Posted Friday afternoon, April 13, 2018.
Determined to be themselves in circumstances that punish them for that: a scene from a 2011 production of Michael Frayn’s farce “Noises Off” at the Old Vic. Photo by Tristram Kenton for the Guardian.
Back when we were all engaged in armchair psychoanalysis of Our Mr President Trump and the term pathological narcissist was bouncing around the internet the way obstruction of justice and impeachment are now, I wrote that Trump didn’t actually have to be crazy to be crazy---that is, to be acting crazily. He’s so thoroughly unfit for the job---intellectually, professionally, temperamentally, psychologically, and morally---that there was no way for him to behave appropriately as President. He could only go about presidenting the only way he knows how to do anything: as Donald Trump. And since Donald Trump was the wrong man for the job---the wrongest man ever to hold the job---everything he did and said as President was wrong, and it was crazy for him to keep trying to Donald Trump his way through his presidency.
I think it’s pretty much generally agreed now that what’s wrong with him is simply that he’s a thoroughly rotten human being. But I’m still sticking with my “diagnosis” because I think it’s the right one in this way. Trump is trapped by circumstances he doesn’t understand and can’t control and couldn’t control even if he had any idea about how to control them. In that, he’s like most of us. He’s Everyman and Everywoman.
Trump’s most ardent acolytes love him because he reminds them of them. It seems odd that the residents of the small blue collar towns and suburbs of the Midwest and South and the parts of the rest of the country most like them culturally and demographically that make up Trumpland would identify so completely with a billionaire from New York City, but they do, because they see him their ideal self, the rich, successful celebrity they’d be if their luck would just turn (or would have been, if elitist liberals had rigged everything in favor of THOSE PEOPLE.) But I’m convinced that at least unconsciously they recognize he’s like them in another way. He’s in way over his head and has no idea how to get out of the trouble he’s in except to do what they know how to do and pray it works out for the best.
The problem is that circumstances control us to a much greater degree than we control them and force us to act in certain ways and carry us down paths we don’t want to go because we know we’re headed into more and deeper trouble.
I haven’t decided if I’m going to read Comey’s book. From what I've read about it, it doesn’t look as though it’ll tell me anything I don’t already know or that it reveals anything that will damn Trump once and for all in the eyes of his fans and, more importantly, his protectors and enablers in Congress. The passages getting a lot of attention in my Twitter feed are the ones in which Comey, the former federal prosecutor, compares Trump to mobsters he brought to justice, and those make me interested in reading about those investigations and trials, and I can’t tell from what I’ve read if Comey tells that story and if as a writer he’s got enough Jimmy Breslin or Gay Talese in him to tell it well. But the idea that Trump is like those wiseguys Comey went after is attractive to me. It’s not that I think Trump is like Sammy the Bull in character. It’s that he’s like members of the Gambino family in that, because he turned his real estate business into a criminal enterprise, he’s had to act like the head of a criminal enterprise to keep it going. He trapped himself in circumstances of his own making and once he did everything he’s done has been dictated by those circumstances. It’s another way of seeing my theory that he’s doesn’t have to be crazy to be crazy. He doesn’t have to be a mobster to be a mobster.
Just to be clear, I’m not making the case Trump---or any of us---have no free will. The circumstances that trap us include our own decisions to continue to pursue the goal or the treasure we got into trouble chasing after initially. It doesn’t matter if what we set out to achieve or obtain was good or bad or if we are a good or bad human being. Who we are and what we want are virtually irrelevant when the situation is not in our control.
This is the fundamental human truth at the heart of both farce and tragedy.
The horror of tragedy lies in watching noble characters try to act nobly in circumstances that won’t let them or against which acting nobly is of no avail.
The fun in farce arises from watching ignoble characters or less than noble ones (That’s most of us.) try to live their lives as usual and just go about the business of being themselves as circumstances make that increasingly impossible.
In other words, tragedy and farce are the same. The difference is that tragedy usually ends with the noble characters unfairly defeated and farce ends with the good characters improbably happy and the bad characters unrealistically given their comeuppance.
Our hope is that the drama of Donald Trump turns out to be a farce.
It would be, if only so many good everymen and everywomen weren’t being punished as the plot proceeds towards its inexorable end.
Recommended diversionary reading for the fun of it: At the Guardian, John Cleese on how to write the perfect farce.