Trump, Mad Magazine, and the Dangers of Political Clowns

I’ve put up a lot of material over the past few days criticising Donald Trump for his horrendous racism, and specifically his Nazi policies towards Muslims. Trump is facing a barrage of criticism, including from his own partners and backers in the Republican party, who find his stance too extreme and fascistic even for him. And his critics are sending him up like crazy. I’ve posted footage of Trump trying to pose for a photo with a clearly extremely irritated and cantankerous bald eagle. And who can blame it? Others have stuck his face onto toilet paper. And the other day Mad magazine also put him on their cover as the leading contender in their competition to find the person who has dumbed America the most over the past year. And to show just how stupid and darkish The Donald is, the magazine’s mascot, Alfred J. Neuman, is there too, sporting his haircut.

Trump Mad Cover

Now this is all very funny, but there’s a danger in treating racists like Trump simply as a joke. He is a joke, and his attacks on Mexicans and Muslims could come straight out of the mouth of one of British television’s greatest and most reviled comic creations, Alf Garnet, if Garnet had an American cousin. Garnet was the creation of Johnny Speight, and played by the Warren Mitchell, who was Jewish. He was a parody of working class Conservatives – dirt poor, but blindly loyal to a ruling class and social order that did nothing for them but keep them in poverty. He was the main character in the ’70s and ’80s comedies Till Death Us Do Part and In Sickness And In Health, a loud-mouthed, cockney paterfamilias, who subjected his longsuffering wife, daughter and son-in-law with bigoted, racist, homophobic and sexist rants. At the same time, he was passionately patriotic about his country and home city. Trump comes from completely the opposite end of the social spectrum: extremely rich, privileged, but with the same bigotry, seething resentment and absolute lack of anything resembling tact, restraint or social sensitivity.

Garnet was such a grotesque caricature that he’s become one of the most celebrated of British comic characters. But while he was an obvious figure of fun to many, others really didn’t see the joke. Speight complained that he was sometimes approached by people, who agreed absolutely with Garnet’s obnoxious comments and failed to find anything remotely ironic in them.

Garnet was fictional, and intended as a figure of fun, not to be taken seriously. I think part of his appeal was that he articulated attitudes that were still widely held, when society was changing and their genuine oppressive nature and real offensiveness was just being realised. He was the stereotypical right-wing curmudgeon, who was popular because he said the unsayable. Repeatedly and loudly.

No matter how perversely appealing and popular such characters can be in fiction, they’re deadly serious in reality. Part of what made Garnet funny was that he was a little man, who was a menace mostly to himself by irritating other people, who would otherwise be perfectly willing to help him. Like a Black repairman, who turns up in one episode simply to fix the family’s broke TV. And sometimes he simply wasn’t that bad, in spite of himself. In Sickness and in Health his other foil, apart from his long-suffering wife, was the gay Black orderly working at the centre he attended for the elderly. He had nasty views, yes, but he was harmless.

The problem comes when real, racist politicians are perceived in the same terms. Like Adolf Hitler in Germany before he took power. In addition to the many, who unfortunately and horribly did take the future Fuehrer and his ghastly views seriously, there were probably others, who may have looked on him simply as a camp joke. Some may have gone to his rallies simply to laugh at his rants at the establishment. There’s a record of one German saying that he was going to hear one of Hitler’s speeches, because he wanted to see who he was going to have a go at next. This suggests that not all of his audience took his attacks on Jews or anyone else entirely seriously. There was, after all, a widespread feeling amongst the German ruling classes that he couldn’t possibly mean everything he said, and that once he got into power he’d calm down somehow and act properly, like a real statesman. But he did mean what he said about getting rid of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, gay men, Socialists, trade unionists and democrats. And he didn’t settle down, to govern in a more appropriate and restrained manner.

There’s a line in Bertolucci’s film, The Conformist, which reflects that attitude. The film’s set in Mussolini’s Italy, and is about a man, who joins the Fascist party after shooting the paedophile, who has attempted to molest him. He is then sent on a mission to assassinate one of the regime’s dissidents, a philosophy lecturer, who has fled to France. As such, it’s loosely based on the real assassination of anti-Fascist Italian philosopher, Matteotti, which threatened to bring down il Duce’s government. At one point in the film, one of the male characters says, ‘When I was in Austria, there was a man, who used to go round the beer halls, ranting. We all used to throw beer glasses at him. That man was Adolf Hitler.’

We’re at that point now with Trump. He’s a clown, whose views absolutely deserve to be mocked and lampooned. But he’s also dangerous. Despite his clownish demeanour, he needs to be taken extremely seriously. The consequences of him gaining power could be deadly.

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