Jules Rabin: Donald Trump, stand-up, Tummler and Golem

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Jules Rabin, who came to Vermont in 1968 to teach at Goddard College and 10 years later shifted to baking bread in a wood-fired oven. He lives in Plainfield.

Donald Trump’s great fame began with his mastery of television as a means of reaching — tickling — people by the millions. He became a star performer in “The Apprentice,” with his trademark yellow cowlick and his hilarious stock phrase, “You’re fired!”, earning him almost a quarter of a billion dollars in the 11 years that the show ran, from 2004 to 2015. After which date he began his run for the presidency. Additional background he brought to his campaign for president included important work in real estate development, with sidelines in gambling casinos, beauty pageants, golf courses and wherever else in the life of pleasure he could make a dollar: “fashion apparel, jewelry and accessories, fragrance products, leather goods, steaks, wine, and chocolate bars.” (Wikipedia.) His famous small hands groped into the smallest places for deals that would turn him a profit. His favorite color is gold: door handles, faucets, his own trademark head of hair.

Trump’s keenest training for the presidency, I think, must have come out of his interactions with audiences in the TV studios where he performed his shows. With them he practiced the back-and-forth roles, from entertainer to adulators and back again, that he and they both knew and relished. Both sides, audience and entertainer, unconsciously trained for their roles by years of incessant TV-watching — practicing the cues for laughter, for groaning, for indignation, for uproar. Trump — bulky, belligerent, autocratic and supremely self-convinced — found in himself a natural gift for stirring up and receiving a form of mass adulation similar to what Mussolini had garnered and enjoyed in Fascist Italy three generations before him. Mussolini or Trump: with the crowd in ecstasy, anything, practically any improbable thing the man said became the word of salvation, in its wrappings of entertainment and adulation. (Mussolini: “He’s a Communist? A cupful of castor oil, then!”)

On a frigid night in Vermont that I remember, at the beginning of last winter, Trump drew roars of laughter from a packed auditorium, the biggest one in Burlington, when he ordered his hired guys to throw a heckler out into the street.

“But not with his coat! Don’t let him take his coat!” Trump yelled. “Let him suffer!”

That night and numerous times afterwards, Trump practiced and enlarged his language of “tar-and-feathers,” directed at hecklers and nay-sayers in the audience. “Get ’em outta here!!” he would yell, in the voice of a street-corner bully. And for his chief opponent, Hillary Clinton, time after time: “Lock her up! Lock her up!” paralleling the language of the lynch mob. All spoken with confident, jolly authority (“We’re having fun here, aren’t we?”).

Roiling and rollicking the audience like the standup comedian he is.

It’s my view that three-quarters of a century of deep immersion in the tropes of jab, repartee and ridicule, as delivered widely every day on television, prepared a great hunk of America for the apotheosis of the demagogue of our present time, Donald Trump — full-time businessman, part-time TV performer, and zero-time statesman in any zone of political life whatsoever. In his lifelong practice of “The Art of the Deal,” he learned among other things that he could substitute wisecracks and invective and ad-libs for reason, careful study, and deliberate judgment.

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Now come the terms Tummler and Golem, Yiddish words I first heard in my bilingual childhood, when my parents spoke Yiddish to us five kids, and we answered in English, with near-perfect comprehension on both sides. The Tummler, in my parents’ own old country tradition, goes back actually to at least the late 1800s, the time of my parents’ childhood. The Tummler was a paid performer, at weddings primarily, who functioned as a combination emcee and stand-up comedian. The Tummler was the guy who stirred things up, making a party out of a mere ceremony, by saying and doing outrageous things. The Tummler cavorted, verbally and bodily, he sang and danced and incited the crowd to do the same, as much as he could make them; or to at least applaud him as he cracked jokes nonstop and generally clowned around wherever he could insert himself. “Celebrate, you dolts! Celebrate! We’re having fun here, aren’t we?”

I see the legion of stand-up comedians who populate TV as present-day Tummlers. And I see Donald Trump, who doesn’t read books in his quiet evenings, but jumps around frenetically among the media to see what they’re saying about him — I see him as an accomplished student and now master of the stand-up comedian line of talk and way of being. Confirming a new turning in the political history of this country, where famous entertainers step right into the highest offices of the land: Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and now Trump.

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And the Golem?

The word “Golem” in my childhood meant simply a fool, a dolt.

I see Donald Trump, who doesn’t read books in his quiet evenings, but jumps around frenetically among the media to see what they’re saying about him — I see him as an accomplished student and now master of the stand-up comedian line of talk and way of being.

 

But in its earliest appearance, in the Old Testament, the word had a more serious meaning, as “embryo,” a thing in the first, shapeless stage of its creation. Then, jumping a few millennia, to a legend that took root in 16th-century Prague, Golem came to stand for a crude, anthropic creation made of mud, which could be animated to superhuman action when a piece of paper with appropriate words written on it, was inserted into its mouth. In the 16th century version of the legend, a Golem was created by a certain Rabbi Loew to save the Jews of Prague from destruction at the hands of anti-Semites.

Well, on the model of that myth of five centuries ago, I’ve come to think of Donald Trump as a new kind of Golem of the word, programmed to serve the orthodoxy of the extremest Republicanism of our day, and combining that service with his own ingrained businessman’s mentality, where his ideas of dealing, as in business deal, substitute for conventional ideas of statecraft and diplomacy and governance. His erratic remarks on Twitter suggest a mental gait like the clumsy gait of the late-medieval Golem as he went smashing through walls and bringing down buildings.

Shrewder Republicans may try to shut Trump up, or at least curb his vulgar, wacko speech. But they suffer him to go on, while they keep their fingers crossed, because he’s their own too-good-to-be-true Golem, a larger-than-life character who, thanks to the reigning political weirdness, can break through stone walls and topple skyscrapers of political convention. And with the taste and judgment of a large fraction of the populace made spongy by exposure to 60 solid years of TV natter (that’s my personal biased view), he’s the best device, the best Golem they ever could have imagined themselves in possession of.

“If only he wouldn’t blab every crazy thing that pops into his head … ” That worries them, the devout Republicans who use him to the full, and who fear that one day he’ll say or do that one dreadful thing too much, and so give the game away.

But “saying too much,” or nearly so, is the name of Trump’s game. So many little slips of paper have gone into and out of that big mouth of his.

And … so far, so good (nearly) … for him and for the Republican pack who will ride him as long as they can, and dare to. Afterwards, the word “Trump” may come to mean a spent balloon, or the tatters of a burst one.

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