At the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Seth Meyers observed: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for President as a Republican, which is surprising since I assumed he was running as a joke.” That was five years ago. This week, Trump wins the Republican nomination. If his candidacy really is an elaborate put-on, what kind of person would take the joke so far?
Unraveling the answer to that question begins with the fact that Donald Trump bears an uncanny resemblance to a second-rate 1970s Las Vegas lounge singer named Tony Clifton. Just like Trump, Clifton had a gut hanging over his belt and a swooping hairstyle combed over his bald spot. On stage, Clifton would insult his audience with racial slurs and insinuations about menstruation, calling this the “comedy” portion of his act—just like Trump employs verbal abuse during the “debate” portion of his campaign. As a singer, Clifton lacked fundamental ability: he sang out of tune and had no sense of rhythm—just like Trump poses as politician without coherent policies or a functioning campaign organization.
Where’s the joke? Well, Tony Clifton was in fact a character invented and played by the comedian Andy Kaufman. Kaufman is best known for Latka Gravas, the sweet and timid Foreign Man character he played on the TV show Taxi. But Kaufman’s true comedy genius was in perpetuating elaborate put-ons while never admitting his act was just an act. Kaufman delighted in the discomfort and chaos he created when playing the Tony Clifton character, but steadfastly denied he was Clifton. Could Kaufman be the unseen mastermind behind the unrelenting prank that is “the Trump character?”
At least one respected science journalist thinks so. Erik Vance, who has written for the New York Times, Scientific American, and National Geographic (but still has a sense of humor), posted a blog in September of 2014 entitled “Donald Trump Is the World’s Greatest Performance Artist.” Vance writes: “I believe that Kaufman created his Donald Trump character sometime around 1972, as a precursor to his equally jarring Vegas lounge singer, Tony Clifton. As [Kaufman] gained fame and money, he worked doggedly to build a back-story for Trump, making him the son of a New York real estate agent, a graduate of the Wharton School, and giving him a stint in military school.” Vance theorizes that Kaufman faked his own death in 1983, underwent reconstructive surgery and became the Trump character full time.
This is a shocking claim. But if true, it could mean that a Trump presidency is nothing for Democrats to fear. While the Trump character is rude and egotistical, the “real” Kaufman was a New Age softy. He was a vegetarian and practiced Transcendental Meditation. He loved foreignness for its own sake, performing entire stand-up routines in a fake foreign language. On stage, he played the conga drums, sang to cartoon music and wore an “I love Grandma” sweatshirt. As the finale to his concert at Carnegie Hall, he invited the entire audience to board school buses and took everyone out for milk and cookies. Wouldn’t it be funny if Trump wins then shapeshifts into the Milk and Cookie President?
But then, if there ever was a mystery wrapped in an enigma, it was Andy Kaufman. When Kaufman played a confrontational character, he would risk anything—even his own self-interest—to remain the center of negative attention. Once Kaufman came as Tony Clifton to the Taxi TV studios for rehearsal. His behavior was so obnoxious—and his acting so atrocious—that the producers feared he would take down the show. Clifton was fired before filming began; security guards had to drag him off the set.
Kaufman took the self-destruction further with his “World Inter-gender Wrestling Champion” character wherein he challenged women in the audience to wrestle him on stage. He baited women with sexist slurs, drawing boos and jeers from the crowd. Describing the act in an interview, he admitted: “I’m trying to get people to dislike me.” It worked. Kaufman received piles of hate mail from previous fans.
It is therefore likely that Kaufman will stick with his outrageous performance. If so, the former #NeverTrump Republicans who hope all offensive behavior will disappear once the White House is won are in for disappointment. The Trump character will relish taking his excruciating-to-watch act onto the world stage—our nation’s self-interest be damned.
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