The words slip out of my mouth before my brain has a chance to properly process what my eyes are absorbing.
For the first half of my life, I thought Donald Trump was a character specifically designed to fill the loud, rich New Yorker stereotype. Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, he made cameos in everything from “The Mickey Mouse Club” to “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. At that time, my still developing brain recognized all the defining attributes of “Donald Trump” the character - the suit, the hair, the attitude - but failed to understand that Donald Trump the human being existed outside of his interactions with Kevin McCallister and Will Smith.
Now, I’m watching three young girls --- maybe 8, 9, 10 years old --- wearing glittery, American flag-inspired skirts and halter tops, dancing and singing on stage at a Donald Trump political rally. Luckily, I’m not attending the rally in person. I’m sitting at my computer watching the video on YouTube. Had I been there live, I would have promptly been asked to leave when the no-doubt uber-conservative attendees heard my initial reaction.
“Wwwwhat… the… ac-tu-al… fffuck?” I say aloud as I type the words in the comments section. With the words immortalized on my friend’s Facebook wall, I can go on with my day, knowing that my perfectly concise opinion will be available to all future viewers in perpetuity. “Thank Christ,” I sigh, as the video comes to a merciful end.
Immediately, I click ‘play again’.
By the time I finished high school early in the new millennium, Donald Trump had developed an object permanence within the collective pop-culture psyche. His dystopian caricature of American entrepreneurship became a staple of reality TV via “The Apprentice”, where he berated up-and-coming professionals while ignoring the fact that his own record as an investor and entrepreneur is one of the worst of any “successful” businessman in modern history. Around the same time “The Apprentice” was hitting its peak viewership, Trump diversified his media image by developing a scripted feud with the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Vince McMahon, another rich businessman with iconic hair and a big mouth. Throughout the 90s and 00s McMahon had created a reality-blurring TV persona and developed an antagonistic on-screen relationship with WWE wrestlers and fans. In January 2007, McMahon was giving a self-indulgent “Fan Appreciation Night” speech on Monday Night Raw --- the WWE’s weekly, primetime event --- that was eliciting wave after wave of jeering and booing from the live audience. Out of nowhere, Trump’s spray-tanned visage appeared on the big arena’s big screen. Trump berated the WWE President, claiming that he was out of touch, and that there was one thing the fans wanted but which McMahon would never give them: his money. With that, thousands of dollars --- yes, actual American currency --- dropped from the rafters of the arena into the audience, which erupted in cheers and whoops. The hook was that Trump had stolen McMahon’s money, but in re-distributing it to the WWE fans, he had stolen something much more valuable: McMahon’s spotlight. It wasn’t that Trump was playing a ‘face’ --- wrestling shorthand for ‘good guys’ --- so much as he was trying to out-do McMahon’s megalomaniacal self-indulgence. Having been sucked in by McMahon’s ‘heel’ persona, the ensuing Trump-McMahon feud was the first and only time I would ever campaign in Trump’s favor.
As I hit play on the YouTube video for the third time, I can’t help but wonder how many child labour laws have been bent, broken, or ignored in the process of creating USA Freedom Kids, the collective name of the three child performers on stage. I think back to old VH1 music documentaries and A&E biographies describing the tyrannical Joe Jackson, manager and patriarch of The Jackson 5. The stories of his strict rehearsal sessions include forcing his children (most famously, Michael and Janet) to practice for hours without breaks, depriving them of sleep, and administering physical and emotional abuse at the slightest misstep or forgotten line. I have no immediate evidence to assume the Freedom Kids are subject to this type of exploitation, but my mind is already playing through hypothetical interview clips of their “tell all” Netflix documentary, tentatively set for release in 2030. Then again, it’s appropriate that Trump would hire these pint-sized performers to open his rally. He is promising to create American jobs, after all.
