To my everlasting shame, I participated in the 1994 Howard Stern gag campaign for Governor of New York. I was not surprised recently to learn that Trump and Stern are buddies. It figures. The Trump campaigns were much like the Stern campaign, only on a bigger scale: President instead of Governor, and a billionaire instead of a millionaire. Higher stakes and a closer semblance to a serious campaign, and of course Trump actually won. But just a gag nonetheless. In the movie that Stern made about himself (starring himself) a radio demographics analyst explains that his research has shown that more people who say they hate Stern listen to his show than people who identify themselves as Stern fans. And they listen to Stern for the same reason: they want to know what the heck he is going to pull next.

January 18th 2021


Monday, January 18, 2021


Two days before the planned inauguration of Joe Biden as President, I want to finally set down my thoughts on Trump. Assuming there are no more surprises, Trump will be an ex-president in two days. After 1973’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” Ayn Rand, in answering a question after a lecture, said that she was speaking only on the range of the moment, and she added “and one can speak today only on the range of the moment, as you can see,” meaning that we did not know what was likely to happen next, in the unraveling Nixon White House.


Same with the Trump White House, only more so. Nixon himself would be astonished and appalled.


Nixon was a full-time, career politician. Trump is not in politics. He is not a politician. Prior to his announcement of his candidacy for President in June, 2015, he had never sought or held government office, federal, state or local, elective or appointive. Politics has never been his line. The moment I heard his announcement of his candidacy, I immediately dismissed it as simply Trump’s latest publicity stunt. His line had never been politics; it had always been publicity stunts. Therefore, no one should even take seriously his candidacy, let alone support it. I was horrified and mystified then to find that the media and the people generally were taking him seriously.


Some people doubt that Trump even wanted to be elected, or ever expected to be. I can imagine a conversation between Trump and some cooler head in his circle, in the unlikely event that there are any, although maybe there used to be some and they have long since fled the sinking ship. “But Donald!” says the Cooler Head, “What if you actually win?”


“That won’t happen, and even if it does, who cares? So I get elected. So this publicity stunt goes on for five years instead of one. So much the better.”


“But you don’t know anything about being President!”


“I don’t have to. I’m a billionaire. I pay people to know things for me. I’ll read the speeches they write for me and sign the papers they put in front of me, and spend as much time as possible holding rallies and just watching TV.”  Now this is just my speculation, but it comports with the known facts.


Trump is not dumb and he is not crazy. He knows exactly what he is doing. And he has been doing the exact same thing every day since June 16, 2015. It has all been a prolonged publicity stunt. He is a salesman, a con man, and a media hustler. And that is all he is. He has no political, philosophical or religious views. He has no agenda, no platform, no program, no goals or purposes in politics. He is interested only in grabbing headlines, and he has about fifty years of experience at that. He has gotten very good at it.


Trump started out as a real estate developer. But during the 2016 campaign, one of the talking heads on TV said that Trump is no longer a real estate developer. He has not built anything in years. His sole business now is just licensing the name Trump. He doesn’t build a golf resort, you build a golf resort and you pay Trump for the privilege of putting the name Trump on it, in the belief that the name Trump is so famous world-wide that you will get more customers than if you put your own name on it.


So Trump is in the “pure fame” business. He is the Billy Rose Theory made flesh. Billy Rose was an impresario – a Broadway producer – active from the 1920s to the 1960s. He is the guy who said “Don’t read the words they write about you, just count them.” Because there is no such thing as bad publicity.


To my everlasting shame, I participated in the 1994 Howard Stern gag campaign for Governor of New York. I was not surprised to learn recently that Trump and Stern are buddies. It figures. The Trump campaigns were much like the Stern campaign, only on a bigger scale: President instead of Governor, and a billionaire instead of a millionaire. Higher stakes and a closer semblance to a serious campaign, and of course Trump actually won. But just a gag nonetheless. In the movie that Stern made about himself (starring himself) a radio demographics analyst explains that his research has shown that more people who say they hate Stern listen to his show than people who identify themselves as Stern fans. And they listen to Stern for the same reason: they want to know what the heck he is going to pull next.


I have to believe that Trump knew all along exactly what his goons would do once he told them to march on the Capitol. But he was not exactly planning the overthrow of Congress and Biden, he was planning the same thing he planned every day: to dominate the evening news. Another day, another outrage, another headline. And who cares about the consequences. Consequences can always be weaseled out of.


Trump’s culpability in the sack of Congress, his impeachability and convictability, his crime of inciting insurrection, lies not in the exact wording of his and his son’s and Giuliani’s remarks to the crowd on January 6. It lies in the lies. It lies in five and a half years of continuous lies and incitement, all for the purpose of attracting the violent and making them more violent. Trump is nothing if not consistent. His act never changes.


