Joe Bob's America

Exit the President

July 24, 2017

Multiple Pages
Exit the President

NEW YORK—Stop saying dystopian.

The next person who uses this word gets a Billy Jack leg whop to the right side of his face.

Donald Trump is not dystopian. There’s nothing dystopian happening.

Who started this?

Dystopian would require a mastermind. There’s no mastermind.

Dystopian would require, at the very least, a plan. There’s no plan.

Stop saying The Handmaid’s Tale is “a dystopian parable for the Trump era.” The Handmaid’s Tale is about a totalitarian theocracy. Donald Trump is (a) too lazy to be a dictator, and (b) too fond of golf to go to church. You would have to recruit somebody much more fiery-eyed and committed to that particular nightmare—Warren Jeffs, maybe, or that Scientology guy. In The Handmaid’s Tale traditional marriage is compulsory—tell that to Marla Maples.

And while we’re on the subject, who picks up the paper in the morning and turns to the family over breakfast and says, “Well, obviously he’s moving this nation toward the same sort of glassy-eyed obedience that led to HITLER!

Hitler? Mussolini? Big Brother?

REALLY? If Leni Riefenstahl were hired to film the Trump brownshirts—the Trumpstaffel?—she would have to constantly yell at the Waffen Grenadiers to remain in formation and not wander across the South Lawn playing mumblety-peg. If you look up the word “motley” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of the people surrounding Trump.

I’ve been living here in the capital of East Coast hysteria for quite a few years now, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. They used to say wild things about George Bush, too, many of them framed in aspersions toward my native Texas. Well, people, what state did Donald Trump come from?

Recently all the indie movie theaters, including three in New York, had a “national screening day” for 1984, the rather uninspired Michael Radford adaptation of George Orwell’s novel that came out in 1984. All the proceeds were donated to the American Civil Liberties Union because, you know, they’ll need the money when the jackbooted thugs come to kill the babies. Meanwhile, a stage version of 1984 opened on Broadway, featuring a climactic torture scene so bloody and vivid that it caused audiences to throw up.

In other words, some ham-handed points were being made by actual hams.

The first of which is that Trump is Orwellian.

“I have trouble imagining Donald Trump presiding over anything more complicated than the breakfast menu at Dunkin’ Donuts.”

I’m not sure whether Orwellian is better or worse than dystopian, but the idea is that the totalitarian state of Oceania with its Thought Police is George Orwell’s uncanny premonition of a world run by Donald Trump. It involves a world of official deception and secret surveillance and—let’s not forget Sean Spicer—the Ministry of Truth.

And then there are the concentration camps. Concentration camps are in our future, all of the artistes are telling us. There are concentration camps in The Handmaid’s Tale and concentration camps in 1984, and there’s even a brand-new play that’s all about concentration camps: Building the Wall, by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan. In this, yes, dystopian scenario, a commandant is being interviewed in prison in the year 2019 after being sentenced for atrocities committed against immigrants rounded up by Trump and placed in his facility. Building the Wall is so on the nose that it would embarrass the director of High School Musical, but apparently that doesn’t matter to New York audiences who believe that, yeah, Donald Trump might seem harmless, but haven’t you read Hannah Arendt?

The banality of evil.

This is another bromide that I’m calling a moratorium on. Anybody starting out a sentence with “As Hannah Arendt once said about the banality of evil…” will be immediately sentenced to the Joe Bob Briggs Concentration Camp for Felonious Punditry, where we require you to read H.L. Mencken until you’re rehabilitated.

First of all, there’s already a concentration camp, and it’s called Guantanamo. Trump inherited it from two prior presidents, one of whom vowed to close it and then decided he kind of liked concentration camps. The only other president who opened concentration camps was the author of the New Deal. George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu, helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek, is writing a book about the one he grew up in. It was in Arkansas.

There aren’t gonna be any concentration camps. And if you wanna talk about dystopian miniseries, the most popular one is The Walking Dead, which came out in 2010, one year after Barack Obama’s self-imposed deadline for closing our concentration camp. So the whole dystopian/Orwellian/zombie-apocalypse thing predates anything going on here.

