Why Donald Trump’s tragic, terrifying rallies make a strange case for the importance of theatre

In their lack of chanciness and spontaneity, Trump’s rallies are a systematic negation of the theatrical spirit, writes Paul Taylor. And so they constitute, by default, an eloquent defence of the art form

Tuesday 28 July 2020 06:38
Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Tulsa in June 2020
Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Tulsa in June 2020

Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” asserts a character in the Samuel Beckett play Endgame. That may be true, but the behaviour of Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, suggests that this idea needs modifying. Nothing is funnier – or more tragic – than having no sense of humour.

Running through a mad repertoire of mixed theatrical genres in Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Polonius applauds a troupe of actors for their proficiency in performing “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited”. To do full justice to the Trump administration, this range would have to stretch to another hothouse hybrid. We would have to designate this as “hilaro-tragedy”, because mere tragicomedy fails to capture the edge of hysteria of this form of governing, where denial of reality is the new normal. Brazen smearing of any inconvenient fact as a “hoax” is – as any functioning sense of humour would have to concede – the biggest hoax of all.

So put yourself in the perspiring position of the president’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro. He was called upon to react with an insouciant shrug after the disaster that was the Tulsa rally last month. The rally had not, to put it mildly, gone according to plan. It was the president’s first since March, but the boastful promise that it would draw a million souls avid to breathe the same air as the commander-in-chief had to be downscaled, in the event, because of the paltry audience of 62,000 that showed up. Masks were not worn, despite the medical advice of the White House’s own task force. Risks of infection with the coronavirus were not minimised by the fact that, in order to foster the impression of a packed crowd, Trump’s crew of helpers could be seen ripping from the backs of seats the stickers that warned about the need for social distancing. This resulted in the bleakly gruesome farce that a good many people who attended the rally have tested positive for the virus, including a journalist and at least two of Trump’s team.

One of the claims Trump made to the Tulsa audience was that he had told his people to “slow down” coronavirus testing, as if in the assurance that what would matter most to his base was the public perception of the numbers – and its bearing on his prospects of re-election this November. Forget the mortality rate.

Interviewed by Jake Tapper on CNN, Navarro tried to make out that this was a “light” moment where the president was clearly speaking “tongue in cheek”. Tapper hit back with, “I don’t know that it was a tongue-in-cheek moment at all. I think testing is a very serious issue.”

As the president’s grip on reality, never very tight, starts to loosen further, this tactic of trying to pass off his latest enormity as just a characteristic bit of fun is becoming commonplace amongst his staff. It would be more convincing if it could be shown that Trump had ever been a dab hand at making or taking a joke. His latest press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, who in her White House briefings has proved to be as spontaneous and open-to-the-moment as a fanatically over-sprung mousetrap, recently tried this on with her habitual sparring partner, Jake Acosta of CNN. He had brought up Trump’s tweet of an originally heartwarming video, published by CNN, of a black toddler running towards his white toddler friend to give him a hug. This had been doctored to make it look as though the news channel had shared it with the caption: “Terrified toddler runs from racist baby. Racist baby probably a Trump voter,” and showed only the segment where the black toddler was running in the opposite direction of the white toddler. It then showed the real footage and concluded, “America is not the problem. Fake news is.”

McEnany tried – not very persuasively – to come across as the sorely tried pedagogue put in charge of a class of reporters who need to pull up their socks. “I think the president is making a satirical point that is quite funny if you go and actually watch.” It was, she alleged, a spoof of CNN reporting, with its (in Trump’s view) unfair anti-Trump bias. Acosta objected that it ill behoves an administration that has dismissed the press as purveyors of “fake news” to be purposely and purposefully adding to the mendacity. McEnany reacted by not reacting.

The point, surely, is: did anyone actually laugh at the doctored video in the interim between its being posted and its having a “manipulated media” stamp slapped on it by Twitter? Did anybody at the Tulsa rally enjoy a good chortle when Trump made the remark about telling his people to slow down testing? It’s characteristic that the president who “worked” his way up through real estate, reality TV and bankruptcy – rather than through anything resembling public service – brandished as a coveted consolation prize the fact that the lacklustre rally scored historically high Saturday ratings for the Fox News channel.

One cannot legislate for laughter, and live theatre brings this home like nothing else. Crucial to the whole contract of the theatrical interchange is the risk that things will go wrong, and that someone letting off a snort will unbalance the whole premeditated course of the show. And yet there are tendencies in our culture that are agitating to be prescriptive. I find some of these forces more congenial than others.

