I am disappointed and chastened not to have seen the truth of the matter. It’s the only rational explanation.
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IS DONALD TRUMP REALLY JUST ANDY KAUFMAN IN DISGUISE? AN INVESTIGATION.-Zach Schoenfeld
This is a weird theory, but bear with me: Donald J. Trump is Andy Kaufman wearing a disguise.
Forget the logistical obstacles. Ignore the temporal and practical impossibilities: that Andy Kaufman died of lung cancer in 1984, that Trump has a life story far predating Kaufman’s career, that the two men bear little physical resemblance, that Trump’s wives and children haven’t let slip a word about the ruse. Just consider that the GOP presidential nominee is a character invented and, with characteristically unflinching dedication, performed by the performance artist Andy Kaufman. It’s simple. Einhorn is Finkle. Finkle is Einhorn. Trump is Kaufman.
The theory is nuts. So is the fact that it has exploded into a de facto refrain during the 15 months the orange-haired mogul has spent as a presidential candidate. It is a conspiracy theory. It is a rationalization. It is a defense mechanism. Trump says something appalling? “Ha-ha! Andy Kaufman sure is getting us good,” you reassure yourself. Trump’s about to appear onstage at the Republican National Convention? “Andy will finally take the Trump mask off now,” you mumble to your cat. Trump wins the election and moves into the White House? You squirm. “How far is this gag gonna go?”
Though the idea predates the present election–comedian John Mulaney tweeted that Trump is Kaufman in 2012 but doesn’t remember what sparked it–it has achieved remarkable prominence in 2016. There are memes and Photoshopped images depicting the late Kaufman grinning as he holds up a mask of Trump’s face. (He seems to be saying, “Gotcha!”) There is a satirical news story, published on the website Stubhill News, imagining Trump announcing that he was “actually Andy Kaufman the whole time.” And during the summer, as the Republican National Convention unleashed a new season of Trump Theorization Syndrome, Don Cheadle changed his Twitter avatar to an illustration of Kaufman stepping out of a full Trump bodysuit.
The Kaufman theory hinges on the notion that Trump’s bid for the presidency is so outlandish–the gaffes, the boasts about penis size, the policy reversals and white nationalist overtures–that it must surely be performance art. More specifically, the work of Andy Kaufman, an idiosyncratic figure who yanked performance art in bizarre, unprecedented directions, whether he was impersonating an incompetent comedian known as Foreign Man or pretending to revive an elderly lady who feigned a heart attack on his stage.
Adherents of the Trump-Kaufman Hypothesis vary in their seriousness (and looniness). Erik Vance, a 40-year-old science writer based in Mexico City, was among the first to champion the Kaufman connection. He articulated the theory in detail months before Trump declared his candidacy. It was September 2014. Vance was disturbed by Trump’s “ignorant babble” about the dangers of vaccines. “I remember thinking, `This guy has got to be pulling our legs,'” Vance says. “I’d seen Man on the Moon a while before. I just started thinking about other people who mess with us.” His brain landed on Andy Kaufman; Trump’s demeanor suddenly reminded him of Kaufman’s more abrasive characters. So he took a Trumpian leap of logic. “What evidence is there that they’re not the same person?
“All you gotta do is watch one Tony Clifton video and you realize, this is Trump!” Vance raves. “He’s saying these audacious horrible things that he’s not serious about, but he doesn’t care! It’s just one big joke for him. And it’s brilliant. You watch Donald Trump and you can’t help but think, `No one can think this stuff!’ I imagine Trump going home at night and putting on a beret and listening to Rachmaninoff and discussing postmodern theory.”
A year and a half later–shortly before Trump sealed up the Republican nomination–a retired Brigham Young professor named Eric Samuelsen wrote his own blog post musing that Trump is really Kaufman.
“What makes it plausible is the sort of huge pranks that Kaufman loved,” says Samuelsen, 60, a longtime Kaufman fan. “He loved pulling stuff like that. He made up his entire feud with Jerry Lawler.” Trump’s campaign, Samuelsen observes in his essay, “is precisely similar to Kaufman’s comedy.” The overarching idea is the same as Vance’s, though more overtly tongue in cheek. And Samuelsen speculates that someone had the real Trump killed, while Vance suggests that there was no real Trump–this was a character created by Kaufman all along.
TRUMP-KAUFMAN TRUTHERS ARE KIDDING–mostly. But as with other ostensibly crackpot theories–aliens built Stonehenge, or the CIA masterminded the Kennedy assassination–this one persists because it has the capacity to explain so much about so much that cannot be explained. These theories catch on because they contain some trace of an elusive truth. It’s the pseudo-intellectual’s version of “I can’t believe this isn’t The Onion.”
Among the pundit class, Trump’s unhinged campaign has sprouted dozens of unlikely theories: that he is deliberately trying (and failing) to sabotage his own campaign, that he might win the election but refuse to take office, that he is only really after revenge, that he is only really after TV ratings, that he might choose his daughter Ivanka as his vice presidential pick, that his whole campaign is just a wild scheme to launch Trump TV. (Hillary Clinton has been subject to outlandish theories of her own, like the recent right-wing charges that she’s gravely ill or being played by a body double.)
If these notions are within the realm of plausibility, why not Kaufman? The elemental insight here is that Trump’s campaign works as exquisite satire, whether he intends it or not. The man has successfully exposed pundits as pompous charlatans laughably removed from the average voter. He has wreaked havoc on the news media’s obsession with false equivalence. He has stripped bare the bigotry undergirding the immigration debate. And, most of all, he’s spotlighted the moral bankruptcy of the GOP itself–hence the spectacle of Paul Ryan denouncing Trump’s attack on a federal judge as the “textbook definition” of racism while declining to withdraw his endorsement. “It’s a very bizarre election season,” says Vance, “and it feels almost scripted by some sort of comic genius.”
