Trump's trial paints him as a clown — but MAGA sees a boss

Donald Trump contains multitudes and none of them are good

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 8, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Former US President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower for Manhattan federal court for the second defamation trial against him, in New York City on January 22, 2024. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower for Manhattan federal court for the second defamation trial against him, in New York City on January 22, 2024. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

“He’s a man. He’s a husband. He’s a father. He’s a person just like you and just like me.”

Donald Trump’s attorney told the jury in the New York hush-money trial those things about his client in an attempt to humanize someone who is one of the great villains in American history. But Donald Trump is not a family man and a “person just like you and just like me.” He is a floating signifier and symbol for the global antidemocracy movement.

Trumpism and the larger neofascist movement represent a political and cultural crisis and reflect something very wrong in the collective emotional, moral, spiritual, and intellectual life of the nation. To begin the grand project of healing America’s democratic culture demands that we seriously engage the political narrative and emotional story that Donald Trump and the other right-wing fake populist authoritarians are telling.

A sad clown can also be a very dangerous clown.

This means that defeating Donald Trump and the malign forces he has empowered will require much more than the normal tools of politics in a democracy like voting or conventional horserace coverage and false objectivity by the news media. Instead of “balance,” the mainstream media must strive to illustrate the stakes of a second Trump regime.

In an essay at The Philadelphia Inquirer, the always insightful William Bunch traveled to a MAGA political rally in Pennsylvania last month and spoke to the people there to bask in the aura of Trump and the community they have constructed around him:

In a sense, Trump himself is almost like the MacGuffin, the plot device that gives these characters an excuse to get together. “We already know what the spiel is, we know what he stands for,” one man, a middle-aged Canadian American executive, told me. So why wait in this massive line? It’s partly that a rally gives supporters a chance to get off the couch, shut down the TikTok app, turn off YouTube, and prove to themselves they are actually not alone in thinking that everything has gone to heck…. That’s why it was so jarring to see that the happiest place on Earth was this mile-long line in Schnecksville. It was a kind of “Trumpstock”: one night of manufactured peace, unity, and shared disinformation, while the gale-force winds of truth blew well above their bubble.

When Alfred Hitchcock reportedly described the MacGuffin as “the thing the hero chases, the thing the picture is all about ... it is very necessary,” the famed film director was not talking about Donald Trump. Still, his definition is most certainly an apt one.

In a provocative new essay “Trump’s Torching of America,” cultural critic and theorist Peter McLaren sees in the corrupt ex-president and aspiring dictator a type of evil force akin to the ancient mythological creature Grendel:

In the looming spectre of a Trump triumph in November 2024, democracy finds itself ensnared in a dark and foreboding web. Much like Grendel, the malevolent creature of ancient myth whose lineage traces back to the Biblical figure Cain, Trump prowls the political landscape tormented by a relentless hunger for power and dominance. Like Grendel, who was plagued by the melodic strains of joy emanating from the mead hall of Heorot, built by the noble King Hrothgar, Trump is driven to madness by his inability to tolerate any realm where he is not the supreme arbiter of all actions. With a monstrous fury, he descends upon the halls of governance, unleashing chaos and destruction in his wake through the actions of his lickspittles in Congress, who slavishly do his bidding.

For long and arduous years, akin to Grendel’s relentless assaults on Heorot, Trump’s rampage knows no bounds, laying waste to the very foundations of democracy. With each strike, he devours the essence of liberty and justice, leaving behind a trail of desolation and despair. The poet’s depiction of Grendel consuming his victims whole mirrors Trump’s insatiable appetite for power, as he voraciously consumes all semblance of democratic norms and values. Yet, just as the heroes of old rose to confront the monstrous Grendel, so too must we stand united against the encroaching darkness of authoritarianism. Our collective resolve must serve as the beacon of hope in these tumultuous times, lest the legacy of democracy be forever marred by the shadow of tyranny.

Donald Trump has repeatedly shown that he is attracted to violence and delights in hurting other human beings. A short list of examples includes Jan. 6 and the lethal terrorist attack on the Capitol by his MAGA followers, his racist and bigoted beliefs and behavior, channeling of Hitler with threats to purge the “vermin” from the “blood” of the nation, threats to kill and imprison his perceived political enemies such as President Biden and Hillary Clinton, public admirations of murderous tyrants and dictators, willful negligence in response to the COVID pandemic, being found responsible in a civil court for sexually assaulting E. Jean Carroll and many other examples of antisocial and dangerous behavior.

Trump’s attraction to cruelty, suffering, and violence is reflected in how he often presents himself like a mob boss. In that role, Trump is channeling his own fantasy version of Al Capone, as Samuel Earle explains in a March essay in the New York Times:

In recent months, Donald Trump has been trying out a new routine. At rallies and town halls across the country, he compares himself to Al Capone. “He was seriously tough, right?” Mr. Trump told a rally in Iowa in October, in an early rendition of the act. But “he was only indicted one time; I’ve been indicted four times.” (Capone was, in fact, indicted at least six times.) The implication is not just that Mr. Trump is being unfairly persecuted but also that he is four times as tough as Capone. “If you looked at him in the wrong way,” Mr. Trump explained, “he blew your brains out."

Mr. Trump’s eagerness to invoke Capone reflects an important shift in the image he wants to project to the world. In 2016, Mr. Trump played the reality TV star and businessman who would shake up politics, shock and entertain. In 2020, Mr. Trump was the strongman, desperately trying to hold on to power by whatever means possible. In 2024, Mr. Trump is in his third act: the American gangster, heir to Al Capone — besieged by the authorities, charged with countless egregious felonies but surviving and thriving nonetheless, with an air of macho invincibility….

