George Saunders identifies Trump’s comedic appeal


I strongly oppose Donald Trump as a candidate for President of the United States and probably also as a person, but I kind of like him. I don’t think he is good. I wouldn’t want to hang out with him. But I like reading about him in a magazine or watching him on video, the way I like watching Eric Cartman.

He’s not quite a rascal. A rascal doesn’t pander. For a while I thought he was some sort of dickens, deepening our affection by continually testing its limits. He sure works the same cute audacity. But a dickens is a fundamentally submissive character, challenging us to make even his rebellion an expression of our love. Trump doesn’t want to be loved. He wants to be envied, maybe, or finally respected. He wants people to believe he would make a great president, even as his boasting implies he’s not so sure himself. He’s winking, but he still thinks we might believe him.

It’s weird I can’t put my finger on exactly what this quality is, since George Saunders already did it for me in this ace work of political analysis. Quote:

He’s a man who has just dropped a can opener into his wife’s freshly baked pie. He’s not about to start grovelling about it, and yet he’s sorry—but, come on, it was an accident. He’s sorry, he’s sorry, O.K., but do you expect him to say it? He’s a good guy. Anyway, he didn’t do it.

That last sentence captures why, for me, Trump is a fundamentally comic figure. He’ll do anything to preserve the possibility of a happy ending. Even when he’s caught and embarrassed, he can’t resist doubling down on bullshit, because maybe it will work this time. And it keeps working. This racist version of Jon Lovitz’s pathological liar is now one of two people who might become the next president of the United States. Odds are he won’t, and that’s how we preserve the possibility of a happy ending for ourselves.

That may be the most dangerous thing we can do. One way Trump is definitely not a comedy is in the themes his bullshit keeps repeating: bigotry, autocracy, aggression. Trump is a comic figure, but he is a comedic villain. Even if you kind of like him, as I do, you wouldn’t want him in the Oval Office any more than Cruella DeVille. This may be his broad appeal, his genius gimmick: In chasing the presidency he proves himself unfit at every turn, so that his campaign seems like a farce instead of a threat. Because we know he’ll never get it, we relish his pursuit.

By “we,” I mean a percentage of Americans that is hopefully greater than fifty. If we find Trump a transparent liar who captures the foibles of our time, and 52% of voters seem him as a tough guy with the money and the balls to get things done, we’re in trouble. I didn’t think Trump was going to win the nomination, either. If you’re wondering which understanding of him will prevail at the ballot box—Saunders’s or the balls thing—consider which narrative might sell better at the movies. I know I’d buy a ticket to see comedic indictment of our times. But there always seems to be a line for the other one.

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