I have trouble imagining Donald Trump presiding over anything more complicated than the breakfast menu at Dunkin’ Donuts, so “Big Brother” doesn’t make as much sense to me as “Scary Uncle.” “Big Brother,” in fact, sounds much more like one of the nineteen titles used by Kim Jong-un, a list that includes Dear Leader, Supreme Leader, Bright Sun of Juche, Peerless Leader, Fate of the Nation, and Shining Star of Paektu Mountain. Now, that is some serious dystopian nomenclature. Likewise, all the censorship and surveillance stuff in 1984 sounds like Putin’s Russia and Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan where the secret police are likely to walk into the internet café and start handcuffing people. All the puritanical authoritarianism in The Handmaid’s Tale sounds a lot more like Iran, where women aren’t allowed to divorce their husbands, and Saudi Arabia, where you can get a prison sentence for wearing a miniskirt. There are several dozen countries where they should be staging 1984 and watching The Handmaid’s Tale, but this is not one of them. (Clitoridectomies, anyone? Wrong continent!)

Meanwhile, we have Trump turning up in every art show, dance festival, and rock concert of the summer, usually out of context and framed so as to make no particular political point beyond—as they used to say in threepenny melodramas—“he’s dastardly”:

* Opera Saratoga, in upstate New York, revives the obscure Marc Blitzstein opera The Cradle Will Rock, best known for being censored by the Works Progress Administration in 1937 as union propaganda. The Donald Trump figure is the evil steel baron who runs the company town. (They could at least change it to “evil golf-course architect.”)

* Dozens of self-published books appear, with titles like The Murder of Donald Trump and The Amazing Story of Steve Bannon: A Positive and Fun Book for Kids! and Clovenhoof and the Trump of Doom and Donald Trump, P.I.: The Case of the Missing Mexican Wall and—yes, it’s dystopian—Day of the Donald.

* The Washington Post puts a new motto on its masthead—“Democracy Dies in Darkness”—because, of course, the advent of Trump has brought us so close to the madness of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

* Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian, tells us to get ready for the show trials that Trump will use to consolidate power after a terrorist attack, leading to a one-party state, and he advises us to scrub our computers, make sure everyone in our families has a valid passport, and “be prepared to die for freedom.” Oh wait, I forgot, that’s not a novel or a play, that’s just a Yale professor.

* Bookstores start promoting It Can’t Happen Here, the Sinclair Lewis novel intended to prevent the presidency of Huey Long during the 1936 campaign season. Buzz Windrip, the protagonist, is a populist American Hitler who wins the presidency and then eliminates statehood, sends people to—of course—concentration camps, and ends up exiled to France, but only after America has been damaged beyond repair.

* Holland Cotter, New York Times art critic, pronounces this year’s Venice Biennale irrelevant because “it feels almost perversely out of sync with the political moment.” (In other words, there were no Trump voodoo dolls on display. Where’s Kathy Griffin when you need her?)

* Hartford Stage revives Shaw’s Heartbreak House and dresses the actor playing Boss Mangan (once again, evil businessman) in a bright yellow comb-over.

* Anthony Tommasini, writing about the Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville in the Times, tells us that Don Basilio is “eerily contemporary” in his use of fake news to ruin the reputations of rivals. (In other words, the villainous Bartolo is Trump and Don Basilio is Steve Bannon.)

* Most famously, the director of Julius Caesar in this year’s Central Park production turns Caesar into a blond businessman in a blue suit and loud tie who owns a golden bathtub and has a Slavic wife. Like all the other attempts at artistic relevance, it creates a “What did we just see?” moment that reveals nothing about Caesar, Brutus, Shakespeare, or Trump. Despite praise from critics and outrage from pundits, I’m still not sure what point was being made other than “I guess we can’t kill him, because look what happens.”

