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The Donald Trump Era Has Begun to Look Like a Sacha Baron Cohen Movie

Variety logo Variety 12/6/2016 Owen Gleiberman
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Donald Trump’s run for the presidency has always cried out for showbiz metaphors. That’s because, from the kickoff, it has been an act of showbiz, all emanating from a man who would probably never have come close to winning the office had he not been a reality-TV star. Trump’s persona on “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice” — the boardroom grandee, an imperious and hectoring fat cat — fed into his candidacy in an obvious way (he already seemed like The Boss). But it also fed into it in a way that went nearly unnoticed: It launched his Ronald Reagan 2.0 nostalgia.

You’d watch those “Apprentice” boardroom face-offs waiting, each time, for Trump to point the flattened hand and say, with his beady-eyed Queens bluntness, “You’re fired!” And no matter how many times he said it, it never got old, because its effect was deeply and strangely nostalgic: It took us back to a world where the worst thing that could happen to you on the job is that you did get fired. In the new world (the one Trump has promised to roll back), you barely have the luxury of being fired. You just get downsized.

As soon as Trump was elected, the showbiz metaphors really began to flow, and for obvious reasons — the stakes were now sky-high, and the situation was so this-cannot-be-happening that one grasped for some sort of comparison to make sense of it. In the first few days, my thought each morning was that I’d woken up in a dream world where someone like Wink Martindale had become president.

But then Trump started to make actual decisions — choosing as his chief strategist a white-nationalist sympathizer like Steve Bannon, reviving the old flag-burning culture war (more Reagan-era nostalgia!) as an ominous way to signal that his belief in absolute, anti-PC freedom of speech begins and ends with his own tweets. And the metaphors just turned darker. It’s not just about policy. The whole post-truth, whatever-I-say-is-real aspect of the Trump administration has begun to suggest that we’re living in a movie like “Dr. Strangelove,” with Trump himself as a corporate version of Gen. Buck Turgidson. (From the movie: “If we were to immediately launch an all-out and coordinated attack on all their airfields and missile bases, we’d stand a damn good chance of catchin’ ’em with their pants down.”)

Now, however, the darkness has given way to something more absurd. That may not be the right word, given the immensity of the stakes, but it’s the one that springs to mind.

A story that appeared in major media outlets on Dec. 1 details Trump’s bumblingly inappropriate encounters with world leaders, driven by comments that seem to signify that he has no awareness of the complexities and dangers and intricate networks of historical precedent that rule the world of global politics. Henry Kissinger, who suddenly looks like George McGovern by comparison, called his own chess-game approach to power “realpolitik.” With Trump, it’s surrealpolitik (Putin’s a good guy! Give me a few months and I’ll take care of ISIS!), and one hardly knows whether to giggle or cower at his latest mishaps.

He told the British prime minister, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know.” (We can grab a drink at the Gansevoort — they got a great bar up there.) And, stunningly, he told Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, a country whose politics are so thorny that President Obama has never once visited there, that he’s a “terrific guy,” saying he “would love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.” (We can work out this nuke thing! Just leave it to me.) It was at that moment I realized: Though he’s not in office yet, the presidency of Donald Trump is starting to turn into a Sacha Baron Cohen movie, like “Borat” crossed with “The Dictator.”

The brilliance of “Borat” is that it captured how rampant ego is the flip side of a certain kind of myopic buffoonery. Borat can’t see anything but himself. Trump’s version of that is to reduce every interaction to a “deal.” He communicates the comic notion that America is about to be led by a used-car salesman writ large. Trump has also (and often) been compared to the Italian media-tycoon-turned- demagogue Silvio Berlusconi, who climbed to power via the crutch of pop culture. But Berlusconi’s rise marked the culmination of decades of political chaos in Italy.

Trump, by contrast, is now the leader of the free world. Writing that phrase, it suddenly sounds a bit…Trumpian, but its essential truth remains. In the 70 years since World War II, we’ve never had a Sacha Baron Cohen character lead the free world (though before WWII, Warren Harding may have come close). What that means is anyone’s guess. The only thing predictable about Trump’s presidency is how unpredictable it’s going to be.

But here, if not a prediction, is a call to action. In addition to rock-solid investigative reporting, what this era now needs — demands — is an intensity of satire that can nail the meta-reality of what’s happening. For decades, “Saturday Night Live” played an influential role in crystalizing our perception of presidents (the bumbling Gerald Ford, the grinning-into-the-camera Jimmy Carter, the “Not gonna do it” George H.W. Bush). Reality may now look like it’s too much of a parody of itself to be parodied, but all that means is that a higher level of satirical brinkmanship is called for. The old liberal nose-thumbing won’t suffice. What’s required is a satire rooted in audacity, in cutthroat perception, in a mastery of images that’s as genius-stupido-instinctive as Trump himself. Attention, Sacha Baron Cohen: It’s time to get to work!

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