Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. The show’s already started, but don’t worry, it’s a circus in there and it doesn’t matter when you come in. The bar’s open, and trust me, you’ll want to fortify yourself.
Donald Trump is a joke, a trickster, a liar, a salesman, a schmoozer, a womanizer. He’s crass to the point of caricature, and that’s the way he likes it: the golden toilets, the life-sized portraits of himself, the fake Time covers, the spray tans, the wrestling, the porn stars. He’s a poorly aging frat boy, a sinister backslapper with a rapey, clacketty leer. He’s a shirker who slobbers over men and women in the military while his phantom bone spurs throb with the shame his scrambled brain can’t produce on its own. His rhetoric is poisonous, his compliments barbed with long-acting betrayal. He’s a lumbering, cunning, venomous animal you can’t take your eyes off.
A Deus ex Machina dropped onto the world stage as if to resolve the End of History, Trump is an unexpected, pot-bellied, raging turn of events lauded by some as the savior, deplored by others as the most dangerous figure to come along and kick sand in our faces since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This sui generis garbler of meaning, swallower of truth and birther of lies has become the central fact of politics, an immovable behemoth, turgid with mendacity and yet beloved, adored and venerated by millions. Millions of our fellow humans believe the curiously spelled staccato pronouncements he disgorges on Twitter. They nod along to his insults and his paranoid ranting against the bureaucracy that exists to bolster and protect the very democracy that handed him his narrow victory.
The rest of the world holds its breath as Trump flicks invisible dandruff off the French President’s lapel, hurls babyish insults at nuclear-powered leaders, lies about his affairs and—extra-weirdly—telephones the pertly inert hosts of a Fox News morning show to confide that he hasn’t bought his beautiful wife a birthday present. The leaders of other nations go about their business, governing, budgeting and strategizing. But how their hands must shake as they sign all their important papers, knowing that Donald Trump is undercutting their trade deals and peace plans with his jagged, oversized signature. The citizens of other nations—not all the citizens, not all the nations—stare, riveted, at their screens, ignoring their own tremulous overlords as the world’s greatest narcissist fecklessly moves from scandal to betrayal and back again.
As we sit and simmer in Trump’s world, we are all now using the word “deal” to describe everything from porn star hush money to the critically-injured JCPOA. Negotiations, treaties, promises, obligations: they’re all deals. Bad deals, great deals! We’ve become familiar with cigar-chomping, pin-striped robber barons, on the make lawyers and fixers, trophy wives and scheming daughters, sad-eyed, big-game-hunting sons straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, oily operatives with Cheshire-cat smiles and advisors who long ago stopped worrying and learned to love the Bomb. “Sad!” “Lame!” “You’re fired!” Those are the catchphrases we used to love to mock. The whole bananas deal was a joke, a prank, a cruel gotcha but hey, we got it, and sometimes we could even laugh along. His presidency was so preposterous, so surreal that we thought it wouldn’t last. But “witch hunt” and “fake news”, which could have been fun, now feel like ashes in the mouth.
Who can blame us for thinking it wouldn’t last? Shall we revisit the pussy-grabbing, the mocking of the disabled reporter, the paeans to violence at his rallies, the chants of “Lock her up!”, the discovery that he once invented and then regularly incarnated a PR guy to call reporters and brag about himself? Locking the press up in cages at his rallies. His first wife’s accusation of rape. His shady dealings with nightclub billionaires hailing from Central Asian nations rarely complimented on their stellar human rights records. Peeping at teenage beauty contestants. Insulting his fellow celebrities. Insulting his political rivals. His endless, shameless lies. His ignorance. His oh-so-delicate dispensing of equivalent blame after Charlottesville. His blurting out of state secrets to the Russian foreign minister. (Another country’s state secrets, at that.) And of course, his teeny-bopper’s raw, forever love for Russia’s bare chest-in-chief, Vladimir Putin.
Millions of words have been spilled on the subject of Trump’s so-called base. Oceans of analysis have poured through our collective conscience, leaving little more than detritus behind, little bobbing bits of data washing in and out again with the tide. How can this be, we ask again? How can so many millions of American voters believe in this man, especially when many of those voters actually know that he is a liar, and quite possibly a thief? We shake our heads and talk about a post-truth era, a term so dystopian it’s like a blow to the solar plexus of the body politic. An awakening to the terrible possibility that bragging, swaggering, rumor-mongering, club-swinging bullying actually works. That the meek won’t inherit the earth, but cling fast to rickety tree houses, putting up signs that say “diversity is our strength” and “hey hey, no fascist USA”, and “we stand with our intelligence services”. Trembling like leaves in the ill winds emanating from the new centres of power.