When Trump announced that he was running for the Republican nomination for the 2016 US elections, I was actually excited. The on-screen and in-ring conflict between him and McMahon --- dubbed the "Battle of the Billionaires" --- culminated in a “Loser Shaves His Head” bet at “Wrestlemania 23”, the WWE’s premiere pay-per-view, in April 2007. Trump bet on the winning wrestler that night and famously shaved McMahon’s head in the middle of the ring, much to all WWE fans’ delight. Now, after years of watching various self-promoting cameos on the big and small screen, I’d finally get to see the real Trump, America’s favorite tomato-in-a-five-dollar-wig, make a proper ass of himself on a national stage. Throughout his public career, he’d already exhibited a trademark pig-headedness by pushing the “Obama Birth Certificate” issue long after it had been put to rest by right wing media and even the most stubborn Republican supporters. I hoped that giving him a headlining slot in the US political circus would be equivalent to witnessing a fireworks factory burning to the ground: chaotic, explosive, and wholly self-destructive. And, if we were really lucky, maybe Trump and Ted Cruz would have a similar, WWE-style ‘Loser Disappears from Public View Forever’ bet.
By the fourth viewing of the YouTube video, I’m swaying my head back and forth to the droning beat of the song. It’s categorically generic and inoffensive, yet catchy in a nursery rhyme sort of way. I imagine Trump’s campaign manager asking a focus group to decide which key they feel is ‘most patriotic’ and which time signatures appeal most to uninformed white Americans: “Mr. Trump, constituents in your key demos seem to have the strongest connection to A Major… Yes, sir. I’ll inform the Freedom Girls.”
Trump’s persona - and, by extension, the foundation of his political platform - is a genetically mutated abomination consisting of American imperialist ideals, Cold War-era patriotism, and a wild west mentality. He promotes himself as a successful, independent businessman, despite the fact that he’s filed for bankruptcy, received government bailouts, and invested in a professional football organization with the intent to compete head to head with the National Football League. (Spoiler alert: It failed miserably.) His supporters applaud his ‘tell it like it is’ attitude, even when his version of telling it like it is involves flagrant misinformation and thinly veiled racism bookended by phrases like “Make America great again!”
At viewing number five, I catch myself singing along and start laughing uncontrollably at the horrible propaganda being spewed by these smiling, pre-adolescent children. As you’d expect from a troupe called USA Freedom Kids, about 50% of the song’s lyrical content is comprised of the words “Freedom” and “USA”. What you might not expect are lines that demonize “cowardice” and calls on “our boys” to “take down… enemies of freedom” while promising to stand up for “Ameritude” - which, according to Trump, is totally a word. As the song goes on, the whole situation - the flag-themed outfits, the sing-song melody, the vague pro-America lyrics - reveal a canvas that’s alarmingly reminiscent of World War 2-era USO tours, where the flashy outfits and dance numbers distracted troops from the fact that many of them would never see their cherished homeland again. Fortunately, this is also the point where I convince myself that the girls are lip-syncing the song, and I take some solace in the idea that maybe they never actually had to learn the pro-Trump lyrics.
The WWE and other professional wrestling organizations brand themselves as “Sports Entertainment”, because they blend the physical endurance of legitimate sports with the long-form dramatic narratives of classic soap operas. The storylines and outcomes of the matches are predetermined far in advance of the actual ‘fight’, but the choreography of each match is generally left up to the individual wrestlers. Yes, the moves are mostly fake, but one of the key contributors to a wrestler’s success is his or her ability to ‘sell’ these loosely choreographed moves in the moment. “Selling” a phantom punch to a live audience of 20 000 rambunctious fans requires the perfect balance of physical impact (stomping your foot on the mat to make a crashing sound as you throw the punch) and emotional melodrama (dropping to the ground while groaning in exaggerated agony). I can’t help but wonder how many hours the USA Freedom Kids spent practicing each arm-wave, hip-shake, and twirl, in much the same way professional wrestlers spend hours practicing to ‘sell’ dropkicks, clotheslines, and finishing maneuvers. Whether these Freedom girls are aware of it or not, they’re selling something much more dangerous: Donald Trump, the phantom candidate, and “America”, the phantom dream.
I watch the video for what must be the tenth consecutive time and begin to envision a world where Trump wrangles enough fear-based votes from misguided patriots to win the election, becoming the supreme tomato-faced overlord of our neighbours to the south. The USA Freedom Girls become the top-selling artists of all time, putting Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles to shame. “The Trump” hairstyle sweeps across the nation, becoming 2016’s answer to the “man bun”.
I close the YouTube video before these thoughts spiral out of control.
“Okay, now I’m definitely done.”