John Malkovich as a Weinstein-esque figure in ‘Bitter Wheat’

For example, I first became aware of an element of self-imposed coercion at the West End first night of Bitter Wheat, David Mamet’s play about a Harvey Weinstein figure memorably played by John Malkovich. As an attempt to address the issues raised by the #MeToo movement, the play is an embarrassing failure. Mamet seems to have spent all of five minutes thinking of the warped power imbalance from the woman’s point of view. He also equips Weinstein’s character with the risible equivalent of a tragic flaw. Just think how badly each of us might have turned out if we had grown up mocked for a weight problem – which is clumsily betokened, in the author’s production, by a pillow stuffed under the protagonist’s shirt. I wouldn’t want to defend the play in the slightest as a worthwhile attempt to tackle the Weinstein phenomenon. But I must admit that there are some laugh-out-loud passages where the protagonist goes into verbal orgies of warped self-justification. I felt a little disturbed that there were sections of the audience who would rather have gone to the stake than be heard to release even a reluctant titter.

Trump’s rallies are stage-managed to within an inch of their lives. In their lack of chanciness and spontaneity, they are a systematic negation of the theatrical spirit. And so they constitute, by default, an eloquent defence of the art form – for which the pandemic has had particularly brutal consequences. There is a connection between the president’s failings as a man and his humourlessness as a public performer.

That goes for his progeny, too. By heredity and paternal example, their preferred arena is, of course, Twitter. It was no surprise that the hapless Eric exploited the recent arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell by posting an image of Maxwell and cohort Jeffrey Epstein socialising with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Did Eric not realise that this would inevitably be countered by an image of Donald and Melania in close, hobnobbing proximity to the disgraced pair?

Ivanka, her father’s clear favourite, specialises in tweets berating laughter that she deems disrespectful to the Trump agenda. She also posted a video of the commencement speech she would have delivered if the community college Wichita State University Tech had not dispensed with her services in reaction to the the president’s severely controversial handling of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s killing (caught on film and at once unspeakable and eerily matter-of-fact) by a white policeman in Minneapolis. Ivanka’s indignation that she had been no-platformed would have carried more weight had her video not suggested that the only thing her prospective audience missed was the chance of snatching a snooze. The weird sound of the delivery, void of energy, self-awareness or timing, as if she were coming out of slightly involuntary self-hypnosis, marked her out as her father’s daughter.

Of course, the massive readership of the president’s Twitter feed is treated to moments of inadvertent comedy. Take his recent slamming of New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, for his plans to paint “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on Fifth Avenue in front of the supremely tasteful Trump Tower. Never can a tweet have been more unfortunately worded. Trump accused the sign of potentially “denigrating this luxury avenue” – the very word encapsulating in its Latin etymology the nub of the problem (though he does not know it, Trump is suggesting that this course of action would “blacken” the neighbourhood). As for the mural being a “symbol of hate”, that’s very much in the eye of the beholder; some might say the flashily ostentatious Trump Tower is not exactly conciliatory in its symbolism. Here we have a man who is being forced to grovel to the prejudices of his base, as social media platforms wake up to the commercial cost – in terms of waning advertising revenue – of not being seen to socially distance themselves from a president who stands accused of heinous derelictions of duty.

Trump and Putin in 2018

Trump’s continued cosying up to Putin, his attempts to bring him into the G7 and to weaken Nato, are deeply unsettling. John Adams wrested an opera out of Nixon in China because even Nixon had the vestigial sense of humour that permits the flexibility of detente. Trump in Helsinki – where he famously met with Putin in 2018 – would beggar the combined force of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1939), his cinematic farce about the totalitarian thugs of the pre-Second World War world, and John Frankenheimer in The Manchurian Candidate, his 1962 movie version of the unsettling Cold War novel by Richard Condon, with its brainwashing by foreign powers and unwitting attempts at assassination.

The renowned French theorist of laughter Henri Bergson identified one of the sources of laughter as people who come to resemble machines in their routine repetitiveness. By this token, Trump has become comic in the grisliest of ways – like a stuck record in his Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore – churning out the same old hatreds and stoking up the same old divisiveness, heedless of the way that the world is changing. He is quicker to take offence at relatively newfangled trends, such as “cancel culture”, than he is to learn from the venerable traditions in American performance history.

Take the American tradition of “roasting” celebrities and powerful people – a practice that is both good-natured and potentially pulverising, and that has no exact equivalent in British culture. In 2011, a roasting of Trump was televised on Comedy Central. There are safeguards because of the broadcasting. Things can be edited out before transmission and the candidates are entitled to rule out some topics. So while Trump allowed the panel to poke fun of his comb-over coiffure and his TV show, The Apprentice, they were banned from making jokes about the suspicion that he is not as wealthy as he claims to be.

Though it too was televised, there was more of a live-event feel (and less of a safety net) when President Obama zinged Trump, who was in the audience, from the top table at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. Trump is more phobic than most about being laughed at, and some date his determination to become president himself – and to spend most of his first term trying to undo his predecessor’s legacy – to that fateful evening.

