Donald Trump, America's Comic
As lawsuits, indictments, and ballot challenges mount, a defiant Donald Trump tells America: he'll be here all week
SIOUX CENTER, IA — You know Donald Trump is feeling good when he moves into Triumph the Insult Comic President mode, early in a speech. In Iowa Friday, ten days before Americans officially start voting for the man, Trump was a violin short of Henny Youngman. He had everything working.
On Nikki Haley: “Birdbrain… Does not have what it takes... She’s a globalist. She loves the globe.” He contorted his mouth to an O for “globe,” pronouncing it like Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
On the former GOP House Speaker: “Remember Paul Ryan, wheelchair-off-a-cliff?” Trump asked. “Remember this guy?” He mentioned Ryan joining the board of Fox, quipping, “No wonder Fox has changed.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for a while the latest in the ignominious Jeb-Kasich-Rubio line of not-Trump Republicans falsely hyped as contenders by wish casting pundits, is no longer a serious poll threat, having been displaced by Haley in recent weeks. Trump crawled up his pipe anyway (the languorous, Wrestlemania-style gloat over an opponent’s demise has been a stump feature since Trump’s first speeches).
“I got him elected,” Trump grinned. “He went up like a rocket ship as soon as I pressed that little button.” He pantomimed pressing a Tweet button. “Now it’s Truth. Truth is the best, right? But is everybody on Truth? I hope Truth is the one. That’s the one. But at that time there was no Truth… I tweeted a little statement and he went up like a rocket ship… He was dead. He was going to leave the race to winning the race just with one little press of a button. It’s an amazing thing, isn’t it?”
Holding to tradition Trump kept calling him “DeSanctis,” explaining academically that this was the proper abbreviated form of the full name “Governor Ron DeSanctimonious.” How insistent is he? When a fan tried to yell out, “Ron De-Snooze-fest!” Trump cut him off.
“It’s Ron DeSanctimonious, actually,” he deadpanned.
For déjà vu enthusiasts, we’re reliving a key mathematical constant of the Trump experience, the last-minute flurry of articles about how somebody in the GOP slate really has a shot to knock him off this time. Not that it couldn’t happen, but these articles tend to be written in the tone of children’s letters to Santa, and some of the crazier themes (“Marcomentum” is an all-time favorite) are classics of bad-analysis genre. Mother Jones just went with “Haley Surges” (she’s within 13 points in New Hampshire, or 4 according to some!). Newsweek said Haley is “Hot on Trump’s Heels,” while the New York Times asked, “Could Nikki Haley Actually Do it?” Possible, I guess. But more likely not really:
Trump in Sioux Center went over a lot of material I’d seen before, though I hadn’t caught the “Crooked Joe searching for the exit” impersonation live. It’s another stump staple that’s been evolving for at least the last half-year and, look, it’s funny. It just is. In part this is because Biden is funny, a physical comedy wonder, unfortunately just not on purpose. It started with this last June 1st:
Trump was told at his own speech that Biden fell in Colorado Springs. “At the Air Force Academy?” Trump asked. “Not inspiring.” When an attendee yelled that Biden fell because of “gusty winds” — a seeming reference to White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre saying it was “pretty windy outside” after Biden’s infamous Air Force One tumble — Trump deadpanned again. “Yeah. The winds.” Before long Trump tried out what’s become his “The guy can’t find the stairs!” routine. In September, for instance: “If I walk left, there’s a stair. If I walk right there’s a stair. And this guy gets up… ‘Uh, where am I?” He turned and walked toward the rear wall, pausing in front of it, holding in place to show just his back to the audience. Trump doesn’t do voices, but this imitation of a confused Biden is Caroline’s-ready. He turned around again and said, “Where the hell am I?”
The Sioux Center version: “I mean, these stages have a lot of stairs on ‘em. Some of ‘em have four or five stairs, and he did. He had so many stairs he couldn’t find it.”
