Lenny Bruce was a “sick comic” from the 1950s and early 1960s who was arrested for drugs and obscenity and was appealing a four-month jail sentence when he died in 1965. He was a genius. One of his bits, about a comic who plays the London Palladium, perfectly sums up what has happened to Donald Trump in the fall election. (Click on the link to hear it.) It’s about Frank Dell, a third-rate comic who plays Las Vegas lounges, but who tells his agent he wants to play a “class room” like the London Palladium. The agent tries to discourage him, but Dell insists — “I’m going to murder these people” – and the agent gets him booked there.
Dell goes on stage after a torch singer has wrapped the audience in her hands, and he totally bombs. He finally starts insulting the audience. Afterwards, in his dressing room, the Palladium’s booker suggests that he take the next boat back to America. “You had quite a grim crowd out there, didn’t you,” he says. Dell begs him for another chance. “This is it for me, this isn’t Toledo, this is across the ocean,” he says. And the booker gives in, and Dell comes back the next night.
He comes on again after the torch singer, who has the audience sobbing over the “poor boys who went to Dunkirk and never came back.” He bombs again. He is sweating and nervous. Finally, exasperated, he says, “All rights folks, Screw Ireland, folks. How about that. Screw the Irish. What do you say about that?” A heckler in the audience shouts out, “That is the funniest thing you’ve said all night. Screw the Irish, Screw Ireland.” People start screaming “Screw the Irish.” A riot starts taking place, and Dell is ushered off the stage. This time the booker won’t take no for an answer. Dell has to get on a boat and leave the country. “There is a difference in not getting laughs and changing the architecture of the theater,” the booker tells him.
OK, change Dell to Trump, change the Las Vegas lounges that Dell plays to the Republican primary, and change the Palladium theater to the general election. Think of Trump, exasperated, bombing in the polls, exposed as a sexual predator, shouting “Screw the Irish” as a last futile attempt to garner support. Trump doesn’t care anymore about votes, just as Dell had given up caring about getting laughs. He wants a reaction, and he gets one. People screaming “Lock her up.” It has come to that. Some people worry that after he loses in November, Trump will remain a large political figure and will transform the Republican party in his image. It’s not going to happen. After November, Trump, like Dell, will be ushered out of town and back to the sleazy demimonde that he had inhabited before he had tried to succeed in the “class room” of a presidential election.
John B. Judis is Editor-At-Large at Talking Points Memo. He was a senior editor of The New Republic and senior writer for The National Journal. He is the author most recently of The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (Columbia Global Reports, 2016). He has written six other books, including Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origin of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014), The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (Scribner, 2004), The Emerging Democratic Majority with Ruy Teixeira (Scribner, 2002), and The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and Betrayal of Public Trust (Pantheon, 2000). He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, and The Washington Post. Born in Chicago, he received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.