Sunday, 3 May 2020

Swifting in the Fog of Trump - Umberto Tosi

Taking out the garbage the other day, I noticed that our condo building's back-alley trash bin was nearly full. That was unusual for a Thursday afternoon. Our city sanitation crews - AKA, essential COVID-19 frontline workers - pick up punctually every Thursday morning.

Oh well, I thought. Another dislocation of the Great 2020 Pandemic Shutdown. Imagine my surprise the following morning when checked the weather forecast online and saw that it was Wednesday! I had either overslept through five days or - as proved the case - I had zoned-out all of Tuesday thinking that it was Thursday! "I've just gained two days," I told my inamorata, Eleanor, who just rolled her eyes. "Another quarantine silver lining!" I declared. "Now I have an extra 48 hours to procrastinate on writing my AE blog post!"

Am I being sarcastic? Rod Serling could have turned my experience into a Twilight Zone episode. But you could do that with almost anything nowadays. (One of Serling's 1960 TV episodes -"The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" - in fact, did foreshadow something of our present situation. It portrays friendly neighbors inexorably breaking bad during an emergency lockdown.

Chico as Groucho, Duck Soup w/Margaret Dumont
It is hard to tell satire from seriousness nowadays. Satirists like the syndicated columnist Andy Borowitz have had to label their parodies, "not the real news." It's a backhanded tribute to the mendacity of a president who tries to get out of his more embarrassing, ugly, stupid, and/or venomous utterances by pleading sarcasm the next day. As Groucho - or rather Chico-as-Groucho in Duck Soup would have said, "Who are you going to believe me or your own eyes?" (In this case: your lying ears.) Trump's recent, deadly serious, hyping of disinfectant injections and sunlamp insertions as a cure for COVID-19 was broadcast on national TV. That didn't stop him from later saying he meant it sarcastically when the video clearly shows he did not.

Was it sarcasm a few days after that when Trump's soulless son-in-law Jared Kushner (aka, Dorian Gray, Jr.) went on Fox News to announce that dear leader's handling of the pandemic - which by then had already claimed 60,000+ American lives - should be regarded as a "success story." Send in the clowns!

A social media sample
Of course, any fool can see that Trump's brain is too blunt for satire. Gaslighting is more his game. Sowing confusion is his game. It's right there in Goebbels' playbook among the 12 top Fascist propaganda ploys Trump uses incessantly, along with 1.) Bullying, 2.) Panic Mongering.3) Character Assassination. 4.) Projection, 5.) Rewriting History 6.) Scapegoating and Othering. 7) Conflating Violence With Power and Opposition to Violence With Weakness. 8.) Invoking the Christian God 9.)Anti-Intellectualism. 10.) Guilt by Association, and 11.) Diversion.

Genuine satire is a thing of terrible beauty if not a joy forever. In that context, Trump might be sinister but fits the role of a Swiftian scoundrel more than of Big Brother - a thin-skinned, man-baby narcissistic authoritarian, a mental Lilliputian. It would be funnier if Hair Hitler were not so much like Hitler 1, who also lacked an ounce of real wit along with compassion.

You can't argue with success - until it fails. Trump's superpowers have served him well so far - namely his adept, intuitive use of that dirty dozen of Fascist disinformation techniques, but his Kryptonite is ridicule. When it comes to mockery, our thin-skinned, short-fingered vulgarian can dish it out, but he can't take it. President Bone Spurs avoids direct confrontations in favor of hurling turds from a safe distance.

You could see Trump cringe at the category 5 hurricane of it that washed over the White House after his now-infamous Clorox Cure remarks make him, once again, the laughing stock of social media and late-night television. Who could resist? You couldn't make it up. The jokes write themselves. Gadfly songster Randy Rainbow barely took 24 hours to post a scathing Mary Poppins satire on Trump's disinfectant debacle: "Just a Spoonful of Clorox"- that went viral immediately. The Great Orange ran for cover the next day and veered off his bloviating coronavirus briefings while he tried to put himself back together.

Spike Jones' Disney 'Toon
It's clear that ridicule unhinges him and will be his undoing yet, either by inexorable psychological disintegration or by making him a universal laughing stock that is eroding even his cultish base. Don't forget, Trump lost the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3 million votes and needed Putin's help to barely squeak out pluralities in a handful of swing states to tilt the anachronistic Electoral College his way.

Shave off a pastrami-thin slice of his Midwestern base and he's toast. With any luck, that is - but Trump has been preternaturally lucky. He's made me a believer in Faustian bargains. Was it Putin or Satan who promised him immunity from all consequences, the White House, and a lifetime supply of Chicken Nuggets in return for his immortal, fetid soul?

So - addressing the writers among you - are scoundrels like Trump most effectively countered by polemics or parody?

I'm with Swift. I pick ridicule.

Note that Der Trump never got over President Obama's elegant and hilarious roasting of him and his racist birtherism at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner on national TV as Trump had to sit there in his tux (with no cheeseburgers) and take it at while the audience of swells howled.

Trump is his own stereotype. So was Hitler. As a first-grader in WW2 America, I remember tamping my hair down on one side and putting part of a pocket comb over my upper lip and goose-stepping around the house to elicit uncomfortable laughs from the adults. Then we had Spike Jones, to heil "right in Der Fuhrer's Face" in an outrageous comedy style that inspired Mel Brooks 60 years later.

Dorothy Thompson, 1930s
The crusading, U.S. radio and print journalist Dorothy Thompson was at the vanguard of warning a then-complacent American public about Hitler as far back as a decade prior to the Nazis taking power in 1933 Weimar Germany. The feminist, nationally read columnist (also the second wife of Sinclair Lewis) was thrown out of Germany for her writings. Her characterization of Adolf Hitler from a 1931, in-person interview in Munich could easily fit America's current ruling demagogue. Hitler, she wrote, seemed an  "almost formless man whose countenance is a caricature; a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequential and voluble, ill-poised, insecure—the very prototype of the Little Man."

