In Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” the protagonist, Willy Loman, goes to the office of his boss, Howard Wagner, hoping for a promotion. Instead he essentially hears two of the most chilling words in the American lexicon: “You’re fired.”
The antagonist of that great stage classic is now embodied in the billionaire Donald Trump, who has stirred up the presidential race in ways that have made him a folk hero to a large segment of the Republican Party and a clown and fake to millions of others.
“The irony is that Trump, because of his presence in the country’s imagination as the ‘You’re Fired’ guy, has been performing the role of the Destroyer in the quintessential American dream play,’” said Sherry Kramer, a playwright who teaches her craft at Bennington College. “So it’s kind of wacky that he is now the container of the American Dream. In this country, anyone who makes a lot of money is perceived to be more authentic and smarter in some vital way. He has slipped into an existing narrative that some people find irresistible.”
Whatever one thinks of Trump, added Kramer, he is “great theater.” And that is why he has been generating headlines and boosting ratings for news programs even if, at the same time, pundits are decrying his trivialization of the political game.
“He appeals to people the way theater does, as an artificial construct,” said Kramer. “He’s a persona performing the role of a presidential candidate. A lot of his power consists of telling people what they want to hear about themselves.”
As an entertainer, Trump is part Hulk Hogan and part Dame Edna Everage, the Australian drag artiste who has a viperish personality and look to go with it. In his braggadocio, the billionaire businessman is like a wrestler who enters the ring, praising himself as “the greatest” while insulting his opponents as “losers” (or Willy Lomans). Dame Edna, the popular persona of actor Barry Humphries, has visual markers — the lavender-hued bouffant hair and rhinestone-rimmed glasses — which are the emblems of any great performance artist.
Trump’s visual marker, noted Kramer, is his hair. And his stock-in-trade meanness is most essential to his image. Referring to the billionaire’s much-remarked-upon comb-over, the playwright said, “He is clearly always in ‘costume.’ It’s the hair. He doesn’t look like anybody else. And, like Dame Edna, he’s very mean. There have been studies which posit that if someone is either negative or nasty in an essay, people tend to rank them as having a higher intelligence than someone who is positive. Mean is smart. Mean is true.”
Little wonder then that Trump is managing to attract crowds. As Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator and US Navy SEAL, recently told Frank Bruni of the New York Times, “Yeah, 5,000 people showed up at your event. I could get 5,000 people to show up at the bearded lady. [Trump] is, in his way, a freak show.”