The assumption behind all these dystopian/Orwellian/Hitlerian scenarios is that Trump’s secret purpose is to build an oppressive superstate. Fortunately, anyone with a fourth-grade education who lives in the Midwest—unlike the cultural Brahmins at Lincoln Center—can see that he’s doing the opposite. He’s tearing stuff up. He’s castrating the EPA, hollowing out the Department of Education, carving up HUD, firing people for disloyalty to him personally, deciding that we don’t need foreign ambassadors anymore. If you’re looking for entertainment-related metaphors, you don’t need Shakespeare. Use any Monster Truck Show.

But if you absolutely can’t live without a Trumpian theater experience, the play they should all be reviving is Ionesco’s Exit the King.

At the beginning of Exit the King, the king is told by his first wife (because this king has two queens, the original one and a younger, more beautiful one) that he’s going to die.

Of course I’m going to die, he says, we’re all going to die.

No, she tells him, “you’re going to die in an hour and a half, you’re going to die at the end of the show.”

And then the king spends an hour and a half trying not to die.

Remember on the first day of the Trump presidency when everybody told him, “Nobody showed up for the inauguration except protesters”—and then he spent the next two weeks saying it was the greatest crowd in inauguration history?

Trying not to die. On the first day.

There are only five other characters in the play—the two wives, a nurse/housekeeper, a doctor, and a guard with a halberd whose job is to stand by the door and proclaim the greatness of the king.

The king doesn’t trust anyone who’s not either family or hired help, so he’s not fully aware that, because of his inattention, many of the institutions in his domain are crumbling, and there’s a giant crack in the castle wall that grows more ominous by the minute. None of this matters much to him because he’s so relentlessly focused on the present moment and his immediate environment. (“This is not the living room,” the first queen says to the maid. “It’s the throne room. How often do I have to tell you?”)

The devoted second queen, the hottie, doesn’t want to tell the king that he has to die, but the first queen insists. “I agree it’s not so amusing as all your charity balls,” she tells her. “Those dances you get up for children, and old folks, and newlyweds. For victims of disaster or the honors lists. For lady novelists. Or charity balls for the organizers of charity balls. This one’s just for the family, with no dancers and no dance.”

In other words, this time you can’t fly to Palm Beach.

Once the king enters, he fills up the room…with his weakness. (Brent Harris, who performed the role last summer at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, was especially impressive in his self-involved grandiloquence.) The king commands, but he also prattles—about his slippers, his sleeping habits, the earth quaking, the noise, his ribs, his headache, his hunger, his pills, his liver, his tongue—and yet he hates it when it’s implied that something might be wrong with him. “Why are you all staring at me like this?” he demands. “Is there something abnormal about me? Now it’s so normal to be abnormal, there’s no such thing as abnormality. So that’s straightened out.”

He declares things finished and solved.

All the people in the throne room, except for the devoted first wife, encourage him to abdicate because he’s proved that he can’t really accomplish anything in his weakened state. The result: He orders them all arrested and/or beheaded, then can’t figure out how to get the order executed.

He keeps falling over, then denying that he fell over.

He keeps reliving victories in his past.

“Your triumphs are all over,” says the first queen. “You’ve got to realize that.”

He orders bugles to sound. He orders a 121-gun salute in his own honor. Nothing works so he asks for a do-over.

“I’m like a schoolboy who hasn’t done his homework and sits for an exam without swatting up the papers,” mourns the king. “Like an actor on the first night who doesn’t know his lines and who dries, dries, dries. Like an orator pushed on a platform who’s forgotten his speech and has no idea who he’s meant to be addressing. I don’t know this audience, and I don’t want to. I’ve nothing to say to them. What a state I’m in!... I’d like to re-sit the exam.”

At one point he starts shouting out the windows of the castle so that “the people” will realize he’s dying and come to his aid. He implores his doctor to tell him it’s not true.

“He’s like a small child,” says his adoring young wife. “He’s a little boy again.”

For a while he’s consoled by the fact that everyone for the rest of recorded time will remember him—or will they?

