refined and subtle by contrast.

Unlike Trump, Ulmer is not inept or prone to boasting. He is a planner, a careful strategist with a notable Achilles’ heel: he is “a criminal mentality who on some level wants to be caught.” This may be why he plays a game with Corrigan during his final interview, essentially laying out objects on his desk to represent key aspects of his actual game plan. As another character suggests, “You can’t take credit for a thing if no one knows you’re doing it.”

Ulmer’s narcissism is extreme, seeing himself as an evolutionary leaper, but he remains human in that he continues to desire recognition. Like Old man Karamazov he doesn’t really care if he’s liked but like Wells’ Advocate, he looks to surround himself with a subservient and manipulable team. What Trump provides is merely further evidence that this type of man is a reality and something we ignore at our peril.