How grand, some declare, that the most powerful man on earth has big balls. Look at him, he’s so courageous, so badass. Why, Kim Jong Un, the hermit potentate of the world’s last Stalinist redoubt might even come around to meet with America’s grifter-in-chief, oops, sorry, presidential President to talk, we’re told, about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Who cares if the President’s closest advisor is his own 80s playboy, greed-is-good limbic centre? So much the better. The guy’s a winner, ya snowflakes! It’s great, some say, how the Donald’s never-Trump detractors have got their panties in a twist over his norm-breaking and elite-rules-defying. What did those guys ever do for us except push us into unwinnable wars with the Allah-u-Akbar turban-heads and then suck good-paying jobs away from the heartland and into the slums of Bangladesh and other shithole countries (hey, just telling it like it is)?
You all, some say, don’t really care about us. You don’t get us. You don’t get MAGA, but MAGA loves you, you mealy-mouthed libtards. Kanye gets it. Candace Owens gets it. And they’re black, so suck on that. Angela Merkel and the other globalists don’t know what they’re doing. We’re going to sweep away George Soros’s nefarious, Muslim-appeasing dust and you all can choke on it. What’s not to love, morons? Get with the program. You like data? Check out the employment numbers. Look at how the stock market’s doing. Regulations kill jobs. Who cares if Scott Pruitt flies first class? Haters on airplanes are the worst, you can’t get away from the soy stench. MAGA, you dummies. Go back to your ivory towers and your safe spaces and weep.
Would that this phenomenon were confined to the U.S., but this whole-hearted embrace of thuggishness and hucksterism has spread across the world. Donald Trump’s catchphrases have caught on in the Philippines, Venezuela, Syria and beyond. Those of us who do not like Donald Trump one bit are forced to admit the guy has a way with words, even if he only deploys one twentieth of the language. His barked-out epithets and denunciations, simple and memorable as they are, are phenomenally fungible. Name a dictator who doesn’t wish he’d thought up “Fake News” all by himself, or a strongman who hasn’t used it. One can’t blame Trump for the rise of authoritarianism in Hungary, Poland, Russia and Turkey, but an American President who employs the rhetorical tactics of a tin-pot dictator is a bit like the guy who shoots the starting gun at a race.
Kim Jong Un might be playing Trump like a squeaky violin, pretending to consider denuclearization and peace only because now that he’s got the ballistic missiles and nuclear power he can afford to be photographed settling his ample behind at the negotiating table and going coiffure to coiffure with the American running dogs. Kim Jong Un comes from a long line of thugs posing as gods to their cowed and broken people and routinely imprisons, tortures and starves dissenters. He buttresses his power with round the clock propaganda shouted from television screens and loudspeakers, warning weary North Koreans that America is on the verge of attack. It seems a smidge naïve to think the dauphin is prepared to obliterate his raison d’être with one meeting with Trump.
But then again, this is 2018, everything is upside down and strange, very strange things happen all the time. Maybe he’s there because the madman strategy works, and he genuinely thinks Trump would be willing to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Perhaps Trump’s threats were just what South Korea was waiting for, the excuse they needed to reach out and clasp the hands of their northern cousins. Only Kim Jong Un himself knows, and it’s not like anyone can ask him.
The stock market is doing well. Job numbers are up. These trends were in place before Trump came to power, but it is also true that despite the President’s bizarre, unruly, divisive and chaotic actions and pronouncements, the economy has at least continued to grow. Donald Trump is obviously, theatrically, heavily pockmarked with the signs of psychopathy. It is pointless to look for method in a psychopath’s madness, except to arm oneself with defensive knowledge, but at the same time it’s clear that the guy seems to be having some wins. He isn’t getting wall-to-wall victories, no proud canters across the Rubicon, he’s no Alexander renaming cities from Macedonia to Egypt in his name—indeed Trump’s name is cracking and tumbling off buildings in Panama, Vancouver and even New York City itself. But the unemployment rate is way, way down and his base is chanting “Nobel, Nobel”, an arguably less chilling chorus than “Lock her up”.
Those who hoped Trump would drain the Washington swamp need look no further than the Michael Cohen farce to understand that the capital’s wetlands are infinitely watery, unlike those of the natural world which Trump and his cronies are even more obviously unconcerned about. Donald Trump may bring the Establishment down but another one will rise up because that is what always, always happens. His base should understand he isn’t proposing a revolution, but a coup. Perhaps they do grasp that, and what they really want is not revolution, but gladiatorial combat. When you know, deep down, that some strong man will elbow his way to the top and then sit himself down for some high-quality plundering, you might decide to make him pay with bread and circuses: law suits, naked ladies, military parades, glowing orbs, humiliated factotums, bumbling aides-de-camp—all the elements of a good play. Or movie.
Among the more irksome aspects of the Trump presidency, beyond the nepotism, the personal enrichment and phoney piety, is the sheer lowbrow entertainment value of his tenure as the most powerful man in the world. Watching Trump (and we all watch Trump) is like giving up on conversation at the dinner table and letting the kids keep up with the Kardashians on their phones while we drown our dreams in a second, or third, glass of wine. But as the petty drama unfolds in front of us, the great Greek tragedies of the human project carry on behind the scenes. Whether we like it or not, whether we are able to suspend disbelief or not, Trump is in charge of the whole whirling circus. So raise your glass, friend, steady your hand and say a toast to the king of the klieg lights.