The run time for the Sioux Center address ended up clocking in at one hour, forty-eight minutes, an eternity for a stump speech. Even Trump’s phalanx of expressionless, muscled-up secret service protectors loosened their ties and/or broke into sweats, feeling the strain. There were four or five false endings, and when Trump plowed ahead after each, with reporters shifting in seats and clearly anxious to escape, the length started to become funny in itself. “It’s a little hot! This room wasn’t designed exactly for this,” Trump quipped 80 minutes in, characteristically blaming the room for the tension. “It’s like 200 degrees in this damn— I’m trying to be cool.”
“You are cool!” a fan shouted out.
Eyerolls on the press riser. Trump slowly reached for a handkerchief, a nod maybe to Cleavon Little’s “Excuse me while I whip this out” routine. “I’m just going to do this a little bit,” he said, dabbing his face.
As time wore on he took on a strong late-stage Lenny Bruce vibe (the only thing missing were fistfuls of papers from this court case) but worked in homages to Richard Pryor’s stuttering Chinese waiter bit (“He’s a threat to d-d-democracy,” he said, aping an actual stutterer in Biden), Milton Berle, Dangerfield… In a few places he even drifted tonewise toward Louis C.K.’s “abortion is exactly like taking a shit” routine, before pulling back. As is nearly always the case, Trump peppered the Poconos delivery with observations that blow your mind when you pause to consider it’s the former President of the United States saying these things. “The army tank is a beauty. They want to be environmentally friendly as we go in and blast the crap out of some nation,” he said, in another standard. “We’re going to go in, we’re going to be environmentally friendly as we blast our way through their front lines, but we’re doing it in an environmentally friendly manner. How crazy are we?”
Listening to this stuff is like watching a Pope throw open the Vatican door with his balls hanging out. The brain screams to laugh at the situation, but everyone pretends it’s not funny. In a related note Trump went after the “fake news media” five or six times. “Is there anybody in this room that’s not going to vote for Trump?” he asked at one point, before quickly interjecting: “Don’t raise your hand. It could be dangerous. They’re going to say, ‘He incited an insurrection!’” Pointing at us now: “These stupid bastards! ‘He incited an insurrection!’” The hall again filled with laughs, like the set of a Don Rickles roast.
This isn’t Hitler, unless we’re talking about the Mel Brooks version. Anyone who argues none of this is funny is lying. If you want to say Trump is funny and a burgeoning fascist threat to democracy, that’s an argument that can be had, maybe. But I don’t think that holds up either, considering the context:
It’s too bad we’ll be in civil war and stabbing each other for shelter before it’s appreciated, but Trump’s story is the great comedy of our time.
In the fifteen years before the oft-mocked real estate magnate ran for president, the U.S. introduced torture, kidnapping, warrantless arrest (back for the first time since 1861), drone assassination, Minority Report-style predictive policing, preemptive war, mass surveillance, and a long, long list of other lunacies into our culture. These weren’t small changes, but sweeping rewrites of Schoolhouse Rock promises, things that as a citizen made you want to puke from shame.
Trump was just getting started on the campaign trail when headlines like “‘Sodomized’ Gitmo Detainee Recovering After Surgery. Prison: No Comment” hit the news, letting us know at least one terror suspect needed a special pillow for court after years of “rectal feeding.” A little-noticed detail from the email scandal of Hillary “Love Trumps Hate” Clinton involved correspondence showing Trump’s general election opponent objected to just 1 of 294 extralegal drone strikes (causing 2,192 deaths) approved during her tenure as Secretary of State.
America’s leaders had been peeing on every Amendment in the Bill of Rights for over a decade, even going back in time to disavow pre-American traditions like habeas corpus and grand jury secrecy. Just as the population was beginning to figure out how low we’d sunk, we were told the true outrage against “norms” came when the DNC’s own preferred candidate, Trump, got elected in the loudest record-scratch in history.
It was absurd. Trump was a small-timer compared to his opponents. Through 2015 he was famous in media circles mainly as the kind of person the educated set liked to make fun of, a “short-fingered vulgarian” who liked gold leaf, fake tits, and online steaks. If Barack Obama was the avatar of upper class probity, a lean multiracial scholar fawned over by the Nobel Committee, Trump was the opposite, an artery-clogged casino boss with bankruptcies and a comb-over. His sales ideas were very hit and miss, but unfortunately for politicians, running for president was the biggest of his hits.
