I don’t know why I didn’t see it before—perhaps it took a Hitler comparison to really hammer the point home—but I’ve found the perfect reference point for the bizarro performance art that is the Trump presidential campaign. Indeed, it’s so obvious there’s really no way around it.
Donald Trump is The Producers come to life.
Y’all know The Producers. A 1968 film and a 2001 musical, Mel Brooks’ masterpiece of lunacy is the story of a washed-up Broadway kingpin, Max Bialystock, who schemes to put on the most unwatchable, offensive Broadway musical ever produced—a show guaranteed to close in one night, enabling Bialystock to pocket his investors’ money without ever needing to pay it back.
As an elaborate act of fraud, this teeters on the edge between ingenious and completely nuts. In any case, it shows real gumption on Bialystock’s part—a level of greed and hunger, at once spectacular and pathetic, of which we can only stand in awe.
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
Whenever any prominent public figure runs for high office, we more or less take it as read that he really means it—that he genuinely (if misguidedly) thinks he could win and is prepared to assume the awesome responsibilities of the office should he succeed.
We do not generally presume, for instance, that a quasi-serious presidential candidate would run for purely mercenary reasons—a drawn-out charade to make an extra few (million) bucks. True, virtually all candidates tend to release a book upon entering the race—in America, there is always a profit to be made somewhere—but we nonetheless grant them their sincerity. After all, considering what an epic headache the whole electoral process is, what kind of lunatic would dive in just for the hell of it?
A lunatic named Trump, that’s who.
Look: None of us can prove that Donald Trump doesn’t take his own candidacy seriously and that his play for the White House is nothing more than a means of feeding his planet-sized ego before he ultimately tiptoes out the back door—say, a few hours prior to the Iowa caucuses. Nor can we prove that he doesn’t actually give a damn about the wellbeing of the Republican Party or, for that matter, the country as a whole. Or that he is, in fact, a secret Democratic Party mole who is actively sabotaging the GOP’s chances of ever winning another presidential election.
We don’t know any of these things for sure. All we can say—and we might as well—is that if Donald Trump were a Democratic double agent sent in to destroy the GOP from within, the resulting blast would look almost exactly like what’s going on right now.
After all, this was supposed to be the year the Republican Party would make nice with various racial and ethnic minority groups. The year the party’s mythical “big tent” would expand to include enough non-white voters to actually carry a national election in our increasingly non-white society.
This being the case, what better result could the Democrats hope for than a GOP standard-bearer who is so fanatically hostile towards those very folks—Hispanics and Muslims most of all—that he has undertaken a one-man crusade to literally banish them from the country? A guy who has effectively taken one look at these potential electoral converts and said, “Go screw yourselves.”
It would all make perfect sense if Trump were a fictional character dreamed up in a laboratory at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Or—more plausibly—if, like Max Bialystock, he were deliberately self-sabotaging as part of a ruse to reap maximum benefits while assuming minimal responsibility—that is, enjoying the perks of running for president without the complications of actually being president.
In any case, Trump is plainly a slow-motion catastrophe for the GOP, which brings us to the most Producers-like component of this whole ridiculous story: The fact that Trump’s methods have managed to backfire in every conceivable way. No matter how insane his candidacy becomes, he just can’t seem to lose.
In the Mel Brooks film, of course, the show that Bialystock and his accountant, Leo Bloom, decide to produce is a neo-Nazi valentine to the Third Reich by the name of Springtime for Hitler. In New York City of all places—an oasis of liberalism, Judaism and highbrow artistic tastes—nothing could be more toxic than an unironic paean to the good old days of the SS and Aryan supremacy.
The punch line, then, is that Bialystock’s audience members—more jaded and sophisticated than he gives them credit for—take Springtime for Hitler as a big, bold farce and laugh themselves halfway into next week. As a result, the show is a smashing success and Bialystock finds himself on the precipice of financial ruin.
Candidate Trump is certainly a farce in his own right—a galling, topsy-turvy perversion of reality with bottomless comedic potential—except that the foundation of his surprising success is precisely the opposite of Bialystock’s: Trump is winning because his audience can’t see through the façade. Even as his whole shtick is essentially an Onion article that’s gotten out of hand, his supporters take him deadly seriously and think his ideas about mass deportation and religious persecution are just swell. The more outrageous his public statements become, the higher he rises in the polls.
It begs the question: Is there not a limit to Trumpism, after all? If his slurs against Mexicans, women, prisoners of war, the disabled and now Muslims have failed to do him in, is there anything that will? What is left for him to say that could feasibly erode his evidently bulletproof base of support?
The Springtime for Hitler connection is apt: If you behave vaguely like a fascist dictator and still can’t get your fans to hate you—all the while being explicitly compared to the Führer in the press and apparently not minding it—then the crazy train can no longer be routed back to the station. It’s going over the bridge and into the ravine, and that’s all there is to it.
Back in July, the actual Onion ran a story titled, “Admit It: You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?” At that point, Trump was still a novelty item whose popularity, however surprising, was nothing to get too alarmed about, because we knew that somebody in that field would put him in his place.
Now that all of those assurances about Trump’s eventual collapse have proved false—or at least supremely premature—we onlookers have little choice but to morbidly peek our eyes through our fingers until this horror show finally plays itself out.
While we can sleep easy knowing that both history and statistics show that a Trump nomination—let alone a Trump presidency—is the longest of long shots, we can plunge ourselves right back into panic and despair over the likelihood that, should Trump manage to shame and disgrace himself all the way to the White House, he, like us, won’t have the slightest idea how he got there.