Art imitates Life, but sometimes (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), Life outdoes the weirdest Art. That is happening today in the seething cauldron of American politics.
Donald Trump has been nothing short of riveting in playing the Joker as a modern-day anti-hero. His performance recalls that of the late Heath Ledger, who won the Academy award for Best Supporting Actor in The Dark Knight, a cynical and despairing movie about a place (Gotham City) where most people are no better than sheep and where almost anyone wielding power or authority has been bought off, or is actively corrupt.
In a key scene in the movie, the Joker’s voice comes over the loudspeaker on two ferry boats that have lost power and are wallowing in the water. Both are loaded with explosives. He tells the people trapped aboard the two powder kegs that they are part of a “social experiment” — there being a detonator on each boat that will blow up the other boat. If one does not destroy the other by midnight, he will destroy both boats. And so a countdown begins, with scenes of chaos, soul-searching, and moral argument on each of the crowded boats.
More than just mocking political correctness (something he does brilliantly), Donald Trump seems to take mischievous delight in forcing people to make agonizing (and, in any normal situation, wholly unnecessary) decisions. How else is one to explain his most recent proposal in calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of further travel into the U.S. by any one of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims?
This is one way of calling out the Obama administration — and the president himself — on a long and shameful history of thinking (and trying to get others to think) that the best way to deal with the threat to U.S. security posed by the growing appeal of Islamic fundamentalism is to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
Several days before all hell broke loose within the Republican Party over Trump’s extraordinary proposal, Daniel Henninger captured his effect upon the current political scene with an arresting metaphor in his Wall Street Journal column, saying:
The New York City prankster travels from state to state opening the nation’s political fire hydrants, and no one seems able to stop the result: years of pent-up political and cultural contempt pouring into the streets.
Only a week later, the fire hydrant-busting analogy doesn’t seem to do justice to the kind of chaos that would ensue if our country were to ban all travel into the U.S. by Muslims in other countries. For starters, this would mean a sudden cessation of air travel between the United States and India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia with large Muslim populations. It would also wreak havoc with air travel between the U.S. and Europe.
As with the cinematic Joker, so it is with Trump: It isn’t always easy to tell when he’s joking, and when he’s deadly serious. In the opening scene of the movie, a gang of five men in clown masks break into a bank. They complain of a sixth member of the gang — the Joker — who did the planning but is playing it safe — waiting for them to do the dirty work and return with the loot. Then they begin to shoot each other in order to get larger cuts. The bank manager is cut down in attempting to resist the gang. Still alive, he asks the last remaining clown to tell him who he is. At this point, the clown pulls off his mask to reveal that he is — the Joker. As a parting gesture, the Joker crams a grenade into the banker’s mouth, with a string stretching from the pin to the back of his getaway vehicle. As he drives away, the pin pops out — and the grenade fizzles harmlessly. Hah-hah! A joke.
Which of these Trumpian proposals or policies is a joke and which is not?
The first is clearly a joke. So, too, is the second if that is taken to mean that — as Trump often suggests —just having a team of really tough negotiators (like his pal, the superannuated Carl Icahn) would change the course of major trade negotiations. If Trump is true to his word in saying he “really, really” likes free trade, that also means that the second of three policy points is a joke. However, if Trump is serious about slapping high tariffs on auto parts to punish U.S. manufacturers for behaving rationally in a globalized economy, then we really have to worry about his willingness to become the first U.S. president since Herbert Hoover to launch a trade war for the ostensible purpose of protecting U.S. jobs.
Not knowing what to think about Trump’s real policies and positions is a problem. But a bigger one is leaving the country with such an awful choice if he and Hillary were to square off in the general election — truly a choice between a fire-hydrant-busting (or worse) Joker and the least trustworthy and possibly the most corrupt politician in Gotham City.
If the Clintons — Bill and Hillary — could choose the ideal candidate to run against among the leading contenders on the Republican side, it would certainly be Trump. Indeed, Trump has claimed Bill’s “endorsement” based upon the complimentary remarks that the 42nd president has made about him (calling Trump “a master brander” who “stands out” in a crowd and has “macho appeal”).
Based not on polls, but on what I know about the thinking of many family members and friends, I am convinced that Hillary would easily trump Trump.
No one I know on the left (no liberal, progressive, or long-term Democrat) would give up Hillary in a race against Trump. However, I know any number of free-market conservatives and longtime Republicans who don’t know what they will do if it comes down to a choice between Trump and Hillary.
This pairing would foreclose any serious discussion of pressing economic and foreign policy questions and turn the final debate into something like reality (i.e. non-reality) television.
It would counterpose a chest-thumping Trump (claiming he could solve almost any problem by being smarter, tougher, and stronger than anyone else) against the weasely and dishonest Clinton — eager to spout nonsense about the war-on-women, global warming, worsening inequality, and other spurious issues.
That is the kind of choice that the Joker gave people on the two ferry boats — leading one to believe that all will be destroyed.
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