Actor John Lithgow sizes up Trump as entertainer

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jserraglio
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Actor John Lithgow sizes up Trump as entertainer

Post by jserraglio » Fri Oct 18, 2019 11:34 am

NEW YORK TIMES
Opinion

The performer in chief is forcing us to live in a B-movie horror.

John Lithgow: Trump Is a Bad President. He’s an Even Worse Entertainer.

By John Lithgow

Readers of this page have every reason to be suspicious of the political musings of an actor. I’m suspicious of them myself. But consider this: Our politics and our press are completely dominated by an entertainer president. In recent weeks we’ve even read about our ex-reality-show host president discussing foreign policy over the phone with the ex-TV comedian president of Ukraine.

Entertainment and politics have become bizarrely intertwined. Perhaps it’s time for a working entertainer to weigh in.
I call Donald Trump an “entertainer president” advisedly since he has proved himself to be such an inept public servant. Over the years, he has thrust himself into the public eye with the flamboyant histrionics of a latter-day P.T. Barnum. Part of this is the amoral tradecraft of a New York real estate developer, but a lot of it springs from the appetites of a voracious attention-getter.
Think of Mr. Trump preening at his beauty contests, body-slamming Vince McMahon at W.W.F. events or holding rallies that resemble the arena gigs of an insult comic. These are the antics of a showman, not a statesman.
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Mind you, a flair for entertainment is not a bad thing in a leader. We can quote verbatim from performances on the world stage by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. Eloquence and wit like theirs have helped rally nations, defeat poverty and win wars. It took Ronald Reagan, an actual actor president, to put the perfect timing and emphasis on the simple sentence, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
But Mr. Trump is something else again. Where Reagan was the product of the tight quality control of Hollywood’s old studio system, Mr. Trump emerged from the curated chaos of reality TV. He even impersonated his own press agent over the telephone.
As bad a president as Mr. Trump has been, he’s an even worse entertainer. He reads scripted lines like a panic-stricken schoolboy at a middle school assembly. He mangles every attempt at irony, self-mockery or, God forbid, an actual joke. He cravenly fills the hall for every rally with a hopped-up claque drawn from his hard-core base. And he can be grotesquely inappropriate at his public appearances, as when he babbled inanely about crowd size and margins of victory on recent condolence visits to Ohio and Texas after mass shootings in those states.
Pause for a moment and recall No-Drama Barack Obama. Remember when we would whine about how aloof and deliberative he was? Maybe there was some truth to that complaint but, wow, did that man know how to choose his moments.
Think about the time when, during his eulogy for the pastor Clementa Pinckney, slain in his Charleston, S.C., church in 2015, Mr. Obama began to softly sing “Amazing Grace.” Can you imagine a greater contrast or a sterner rebuke to the broad grin and upturned thumb of our current president after the Walmart shooting this past summer in El Paso?
It is dispiriting to watch the wretched excesses of Mr. ­­­Trump’s slapstick presidency and the rabid audience he commands. But there may be an upside to his crude performance art. His relentless lies, impulsive acts and gassy pronouncements have emboldened American journalists and quickened their senses.
And just as heartening, the Trump phenomenon has sharpened the wits of a whole new breed of entertainers. These are the daring TV comics who gleefully turn Mr. Trump’s outrages against him every night of the week: Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Seth Meyers and others.
As entertainers, they are everything Mr. Trump is not. They’re smart, informed, disciplined, self-aware and genuinely funny. Not a single item in the day’s news goes unexamined by these warrior satirists, and unlike the late-night comfort food of days past, their comedy is heightened by the bright fire of their anger.
Entertainment, it turns out, ain’t beanbag.
Everyone loves a good villain onscreen and onstage. Shakespeare himself must have especially relished writing lines for Macbeth, Iago and Richard III. But coldhearted monsters in movies and plays are the stuff of fantasy. When we’re sitting in the audience, some part of us is reassured knowing that we are watching fiction.
Reality is a lot less entertaining and a lot more frightening. There has to be a way to rein in real-life villainy in public life. Our government of checks and balances has finally taken on that challenge. With House committees examining Mr. Trump’s recent invitations to foreign governments to meddle in our elections, impeachment is not only possible but probable.
But it will be an uphill struggle. Impeachment would not necessarily close down this long-running freak show. Other forces need to be brought to bear.
Soon, with any luck, journalism and entertainment will act in concert with an energized voting public to bring an end to the Trump nightmare. If not, we’ll have to wait a little longer for quality drama and accommodate ourselves to a continuing diet of B-movie horror.
John Lithgow, an actor and illustrator, is the author of the forthcoming book “Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse.”
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