Trump would have made an easy target for Jonathan Swift. It's easy to imagine Lilliput's harebrained Emperor Golbasto Momarem Evlame Gurdilo Shefin Mully Ully Gue (or Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts) threatening a courtier bearing bad news just as Trump recently threatened to sue a campaign aide who dared to inform his boss about bad poll numbers. (Trump habitually threatens contractors with specious lawsuits to avoid paying for their services when the bills come due.) It's right out of The Onion, or my boyhood favorite comic book, Mad Magazine (R.I.P), except that it was real.

Trump's corrupt Oval Office operation is no improvement over the 18th-century, imperial British that Swift parodied in Lilliput.  The Bard would say "the fault is in our stars." As the king of the noble, giant Brobdingnaggians observes to Gulliver later in the book: "I can not but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the face of the earth”

Jonathan Swift defended his satirical writings in an essay he wrote shortly after the publication of Gulliver's Travels in 1726: Although Gulliver's Travels (the original text, not its sweetened cartoon adaptations) is truly an indictment of humankind. But grew out of Swift's firm conviction that people are capable of better. (As dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin, Swift, after all, was a preacher.)

Swift contended that humor is a more powerful force for ethical evolution than serious explorations of good and evil. My book "is certainly the best ingredient towards the kind of satire that is most useful - and gives the least offense - which, instead of lashing, laughs men out of their follies and vices, and is the character which gives Horace the preference to Juvenal."

He added: "whether I have not as good a title to laugh as men have to be ridiculous and to expose vice, as another hath of being vicious. If I ridicule the follies and corruptions of a court, a ministry, or a senate; are they not amply paid by pensions, titles, and poser, while I expect and desire no other reward than that of laughter with a few friends..."

Swift distilled the outrage that fueled his satires in this verse:

"Like the ever laughing Sage,
In a Jest I spend my Rage:
(Tho' it must be understood,
I would hang them if I cou'd.)"
 - Jonathan Swift.

Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel
It's a good bet that Swift would yearn to string up our present kleptocracy as well. It's not going to happen. But we still could use a Swift or maybe a Mark Twain or a Charlie Chaplin right now. Clever as they are, our contemporary comics have yet to nail Trump with the Olympian aplomb of Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Chaplin, like Twain and Swift, went for more than cheap laughs. His 1940 film gets to the heart of Dorothy Thompson's chilling insight. The dictator is frightening and funny at the same time - a pathetic yet dangerous fool with no soul at whom we laugh to keep from crying.

Satire may not change history or reform human nature, but it does redeem and empower us. It's hard to intimidate subjects who are laughing at you even if you scare them too.

Polemicists can't claim to do any better than that. It would sadden but probably not shock Upton Sinclair to note the serial shutdowns of big American meat-packing plants due to outbreaks of COVID-19 among their employees who complained of having to work cheek-by-jowl without protective gear resulting in thousands of case. The crisis - affecting food safety and supply - echoed The Jungle, Sinclair's sensational 1906 muckraking novel depicting immigrant laborers working amid atrocious conditions at a fictional Chicago meatpacking plant. Now along comes Fuhrer Trump ordering the plants to reopen under the Defense Production Act, forcing their mostly immigrant laborers back onto the production lines lest they lose their jobs and chances of unemployment benefits, risks to them - and perhaps to consumers - be damned. Same abuses, different immigrants.

Sinclair, 1934
Speaking of humor and outrage, I get a laugh out of the pundits clucking over narcissist Trump's failure to express empathy for virus victims. Do you really expect the demagogue whose administration has ripped thousands of refugee children from their parents and locked them in camps in order to pander to Trump's racist base to really give a rat's patootie about whether you catch COVID-19 and die? Seriously.

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." The saying is attributed to various actors and humorists, from Edmund Kean, to Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel, and Brendan Behan. The most convincing attribution points to the character actor Edmund Gwenn back in 1959. Playwright-director George Seaton visited the old actors' home where his friend Gwenn lay dying and commented on how trying it must be for the elfin actor. “Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy," quipped Gwenn with characteristic dryness.

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Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine. He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four adult children. He resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com

5 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

A masterful and much-needed evisceration of this grotesque aberration of a 'leader'. Your final juxtaposition of death and comedy such a telling comment on the devastating outcomes of his contagion. I hope the fact that there are (surely there must be) millions of your fellow-countrymen and women who, like you, see through and deplore the deadly charade he's overseeing, will eventually (although, sadly, not soon enough) overcome those who, incomprehensibly, tolerate, and even applaud, his lunacy. The world needs the example of a strong, confident, WISE America to help it cope with uncertainties which we still haven’t managed to define. Thanks, Umberto.

Jan Needle said...

Brilliant. Thanks very much.

Sandra Horn said...

Thank you, Umberto. Your unique style of fearsome erudition and biting sarcasm is incredibly impressive - this post hits really home. I'd be trembling in my shoes if I were Hair Hitler and came across this - although maybe I wouldn't get it if I had his pea-sized brain. What strange times we live in - on both sides of the Atlantic.

Aliciasammons said...

Insightful commentary on satire’s rapier precision to cut to the heart of our east of Eden human condition. Umberto reflects on satire’s role to reveal the tragedy and the farce of those grotesques among us who, with vicious glee, lead us to destruction. An excellent read that nurtures the reader with much food for thought

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you, Bill, Jan, Sandra, and Alicia! I appreciate your kind words and added insight greatly!