BONNIE GREER on the black swan circling germophobe president Trump.
One of the first things that you learn as a scriptwriter is to keep your stories realistic. This means that your tale must be something that so-called ordinary people can grasp fairly quickly.
American scripts, no matter how fantastical, are usually rooted in recognisable situations, one that the average punter can grasp quickly. Even those great scriptwriters the Coen Brothers root their work in probable surroundings.
But we have to leave the US and turn instead elsewhere: to that great master screenwriter and playwright Dario Fo; or perhaps to the titan that was Brecht; or even closer to home, to the late, great playwright Joe Orton; to create the scenario that Donald Trump and America is in today.
Because it is these great writers who would use the tragic irony of a possible pandemic literally afflicting the presidency of a notoriously germaphobic president.
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Everyone around Trump knows that the guy is scared of germs. You have only to watch him shake hands. He extends the right hand; shakes; and then brings the hand down quickly to his side. As if he is rubbing it clean.
There are those who say that he is so afraid of contamination that he hates people coughing or sneezing in his presence.
I once saw him on TV tentatively decline to wear a cowboy hat that was handed to him from an adoring MAGA crowd. You and I usually do not put on hats handed to us by strangers, but politicians routinely do.
Trump took the hat, inspected it and said that he did not know where it came from and declined to wear it.
He also reportedly asks visitors to wash their hands in a bathroom off the Oval Office before entering his presence, and uses hand sanitiser after encountering his adoring public at campaign events. Trump even ordered the White House physician to check out then press secretary Anthony Scaramucci after he coughed on a flight on Air Force One.
In my imagined Joe Orton/Dario Fo script, Trump would order his vice president to head up a task force to tackle a viral threat. In fact, Trump did make that decision to appoint him as the guy in overall charge of mobilising the nation against coronavirus.
In giving him the task, Trump said his vice president had a “certain talent for this”. Bernie Sanders – Trump’s possible opponent in the White House race later this year – was not impressed, tweeting his criticism of the appointment of Pence, “the man who wanted to ‘pray away’ [the] HIV epidemic”.
That tweet refers to the worst HIV outbreak in the history of Indiana, which came at a time when Pence was governor of the state. That episode makes the choice of Pence as the man to deal with coronavirus, not the main character in a farce, but a real-life national tragedy. To check this out, as US football TV commentators back in the day used to yell when investigating a disputed play: “Let’s roll the tape!”
And here it is: Pence was governor of Indiana from 2013 to 2017, a time when parts of the state were struck by an HIV and hepatitis C outbreak. It was linked to the opioid crisis that has gripped large parts of America and the outbreak spread among people who were reusing needles to inject themselves with a prescription drug. (By the way, the USA’s opioid addiction is the health crisis that Trump does not speak about. Because it is the epidemic of his base: The MAGA.)
Pence was criticised for his belated response to the crisis and his opposition to a needle exchange programme that could have helped. Two years before he became governor, while serving as a member of Congress, Pence had voted to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, a not-for-profit organisation which provides reproductive health care – including free HIV testing – particularly in poor areas of the US.
In 2013, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Scott County, Indiana – one of the areas which would be at the centre of the outbreak – closed its doors because of budget cuts.
Two years ago, a study in the The Lancet medical journal found that if Pence had acted sooner, a quicker public health response could have substantially reduced the total number of Indiana’s HIV infections. What had been needed – and strongly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – was a needle exchange program. However, it was illegal under state law and opposed by Pence.
He did not believe that an effective anti-drug policy involved handing out drug paraphernalia. He also said that if Indiana state lawmakers tried to send him a bill for a needle exchange programme, he would veto it.
One more thing about Pence, the new virus-czar. In 2000, he wrote: “Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill. In fact, two out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking-related illness and nine out of 10 smokers do not contract lung cancer.”
Why, then, is he now in charge? As late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked: “What is his plan to stop the virus? Abstinence?”
In 2007, the statistician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb published a book called The Black Swan. Considered one of the most influential books since the Second World War, the term has entered the lexicon, to describe events that come as a surprise, have a major effect, and are often inappropriately rationalised afterwards with the benefit of hindsight.
The book’s subtitle is The Impact of the Highly Improbable and Taleb refers to his work as a kind of essay or a narrative with one single idea: “Our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly large deviations… You need a story to displace a story. Metaphors and stories are far more potent (alas) than ideas.”
Donald Trump is a master of stories. But what you learn as a scriptwriter is that every story has to have an arc, a journey to take the viewer on.
Every movie-goer, inside of herself, wants to have an ‘ending’. The story, to which they have devoted a piece of their life’s time to, has to either have a resolution or a sequel heading, at some point in time, to resolution.
And the resolution of Trump’s story could come this year. Because there is something else besides the tragedy and horror of the coronavirus threat facing his country: One of what I call the ‘Rules of the Presidency’ is that you should never bet the success of an administration on the health of the stock market. If the market ventures into correction territory, the Trump re-election Train, which Don the Con has been driving since a few days after his inauguration in 2017, is in big trouble.
If forecasts turn out to be true and the US economy goes seriously downhill in 2020 then Trump will be gone. If it is seen that his almost total obliteration of various health agencies is a factor behind the country’s so far shambolic response to coronavirus, it will be ‘Don Voyage’.
He will be taken out by the suburban Republican women who gave the Democrats the House at the 2018 Midterms as a check against his tyranny.
He will be cancelled by all those he gave his big tax cuts to as soon as he became president. And if those who make up his base become the victims of a virus that no one understands and that he said recently in a press conference could “disappear”, it will be he who disappears.
Trump was the 2016 presidential campaign’s Black Swan. In fact, he could turn out to be one of the greatest Black Swans of all time. It may take another Black Swan to test to destruction the Germaphobe-in-Chief’s chaotic, incompetent time behind the desk whose timbers were donated by Queen Victoria. From a ship called Resolute.