For a moment, earlier this year, Donald Trump was being taken seriously for his supposed straight talk, the idea being that he said what others were thinking but were held back from saying because of political correctness or some such thing. Those commentators who gave Trump the benefit of the doubt realize now that there was never any straight talk coming from that famously gaping mouth. No, Donald Trump, the politician, is a grab-bag of stolen bits from previous pols. Silent majority. Bubba cap. Reagan’s platitudinous “Make America great again.”
Trump is not simply a reality TV invention: He is a pastiche of retired tropes. Of course, he’s not going to provide a detailed plan about anything real. Populist? Sloganeering, sound bites and obnoxious gestures or crude antics do not make a populist. Trump has some people believing that pronouncements like “I’m really rich” and “I’m really smart” -- perverse attempts to appropriate some form of the “common man” theme -- are other than empty boasts.
A publicity stunt that grows into media frenzy… now where have we seen this before? In the 1941 film “Meet John Doe,” newspaperwoman Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) tries to save her job by creating some “fireworks.” She invents a letter to the editor from a made-up citizen, signed John Doe, who is threatening to jump off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve because he’s been out of work for four years and is disgusted with civilization. He bemoans “the collapse of decency in the world.”
To develop the story effectively, Mitchell has to find a living, breathing man to assume the role, and she picks the Gary Cooper character. He’s perfect for the part: a former baseball player, a red-blooded American. Next, she hires a photographer to put a face to the name for a gullible public. When “John Doe” can’t raise the necessary emotion to make the stunt look real, Mitchell has him imagine he’s arguing with an ump at home plate, and that produces an air of righteous anger.
In the film, John Doe clubs spring up across America. The newspaper’s greedy new owner is an authoritarian who aims to capitalize on John Doe mania in order to seize control of government. He is every bit a fascist, posing as a populist presidential candidate so as to manipulate all the John Does in the country. When the John Doe character is finally exposed as a fraud, the hapless man decides he will, in fact, commit suicide. He doesn’t, though, because a gloomy finish probably wouldn’t have sold as many tickets. But the filmmakers shot a more powerful ending, eventually left on the cutting room floor, in which Doe jumped to his death, expiring in the arms of his best pal, played by Walter Brennan. “You poor sucker,” Brennan mourned.
Needless to say, Donald Trump is no Gary Cooper, though we know who the suckers are in his little drama. Nor is Trump exactly like the fascistic media mogul either––he’s conniving, true, just not evil. The film’s bad guy doesn’t see the humor in his ego-feeding manipulation of the masses; Trump’s antics are definitely in bad taste, but he’s having himself a blast, and no doubt gearing up for the “next act” in his media-hogging career. If he is a bit like John Doe, it is in the way he has found out how to manufacture a persona that will play to the crowds he assembles every time he snaps his fingers.
The suckers right now are all who refuse to see that the bluster of the Trump campaign is indistinguishable from movie or TV fiction. This man of few (most of them preposterous) faces screws up his mouth into poses that are all too easy for critics and satirists to mock. “The Donald” is theatrical on some (boorish) level, intentionally going without a Hollywood hairstylist or a politician’s conventional coiffure. Remember the felonious Rep. James Traficant of Ohio and his noteworthy hairstyle? It worked for him, too. He got noticed.
Still, we must admit that Trump’s act, which he performs six nights a week, plus matinees, evokes some level of authenticity -- in the sense that he has no censor. Far-fetched ideas are spawned, the kind you might hear coming from the next booth at the local diner. It’s that kind of authenticity we’re getting from him. We know him because we see rude people in our everyday lives. Like real life, there is no intelligently drawn script. Trump talks. Repeats. And weaves through possible story lines, without structuring a plot. He rages about winners and losers, and his followers believe that there’s something to it, because they imagine it elevates them just to be on his winning team. They identify with his trumped-up rage and rudeness, with his penchant for dismissing people, left and right, as losers. Though a man born to great wealth, Trump sounds common. He is the imposter common man.
John Doe wanted his America to be like it was in the good old days. He urged his followers to love their neighbors, to care. Trump tells his followers to hate and berate and lash out. Deny the existence of the American-born Obama. Send the Mexicans and Muslim Americans packing. Talk down to a woman whose face has anger written on it, because anger is properly a male preserve. “This is not who we are,” President Obama says, shaking his head after each compounding gun tragedy, refusing to buy into the declension narrative. Trump, more cynically, doesn’t care what America is becoming. He says it’s going down the tubes, because of people like President Obama. And gets applause.
Those who believe in this Trump frenzy, who leave his meaning-free rallies thinking he will somehow empower the John Does of America, are being entertained. But not in a positive way. They are not receiving any sort of encouragement to carefully ponder the state of the nation, as a different politician might at least profess to do. No, the Trump entertainment model is the reality TV or game show model, in which viewers interact with those they watch on the screen. They get to feel that they’re somehow a part of the action. (Remember the woman lured onstage to feel his hair and testify to its authenticity?)
The bottom line is this: the reality TV character and GOP campaigner Donald Trump is an illusion. The Trump campaign has a kind of “Roger Rabbit” feel, when toons and real people occupy the same space. Then there’s the movie “Pleasantville” (1998), in which the black-and-white TV world of 1958 suddenly collides with the world of the present. That’s what America gets with Trump. People who want to be part of the story identify with an unreal world.
John Doe was the ordinary working stiff whom the whole world was suddenly watching and cheering on. Trump is a caricature of a populist, come to life, who exists before the television camera and for embarrassingly large crowds. There is nothing beyond the show. There is no relevant experience, no knowledge of policy, no statesmanship. Just an act.