In her perceptive column, “What brings this president joy?”, Teri Carter describes a mirthless Donald Trump. Yet in one protest march after another during the past two years, I’ve seen the poster that says, “Elect a Clown, Expect a Circus,” usually with a picture of a buffoon or the president in outlandish makeup and clothing.
In fact there have been plenty of comical aspects to this regime: inflated inauguration numbers, Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts, Sean Spicer’s bad suits, Anthony Scaramucci’s disappearing act, the Stormy Daniels burlesque, the Michael Cohen and Rudolph Giuliani sideshows. The gaffes, the leaks, the crossed signals, the retractions and corrections, the word-salad press conferences, the self-inflicted wounds, all give the impression of an unruly circus. Former chief of staff Reince Priebus referred to the White House as “a zoo without walls,” while his successor John F. Kelly called it “Crazytown.”
Yet as Carter notes, Trump seldom smiles and scarcely laughs; he’s the most humorless president in memory. One writer calls him “the Captain von Trapp of commanders in chief.” If the incumbent is a clown, it must be of a wholly different stripe.
The modern clown descends from Greek and Roman drama, the commedia dell’arte, the circus and vaudeville. In the 19th century, the character split in two: the Auguste or “red clown,” with colorful greasepaint, garish clothing and floppy shoes, became the victim of a “white” or bad partner, who mercilessly controlled, abused and tricked his stooge.
In the 1950s, Bozo embodied the funny prototype, a stand-alone who no longer served as foil to an imperious heavy. He often appeared with children, entertaining them on that perfect medium of American optimism: TV.
But evil is always more fascinating than good. The cruel avatar surfaced in characters like the Joker in Batman comics and films, in the movie “Poltergeist,” in the terrifying Pennywise of Steven King’s novel “It.” Some argue that internet trollers belong to the same breed: they hide behind the Web’s mask of anonymity as they torment their victims.
Meanwhile nocturnal sightings of spooky whitefaces have been reported since the 1980s; as Lon Chaney had said much earlier, “There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.” Author Mark Dery has studied psycho-killers like John Wayne Gacy, who said in words that now have a far more chilling echo: “A clown can get away with murder.”
Trump resembles the sadistic and chaotic white clown. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans believe many of his actions have been wrong, even malevolent: mimicking a handicapped reporter, mocking John McCain’s years as a prisoner of war, helping to draft an untruthful statement about the infamous meeting at Trump Tower, hosting a private session with Russian officials in the White House, withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, ending the Dreamer program, separating thousands of infants and children from their parents at the border, vilifying the press as the “enemy of the people,” fawning over dictators at the Singapore and Helsinki summits.
The list could continue, along with the 4,713 false or misleading statements recorded by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker during Trump’s first 592 days in office. No prior president has so openly demeaned the office, assaulted truth and disdained the rule of law.
The chief executive’s treatment of Congress and his cabinet also reminds us of the bad clown pattern. Attorney General Jeff Sessions could be called “He Who Gets Slapped” from the title of a Russian play featuring a hapless “red” clown, whose act consists of being regularly shamed and pummeled; Trump has called him “weak,” “DISGRACEFUL,” “idiot,” as reported in the New Yorker.
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson heard about his termination by phone, while sitting on the toilet; Andrew McCabe learned about his firing as the FBI’s deputy director one day before retirement; Priebus, Gary Cohn and H.R. McMaster endured weeks of rumored dismissal before resigning.
This is how the president treats the members of his team, most of whom he appointed; we know how he mistreats others at home and abroad. Who will be the next to fear or feel the falling ax? Malignant narcissism, the syndrome diagnosed in Trump by a consensus of mental-health experts, fits the behavior of the evil clown to a “T.”
We may laugh at the mayhem, blunders and missteps of the current administration. While we eat our bread and watch the circus, its white-face ringmaster rules in dead seriousness, rarely offering the harmless asides and the self-deprecating humor that lightened the atmosphere around other presidents, Democratic or Republican, recent or bygone. Bad clowns never smile or relent.
University of Kentucky professor emertius Edward Stanton’s novel “Wide as the Wind” received the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Young Adult Fiction.