Swifting in the Fog of Trump - Umberto Tosi
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|
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|
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.
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|
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|
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”
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.)
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|
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.
"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.