Donald Trump’s Strongman Act, and Its Limits

Donald Trump’s Strongman Act, and Its Limits

The theater of politics works only when the politician does not acknowledge that it is theater. This paradox has bedeviled Donald Trump, a businessman who simultaneously played a more successful version of himself on TV and now struggles to do the same thing with being president.

Never, arguably, has this been more true than during the Oct. 5 episode that Tim Miller, a consultant from the Republican Party’s diminutive Never Trump faction, correctly described as “the weirdest 90 seconds in presidential history.” After his discharge from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center following his hospitalization for Covid-19, Trump returned to the White House aboard Marine One, walked with visible difficulty across the South Lawn and then, later that evening, emerged on the White House’s elevated South Portico. He dramatically removed his surgical mask, said something inaudible to someone off-mic, stood around for a bit for the cameras and then saluted vaguely — at America, maybe? — before going inside.

“The American Mussolini,” declared Anthony Scaramucci, the Trump White House short-timer turned apostate, on CNN. Miller wrote that Trump saluted “with D-list caudillo energy, channeling an aging Pinochet or Trujillo in their last gasps of power.” But there was something curiously incomplete about Trump’s strongman turn; it was as if he were not really making a discrete appearance but rather going through a shot list. And indeed, an hour or so later, a video appeared on Trump’s Twitter feed, complete with a tumescent orchestral score, cinematically recapping the helicopter’s descent and culminating triumphantly with Trump’s salute.

The video drew the responses that you would imagine and that you would imagine Trump imagined; one former BBC and NBC executive even tweeted a shot-for-shot comparison with the Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” But this comparison, in its self-evident silliness — the two films have little more in common than an aircraft and a balcony-style staging, in Trump’s case one that Franklin D. Roosevelt used for his fourth inaugural address — was perversely reassuring: You watch the footage side by side, and you realize how hard it is to imagine a Leni Riefenstahl, or even a Jerry Bruckheimer, bothering with Trump. There’s a poignancy, even, to Trump’s video. It’s a trailer for a movie no one will ever make.

This isn’t just because Hollywood mostly hates Trump. It’s because you can’t make an unironic blockbuster about someone who already seems to be acting in his own mental version of an unironic blockbuster about his presidency. You can only make a very dark comedy — like “Covita,” a video that Trump’s antagonists at the Lincoln Project released the next day. Over a montage of the president’s South Portico appearance and other post-Walter Reed proof-of-life videos, winsome brass introduce “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” from the musical “Evita,” with new lyrics: “Don’t cry for me, White House staffers/The truth is/I will infect you.”

Like most Lincoln Project videos, “Covita” is clearly less concerned with changing voters’ minds than with needling Trump’s very specific insecurities. It’s well known that “Evita,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s musical about the Argentine authoritarian power couple Juan and Eva Perón, is Trump’s favorite musical. “I must have seen ‘Evita’ at least six times,” he told the theater magazine Show People in 2004. “It completely involved me on several levels at once.” He praised Patti LuPone’s Eva Perón, in the show’s 1979 Broadway run, as “one of the great stage performances of all time.” (After his apparent homage, LuPone tweeted: “I still have the lung power and I wore less makeup. This revival is closing November 3rd.”) Trump has more than once reportedly invoked Perón in offering praise — grudgingly, to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and effusively, to Kimberly Guilfoyle, his campaign adviser and his son Donald Jr.’s girlfriend, after her Republican National Convention performance.

One imagines Webber regarding this with some ambivalence. (The composer once owned a condo in Trump Tower, but his lawyers recently ordered Trump to stop using “Memories,” from “Cats,” in his rally playlist.) “Evita” was intended as a critical autopsy of fame and demagogue politics. Its narrator, a fictionalized Che Guevara, delivers sardonic judgments on Eva Perón’s uses and abuses of her immense popularity. “Instead of government,” he spits in his opening number, “we had a stage.”

But the critique of personality-cult politics in “Evita” is overshadowed by its pitch-perfect demonstration of their power. Most people know the show purely as a delivery device for its nuclear warhead of a hit, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” which Perón sings to the adoring masses from the balcony of the Casa Rosada shortly after her husband’s electoral victory. The song deftly evokes a charismatic leader’s calculated flattery and performative fragility (“I still need your love after all that I’ve done”) and, in its soaring sentimentality, the ease with which such appeals make an end run around the brain on their way to the heart. Webber recalled Margaret Thatcher once suggesting — maybe jokingly, maybe not — that he should write her something similar for entrance music.

The number’s balcony staging, like Trump’s, can be read as a sly reminder that populism is not really about communing with the people but about being seen by them. The song’s emotional payload and commercial success, though, capture the convergence of populist authoritarianism and populist art, the way the latter can resemble and even advance the former. Eva Perón, an actress and radio personality before she met Juan, was a pioneer in trying to convert celebrity into political influence; leaders from Ronald Reagan to Imran Khan owe her a debt.

So does Trump, of course — but there is an odd circularity that sets him apart from the others. His ambitions still seem to revolve around clinging to the apex of the country’s attention; he seems surreally unaware that this fame is an automatic byproduct of being president of the United States, a thing he doesn’t have to strive for anymore. The persistent smallness of his apparent aspirations is the core of the comic aspect of his presidency: the extra scoop of ice cream, the ratings obsession, even the military parades.

But the comedy never quite transcends the tragedy, the compounding cruelties and incompetencies, the grand tragedy that overshadows all of them. “Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right — not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins,” the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik warned in 2016. The institutional and social frailties they expose outlive them. And the impossibly dark punchline offered by the Broadway-caudillo drag of Trump’s latest phase is that the United States, the world’s most powerful democracy, did not even get a real Perón. The authoritarian style arrives in America not in the form of a general or an intelligence-agency thug, but in the form of a guy who was sweating along to the disco cover of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” at Studio 54.

Instead of government, we had a stage. Regardless of what happens next month, this is the thing we know now and can never unlearn. The truth is he’ll never leave us.

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