I hate to begin on such a pompous note, because no one could have enjoyed the humour more. But even with this Republican primary season, there must come a time when the laughter stops.
Not that it’s been wildly sophisticated. Oscar Wilde would have rejected such witticisms as Marco Rubio’s suggestion that Donald Trump wet his pants during a debate. Noël Coward would have forsaken former Mexican President Vicente Fox growling, live on Fox News (no relation), “I will not pay for that focccccccckkkkking wall”. Mark Twain would have little space for anything, penis size-related or otherwise, that has flowed from Trump’s capacious gob. For fans of gross-out comedy, on the other hand, the GOP production of “Dumb And Dumber And Dumber Still And Dumbest Of All” has often been hilarious.
That said, everyone sane will have a bespoke tipping point when the mirth mutates into something less pleasurable. For some it may have come a while ago, when the notion of President Trump went from the dementedly satirical to the easily quantifiable (about 25 per cent currently in betting markets). For others, it will remain on hold until Trump, as the candidate, is running neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton.
For this William Q No-Mates, it came at about 9.30pm on Saturday, alone at home watching a live stream of a Trump rally in Florida. I’d already sampled many bite size chunks from similar events; 10 second clips of Trump ranting in that semi-stream of consciousness style about America never winning, demeaning his opponents, bragging of his Croesus wealth, committing himself to war crimes, torture, and so on.
In morsel form, that familiar stump shtick is hugely entertaining. Only when you gorge on the banquet do you understand that the performance filling vast arenas with white, middle-aged and very resentful Americans is a wholly original hybrid.
A Donald Trump rally exists, on its own, in that weird Venn diagram intersect where WWE Wrestlemania meets an echo of Nuremberg. Trump’s well-known affection for wrestling was obvious from the bits of business that peppered the performance. Every few minutes, he gazed towards a part of the stadium where a posse of loyalists were yelling “Trump, Trump, Trump” at someone they had surrounded. “Get him/her out”, he said, glancing on as security guards jostled the protester, invariably young and usually dark skinned, from the arena. “Ten years ago...” he muttered in wistful reflection, that once the protester would have had a thrashing, though perhaps this was code for “100 years ago” when the penalty for such insolence might have been a lynching.
The coup de théâtre came when he claimed to have seen a woman faint at least 30 yards from the stage. “I love people who faint,” he declared – an even more doolally observation, if that’s possible, than “I love the poorly educated”. It wasn’t entirely clear that this fainting was a set-up until a few minutes later, when a burly guy approached the stage with a large bouquet of flowers supposedly intended for the tangerine-faced huckster.
“Don’t give them to me,” said The Donald. “Run after the fainting woman and give them to her.”
What disturbed here wasn’t the blatant phoniness of this WWE-style vignette (yeah, yeah, we get it, big-hearted Donald sacrifices a floral arrangement for a victim of low blood pressure). It was the crowd’s willingness, in a heroic collective act of will, to swallow it.
When Trump asked those same credulous fools to cement a solemn, binding oath to vote for him come what may by raising arms, thousands of right hands rose at a slightly more vertical angle than that favoured by the Nazis. That was the moment when following Trump mutated from guilty pleasure into an emetic.
Regardless of what the comedian Louis CK and others suggest, Trump isn’t Adolf Hitler. For one thing, his forensic style – disjointed, staccato, demanding the highest safe dose of Ritalin – lacks an iota of the Führer’s brutal eloquence and hypnotic fluency. For another, Hitler was not a two-bit charlatan with an arrestable-offence spray tan. He had unshakable beliefs. Trump believes in nothing enough to make genocide a central plank of his presidency.
What unnerves about the feverish enthusiasm for Trump’s nasty gibberish is the timing. For all the wage stagnation and income inequality, despite the grinding poverty that still afflicts black people in its major cities, America’s economy is doing all right. Unemployment is low. White people, like those at the Florida rally, do not lack calories. From the girth on view, quite the reverse.
When white Americans were going hungry, during the dust-bowl depression of the 1930s, they elected an arch liberal, Franklin Roosevelt, as president. Now a minority that is dangerously sizeable, in both meanings of the term, raises arms to as transparent a grifter as Trump. The arc of history is hardly linear, but no one could call this a pleasing trajectory.
And if it’s happening now, at a time of comparative prosperity, what must be the potential for a less incurious, better disciplined, more likable demagogue than Trump if and when the global economy crashes again? What awaits when China’s GDP overtakes America’s, and the false sense of terminal decline cynically fostered by Trump becomes a reality?
Most of us have lived our entire lives in the blithe assumption that democracy is a rock solid certainty for Western powers. Watching those hands rise, hearing whites menacingly booming “USA, USA” at the removal of peaceable black and brown compatriots, that assumption was thrown into smug relief by the distant shudder of a properly dystopian future.
An ancient formula states that: comedy = tragedy + time. This Republican primary season has turned so many verities on their heads, so here perhaps is another. Long after the laughter has faded, when economic conditions better suit the more skilful semi-fascistic rabble-rouser for whom Trump’s candidacy has laid the ground, that old formula may need reversing to: tragedy = comedy + time.Reuse content