Defying (the Center of) Gravity
A few weeks before the 2016 United States presidential election—around the time I realized that at least half my nation was willing to throw in with Trump rather than (according to friends’ posts on Facebook) elect “a card-carrying witch” or “new Lucifer”—I wanted to understand what could possibly make Donald Trump’s transparent lying, ignorance, narcissism, opportunism, corrupt business practices, three marriages, and well-documented misogyny and bigotry attractive to the average American voter. Sure, he was a rich white man—but I couldn’t understand how that could be enough.
So one morning, this white woman of 52 years of age, a New York City resident by way of suburban and rural Virginia, a former English and drama teacher of 15 years and now an editor for 13—a woman of modest means, good education, a white collar job, of parents who came out of the Depression-era Midwest to move from working poor into the middle class—decided to draw on my training as an actor, director, and theater teacher to be Donald Trump for a day.
This was, obviously, an imaginative exercise. Still, I lived it in my body as well as my mind. (Note: No pussies were grabbed in the carrying out of this exercise. –ed.)
First, I grabbed my phone and checked Twitter. Then I walked around my apartment to beckon my servants—butler, personal assistant, chambermaid, cook, and attorneys—or rather, they appeared—and I had to say nothing to any one of them. I was bathed, dressed, and fed (after having my food tasted by the chambermaid, for a friend of mine who used to work catering in the boxes at the U.S. Open told me that Trump always brought his own food, heavily guarded, and allowed no one to be in his suite outside of his own entourage).
As I went through these imaginary ablutions and rituals, I consciously changed my body (even as I stepped into my own corduroys, button-down man’s plaid dress shirt, socks, and boots, my earrings becoming cufflinks, I guess), entering into Trump’s center of gravity (and I located two: his hair and his hands). (NOTE: My own center of gravity is my knees. Everyone’s is different—ideally one wants to lead from the chest, and in acting class we would pull ourselves up and outward by an imaginary string from the sternum—and it’s a telling trait. My own center pegs me as a grounded person. I have a friend who led from her ever-present pocketbook over her shoulder (giving her a steely if insecure authority), another from his shoulders (maintaining or even fueling the illusion of being the athlete he once was), still another from, oddly, the bottom her the heels of her feet, making her quite upright but also loosey-goosey in her gait (and her personality was equally difficult to reconcile). When you rethink your center of gravity, it’s amazing how your walk changes.) I felt myself to be above the world (the hair pulling me up), and really cautious, no, suspicious (the hands pulling me down). The gait was by turns Neanderthal (hands at sides, little swing in the arms) and expansive (when the hands pulled the arms out). Now, I might have the center of gravity wrong—a case could be made for the back of the shoulders, pulling him down, but I think it’s just age and weight creating that stoop; or perhaps it’s his mouth, even his lips. He tips forward at the front of the hair swirl, and his limp arms remind me of Lennie in Of Mice and Men. It occurs to me that when Graydon Carter, then of his Spy magazine, made his “short-fingered vulgarian” comment, he noticed the size of Trump’s hands relative to his large head (for in my Costume Design and Rendering class in college I had to draw the human form in proportion, and learned that the length of the hands is about the same as the height of the head). It is Trump himself, by virtue of his use of the body, who causes this focus on his hand size. And to him, who is a vulgarian, size matters.
So in my body—taller, larger, head and hair the center, up and forward; hands and arms dropping my shoulders into a slight stoop when not in motion—I felt, and how to explain this—avaricious. I was greedy and without satiety. Moving through the world, with the sure knowledge that there was literally nothing I could not get away with—shit my bed, run down a couple of old people with my SUV; sexually assault married women or rape 13-year old girls at a party; bankrupt not only small businesses but also my own, with not only impunity but with the continued loan support of Deutsche Bank; give orders and have them carried out by lawyers to cover my tracks—I have to tell you I became aroused in my very loins. It was weird. I found—and I am truly not making this up—that I wanted sex—really wanted it—and felt that I was almost having it everywhere I was, as if I could climax in my office cubicle as I merely edited manuscript or in the pantry as I made a cup of tea. When you turn your daily grind into doing dangerous deals with international power brokers, the sky’s the limit.
