The tragedy of the Trump circus

Hollywood liked Trump and helped make him. Then he became President. Can entertainment and politics be restored to their proper place?
Celebrity Donald Trump at a party in New York, 1989. Credit: Vinnie Zuffante / Getty Images.
Celebrity Donald Trump at a party in New York, 1989. Credit: Vinnie Zuffante / Getty Images.
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Remember, many years back, when Hollywood seemed to like Donald Trump? That vanished era drifted back to me recently, when – in search of some levity – I rewatched Zoolander, the 2001 Ben Stiller comedy about an endearingly thick male model. And there, to my surprise, up popped Trump briefly, with a more relaxed Melania by his side. ‘Look, without Derek Zoolander,’ he said, ‘male modelling wouldn’t be what it is today.’  

He was playing Trump, as he always did, or at least the movie version of Trump: a ludicrously rich New York businessman who hung out at society events, pouting truculently as he tough-talked a deal into submission. The filmmakers never gave him much to say. In the 1992 film Home Alone 2, a tiny Macaulay Culkin, lost in New York’s Plaza Hotel, asks Trump, ‘Where’s the lobby?’ and he replies, ‘Down the hall, and to the left.’ The film’s director, Chris Columbus, later said that Trump had only granted permission to film in the Plaza if he appeared in the scene.  

Trump’s walk-on parts in Hollywood comedies worked because he wasn’t personally understated, or complicated by a reputation for philanthropy, like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. He was the kind of rich guy that might be imagined by a child, or a cartoon: a grown-up Richie Rich, but not as nice. Trumpian wealth meant gleaming tower blocks, marble floors, gold-plated fittings, gigantic steaks, and busty young women spilling out of short, tight dresses. His presence in a scene acted as an instant signifier of the kind of single-note status that deals solely in money. And Trump wasn’t embarrassed by that, but energised. 

He couldn’t act, however, and so it was only when Trump moved to television that he found a format which let him be the main player. In The Apprentice – where Trump was both judge and terminator, with the catchphrase ‘You’re fired!’ – the Trumpian version of success was dangled as the ultimate goal, and series contestants battled to reach this arid Eden through a swamp of backbiting and routine humiliations. 

Hollywood soured on him for good in 2011, when his burgeoning political ambitions led him to embrace the crackpot ‘birtherism’ conspiracy theory – which claimed, without any evidence, that the Hawaiian-born President Obama had not been born on US soil. Hollywood liked Obama, and his back-story. And if it had indulged Trump as a flashy rich guy, it wasn’t happy to contemplate him in the role of President: even in the cynicism of La La Land, that position was imagined to require something else, not least some apparent commitment to the ideal of public service.  

So Trump shifted medium and audiences yet again, this time to the circus. Not the modern version of the travelling circus, with its growing emphasis on the physical daring of performers, but the old-style circus that toured the midwest and the rural south in the era before television, with its whiff of cruelty and chicanery wrapped up in the mesmerising promise of a show. 

Sometimes the circuses were large-scale entertainments, attracting thousands. Sometimes they were smaller variants, such as the travelling ‘medicine show,’ built around the sale of questionable patent medicines, with musical performances, theatrical acts and freak-shows set up to draw the crowds. 

Much of Trump’s political style and appeal is drawn from the negative parts of this cultural territory, the very aspects that so often repelled an educated urban audience. His unashamedly bogus showman’s appearance, with his fake-tanned face and oddly-tinted hair. His readiness to ridicule difference, such as when he physically parodied a New York Times reporter with a disability. His easy production of political lies, talent for slogans, and worrisome readiness to mingle science with quackery, such as when he appeared to suggest that disinfectant might be used to clean coronavirus from inside the body. The aesthetic extends to those around him: think of Rudy Giuliani, wiping a trickle of dark hair-dye from the side of his face, or Donald Trump Jr, dressed like a carnival barker in a jacket that is half-stars, half-stripes, bawling, ‘The best is yet to come!’. 

It is a circus tragedy, in fact, that provides perhaps the best metaphor for Trump’s political career. On 6 July 1944, a crowd of up to 8,000 people flocked to the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut. The roof of the big tent had been waterproofed with a paste of paraffin wax dissolved in gasoline. It kept the rain out, but when a fire sparked it went horribly ablaze, killing 167 people and injuring more than 700 others. 

Trump’s politics have spread a combustible blend of conspiracy theories and resentment across the US political system. It finally went on fire when his supporters invaded the Capitol. Joe Biden’s inauguration has dampened the conflagration down and placed a screen around it, but the potential for another flare-up is still there. Now the former showman has finally exited the Big Top, President Biden has one overwhelming challenge: how to scrape the flammable mixture off the roof of the tent.

Jenny McCartney

Jenny McCartney is a journalist and author. She has written The Ghost Factory and The Stone Bird.

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