Barack Obama’s witty self-deprecation is not a characteristic shared by Donald Trump 

With a finesse that humiliated Trump less because of what was said than because of the finesse and witty self-deprecation of Obama’s delivery, the incumbent president joshed Trump about “birtherism” and the wealth of experience that might give him potential for his own stab at the White House. He flashed up an image of the full birth certificate that he had been challenged to provide as authentication of his American citizenship, before revealing his “birth video” – a clip from The Lion King. “I know that [Trump] has taken some flak lately,” Obama twinkled with effortless – and devastating – good humour, “but no one is happier, no one is prouder, to put this birth certificate matter to rest than Donald – and that’s because he can finally get to focus on issues that matter. Like did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

By contrast, timing has never been Trump’s strong suit, as was evident from his choice of Mount Rushmore as the blatantly tactless venue for his fiery Fourth of July celebrations. What could be more calculated to tread on the sensitivities of the Sioux president, Julian Bear Runner, who does not agree that his ancestral land was ever legally ceded to the United States, than by inviting a horde of health-risky tourists to gather in the shade of a monument that has no right to be there.

A nice/horrible irony about the inadequacy of Trump’s sense of theatre – the fact that he has no real affection for his audience, whose wellbeing matters to him not a whit – was exposed by his mirthless routine at a rally in Youngstown, Ohio, in June 2018. “I’d ask whether or not you think that I will end up at Mount Rushmore?” He turns and greets his backing group, who are waving their MAGA placard, with a perma-conceited smile. Then those small hands flap with a show of flouncing, dismissive frustration. “But here’s the problem,” he confided. “If I did it joking, totally joking ... the fake news media would say, ‘He believes he should be on Mount Rushmore.’” The voice dropped to a parody of stuffy, stuck-up affectation. “So I won’t say it. I won’t say it.” As double bluffs go, this is matchlessly shameless, and up to now intolerably effective.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff was inclined to boast, “I am not only witty in myself but the cause that wit is in other men.” Trump would have to settle for just the latter part of that line. (The late-night talk show hosts have excelled themselves with the tireless resilience of their raillery at his expense.)

The famed pronouncements of the president himself bring a twist to the lips that almost never develops into a smile. Gore Vidal used to call his homeland “the United States of Amnesia”: one wonders how he would bring that gag up to date. Trump ran for the presidency last time with the cocky claim that his base is so staunch that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters”. Stephen Sondheim, the author of the musical Assassins, once wrote a line in an earlier show (Anyone Can Whistle) that now feels very apposite: “Laugh at the kings or they’ll make you cry.” It puts you in mind of how in a democracy, a voting station – provided you can get into it – is a good place for poking definitive fun at would-be tyrants.

Meanwhile, on the very weekend that Trump was at Mount Rushmore, struggling in Freudian fashion with the word “totalitarian”, Disney was releasing its movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway mega-hit musical Hamilton. Trump was never going to be enamoured of a genuinely game-changing musical that casts performers of colour as the Founding Fathers and uses a swirl of rap, hip-hop, R&B and traditional musical theatre as it tells the story of the American War of Independence and its teething problems. And he was volubly displeased when, leaving the theatre after seeing a performance, his vice-president-elect, Mike Pence, was waylaid from the stage by the cast, and given a take-home message about the new administration’s need to govern on behalf of all Americans.

Theatre is the genre par excellence for promoting the spirit of democracy, creating a forum in which a polity can take stock of itself and argue the toss over its difference in an atmosphere that is one of contention and mutual civility. Among the moments that stick out in the history of Trump rallies are the president’s horrible impersonation of a disabled reporter and potentially inspired comic sequence when a young man managed to infiltrate the backing group with nonconformity on his mind. My, they got him out quickly. Theatre’s shape-changing capacity to sidestep state censorship through its skill at transformation (Shakespeare’s plays shifting locale to the disguise of ancient Rome would be a major case in point) is unlikely to enhance its popularity with Trump, either.

Tony Kushner, the greatest American dramatist of his generation, has said that he is working on a play about Trump. He certainly has the credentials, having written the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, the only president who Trump concedes may have improved the lot of black Americans even more than he did. Kushner is also brilliant at taking you into the twisted interior world of his monsters, as he proved in his depiction of Roy Cohn in his epic two-part play Angels in America. An unscrupulous fixer, Cohn taught the young Trump, his mentee, that what you desire is worth getting at all costs.

And Kushner’s protean, witty genius would be equal to whatever fate throws at the proceeding. A Rose Garden press conference that – to the despair of his own aides – morphs into a rambling, Biden-bashing campaign rally? A Fox News interview with Chris Wallace that could double as a campaign ad for Biden as Trump insists that the virus is “going to disappear”?

Kushner is keenly alive to the comedy in humourlessness, and this saga is awash with it.

It remains to be seen who will have the last laugh.

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