Trump’s merchant scent followed a clear whiff of opportunity emanating from the corrupt campaign process. He charged into the race with the assurance of a man rushing up the decks of the Queen Mary, clutching antibiotics to sell to aristocrats with the clap. His freestyle stump schtick about everything from exercise (“I promise I will never be in a bicycle race”) to NATO (“Obsolete. Big statement to make when you don’t know that much about it, but I learn quickly”) to Heidi Klum’s face (“No longer a 10”) provided such a violent contrast with the usual false dignity of establishment candidates that he was able, as I wrote eight years ago, to march right through the front door to the presidency.
Trump opponents helped him every step of the way. They were dumb enough to pay fortunes to re-broadcast his most outrageous comments (Hillary devoted 90% of her attack ads on Trump’s personality) thinking they’d hurt him with the same job-starved audiences who made his TV show about firing people “the cultural phenomenon of the television season,” as future CNN chief Jeff Zucker put it. How many people do you think watched the Clinton attack ad featuring Trump saying, “The boob job was terrible, it looked like two light posts coming out of the body,” and snickered against their will? Voters liked Trump because of the impolitic things he said, not in spite of them. His campaign slogan might as well have been, “A schmuck, but at least I admit it,” something lost on Democratic opponents who ran attack ads on the manufacture of Trump merch in China when the Clintons’ own embrace of NAFTA was the death knell for American domestic manufacturing.
The race was a referendum on which type of norms-ignoring liar Americans disliked more, and considering the unanimity of media on this question, Trump’s win was a massive repudiation of institutional America.
A legend had to be created. In order to avoid the shame of admitting that the mighty American system had been felled by an ad-libbing Diceman act with a Twitter account, Trump had to be transformed in media reports into more than just a barnstorming braggart with tortoise hide. He had to represent a grand, operatic evil to whom a loss could be pitched as somehow not the crushing embarrassment it was. The incredible propaganda line settled on was that Trump, maybe the most famously indiscreet celebrity America ever saw, had for decades been a Soviet sleeper agent, plotting to undermine the “rules-based international order” with vise-lipped co-conspirator Vladimir Putin.
The charges elevated Trump. Instead of being just a crass businessman whose grip on the lowest common denominator vaulted him to power, he became The Accused, a martyr whose grossout comedy act would now never run out of material, so long as opponents kept pumping out false or exaggerated charges. He could fill every speech with Jimmy Vulmer-style Have you seen this? Have you heard this? riffs about, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s charges that Tulsi Gabbard and Jill Stein were Russian assets. “I don’t know [Stein], and I don’t know Tulsi,” Trump quipped, in Las Vegas in early 2020. “The only thing I know is they’re not agents. These people are crazy!”
The hammering of Trump as a supervillain and “existential” threat, as opposed to just a colorful-if-ordinary politician with exploitable flaws (even Iowa State Senator Jeff Taylor, in introducing Trump in Sioux Center, noted “Donald Trump is a flawed human being) was for years a clear net plus for him, politically. Then the Capitol riots came, and it looked like Trump finally vindicated press paranoia.
But the State of Colorado before this past Christmas saved him again, by unveiling a plan to prevent Trump from canceling elections by… canceling elections. Once again, Democrats turned the race into a referendum on their behavior, not his, and gifted him the mother of all stump routines. Have you heard about this Colorado thing? Did you hear about this?
Conventional wisdom says Trump will clean up in Iowa because of “massive payouts” he’s directed toward the state, in the form of agricultural subsidies. Trump himself seems to think this, bringing up ethanol seemingly every five minutes. “I always say, how the hell do I lose Iowa? I got the farmers of this country $28 billion,” he cracked, imploring the crowd to remember, “I was for all your things. I was for your ethanol.” Ron DeSanctimonious, Trump said, will take your ethanol, despite his recent conversion on the issue. So will Nikki Haley, recently praised for adopting a “biofuels vision.”
