Wednesday, December 09, 2015

December 9, 2015--Political Stand-Up

The other night I was reading with Hardball turned on in the background.

Among Chris Matthew's guests was Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post. They were trying to make sense of Donald TRUMP's call for a "pause" in allowing Muslims to enter the country until we can "figure out what the hell is going on."

Their point--as it was true for most media outlets and politicians from both parties--was that this was an outrageous example of ethnic profiling, impractical to implement, likely unconstitutional, and inconsistent with everything we stand for as Americans.

About 10 minutes into this discussion, MSNBC cut away to the World War II aircraft carrier Yorktown berthed in Charleston, SC, where Donald TRUMP was speaking before a large group of followers who had come together to hear him and take note of the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I looked up from my book. I had only seen and listened to TRUMP in snippets. The most liberal of the cable news networks was about to do something unusual--stay with him for awhile and let viewers come to their own conclusions about what he had to say. And they did so, allowing their coverage to run on and on for a full 45 minutes, uninterrupted for commentary and, more unexpectedly, for commercials.

This was TRUMP red in tooth and claw.

As it turned out, what struck me was not so much what he had to say but how. His performance, because performance it was.

I have listened to many campaign speeches, even gone in person to a number presidential candidates' rallies--all were versions of performances, but none compared to TRUMP's, which was more than anything else pure comedic entertainment. Political stand-up shtick.

First of all, if you close your eyes he sounds more like Mel Brooks than Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, both great stump performers. Also, take a look at him with his Zero Mostel hairdo.

Then there are the gestures, facial expressions, the mugging, the shrugs, the self-referential asides, the winks and nods, the bantering with individual audience members who called out or disrupted him. Like all practiced comedians he loves hecklers and has ready put-downs that serves both to silence them and rally those who are there to embrace and enjoy him.

He's not quite in Don Rickles' league when it comes to attack humor, but for a political operative he's pretty good and I found myself chuckling along with the audience. When putting down the MSNBC reporter covering the event he was at his biting, nasty best.

When scorching Chris Christie (who TRUMP claimed he was forced to do because of what the NJ governor said about his plans for traveling Muslims) he pretended to do so reluctantly.

In full shrug he said, "I have no choice. He's never attacked me before. So I have to do it." And he did with comedically savage strokes, pretending to be Christie at one of his daily breakfast meetings with his staff, improvising a dialogue among them about shutting down the George Washington Bridge for six hours. It was laugh-out-loud funny.

No, he resisted making fun of what the rotund Christie might have eaten at the breakfast. My guess is the next time he riffs about who my mother used to call Chris Crispy the breakfast menu will be up for grabs.

And then any time he referred to Jeb Bush he rested his head on his hands as if sleeping. Talking continuously about poor Jeb's lack of "energy" has served TRUMP well. He also never failed to mention use's dramatic descent in the polls. Jeb who was originally thought to be the inevitable nominee, largely as the result of TRUMP's relentless mockery, is now languishing with George Pataki in political Purgatory.

With about five minutes left in Hardball's time slot they cut back to Chris Matthews and Gene Robinson who looked as if they had aged ten years. They sat there as if stunned, uncharacteristically silent for at least half a dozen beats. They couldn't figure out how to respond, what to say. Perhaps it was also the first time for them that they had seen the full TRUMP spritz.

Between them they have nearly 100 years of experience covering politics. They exist and operate within a political paradigm where what candidates have to say about the issues is what counts. Their policy proposals and five-part programs to take on ISIS are what they're used to vetting and commenting on. But shtick about Christie at breakfast or how TRUMP makes fun of Jeb Bush are beyond Matthews' and Robinson's purview.

They aren't getting it. They aren't comfortable or familiar with what TRUMP is about and why he is doing so well in the polls.

It's not about policies stupid, it's about mobilizing anger and fear through political comedy and entertainment.

TRUMP is more like George Carlin and Bill Maher than Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Jeb Bush.

When I stopped chuckling and thought about the political content of TRUMP's performance, I was as horrified as Matthews and Robinson. What he is proposing to do about Muslims is abhorrent to me. Nothing less than unAmerican. But there I was being swept along. I reminded myself of something Geraldo Rivera of all people said many months ago--"Who would you rather watch for an hour--Jeb Bush or Donald TRUMP?"

The answer is obvious.

For many months I have been writing and warning about TRUMP's appeal. One of my liberal fiends thinks I have gone over to "the other side." Well, I haven't.

Another said, "You're spending too much time in Florida." Well, I haven't been.

I am not intending to vote for him. I am simply attempting to explain his appeal and, frankly, as a political junkie, enjoy his craft.

Most of my progressive friends explain TRUMP's appeal by claiming that "Americans are stupid."

It is not wise to be thus dismissive. The American people are who they are, who they've always been. In their stupidity they somehow managed to elect Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

Unlike Matthews and Robinson we should try to figure out what is really going on out there in the country beyond the Beltway and in from both coasts. Smugly mocking our politics and TRUMP will help assure his election. We do so at our peril.

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