Please tell me you’re enjoying the Presidential campaign this summer. I sure am. You can condescendingly call it a circus, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. A good circus can be entertaining. This one is enlightening as well.
Trump has turned into a classic comedian – kind of like Don Rickles but without the Semitic flavor. Rickles is all Borscht Belt; Trump, by contrast, is Mr. Jersey Shore. Personally, I prefer “Take my wife, please” to “Bada Bing, Bada Boom,” but any talented comedian can make me laugh. Like Rickles, Trump thrives primarily on insult comedy. Their shticks work because they’ve got their timing down, and because underlying their penchant for ridicule is the fact that they’re tapping in to a bit of the truth. Believe me, these two men have a lot more in common than their first names.
Consider, for example, Trump’s riffs about the effects of money on politics. Have you listened to his routine lately? It’s actually pretty spot on. According to Trump, all of his competitors in both parties are bought and sold by the fat-cat businessmen who bankroll their campaigns. Here’s the Donald’s own words from the recent debate -- “I will tell you that our system is broken…I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something, two years later or three years later, I call them — they are there for me. And that’s a broken system.” Is there any doubt that he’s right?
Trump’s special genius on this issue is that he is criticizing all of his opponents without sounding sanctimonious. The Donald freely admits that he’s been a part of this corrupt system just like everyone else. The only difference is that now he has amassed such a war chest from his life as a businessman that, unlike professional politicians, he doesn’t need to prostitute himself in order to get votes. In other words, while he’s not above pimping for a living, if he’s elected, there are 10 billion reasons why he can afford to leave the prostitution business and become truly public spirited, whereas his competitors can’t.
That is certainly Trump at his best – focusing on the biggest problem in American politics today while pointing fingers at himself as well as his competition. Typically, though, Trump isn’t interested in accepting responsibility. Like Rickles, Trump prefers to concentrate on ridiculing other people. Trump is willing to “aim low” – at folks like Perry, Graham and Paul, who seemingly have no chance to win but represent easy pickings – but he also enjoys taking on the purported front runners: Clinton and Bush. Just as a true insult-comedian isn’t afraid to confront every race, gender, and body type, Trump is willing to pick on every candidate who enters his radar screen. Don’t take it 100% seriously, my friends; enjoy it for what it is -- the theater of the absurd … though with a bit of truth underlying the absurdity.
Yesterday, I was listening to the Donald pulverize Jeb for his unwillingness to separate himself from W on the topic of Iraq. The attack was extremely effective. Jeb has been trying to have it both ways – acknowledging perfunctorily that “mistakes were made,” while refusing to blame anyone for those mistakes or to recognize that the country is far worse off because of them. Trump doesn’t want to analyze Jeb’s Florida two-step in detail. He just wants to laugh at the absurdity of trying to brush W’s Iraq failures under the rug. And you know what? Trump is right. W’s war is quite simply indefensible. So is Jeb’s decision to retain virtually all of his brother’s advisors to serve as Jeb’s own brain trust. In this case, Jeb isn’t so much cow-towing to his donors as he is “standing by his man,” but the effect is the same. He comes across as unable to think for himself on this issue, for nobody who is as articulate as Jeb is on most issues can fail to blame W and his henchmen on Iraq … unless of course he’s unwilling to say what he knows to be true.
In the finale of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart essentially said that his show was all about what is known as “calling bullshit.” And all he is asking of his audience is to be vigilant when bullshit comes our way. When you think about it, the Donald’s role is in the 2016 campaign is similar to that of Stewart – whenever his opponents open their mouth, he sees it as an opportunity to call out their bullshit. He’s going to identify whatever it is their saying or doing that doesn’t make sense, and he’s going to ridicule it and try to make them seem like “losers” (i.e., pathetic people). They, in turn, will call bullshit on Trump. And that’s going to be the pattern unless and until Trump starts to sink in the polls.
Personally, I think it’s a healthy trend. While ridicule isn’t exactly the most dignified form of political expression, neither is bullshitting the public, and that’s precisely what our politicians have been doing to us for a long time. We’ve grown accustomed to our statesman telling us what they think we want to hear, rather than what they truly believe. We’ve even come to tolerate bullshit-talk as an appropriate norm for American politics. But thanks to Jon Stewart – and his “apprentice,” Donald Trump – maybe that won’t be so easy now. Maybe politicians will realize that the best way to avoid being ridiculed is to be authentic and speak their minds. Otherwise, they will tie themselves in knots, as Jeb as done whenever he deals with the topic of Iraq.
It only makes sense that if you make your living as a speaker and you litter your speeches with statements you don’t really believe, it will be difficult to avoid coming across as a loser. And in the Summer of Trump, isn’t politics all about trying to avoid coming across as a loser? You want to be that rare gem in the crowd who even a Don Rickles would have trouble effectively mocking. Perhaps this all sounds very childish – something suited to an election for Senior Class President, rather than leader of the free world. But we’ve got to learn to crawl before we can learn to run, and right now, our politicians need to learn to speak candidly, treat the American public respectfully, and allow us to decide who we want to lead our country. If it takes a “Donald” – i.e., a punk with a microphone, to curb politicians of their addiction to bullshit, so be it. In the meantime, ladies and germs, enjoy the show!