When his blustery, mean-spirited dismissive, caustic pinched, nasal voice started coming back out through the public airwaves, I had to draw back and remember, when was I first aware of Donald Trump?
It was the late 80s, when everyday I found the funny pages of the LA Times (well almost everyday, after my Dad had done the crossword) and I read Doonsbury, a decades long satire by Gary Trudeau . I was transfixed by the romance happening between Mike and J.J. Mike’s long-suffering commercial career as an illustrator was punctuated by campaigns that would come to life like Mr. Butts, the Cigarette Lobby Spokesman, and J.J. was a performance artist who donned a bucket on her head and dashed the wedding china on the floor to make a comment about the fragile artifice of American marriage. Now this was real love.
At some point, despite their rocky and often bewildering relationship, Mike and J.J have a child, Alex. This is when (momentarily) J.J sobers up and realizes, shit, I have to get a job. J.J’s first commission? To paint a replica of the Cistine Chapel inside Donald Trump’s yacht. The Don was married to Ivana and had just purchased the Trump Princess (I guess he didn’t care that renaming a boat is bad luck). He was a fixture on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. “Give Those Nymphs Some Hooters” is the feedback J.J receives from her new boss as she clambers back up the scaffold, chanting to herself “I have a family, I have a family…” In the end of the sequence, she makes Adam look a little more Donaldy.
What Gary Trudeau points out here with his usual wry humor, is that Trump is the distillation of the crass disregard for real beauty that comes with profound excess and a lack of profound feeling. Despite the way the rich toss their blue chips onto the table to obtain a Picasso or more recently, a Banksy, they are the same people who have no idea what Picasso or Banksy are attempting to do with their work, why great art is ownerless. It’s not the painting; it’s the invisible magic that takes place between the viewer and the painting.
It’s this ability, to envision, to imagine, to play, that has sustained us and pushed us forward as a species. In this way, The Donald is The Opposite of Civilization. He is closed, you are fired. There isn’t a single original thought happening. He is the ultimate reduction to lowest common denominator. All things are objects to him, even his own daughter.
I’ve read all the articles that talk about how strategic he’s being, using simple fourth grade words, shredding right through the GOP operating manual, and in some ways, yes, this is clever salesmanship. But no matter what the talking heads say, he is not a rebel. Trump is allied with another far less morally bound party that play by their own set of rules: the Robber Barons. It would not surprise me if he lit his cigars with $100 bills.
Even if we try to make the businessman pitch to The Donald: art’s central role in the latest science about brain development, sociological studies on happiness, mental illness, and general quality of life. The Donald isn’t interested in abstractions. He’s not interested in the enlightenment project. He’s interested in power and he has no plan. Trump is a nihilist sociopath. He’s artless.
When I was in college at a tiny, now defunct liberal arts school, I attended an event held every summer called Bread and Puppet. It started in the 60s as guerrilla street theatre in New York City, where young people made puppets and costumes out of garbage and found items, acting out local or national politics on the street. Over time, the show got so big that it moved to Glover, VT where the production has several barn-sized workshops and a big amphitheater.
The main event began with what looked like an old timey carnival taking the big outdoor stage, complete with clowns, stilt walkers, and an old school bus painted in rainbows. The actors put on a series of skits, becoming teachers, politicians, farmers, school kids, using mostly body language and simple props. The audience cheered and booed accordingly as if they already knew what to do. At one point, a clown who had been present since the beginning stepped forward and with a dramatic gesture, tore off his mask. You guessed: Senator Bernie Sanders. The audience went mad. That was 1998.
Art is as various and sundry as anything else humans do, but no matter the shape of the expression, creating comes from an essential urge toward truth, beauty and love. Even the most savage sentiment expressed creatively opens up a conversational space for catharsis. I make the argument that art on some level is activism.
When asked about his religion, Bernie states that his idea of God is everyone together. I don’t want to get too Vermont hippy here, but in his way, Bernie is an artist because he sees the systemic failures clearly and he calls it like he sees it . He demands that we question the vicious nature of our system and in doing so, he envisions a radical alternative. And in 1998, he was willing to put on a costume and express that idealism.
Trump is a buyer, a seller, a bored patron in the box seat. He doesn’t speak the language of idealism.
I watched a bit of Democratic National Convention, and when Bernie spoke, exhausted, hoarse, finally painting HRC as the only alternative to Trump, the camera caught lots of young anguished faces on film. Yes, the movement is bigger than Bernie, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than big money winning once again. And when big money wins, real creative change loses.