Did you notice the lack of televised audience reaction shots during President Donald Trump’s recent 12 day Asian sojourn? Perhaps it was because someone in Trump’s inner circle caught the bewildered looks on the faces of seasoned ambassadors and heads of state during his September speech at the United Nations. They were so shocked by what they were witnessing that the scene resembled one of those hidden-camera-in-the-audience advertisement for a horror movie. All that was missing were the sounds of the screams.
Behind those appalled gazes was also a genuine puzzlement about President Trump’s bombastic manner, zeal for self-promotion and oft-hyperbolic language. Who is this person, they must have wondered, and how can one possibly relate to him.
Perhaps I can help.
See, like Trump, I am a born-and-bred New Yorker. (And that’s about all we have in common.) One thing we lifelong NYC dwellers can recognize in each other is our local influences. Like how we can tell a Yankee fan from a Met aficionado or a Bronx resident from a Brooklynite or a city native from a transplant. Pardon the New York arrogance but we just know.
With this President, what impacted him can be broken down to two areas: playgrounds and sitcoms.
Let’s first deal with the latter. Trump’s adoration of television has been well-documented. It was the reality show “The Apprentice” which catapulted him to national prominence. (It also enabled him to expand his Trump brand into clothing, food and education.) In fact, it was on the NBC program that the real estate magnate honed his professional and future political persona as a no-nonsense powerful wheeler-dealer. His authoritative shtick was summarized in his catchphrase “You’re fired.” Flanked by two advisers, it was Trump alone who was the final arbiter of his prospective employee’s fate and he delivered those two words with an executioner’s glee.
Before “The Apprentice,” we New Yorkers knew Trump as “The Donald,” a vigorous self-promoter who was a regular in the tabloid press and on television shows. In fact, his flamboyant persona seemed straight out of a Big Apple set sitcom. Now, we’re not talking postmodern shows like the fashionista “Sex And The City” or the mumblecore “Girls.” Nor are we referring to the neurotic classic “Seinfeld.” We’re not even talking about the revolutionary “All In The Family.” (Although the similarities between Trump and Archie Bunker – both from Queens and both, ahem, rather opinionated about folk from assorted ethnic and religious backgrounds – is way too close for comfort.)
No, we’re talking about sitcoms from the ‘50s. Shows like “Sgt. Bilko” and “The Honeymooners.” These were programs starring urban comedians like Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers playing brash hucksters with outsize personalities who constantly concoct elaborate get-rich-quick schemes. Sound familiar? Is it possible these hit shows – constantly replayed in the NYC area since their debut – might have had an effect on the now seventy-one year old leader of the free world? That these black & white classics starring grandiloquent performers might have influenced a man who prefers to put things into black & white terms?
Both Gleason and Silvers originally made their professional names as nightclub insult comics which is a skill they – like many of us city folk – picked up in the playground. Today’s battle rapping and/or roasting has its antecedents in a game called “the dozens.” Simply put, two people trade funny, insolent one-liners. When I was a kid growing up in the ‘70s, we called it “snapping.” The more outrageous the snap, the greater the laugh. This is a rite of passage every New York kid regardless of race, religion or social strata has undergone – whether willingly or not – in every city and school playground for generations. Forget the art of the deal. This is a town whose citizens pride themselves on the art of the comeback. Grandparents will lovingly tell their grandchildren about the time they told their boss off and got a big laugh from their co-workers and so on. This is what we real New Yorkers do.
So when Trump is calling North Korea’s Kim Yong Un ‘Rocket Man,” Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary” or Al Franken “Frankenstein,” he’s just playing a game he’s played for decades. It’s that same playground mindset that propels him to insinuate that the women who’ve accused him of sexual assault are too unattractive for him to ever commit such a heinous act. (Tellingly, his verbal vituperation is quickly followed by that age-old huckster’s plea to “believe me.”)
And now thanks to Twitter, he can insult senators like New York’s Charles Schumer “Cryin’ Chuck,” Texas’s Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted” or Tennessee’s Bob Corker “Liddle Bob” without fear of an immediate comeback. (Or mention of his propensity for alliteration, misspellings and/or dropped ‘g’s.) Call it ‘the sixes,’ and today’s technology has allowed the American President to trade in one-way insult tirades. What we should all worry about is when Trump finally elicits a response, just how big is that motherfuckin’ snap gonna be?