In Robert Askins’ award-winning play, “Hand to God,” currently performed by the Fusion company at the Cell Theater in Albuquerque, three teenagers who cannot articulate their misery and anger speak through puppets, while two equally sad adults, lacking puppets, try, and fail, to speak through sex. Perhaps the moral is that we all need our puppets; in one way or another, we all have our puppets.
This skillfully told and professionally acted story reminds me of the plot of our bizarre presidential campaign, where angry and forlorn Americans (the ones President Nixon and Vice President Agnew labeled the silent majority) have found their voice though Donald Trump.
Trump has been denounced as a puppet master, manipulating the white underclass for political gain. Instead, I see Trumpers—like the adolescent Larry in “Hand to God” (beautifully characterized by Isaac Christie)—as the puppet masters and Trump as the puppet. They are using this skilled entertainer to voice their inarticulate needs.
Hillary Clinton got into a world of hurt last week when she described many of these Trumpers as a “basket of deplorables.” Although as a sound bite, the memorable phrase is an ill-considered and intemperate attack on millions of Americans, the entire quotation in context is better reasoned. Here it is:
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
“But the other basket, the other basket, and I know because I see friends from all over America here. I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas, as well as you know New York and California. But that other basket of people who are people who feel that government has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they are just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroine, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”
Seen as a whole, the statement is still patronizing and unwise, but it makes sense: Trump is the vehicle for a silent protest against an unjust society and an unfair economy.
When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, he got into hot water over a similar statement:
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
This rhetoric about the persecuted and putdown white male underclass is not the private property of Obama and Trump and Clinton. For centuries it has been the territory of the likes of George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Joe McCarthy, Douglas MacArthur, Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Willliam Jennings Bryan, Aaron Burr and on and on and on. It is, as Rap Brown said of violence in a famous 1967 rant, “as American as cherry pie.”
Mass psychoanalysis is dangerous territory for a politician. Politicians are better off criticizing their opponents than those who would vote for them. When politicians try their hand at diagnosing manias, they treat people with a broad and undifferentiated brush.
Artists like Askins do it better because they look not at the masses but at individuals, and if you want to see an individual’s peculiar psychosis as a metaphor for mass madness, that’s your affair. So we turn to plays and movies and novels, not political campaigns, to explain human behavior. Two such recently published books, “I Am No One” by Patrick Flannery and “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere” by John Gregory Brown, cleverly show how our society can drive ordinary men mad when they feel isolated, alone and persecuted.
The 2001 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon launched America on another kind of psychosis. Remembering and memorializing that tragedy last weekend, President Obama cited a passage of scripture: “Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you. Bind them around your neck. Write them on the table of your heart.”
In this, too, I see a lesson. We are one country; despite our diversity, one people. We need to act like it. This has always been a sink-or-swim society, but the water is rising higher than ever and even many swimmers are sinking to the bottom. That is no way to run a country.
For those who wish to see “Hand to God,” which was nominated for five Tony awards after a nine-month Broadway run last year, go to fusionnm.org or call 766-9412. The play runs through Sept. 23 at the Cell, 700 1st St. NW in Downtown Albuquerque, with a pay-what-you-will performance Sept. 24 at the KiMo Theater, 421 Central Ave. NW.