So the Kaufman conspiracy succeeds by patching together two theories that already have widespread traction: (A) that Kaufman faked his own death and (B) that Trump’s campaign is a gag with a punchline. Theory B has been championed by Last Week Tonight host John Oliver, who recently implored Trump to drop out and reveal that his candidacy was a satirical stunt all along. This is the one way for Trump, faced with the prospect of a humiliating defeat by Clinton, to redeem himself: “If you drop out in order to teach America a lesson, you would not be a loser,” Oliver urged. “You would be a legend.”
The comedian Elayne Boosler says she has seen the Trump-Kaufman joke all over. (Boosler dated Kaufman for several years, lived with him in the Village and later credited him with inspiring her own career.) “I think it’s a great tribute to Andy that a character such as Trump is credited to him,” Boosler wrote in an email. “Like Andy’s creations, Trump boggles the mind in such a way that leaves people saying, `This can’t be for real.’ In a performance artist, that is genius. In a presidential candidate, it’s unimaginable.”
Though he took glee in toying with his audience’s emotions, Boosler noted, Kaufman made sure fans were safe and let them in on the joke eventually. There was an intensity and a mischievousness about him, but also a sweetness. “I think people want Trump to be Andy, just to feel that now.” What Boosler is saying, I think, is that Kaufman would not burn the world down for the sake of a gag. Others aren’t sure. “Andy just never gave up,” says Abel. “He always went forward. Just damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.” As for the Trump theory, “I think it’s a hilarious possibility. And it makes a lot of sense. Every time Donald opens his mouth, it’s Andy Kaufman.”
For disciples of Kaufman’s Clifton character, the Republican nominee’s mannerisms are familiar. “When Trump walked onstage at the GOP convention, he looked like Tony Clifton to me,” says Kaufman’s brother, who has also played the Clifton character. “There was something about his walk and his stature, demeanor. Before he ever said a word, just walking to the stand to speak, I said, ‘Wow. Tony Clifton.’… It’s the personality that the wrestler has and Tony Clifton has–Trump reminds people of that, I think.”
Fans have spotted other parallels between Clifton and Trump. “Their attitudes towards women are probably along the same lines,” says Vance, the science writer. Plus, there’s the swagger, the aggravated New Yorky accent.
“He’s got the pucker–the lips,” Vance adds. “He puckers up. I can’t believe someone hasn’t gotten rid of that with Donald. He’s got that pucker that’s exactly like Tony Clifton. Tony Clifton’s got terrible hair. But I think Donald’s got him beat on that. Just the brashness and the doubling down. If you ever watch Kaufman being Clifton, he doubles down. He’ll say something and then anger people [and] he’ll just double down. It’s really funny when he’s onstage.” Vance considers the present situation. “I guess it’s less funny now.”
Kaufman’s old friend Parinello is now an impassioned Trump supporter. Though he insists Kaufman had several un-Trumpian qualities (“There wasn’t a moment in Andy’s life when he cared about money–it just was totally irrelevant to him”), he sees lots of commonality. “Andy Kaufman and Donald Trump are two of the boldest human beings to ever exist on this world,” he insists. “That is no Hillary Clinton.” Of course, Clinton’s pitch to voters is rooted in her competence and stability–not exactly Kaufman-like qualities. She could probably run on the slogan “I Am Definitely Not Andy Kaufman” and soundly win.
Others compare Trump to Kaufman’s embattled wrestler character, who would challenge women onstage and offer them $1,000 to beat him. “On the campaign trail, Donald has been playing a very specific role from professional wrestling called the heel,” observes Bob Arctor, a Kaufman fan who never met the man. The heel is basically the villain. “And Andy loved being the heel. He loved feeding off all that violent, hateful energy…. I sincerely believe he would have adored Trump’s performance throughout this election cycle.”
This wording is curious: It’s not politics. It’s performance. Trump ought not win the White House so much as he should win an Emmy. Like Kaufman, he has vastly more experience in the entertainment sphere than in politics. In future decades, theorists will perhaps single out his nomination as the first postmodern bid for the presidency: He is not so much running for president as he is performing and contorting what it means to be a presidential candidate. (For best effect, read this line in a Slavoj Žižek voice.)
But the Kaufman conspiracy is all fantasy. Trump is real. He has the boyhood photos to prove it. His father, Fred Trump, was building supermarkets pre-World War II. “It’s preposterous that people would actually think it’s true,” Michael Kaufman insists. And what’s also real is that Trump–or Kaufman as Trump, or Tony Clifton or whomever–could very well take the oath of office on January 20, and his xenophobic proclamations won’t be conceptual art. They will be state-sanctioned policy.
The sheer joy of an Andy Kaufman performance is that you have no idea what might happen. The sheer horror of a Trump presidency, for the overwhelming swath of the country that loathes him, is that you have no idea what might happen. So saying he’s just Kaufman is a goofy reassurance. It’s a way to ascribe meaning to a world without meaning, a world as chaotic and unpredictable as the grammatical decisions in a Trump tweet.
“If this whole thing were a joke, I think there would be a lot of nervous but relieved laughter across the world,” Vance says. He chuckles. “We should be so lucky.”
“We should be so lucky.”