By lunchtime was I drunk with the feeling of power. It’s no wonder Trump doesn’t need alcohol. Who would? And by mid-afternoon I was almost desperate for sex. No wonder he moves on any beautiful woman “like a bitch” and “takes what he wants.” The rush of all this became almost unbearable. And addictive. (A friend of mine tried cocaine once—and only once—and told me, “Lisa, you didn’t know you could feel that good—you cannot imagine how good you feel. But it lasts about a few seconds, and it’s gone. I just couldn’t go there.”) What a thrill ride I was giving myself, even as I moved through the day (like a bitch) typing, chatting with colleagues, microwaving my homemade soup (where’s my taster?), doing my dishes in the pantry sink (where’s my maid?), releasing my files (where’s my attorney?), and commuted through the streets and subways of Manhattan and Queens (you’re fired).
Goddammit, man, I lived the American Dream, and in the process was finally able to define what it has become: Absolute power and mammoth wealth, meaning complete freedom, complete autonomy, in thrall to no one—all MINE. While the rest of America lives for Happy Hour after work, buying scratch-offs and playing Powerball between putting the kids to bed and binge-watching Walking Dead, Donald J. Trump, son of a millionaire, rules the world and has since childhood. (A friend who grew up “on the other side of the Forest Hills tracks” remembers the teenage Donald Trump, a decade older than my friend, knocking over people and property in his red sports car and never having to so much as say he was sorry while his father paid the victims off.) So of course the adult Trump doesn’t have to bother with drink and drugs. He commits acts of sex and violence with the dedication of a Zen master in meditation, and why wouldn’t he?
One day as Trump is heady, and it really was enough—it has to be. Because there was no bottom to what he wanted.
Sweating It Out
The other night I went with my actor friend Ryan to Studio 54 to see Lynn Nottage’s new play, Sweat, which has transitioned to Broadway. The play is set in a Northeast steel town’s local bar, surrounding area, and prison, moving back and forth in time, to discover “what happened” on a pivotal day in the lives of these characters. We see here what for at least a century we have all known as the American Dream: a good steady union job, good benefits, a decent retirement, a trip to Atlantic City every once in a great while, a roof over our heads, our kids in school, and a good bar to hang out in a few nights a week with friends. The play, which Nottage wrote well before the 2016 election, is disturbingly prescient, hitting as it does on the disenfranchisement felt by blue collar white laborers who blame blacks and Hispanic immigrants for “taking” the jobs that are rightfully “ours,” even as their jobs are being outsourced to Mexico and beyond. The end of these union jobs leads to the downfall not only of the town’s economy but to the residents’ sense of identity. Racism, hate crime, opioid addiction, violence—all of it is here, but the decline is on a relatable human scale, in proportion to everyday American life, and stingingly painful in its inevitability.
The distance between the bar in this fictional American town to Trump Tower is probably less than 100 miles, but it may as well be another planet. And yet you know that a lot of the people in that town would have voted for Trump.
Everyone should see this play, especially white (and white collar) American liberals, the wearers of the pussy hats and the marchers in protests. I say this with love, because even without the hat, I’m one of those liberals.
And because of my little Trump exercise a few months back and seeing this play the other night—as well as my working class to middle class upbringing by my college-educated stay-at-home mom, Lynne, and a blue collar union job dad, Bernie—I think I finally get why those poor working class saps would throw in with Trump. It has to do with the way the American Dream morphed in the middle of the century. I also saw it played out on stage in the revival of Miss Saigon last Monday, as the Engineer sings “American Dream” (and what was a powerful moment alone on stage in the light devolved into humping a car and ogling show girls, and even more disturbing to me was the frenzy of applause that greeted the arrival of that car onstage). The Dream became only about money, greed, devouring, “having it all” equating not to a good job and benefits, education for our kids, going to college, and access to culture, but rather to complete autonomy. This imaginary isolationism, the new Nationalism, the desire to need no one, to include no one, to circle our wagons around “real” Americans is what killed that old Dream. What seems so obviously illusory and empty, not to mention hateful and dangerous, to people like me—white, liberal, educated, and urban—is not that at all to Trump voters.
