In one of the more startling twists of his meandering career, the serially bankrupt Donald Trump is trying to settle a debt. All the contractors he’s allegedly stiffed down the decades won’t be amused, but the debt he is currently paring down is the one to stand-up comedy.
Politically, he owes it everything. It was Barack Obama’s set at the 2011 White House correspondents’ dinner that transformed him from posturing birtherist dilettante into seriously ambitious candidate.
While Obama subjected Trump to a brutally hilarious public shaming, every eye in the room was trained on Trump as his face turned from default tangerine to electric crimson.
At the time, this was assumed to be the hue of ultimate embarrassment. But with hindsight, it was the authentic colour of vengeful rage. That was the moment, so many believe, he decided to become President and punish Obama by undoing everything Trump’s predecessor had done.
Trump has spent more than a year chasing that dream, with attempts of varying success: removing the US from the Paris climate change treaty and Iranian nuclear deal, repealing healthcare legislation, keeping Obama’s fellow Moo-slims out of the country and transgenders out of the military; etc etc.
Now Trump acknowledges his debt by concentrating on his comedy stylings. The early feedback from his two weekend performances – one in private to Republican donors in Florida, the other at a Washington charity dinner – suggests that he is no match for his predecessor yet. But hey, it’s still the earliest of doors.
Admittedly, the habit of laughing at, rather than with, Trump is so embedded that it can be tricky to discern whether he is intending to be funny. A line he used in Washington – “Nobody does self-deprecating humour better than I do” – obviously reads like a joke. But then so does “I love the poorly educated” at a campaign rally, and he wasn’t joking there.
This ambiguity became more alarming when he turned his geopolitical antennae to the East. After a classic about Little Rocket Man (“I won’t rule out direct talks with Kim Jong-un. As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that’s his problem, not mine”), he addressed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s scrapping of the country’s constitutional term limits in his own interests.
“He’s now President for life,” said Trump. “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.” Let’s hope he was speaking in jest; solace for anyone depressed that he has, at most, almost seven more years left. If he can repeal the 22nd Amendment, which restricts a President to two terms, a man in such uniquely tremendous health could easily do a Mugabe, and stay in power deep into his nineties.
Scrapping a constitutional amendment is not easy. It requires a two-thirds majority in both Congressional houses, followed by a vote in favour from three-quarters of the 50 states. Trump would probably have to nuke all the solidly Democratic coastal states.
But stranger things happen – and one may be happening right now in Italy. With his far right allies, Silvio Berlusconi, the proto-Trump from the House of Bunga Bunga, is predicted (at the mid-vote time of writing) to emerge from 2018’s general election with the most seats.
It might have helped the Italian electorate if only there was a recent guide to the dangers of electing a mega-narcissist and closet baldie billionaire businessman with a sparkling track record in sexual scandal and tax tactics.
No such precedent exists, however, and there is a chance that the 81-year-old will regain power (albeit exercised through a proxy, the former PM having been banned from public office after a tax fraud conviction in 2013).
“Sloppy” Steve Bannon – victim of another Trump zinger on Saturday (“He leaks more than the Titanic”) – is in Rome to observe what he foresees as another “populist revolt”.
The prospect of a Berlusconi restoration won’t get a big laugh in Brussels. The collective sigh of relief when Angela Merkel finally clinched her coalition in Germany will turn to a yelp of panic. But it would be a bounteous gift to satirists, so swings and roundabouts there.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin – not the leader to satirise openly unless free-form diving down muscovite lift shafts is your sport – announced he will run for another term this year. One suspects he may squeak it.
With Putin indefinitely in the Kremlin, Berlusconi potentially pulling the strings in Rome, Xi ensconced for life in Beijing, Merkel unshiftable in Berlin and a scion of the Family Kim playing with the plutonium in Pyongyang, a bizarre sense of permanence settles over global affairs at a time of extreme volatility. If the paradox gives Theresa May a rare beam of optimism about her prospects, who could begrudge her that?
As for Trump, he also has fresh cause for hope. Should he fail to repeal the 22nd, he has a path to another spotlight-hogging career after leaving office – the comedy clubs. He has plenty of material.