(Richard Rodriguez, an essayist, is the author of several books about America, including “Brown: The Last Discovery of America,” and, most recently, “Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography,” about religion after September 11. The opinions expressed here are his own.)
By Richard Rodriguez
Aug 28 (Reuters) - As I watch Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, I am reminded of the wrestling promoter extraordinaire, Vince McMahon, chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment. McMahon is a lesser billionaire than Trump, but he is a man who understands the American appetite for entertainment in a cynical age.
In 1989, McMahon admitted what everyone knew-that pro wrestling is scripted. Similarly, Trump has lately divulged that the political game in America is fixed because politicians have to solicit money to fund their campaigns. McMahon lost nothing from his admission. He knew that what mattered more than the match in the ring was the trash talk that went on before and after the matches.
Trump, too, understands the crowd’s appetite for trash talk. In a week of galvanic financial markets and epic emigration from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, Trump, the front-running Republican candidate, retweeted that Megyn Kelly, the FOX News host, is a “bimbo.”
I am the son of Mexican immigrants. I ought to be mightily offended by Trump’s declaration that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. Instead, I laugh at his low estimate of his audience.
I laugh, like a teenaged boy laughs at the trash-talking wrestler at Summer Slam. And I am American enough to recognize an American comic type. Trump is Ralph Kramden, he is Archie Bunker, he is Ted Knight, he is Foghorn Leghorn - braggarts, blowhards all. Trump is so pumped up by the media, he floats above us as gigantic as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, and, as advertised, he is untethered.
There is an opposite tradition in American clownery, a tradition of silence that explores the smallness, even the pathos of our lives. The most famous American circus clown of the last century, Emmett Kelly, was doleful and hapless. In the movies, particularly before talkies, the poet-clowns were losers - Charlie Chaplin, of course, but also the balletic Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
What intrigued me about the Marx Brothers was the meeting of two comic traditions - the randy mute played by Harpo versus Groucho’s double-talking con-man, Otis B. Driftwood. Trump is what Otis B. Driftwood aspires to become and never will - rich. Trump is Daddy Warbucks; he is Scrooge McDuck; he is Mr. Moneybags with dollar bills spilling from his top hat.
What many Latinos I know are saying about Trump is that the clownish behavior can have serious consequences. Two teenage boys in South Boston find a Mexican homeless man to beat up on a street corner, because the trash-talking politician has granted them an excuse for the kick.
There is something sinister about circuses and clowns. And mimes, too. Shrieking white face makes children cry. Not a few comic books and horror films have imagined the mass murderer as a clown-a conceit that James Eagan Holmes turned on the audience in the Century 16 theater complex in Aurora, Colorado, at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Trump is not a monster. He is a duckling-haired billionaire who lives in a skyscraper, high above the proprieties and vapors of civilization. When news reached him that two young men had beaten a homeless man in South Boston, Trump distanced himself from the pair.
But it remains a dark business, this deliberate political un-correctness that Trump passes as truth-telling.
Watch his eyes at the podium, the way his eyes search our faces, the way he savors our laughter. Trump strikes me as dangerous not so much for what he believes but for how little he seems to believe - preparation for a debate would be a weight on his panache - and how much he is willing to say. He dares to demean American prisoners of war. What matters is lip.
He began his presidential campaign by pairing Mexico and China as America’s primary adversaries. When he gleaned from the stirrings in his audiences that Mexico is the larger annoyance, he postponed China and offered a solution to illegal immigration worthy of a Chinese emperor: I will build the greatest wall you’ve ever seen! At a time when China is violating its own ancient wall to extend its presence all over the world, Trump advised America to wall itself in.
To its credit, the American middle class traditionally does not envy the rich; we all aspire to be rich. But here is something new: the middle class being persuaded by the rich man to turn against the poor. This is not a call we are accustomed to hear from a billionaire. But when his authority to speak is the freedom of his wealth, the middle-class audience is romanced by the demagogue.
I am old enough to remember a time - the 1950s, the 1960s - when the cultural left in America reveled in upsetting the verbal proprieties of the middle class. I am old enough to remember Lenny Bruce being arrested for verbal obscenity on stage. I remember the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley. Maybe because the political and cultural left took so many constituencies - gays, women, racial minorities - to itself, there developed a caution, a political correctness that deliberated how, or even if, we could characterize one another.
What remained of verbal unruliness in the cultural left took the form of music - rap, metal, hip hop. Otherwise, as the university learned political correctness, the political right discovered the car radio. The undergraduate became puritanical in her speech; her grandfather listened to Rush Limbaugh.
Trump inherited his braggadocio from Limbaugh. Limbaugh had ascended to talk-show stardom by playing the merry iconoclast, mocking the left’s sacred cows, from “femi-Nazis” to the speech pattern of “the Reverend Jessie Jackson.”
By his own admission, Limbaugh owes his rude freedom to Bob Grant, the Jubilation T. Cornpone of talk radio. Grant entertained his audiences by hanging up on callers who challenged him. Grant referred to Haitian boat people as “scum” many decades before Trump divulged to his audiences that Mexican immigrants are criminals.
The irony is that we now have a trash-talking billionaire who, in the name of controlling illegal immigration, incites the crowd at the state fair to illegality - to disregard the 14th Amendment, retroactively to deny the children of illegal immigrants, “anchor babies,” citizenship. (The 14th Amendment prescribes that U.S. citizenship be based not on blood but on the power of this soil to name us. It was an amendment the Congress passed in the aftermath of the Civil War to insist to a fractured nation that former slaves were as much Americans as those Americans who once enslaved them.)
Republican candidates in the main tent have heard the applause coming from the Trump side show. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has announced that he, too, is against birthright citizenship. The candidates begin to line up, like a “Dumbo” parade of elephants, each holding the tail in front of him - Senator Rand Paul (Ky.), Ben Carson, Senator Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Senator Ted Cruz (Texas), former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and even Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal - himself a birthright citizen. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who once presumed himself the ringmaster, has joined in using the term - “anchor baby” - he once foreswore.
Vince McMahon’s wife, Linda McMahon, has twice run for the Senate. She spent many millions of pro-wrestling booty for her campaigns. But, in the end, the voters of Connecticut twice were unable to vote for a candidate whose money had come from telling the truth about the lie of pro wrestling.
Not everything is a verbal game, after all. Sometimes, pro wrestlers have died in the ring, the result of having punished their bodies with steroids to turn themselves into comic book heroes or villains. Sometimes, two teens in South Boston, drunk with something they heard a billionaire tell them, end up under arrest.
I do not think that Trump will win his party’s nomination. But what a great price we pay for the humor he has added to the evening. He parodies American values and turns them against us. He reduces individualism to egoism, plain-speech to blowhard insults, patriotism to nativism. Like the greatest of humorists, he makes us laugh and reveals what fools we are. (Richard Rodriguez)