In the bone-chilling line of Trump supporters waiting to get into the event, at best a few people shrugged when asked about Trump’s tariffs (which Joe Biden is “moving toward keeping,” Axios just reported). Issue politics always seem at least a little secondary at Trump events, compared to nihilistic anger and the emotional payoff of horrifying the right people with a Trump victory. A typical comment might come from someone not even mentioning Trump per se, but some other issue.
“What California does gets pushed on the Midwest and we’re like, no, we don’t want your crap,” says Rachel Vande Stouwe, 42, covered from head to toe in winter gear, only pupils showing. “And us as pig farmers are like, no, that’s not happening.”
Vandestowe was referring to Proposition 12, a rule proposed by the State of California dictating imports of pork, eggs, and veal must meet certain “housing requirements.” As Humane Society president Kitty Block said last year, “We won’t stop fighting until the pork industry ends its cruel, reckless practice of confining mother pigs in cages so small they can’t even turn around.”
“Obviously these guys are city people,” says Vande Stouwe. “They don’t know that a sow is going to lay on our piglets and kill them. That’s why we have them in farrowing crates.” For what it’s worth, there is allegedly an exception for nursing sows, but one can imagine how the idea of Californian exercise requirements for pigs and chickens goes over in a line of shivering Iowans.
“The eggs t-taste the same,” says one woman in line, shaking her head.
“They like their lean bacon, I suppose,” quipped Dan Wielenga, in line next to Vande Stouwe. Dan says he became a Trump supporter when the economy in the area improved after the 2016 election. “We were able to breathe instead of working almost paycheck to paycheck sometimes.”
A conversation about why that might be got bogged down, so I asked about Maine and Colorado. “It’s a joke,” he said. “I don’t believe for a minute that he’ll be kicked off of the ballot. It's unconstitutional down to its core.”
A young woman named Kayla Oldenkamp wondered at the politics of the move.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” she said. “I think [Democrats] have their base and it’s so crazy and loud that they think that they’re going to keep winning people over that way, and it’s just not working… They know it’s stupid.”
Others in line were just furious, referencing not just decisions involving Trump but the Secret Service issue with Robert F. Kennedy, the trouble Marianne Williamson and Dean Phillips have had getting on ballots in certain primaries, and other issues.
“If they can choose who can be on the ballot, who can’t,” one woman said, “what’s the point of us voting?”
“There’s no point,” a man named David chimed in. “Might as well take that right away as well.”
I’ve attended probably thirty Trump speeches across various stages of the last nine years of his political career, seeing him on the rise here in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2015-2016, in full gloat later in Indiana after finishing off Zodiac Ted Cruz, in freefall after Access Hollywood, in crisis as he faced rumors of a 25th amendment challenge and then impeachment, triumphant again after Russiagate collapsed, and now again in his “indicted more than Al Capone” phase. He can be more or less angry or incoherent, he’ll say more or fewer things an Ivy League graduate would find objectionable, misogynistic, or obscene, but the constant from the start has been Trump’s dedication to not giving a fuck — there’s no other way to put it in English — and institutional America’s equally hard-headed determination to reward him by overreacting.
It’s the eternal seesaw of American politics. For every naughty thing Trump does, media colleagues bail him out with multiple absurd exaggerations he gets to ride back up the polls. Trump’s political career looked over three years ago this week, plunging to a 34% approval rating after the Capitol Riots while Joe Biden entered office above 50%. Now, after ten million criminal indictments, some clearly politicized, as well as innumerable civil actions including a Ku Klux Klan Act suit and, most recently, challenges to his ballot status in Colorado and Maine, the two men pollwise are reprising Trading Places. This would have seemed impossible even a year ago. Now he’s the clear frontrunner if the next election is decided by votes instead of courts, of course a big if.
Trump and his opponents probably share responsibility for turning American politics into a joke, but only one of the two parties is trying to tell us it’s not funny. And “that’s not funny” is a losing political slogan. Next: West in Washington, multiple candidates in New Hampshire.