At eight o’clock Monday morning, Rudy Giuliani was already on television talking all manner of nonsense on behalf of his client Donald Trump.
In a full-court press that seemed calculated to make our eyes pop nearly as often as his, Giuliani declared it was incumbent on Robert Mueller to explain a tweet from the president referencing a conflict of interest that should have led the special counsel to recuse.
What conflict? Giuliani didn’t say. Ask Mueller.
“Why should he have to explain Trump’s tweets?” CNN’s Alisyn Camerota replied. “Because he has the conflict,” Giuliani explained in the slightly impatient tone of someone forced to say something obvious we’ve come to expect whenever he says something manifestly untrue, idiotic, or both.
The purpose of Monday’s interviews seemed to be to square his previous comments about Trump fixer-turned-foe Michael Cohen, whom at one point Monday America’s mayor called “Bob.”
Earlier this summer, Giuliani had praised Cohen as “honest.” Now he was calling him a liar. Asked about this shift, Giuliani babbled that “George Washington would have said that about Benedict Arnold at a certain point in time.” As for the president? Cohen had betrayed Trump “like Iago betrayed Othello and Brutus put the last knife into Caesar.”
Actually, Iago doesn’t so much betray Othello as he sets out to destroy him: There’s no question of loyalty or fidelity, so there’s no element of Iago turning on Othello, as Trump clearly feels Cohen is doing.
Nor does Iago ever betray Othello in the sense of “ratting him out,” as Cohen seems to be threatening to do to Trump. What Iago does, essentially, is to prank Othello into ruination. By means of an elaborate series of lies and deceptions, Othello is duped into committing a soul-destroying act with permanent consequences. So the Othello comparison doesn’t really hold up.
Still, it was amusing to hear the bone-spurs president likened to two consummate soldiers, The Moor of Venice and the dictator who brought about the end of the Roman Republic.
It was interesting to me to hear Trump’s lawyer invoke Othello, particularly the morning after watching the third episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America?
On my bedside table is a book that I took down not long after the 2016 election that contains an essay in which the poet W.H. Auden analyzes the character of Iago in terms of the figure of “the practical joker.” There are, Auden argues, two types of pranksters in the world, both of whom disrupt the normal convention that makes social interaction possible: the idea that, absent some reason, we can rely on people who tell us something to be speaking the truth.
If a stranger tries to sell me shares in a gold mine, I shall be a fool if I do not check up on his statements before parting with my money; and if another tells me that he has talked with little men who came out of a flying saucer, I shall assume that he is crazy. But if I ask a stranger the way to the station, I shall assume that his answer is truthful to the best of his knowledge, because I cannot imagine what motive he could have for misdirecting me.
Common sense and experience prepare us for the mountebank and the madman. What nothing prepares us for is the prankster, the person who lies and dissembles for no apparent reason. That there are such amoral people, and that Iago is one, is the proposition that Auden sets out to explore.
The first type of practical joker Auden describes is one whose purpose is to expose “some flaw in society which is a hindrance to a real community or brotherhood.”
He references a number of characters in Shakespeare who have baroque tricks played on them and the friends and associates who punk them with playacting. (Think of Falstaff and Malvolio, who would be pranked into self-knowledge if they were better people.)
In fact, though, Auden seems too to be eerily anticipating our own satirist prankster, for this, surely, is what Sacha Baron Cohen is doing when he gulls a sitting or would-be legislator into doing or saying something that should surpass belief—into, say, literally exposing himself while he shouts obscenities and racist abuse.
He is, in Auden’s words, “de-intoxicating them from their illusions” while, at the same time, unmasking the venality and stupidity that leads us to put our government into the hands of these stupid and venal men. Sacha Baron Cohen, with his playacting and his elaborate schemes of moral revelation, is arguably a bit of an Iago.
But it’s the second class of “practical joker” Auden defines that sent me back to this essay, one in whom the impulse to deceive is not purposeful but chronic, who cannot interact with people without manipulating them or dissembling in some way. This kind of fraudster makes fools of people not in order to teach a moral lesson but because it’s the only way he can feel alive.
The success of the practical joker depends upon his accurate estimate of the weaknesses of others, their ignorances, their social reflexes, their unquestioned presuppositions, their obsessive desires… But, in most cases, behind the joker’s contempt for others lies something else, a feeling of self-insufficiency, of a self lacking in authentic feelings and desires of its own. The normal human being may have a fantastic notion of himself, but he believes in it… The practical joker despises his victims, but at the same time he envies them because their desires, however childish and mistaken, are real to them, whereas he has no desire which he can call his own. His goal, to make game of others, makes his existence absolutely dependent upon theirs; when he is alone, he is a nullity.
If anyone in the Trump universe resembles Iago it is not the slow-talking, mouth-breathing Cohen, the “fixer” stooge, but Trump himself, the huckster politician. Like Iago, Trump is forever brooding over some perceived injury or injustice—on the part of the press, the Democrats, the Mexicans, the liberals, the FBI, the people from “shithole countries” who want to come here. Like Iago he is perpetually at war with a world that perversely fails to appreciate his value and worth. And, like Iago, Trump interacts with others almost entirely for the purpose of causing strife, whether among his staff or the electorate.
And just as Iago—and Richard III, for that matter—enact scenes in which they invent scenarios and speak in voices quite unlike their own, Trump stages pageants: on a grand scale at his campaign rallies, and in a sort of mega-miniature on Twitter, some days speaking in his own untempered words in his own unmodulated voice, and at other times handing off his Twitter account to people who manage to sound more like a grown-up and are able to vary their sentence structure and tone.
One of the points that Auden makes in his essay on Iago (it’s called “The Joker in the Pack”) is that unlike the criminal, whose deception can never be revealed, the joker lives to reveal his malfeasance.
What distinguishes his actions from those of the criminal is that, even when they have something tangible to gain, this is a secondary satisfaction; their primary satisfaction is the infliction of suffering on others, or the exercise of power over others against their will.
He cannot truly prove his genius and power without letting his victims know that they have been duped. I think we’ve come to the point, now, where the conversations and arguments that have been our national pastime for so long—about Trump’s motives, his actions, the intent and impulses behind his words, his state of mind, his state of health, and the degree to which he is or is not phenomenally smart or phenomenally stupid—are winding down. No one cares anymore. We just want it to be over.
Trump actually spans both kinds of fraud-monger. He isn’t a moralist or a satirist, but he’s both a criminal and the sort of prankster who lies and deceives because it’s the only way he has of relating to other people. So there’s a part of him that wants to get away with what he does and a part that wants people to know how much he’s gotten away with.
That’s the tension we’re all seeing and feeling, the wild inconsistencies in his behavior from one day to the next. It’s hard, very hard, not knowing which side will win out.