“Please make them remember me! Make them weep and despair and perpetuate my memory in all their history books. Make everyone learn my life by heart. Make them all live it again. Let the schoolchildren and the scholars study nothing else but me, my kingdom and my exploits. Let them burn all the other books, destroy all the statues and set mine up in all the public squares. My portrait in every Ministry, my photograph in every office of every Town Hall, including Rates and Taxes, and in all the hospitals. Let every car and pushcart, flying ship and steamplane be named after me. Make them forget all other captains and kings, poets, tenors and philosophers, and fill every conscious mind with memories of me…. Let my likeness be on all the icons, me on the millions of crosses in all our churches. Make them say Mass for me and let me be the Host. Let all the windows light up in the shape and color of my eyes. And the rivers trace my profile on the plains! Let them cry my name throughout eternity, and beg me and implore me…. Let them preserve my body in some palace, on a throne, and let them bring me food. Let musicians play for me and virgins grovel at my ice-cold feet.”

The sardonic response of Marguerite, the first queen: “He never did understand himself.”

He commands the sun to help him, as he’s heard that kings can do that. He becomes frightened and begs for some comfort, and everyone tells him all the wonderful things he’s done for the country.

“I want to exist,” he replies.

“That’s all he knows,” says the maid. “He wants to exist forever.”

They tell him all the advancements in civilization that will go on after his death because the youth of the nation will carry them out.

“I’m dying,” he replies.

They tell him he made the world a wonderful place.

“I’m dying.”

His young wife, trying to save him with her love, says, “You are inscribed forever in the annals of the universe.”

“Who’ll look up those old archives?” he barks at her. “I die, so let everything die! No, let everything stay as it is! No, let everything die, if my death won’t resound through worlds without end! Let everything die! No, let everything remain!”

The confused Guard, attempting to announce the king’s decree, shouts, “His Majesty the King wants the remains to remain!” (Obamacare, anyone?)

But the king changes his mind again. “No, let it all die!... Let it all die with me! No, let it all survive me! No, let it all stay, let it all die, stay, die!”

Finally the Guard, determined to comfort the king by recording his legacy, reels off his accomplishments.

“It was His Majesty, my Commander in Chief, who set the Thames on fire. It was he who invented gunpowder and stole fire from the gods. He nearly blew the whole place up. But he caught the pieces and tied them together again with string. I helped him, but it wasn’t so easy. He wasn’t so easy either. He was the one who fitted up the first forges on earth. He discovered the way to make steel. He used to work eighteen hours a day. And he made us work even harder. He was our chief engineer. As an engineer he made the first balloon, and then the zeppelin. And finally, with his own hands, he built the first airplane. At the start it wasn’t a success. The first test pilots, Icarus and the rest, all fell into the sea. Till eventually he piloted the plane himself. I was his mechanic. Long before that, when he was only a little prince, he’d invented the wheelbarrow. I used to play with him. Then rails and railways and automobiles. He drew up the plans for the Eiffel Tower, not to mention his designs for the sickle and the plough, the harvesters and the tractors…. He extinguished volcanoes and caused new ones to erupt. He built Rome, New York, Moscow and Geneva. He founded Paris. He created revolutions, counter-revolutions, religion, reform and counter-reform…. He wrote tragedies and comedies, under the name of Shakespeare…. He invented the telephone and the telegraph, and fixed them up himself. He did everything with his own hands…. Not so long ago he managed to split the atom….”

Steve. Reince. Jared. Ivanka. Rex. Mad Dog. Study this speech. If anything will work, as far as getting the agenda moving forward, it has to be prefaced by precisely this sort of screed. And show him a Potemkin-village photograph of the inauguration crowd—10 million people proclaiming him emperor forever. And give him a crown and a scepter.

In Ionesco’s play, alas, the alternative facts have no effect. The king starts to forget the names of everyone, even his wives, and then their faces. The only thing he can summon up affection for is a cat that “loved me.”

Says the doctor, “He will be a page in a book of ten thousand pages in one of a million libraries which has a million books.”

Says the nurse, “He loves himself too much.”

At last all the king can mumble is “Me. Me. Me. Me.”

His first wife, the last character to vanish from the stage, says, “He thinks his existence is all existence.”

And then the walls of the castle fall away and he dissolves into mist.

Donald Trump is not Hitlerian, or dystopian, or Orwellian. The Donald Trump presidency is Theater of the Absurd.

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