Trump and, say, the character of Tracy in Sweat, have a lot in common: They like to feel powerful, free, and intoxicated. But take away Trump’s money and he’s a shell; take away Tracy’s union job and she’s nothing. Neither rich Trump nor working class Tracy has one curious bone in their respective bodies. They don’t read books or magazines, don’t want to know anyone outside their circle, have no compassion for others, and feel instantly threatened by change. And Trump’s “security” depends on thuggish tactics, from brutal business practices to legal threats, just as Tracy’s “security” of a union job historically depended on a Mafia to threaten the owners if they didn’t come around. The unions have no more Mob influence (and this is not a point in the play, this is me looking at history), and so the jobs go, and so too the Tracys of the world; and if Trump were to lose his shirt tomorrow, his soul would amount to a pile of watery meringue. No wonder their dominant emotion is fear.
When things don’t go the way Trump or Tracy want, they immediately assign blame to minorities and they act with violence. The difference is that a rich man like Trump will never suffer the consequences of his actions, his complacency, or his narcissism. A working class woman like Tracy will lose everything even as people just like her look to Trump for help. Trump will never notice as Tracy and her people head for addiction, prison, and destitution. (House Speaker Paul Ryan will soon call them “human waste” and treat them as less than the mud on his shoes.) “We’ll bring back jobs,” says the Right, and then they don’t, and then they say to their base, “Why are you lazy?” and the white workers point to immigrants, and the Right goes after immigrants and never bothers to bring back the jobs. Then they blame Obama. And so it goes.
So the Right Wing is about isolation and thuggishness. It’s self-interested and brutal. It’s about fear and scoring off the other guy. And no amount of luxury, no amount of benefits, will assuage that fear, because there are Others everywhere who want to take what they have.
The Left Wing—where unions used to land—is now about liberalism and togetherness. The dominant emotion is outrage. And no amount of gains in health, education, and welfare for all will assuage that outrage, because there’s another battle just around the corner.
I think it’s worth pointing out that nationalism on the Right shouldn’t be confused with self-reliance on the Left. It’s one thing to make yourself well-rounded, educated, and strong—able to grow your own food, build a house, and read books, too—and another to imagine that you really are “doing it all on your own.” Somebody grew the trees you made your house from, someone made the town where your fire station is, someone made your gun, harvested the seeds for your first planting, I could go one endlessly but please tell me you get the point. Henry David Thoreau’s mom washed his clothes, for Pete’s sake. So the very idea that there is a National We and it is self-selected for Perfection in Isolation is in no way connected with the idea of getting back to the Garden, unless your garden is paved in concrete and surrounded by armed guards marching in rhythm and pointing their rifles at your neighbors who don’t look like the American they want in the Garden.
Stopping to Help
A few weeks ago I read a piece in Esquire magazine called, “It’s the Power That Does Something to Me.” Here’s the title snip:
“[Trump] needs to drain the swamp of judges, too,” [a protestor] said. “I don’t care what he does. I’m behind him 100 percent. Put it this way: If he became a dictator, and they said, ‘We want him in forever,’ he’s my man. He’s in. I’ll never vote against him … I love his power … It’s the power that does something to me.”
It’s a deeply distressing article, not biased, just showing the people at the rally for who they are, what they feel, how they see the world and America and Trump. Reading it, I was simply beside myself with helplessness. I knew from my own little exercise up there why these sad, unemployed people were intoxicated by Trump’s power. What I don’t know how to show or tell them is what my (white liberal middle class) teacher/actor/writer self knows, which is that they would feel infinitely more satisfied not by fantasizing about Trump-style lottery wins or launching grenades at anonymous immigrants, but by having their hearts warmed and curiosity sparked by helping others, by listening to music, seeing art in a free museum, reading a good book—that the cumulative effect of loads of good human culture and walks in nature, combined with an actual job—and one poor guy who’s been unemployed said that Trump finally got him a job; that is, he was still unemployed, but now it was “just a matter of time”—would make all the difference.