Commentators have long pointed out that Mr. Trump behaves like a mob boss: The way he demands loyalty from his followers, lashes out at rivals, bullies authorities and flaunts his impunity are all reminiscent of the wiseguys Americans know so well from movies and television. As a real-estate mogul in New York, he seems to have relished working with mobsters and learned their vernacular before bringing their methods into the White House: telling James Comey, “I expect loyalty”; imploring Volodymyr Zelensky, “Do us a favor”; and pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state, “Fellas, I need 11,000 votes.” But before, he downplayed the mobster act in public. Now he actively courts the comparison.

Why is Trump channeling Al Capone? Earle suggests that “Mr. Trump clearly hopes that his Al Capone act will offer at least some cover from the four indictments he faces. And there is a twisted logic to what he is doing: By adopting the guise of the gangster, he is able to recast his lawbreaking as vigilante justice — a subversive attempt to preserve order and peace — and transform himself into a folk hero.”

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Donald Trump is also very funny. And it is that comedic timing, buffoonery and utter disregard for social norms and human decency that are central to his political power and appeal. Trump gives his MAGA supporters permission to be their worst true horrible selves because “they are just kidding” and “fighting back” against “political correctness” and “the left” and anyone who is offended is just “too sensitive” or part of “cancel culture.”

At The New York Review, Fintan O’Toole writes:

Trump is America’s biggest comedian. His badinage is hardly Wildean, but his put-downs, honed to the sharpness of stilettos, are many people’s idea of fun. For them, he makes anger, fear, and resentment entertaining.

For anyone who questions how much talent and charisma this requires, there is a simple answer: Ron DeSantis. Why did DeSantis’s attempt to appeal to Republican voters as a straitlaced version of Trump fall so flat? Because Trumpism without the cruel laughter is nothing. It needs its creator’s fusion of rage, mockery, and poisoned imitation, whether of a reporter with a disability or (in a dumb show that Trump has been playing out in his speeches in recent months) of Joe Biden apparently unable to find his way off a stage. It demands the withering scorn for Sleepy Joe and Crooked Hillary, Crazy Liz and Ron DeSanctimonious, Cryin’ Chuck and Phoney Fani. It requires the lifting of taboos to create a community of kindred spirits. It depends on Trump’s ability to be pitiless in his ridicule of the targets of his contempt while allowing his audience to feel deeply sorry for itself. (If tragedy, as Aristotle claimed, involves terror and pity, Trump’s tragicomedy deals in terror and self-pity.)

Hard as it is to understand, especially for those of us who are too terrified to be amused, Trump’s ranting is organized laughter….

O’Toole continues:

What is new in the development of antidemocratic politics is that Trump brings all this comic doubleness—the confusion of the real and the performative, of character and caricature—to bear on the authoritarian persona of the caudillo, the duce, the strongman savior. The prototype dictators of the far right may have looked absurd to their critics (“Hitler,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer, “can gesticulate like a clown, Mussolini risk false notes like a provincial tenor”), but within the community of their followers and the shadow community of their intended victims, their histrionics had to be taken entirely seriously. Trump, on the other hand, retains all his self-aware absurdity even while creating a political persona of immense consequence.

This comic-authoritarian politics has some advantages over the older dictatorial style. It allows a threat to democracy to appear as at worst a tasteless prank: in the 2016 presidential campaign even liberal outlets like The New York Times took Hillary Clinton’s e-mails far more seriously than Trump’s open stirring of hatred against Mexicans and Muslims.

Donald Trump’s hush-money and other criminal trials are an opportunity to tear down the strongman facade and character he has constructed, and by doing so, to expose him as just being a mere mortal as opposed to the type of god he imagines himself to be — and that his MAGA people and other supporters see him as.

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During these first three weeks of the hush-money trial in Manhattan, Trump has slept during court, with his mouth open and head nodding as he appears to fight sleep. Trump sleeping during court shows contempt for the rule of law and the basic idea that he should be held accountable like any other person in a democracy. But not content to just sleep during court, Trump has also reportedly been glaring at the witnesses and menacing them both in person and through posts on his Truth Social disinformation platform, interviews, and speeches.

Some observers have also described Trump as being pathetic and sad, the portrait of a rich old lonely man because his wife and other family members, with the exception of his son Eric, have not attended his criminal trial in New York.

As Donald Trump’s niece Mary Trump, who is a trained psychologist, suggested in a recent interview with MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace:

He needs to be relentlessly mocked at every turn....We see in the courtroom he's not handling the circumstances well. He's not handling the confinement or the fact that he has no power in this space and that's why....So it would be so much better if he were just forced to wallow in the consequences of his actions,....We see him looking like he's falling asleep. Whether or not he's falling asleep — he's complaining about the temperature. It's something I don't see being paid attention to, but it's important. Donald Trump is there — trapped in that courtroom because of what he did. There are a lot of other people trapped in that courtroom because of what he did. He doesn't seem to care that they're also cold and tired and don't want to be there.

At present, it is very easy for Donald Trump’s detractors and “the resistance” to laugh at and mock him as though he is some type of sad and pathetic clown. This is especially so given that these first few weeks of the hush-money trial have gone so badly for Trump.

But I would remind such voices that a sad clown can also be a very dangerous clown (there are any number of such clowns in horror movies; there is a very infamous serial killer who was also a clown). I would also remind Donald Trump’s critics who are celebrating what they see as his imminent demise from the so-called “walls closing in” that Trump in his various roles and identities such as gangster, comedian, political thug and aspiring dictator, professional wrestling heel, fake billionaire, cult leader, genius, messiah, god, and “president” is unified by one driving force: revenge and corrupt power. Ultimately, Donald Trump contains multitudes and none of them are good. You have been warned. Again.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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