Bob Woodward says that Trump is a fundamentally dull and boring person. That has always been my impression. Trump has no hobbies. “My work is my play,” he says. He does only one thing and he does it every day and he does it well: being a motor-mouthed huckster and schemer. Just keep repeating the lies and bombast and double-talk, and some idiot will buy what you are selling.


Before 2015, it was: Trump buys a building. Trump builds a building. Trump fixes a skating rink. Trump marches in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. Trump gets married. Trump gets divorced. Trump builds a casino in Atlantic City. Trump starts an airline. Trump starts a phony university. Trump has two books ghostwritten for him. Trump hosts Saturday Night Live. Trump hosts his own “reality” show. Trump here, Trump there, Trump everywhere. Trump grabs another headline every day.


Then, Trump used all this accumulated name recognition and millions to make the media have to take him seriously when he claimed to be running for President. Then, as candidate and as occupant of the White House, Trump started pushing – pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior as a President, then pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior for a schoolboy, then pushing the boundaries of sanity. Pushing until someone pushes back is what bullies and dictators do.


How could anyone take seriously Trump’s claim that he would build a wall on the 1,900 mile Mexican border, that this would keep out the terrorists and drug dealers he claimed were among the illegals, and that he would somehow make Mexico pay for this wall? Ridiculous. But it all got headlines.


This was all Trump’s improvement on Dr. Goebbels’ “Big Lie” technique. You tell a lie so ridiculous that people think “His claim must be true, because no one would have the recklessness to make up such an unbelievable story.” As a salesman, Trump knows that you don’t have to be credible, or even make sense. It does not matter how many times you contradict yourself from one day to the next, or even in the same sentence. If you just keep talking a mile a minute, eventually someone will believe what you are saying and you will make a sale. A thousand people may turn off the TV in disgust, but one person will decide that you are right, and might even decide that you are the Messiah. It does not matter what you say. It matters only that you say it on TV. TV is all.


TV works both ways, you may say. TV showed up Trump’s Big Lie that more people attended his inauguration than any previous one. But five and a half years of relentless lies created a base of Trump supporters networking with each other all over the country, and laying their plans, and egging each other on to greater heights of political fantasy and fanaticism. Eight thousand of them congealed into a malignant tumor on January 6, regardless of the many exposures of Trump’s lies.


I would be more afraid of Pence trying to seize power in a putsch, because Pence is an actual politician. What Trump is likely to do after Wednesday is not another putsch, but just another publicity stunt. He and his staff, I am sure, already have his next five stunts in various stages of planning. All through the 2016 campaign, I was saying “Trump is not really hoping to win in November. After he has milked this stunt for all it is worth, he will drop out of the race with some excuse no one will believe, but he does not care about believability. He will go golfing for a few months, and then he will be back in the headlines with his next publicity stunt. Perhaps this time he will announce that he is running for Pope. Or he will announce that he is building a rocket to the Moon. “I’m going to open the first golf resort on the Moon! I’m calling it TRUMP CRATER! It’ll be ‘UGE! “UGE!!”


Once Trump won the Republican nomination, I had to reconsider. I thought “God! Could it be that he is really running for President?” Then he won. The unthinkable had happened. Publicity and name recognition had won a presidential race over experience and competence, that is, Hillary Clinton. TV had made Trump President. The TV networks had been successfully used and manipulated by the expert media hustler. All I heard every day during that campaign was about Hillary’s emails. The networks could have spent that same airtime exposing Trump’s character as a con man.


Then, after the Charlottesville outrage and the first impeachment, came the Clorox outrage. Trump rattled on, in a press conference, in front of stunned and disbelieving other speakers on the platform with him, about injecting people with Clorox to kill the Coronavirus. By this time we had learned the pattern: anything irresponsible that Trump says one day, he “walks back” the next. “I was just kidding yesterday.” The irresponsibility was not crazy. It was calculated – carefully planned to outrage the intellectuals – that is, the Democrats – so that they would rush articles and TV editorials into print and onto the airwaves, displaying their intellectual arrogance to the un-intellectuals – that is, the Republicans – who would then hate the intellectual Democrats all the more for their smugness, and then rush to the next Trump rally, to cheer their anti-intellectual Messiah.


The intelligentsia tried to blame Trump on Ayn Rand, as they had tried to blame the 2008 recession on Rand. If we could contact Rand in the next world (Noel Coward fans can get “Blythe Spirit’s” Madame Arcati working on that), here’s what I think she would say about Trump: “Even I, as a fiction writer, would never dare to create in fiction a character like Donald Trump. Who would believe it?” Sinclair Lewis may have beaten her to it with “Berzelius Windrip,” the demagogue in It Can’t Happen Here.


