Tuesday, June 23, 2020


I still haven't watch the full fourteen minutes of Donald Trump in Tulsa explaining his slow walk down the ramp at West Point, but I was surprised by the obsessive (if revisionist) level of detail even in The Washington Post's three-minute highlight reel.

If this was a matter of great shame to Trump, why did he want us to think about it for a quarter of an hour? Why did he want to milk every moment for laughs?

The laughs were the point. Trump has learned over the years -- particularly, I think, from Howard Stern -- that a comic doing a routine about being a loser can make an audience believe he's a winner. Comedy can be an act of aggression and dominance (the comic is holding forth and making other people react), even when the comic is talking about falling prey to forces beyond his control. We all know that Trump wanted to get back on the road because he craves the adulation of crowds -- but I wonder if this is specifically what he craves, the power of being a comic and having an audience in your control, even if you're talking about the rest of your life being out of your control. (In a typical speech, Trump complains about the media and the Democrats and everyone else who's mistreating him.)

I once saw Rodney Dangerfield perform live, before a crowd that included a lot of aspiring comics. Dangerfield's entire act, for decades, was about his status as a lifelong loser and about being mistreated by life. But he lashed out at these forces in his comedy, especially the night I saw him, in a way that seemed defiant, even though every punch line portrayed him as a chump and a failure. The gathered comics cheered him as if he was the God Emperor of Comedy. Howard Stern's fans treated him the same way -- the King of All Media, they used to call him, even though, on the surface, he was self-deprecating and self-hating.

Trump's not a bad comic. He's pretty good with inflections, though he uses the same few in every monologue (and that's what we should call them -- they're monologues, not speeches). His timing is good. His material is reprehensible, especially because he's not a comic. He's supposed to be a president. He's supposed to effectively carry out policies that are good for the citizens of the country. He's supposed to solve problems. He's supposed to serve the people. He's supposed to try to unite the country.

Trump can't do any of that, and doesn't want to do most of it -- but he can riff. He needs to riff. In Tulsa, he needed to concoct an aggressive series of riffs on his failure to walk normally down a ramp, because he believed that getting laughs about that embarrassment would convert the failure into dominance. As far as the faithful were concerned, it worked.

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