Just typing that last paragraph makes me feel like a dope, because what liberals just will not understand is that not everyone needs to go to college to enjoy life, and that the liberal attitude is killing America, too. My dad had a great union job, and a hard one, as a meat cutter, and he was a high school dropout, and you have never met a man more content with his lot than Bernie O’Hara, who voted for Obama and Hillary. This nation has come to devalue not only basic manual laborers, but also highly skilled laborers such as meat cutters (just try it), plumbers, and electricians. Not only that, but also post-college degree skilled laborers such as dentists, doctors, and nurses, who are often immigrants now, to say nothing of teachers. Too many liberals seem to think that everyone should major in computer science or art history, and that nothing else in between matters, and the end result is this VOID of imagination and action when it comes to work, civics, culture, and kindness in this country.
I have no idea what to tell any of these people, right, left, or in between. We all know that it’s not possible to talk to or teach Donald Trump anything. But I still think there’s some hope for the average American, liberal or conservative.
Last week on my apparently unstoppable Broadway binge, I saw Come From Away, a musical about the town of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, population 9,000, and how it took in 38 planes and 7,000 people after the events of 9/11, since the attack meant no flying into U.S. airspace, and Gander had a huge air base mostly unused since WWII. It’s such an unlikely story, but here’s a town—one town—that stopped EVERYTHING it was doing and tended to this emergency. They just DID it. I couldn’t stop sobbing for joy. How does such goodness happen? And who on EARTH imagined it as a musical? It was perfect.
When my old colleague Mrs. Martin would hear kids arguing to the point of coming to blows, she would firmly command, “Stop.” And often they would. “Stop.” I guess if I could do anything, it would be to say to all of America, “Stop.” Just STOP. Stop it. Now: Pull yourself together. Look around. Make an effort. What needs to be accomplished? STOP. No blame, no finger pointing, no lashing out, and no drinking. What needs to be DONE in a constructive way? Look at your community. What’s missing? Jobs? What industries do you want to attract? If you are unemployed or just civic-minded, can you gather people like yourself and begin researching that? Can you write your representatives, call a town hall, and get out there? Is your community lacking cleanliness, sanitation, beauty? Can you rally the troops for a good tidying of the town? Can you please, please be of use to somebody beyond yourself? Could you do that?
I spent five years, in college and a little beyond, as a smock-wearing cashier at a local department store, a kind of early K-mart. When I graduated and became a teacher, I didn’t see pride in the eyes of many of my co-workers, people who were raising their kids on their salaries there. I saw resentment. People who were secure in themselves, like my supervisor, couldn’t have been prouder, but not so more than a few of the floor people. “Don’t forget where you came from,” they’d remark, darkly. Perhaps they were projecting onto me their own failed dreams, or their real fear of education, seeing it as something that separates us rather than unites and helps us. I see that divide in our nation still, and it will kill us. We’d better work on that.
All I wanted to do back then was to teach kids, direct plays, have a little place to live, tea to drink, books to read, and to have my health in general. Well, that and worldwide fame just for being. Pretty simple. What Donald Trump and his Trumpers don’t understand, and maybe can’t, is that most of us are pretty happy with just that sort of life—solid basics, good friends, and a little more to shoot for. But in America, we also have to do due diligence. Things fall apart when you aren’t looking. No amount of contentment comes without serious engagement, and that kind of work can be a real pain in the ass sometimes. So does it hurt to be kind to people? Does it? The only thing We, the People, have to fear really is fear itself; that, and mindlessly placing our national trust into Trump’s tiny, fumbling, greedy hands.
One thought on “Copping a Feel, or My Day as Donald Trump”
Did you realize that you were posting this on the feast of St. Joseph? I don’t think we really know much about him, but: a skilled craftsman, who raised his wife’s apparently illegitimate son as his own and, what’s more, raised him to be a good man. Most Christians, I think, tend to forget that Jesus was a human being, born with the stain of original sin, just as fallible as the rest of us. Who he grew up to be—that’s in part thanks to the man who raised him. (Not slighting Mary here, but she has quite a few feasts and solemnities, and Joseph maybe just the one. Besides, she’s gotta rest up: the Annunciation falls only 6 days later.)