I was hoping that the heads of ABC, NBC and CBS would make a joint statement, after the Clorox line, that they would no longer send reporters to Trump’s press conferences. Why bother providing a platform for a weekly Mad Tea Party? Why give a platform to an irresponsible madman talking about injecting people with Clorox? Within days, more than one idiot somewhere actually drank Clorox and was admitted to an emergency room. (At least one in Hudson Valley Hospital, Peekskill, NY.) Anything Trump does not like, he calls “fake news.” Why send our reporters to a press conference only to be insulted, especially when it was becoming apparent by that time that Trump was gathering thousands of fans who believed everything he said – on our networks? – say the network heads in my fantasy. It would be irresponsible of us to lend this madman any more free airtime. But no such announcement ever came. The incitements continued. After the Clorox incident, I deem the TV networks complicit, or maybe just so stunned that they did not do the responsible thing and de-platform the loose cannon.


Some were already calling Trump irresponsible, but with his shout-out to his “Proud Boys” at the debate, this had gone beyond even the description of irresponsibility or even insanity. Trump had always acted irresponsible and creepy, stalking around the stage behind Hillary in their debate and constantly interrupting Biden in their debate, but the sheer consistency of Trump’s five and a half year TV act shows the deliberate nature of his take over of the presidency. He was not crazy. He was appealing to those people who were crazy – crazy enough to take him seriously when he claimed that he had really won (in a landslide, of course) and the Deep State had stolen the election from him. Crazy enough to attack the Capitol – not to take power, but just to take airtime away from Biden’s inauguration and give it to Trump. Everything on TV has to be about Trump. The attack on the Capitol had been five and a half years in the making.


I have not followed the news much over the years, but I have since January 6. I have been curious for many years about “right-wing extremism.” Partly that is because I was born in 1954 and grew up on a pretty steady diet of World War II lore: movies, TV shows, books, comic books, songs. But also, I heard something very interesting in about 1980. Some speaker was talking about having grown up in Nazi Germany. He was asked whether he was concerned about the rise of neo-Nazi groups in the US. This was just after the Nazi-Skokie case. He said he was not concerned at all about the possibility of real political power ever being gained by neo-Nazis. “If totalitarianism ever comes to the United States,” he said, “it will not come under the flags and symbols of a German movement of the 1920s. It will come in some form that appears as American as apple pie.” I thought those were wise words at the time, but now I am not so sure. The swastika still scares people. So those who want to scare people are still using it, even though it is a symbol from, now, a hundred years ago and in a different country.


Did you see the Ken Burns “Civil War” series on TV? The very last speaker in that series was a young female Black historian, and she ended on this note: “The Civil War is still going on, and it can still be lost.” Seeing the Confederate flags carried by the invaders of the Capitol, I see her point. And that was 160 years ago.


Once noon has passed on Wednesday, I want to see how many people will claim that they saw this coming. The denunciations of Trump have been getting slowly harsher over these four years. It is hard to believe now that some talking heads were saying in 2017 that Trump might grow into the job and learn to take seriously his responsibilities as President. Trump never had the least intention of taking his responsibilities seriously. He never had the least intention of carrying out his duties as President, any more than he could help. It was never anything more than the Trump Show. Trump's putsch attempt on January 6 was not a real putsch -- it just played one on TV.


After the disaster, naturally people will claim that they had not cooperated with the monster. After World War II, many Germans claimed that they had been secretly anti-Nazi all along. See the 1981 movie “The Third Wave,” about a California teacher who got his students all excited about a political leader and a movement he claimed was starting. He later told them, at a rally, that he had made it all up. Then he said that, like the Germans, many of them, predictably, would now claim that they had not been present at this rally.


We may say that Trump has done us a favor, by smoking out into the light of day the most violent crazies, the Americans gullible enough to swallow his phony pretense of a presidency and his Big Lie about his re-election being stolen. There may have been 74,222,958 Americans willing to vote for Trump, but only eight thousand showed up for his grand finale. Hundreds of them are now in jail or identified, fired from jobs, and turned in, sometimes by their own friends and families. They are neutralized and we are on our guard. Winston Churchill showed, in the 1930s, that sometimes the alarmist turns out to be right. And if you choose to play the role of Chicken Little and you turn out to be wrong, well, better you should make a fool of yourself than that the sky should really fall.


What persuades me to be an alarmist now, as Trump himself fades into the sunset, reduced by the withdrawal of business from the City of New York, Marriott Hotels and other corporate allies, reduced to playing golf with OJ till he dies, is the threat of young Trumps waiting in the wings. They are eager to see whether they can get as far as Trump did on the Billy Rose plan. P. T. Barnum is smiling down at them and assuring them that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public. H. L. Mencken is also warning us: “Democracy is the theory that the people know what they want and they deserve to get it – good and hard.”


Just as the human race has gotten off easy with Covid, which has only a one or two percent death rate, so we have gotten off easy with Trump. He did not become President For Life, like a proper dictator would. We were lucky to get, not a life-long professional demagogue bent on autocratic power, but just a billionaire bully and infant, who wanted only attention.





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