The president of the United States uses techniques from the Theater of the Absurd in the creation of his persona. It’s fascinating, in spite of everything.
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Donald Trump said this, quite clearly, in the middle of the election campaign that carried him to the presidency of the most powerful country on the planet.
He was referring to the loyalty of his followers; he made the claim onstage before thousands of them, as if to say: no matter what I do, and no matter what I say, you are going to vote for me because you know what’s right. At the same time, he was also laughing in his opponents’ faces: no matter what you do, and no matter what you say, it’s not going to stop me.
His bragging turned out to be accurate, in large part thanks to a campaign of dissemination of false news items showing the “true” face of his opponent. Nevertheless, he succeeded, by means of an overwhelming persistence, in pinning the expression “fake news media” on the communications media that were trying to use common sense investigation and analysis of the facts.
Who would dare to propose such a character in a work of fiction? There have been several attempts. Among the most similar is Ubu, for whom French writer Alfred Jarry’s play “Ubu Roi” is named. Ubu is a sinister tyrant and a doctor of “pataphysics,” a discipline that apparently seeks to establish the absurd in the universe. For its part, the Trump administration, with great pataphysical depth, denies the most obvious facts, argues that truth is a relative concept, and that, contrary to reality, “alternative facts” exist.
Trump is much more like King Ubu than he is like Frank Underwood, the unscrupulous protagonist of the series “House of Cards.” Underwood carries traditional techniques of deception to the extreme. Trump, on the other hand, breaks new ground, using the rhetoric of leaders like Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
His preferred way of escaping from a scandal is to create another, even bigger, scandal. When it appears that he is getting backed into a corner by a problem, he opens up an even more tempting target for his opponents. Faced with the explosion of denunciations from the media, he reacts, accusing them of being “enemies of the American people.”
Every time he leaves the United States, he causes an international conflict. It’s something that fascinates him. He hasn’t missed a single opportunity to disparage the country’s European allies and its neighbor, Canada, while he has very much enjoyed his meetings with the strong men of North Korea and Russia.
During the interminable election campaign, he was master of the spectacle. Since becoming president, he has carried this to an even greater extent. He has succeeded in dividing the people of the United States more than ever, to the extent that it doesn’t matter if what he does is good or bad. What matters is whether you are with him or against him.
There is something that Trump understands very well, and that he has taken to extremes, which would have been unthinkable until now: The bad guy is a very attractive character. The U.S. president is doing many unnecessary things to maintain his status as a bad guy — his sympathy with Nazis, the deportations that separate parents and children, and the choosing the worst people for the most important government offices.
At this stage, it seems evident that there is a method to the absurdity in Trump’s strategy. It is “coldly calculated” as the celebrated character Chespirito* would say. What puzzles me is his relationship with Vladimir Putin.
It is clear that the Russian helped him win the election, but normally Trump would now be trying to distance himself from Putin or send inconsistent signals to confuse the people or wear them down, as he has done in so many other situations. However, he has not done that. On the contrary, he has instead expressed his admiration and affection for the Russian leader in various ways.
Just like the great characters of literature and film, Trump has been keeping audiences around the world on the edge of their seats. What is uncomfortable is the fact that we share the plot with him; even though we close the book or change the channel, he will still be lurking there.
*Editor’s note: Chespirito was the stage name of Roberto Gomez Bolanos (1929-2014), a popular Spanish-language author, comedian, and director from Mexico.