It is 12:13 a.m. and the president-elect of the United States, who has just named retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as his Secretary of Defense, is watching “Saturday Night Live.” Alec Baldwin is impersonating him. The president-elect tweets: “Just tried watching Saturday Night Live - unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad.”
Twenty minutes later, from the SNL set, Alec Baldwin tweets he’ll stop if the president-elect will release his tax returns.
How is it possible that a man who selects Jim Mattis for Defense on Thursday can be in a tweet smackdown with Alec Baldwin Sunday morning?
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The answer is coming into view. Donald Trump is Lady Gaga.
He is a performance artist.
He is challenging what we think is normal—first for a presidential campaign and now for the presidency.
He’s Andy Warhol silk-screening nine Jackie Kennedys. You can’t do that. Oh yes he can. Currently Donald Trump is silk-screening American corporations: Ford, Carrier, Rexnord, Boeing.
Andy Warhol called his studio The Factory. Reince Priebus, Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are now in Donald Trump’s Factory. Like everyone else, they’ve got to figure out what’s coming next.
Lady Gaga once talked about the doubters in an interview: “They would say, ‘This is too racy, too dance-oriented, too underground. It’s not marketable.’ And I would say, ‘My name is Lady Gaga, I’ve been on the music scene for years, and I’m telling you, this is what’s next.’ And look . . . I was right.”
Who does that sound like?
In “The Art of the Deal,” Donald Trump described what he was up to: “I play to people’s fantasies.”
Anti-Trumpers will say: Precisely. We can’t have a performance artist as president of the United States.
That’s irrelevant now.
In four years it may be possible to say that making a performance artist president was a mistake. But that will only be true if he fails. If the Trump method succeeds, even reasonably so, it will be important to understand his art from the start.
So far, the media and the comedians are stuck in pre-Trump consciousness. You’d think the comedians would get it, but getting laughs from left-wing audiences has taken a toll.
Consider two Trump tweet performances:
Jill Stein commences her preposterous recounts and the press analyzes the threat to the Trump electoral-college victory.
Suddenly, the president-elect tweets that “millions” voted illegally for Hillary. The press pivots from Jill Stein to prove, across several days, that the Trump claim is “bogus.”
Like any smart performance artist, he’s made the strait-laced audience part of his act.
One day later, @realDonald Trump tweets: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”
Now he’s the Queen of Hearts. Off with their heads! And like terriers chasing another tossed ball, the media ran down every case on the subject to prove, “court rulings forbid it.”
That is true. The courts forbid it. But if it is important to comprehend a president’s mind and intentions, it will be pointless if the media does nothing more the next four years than consider its job done if it microscopically fact-checks and flyspecks everything Donald Trump tweets.
Donald Trump treats the truth as only one of several props he’s willing to use to achieve an effect. Truth sits on his workbench alongside hyperbole, sentimentality, bluster and just kidding. Use as needed.
Another important distinction: Performers merely entertain. Performance artists challenge, subvert and alter. They may be slightly crazy, but they’re crazy serious, though usually a little unclear about where they’re going.
Donald Trump’s voters believed the country was going in the wrong direction—the most powerful metric in the election. They thought he was the one person who shared their sense of wrong direction. These voters wanted to move from point A (Obama) to point B (post-Obama), and they were willing to see the facts bent if indeed they could arrive at point B, such as an improvement in their economic well-being or escape from the politically correct alt-left.
Treating the presidency as political performance art has multiple liabilities. An initially exciting performance can turn tedious. I’ve talked to Trumpians, die-hards from day one, who think the tweets worked in the campaign but not for the Oval Office. An overworked exclamation point loses its meaning!
Will Donald Trump, like Madonna, be driven to ever more outrageous public performances (“Cancel order!”) to keep the world’s attention trained on his persona? From Beijing to Washington, he’s got the world’s attention.
Some of America’s most charismatic presidents were also public performance artists who challenged and overturned status quos: Abraham Lincoln,Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy,Ronald Reagan.All of them knew that a successful American presidency would be measured by a totality greater than their public performances.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."