MY 1990 "AW SHUT UP ALREADY" Award goes, with the year just half over, to Fred W. Friendly. I do this with reluctance since Friendly is the respected former president of CBS News and, more to the point, my old university professor. Nevertheless, for asking that we cease taking joy in the troubles of Donald Trump, Friendly wins hands down. He would understand. He taught me to tell it like it is.
"I don't understand why we have to bash Donald Trump," Friendly told the New York Times. He said Trump was a New Yorker, New York was in trouble, and it would be good to see Trump succeed. Ah, but some of us are not New Yorkers and don't see Trump's troubles through the haze of a conflict of interest. We want his troubles to continue. The drama enriches our drab, ordinary lives.
As for Friendly's perplexity about why we "have to bash Donald Trump," let me explain. First, Trump is a braying, immodest man of pugnacious mien who, it seems, was so busy getting rich and telling others how to do so that he neglected to read the classic Johnny Tremain. In that book, the young apprentice to Paul Revere is told: "Pride goeth before a fall." Had the book been written about our times, its author, Esther Forbes, might have called the "fall" Chapter 11.
Trump proclaimed himself a different sort of human being. Unlike you or me, he was as rational as a calculator, a precision deal-maker who said he could put his nose to the economic breeze and detect, like some financial Tarzan, the whiff of changing times. He knew when to get into debt, when to get into cash, when to get into real estate and when to get out. For all that, he did not know how to get out of his marriage or to avoid falling in love. These are the frailties of ordinary people. The essence of Trump in love was captured by Charlie Chaplin: the high-hatted swell slipping on a banana peel.
But Trump-bashing is fun for another reason: He's all that's left. The onetime billionaire personifies the only group -- ethnic or otherwise -- that can still be ridiculed: the rich. It helps, of course, that he is newly rich (newly super-rich anyway) and that he flaunted both his wealth and the way he spent it. But what really matters is that people like him are not only fair game, but the only game.
Creeping sensitivity has given whole groups -- and individuals within those groups -- immunity from criticism. For instance, you cannot make fun of women anymore, not unless you want to be tagged a male chauvinist pig and run out of town. It matters not if your barbs are to the point, empirical and scientific, or even humorous. For instance, some time ago one of Washington's more acute columnists (moi) criticized Washington women for dressing less fashionably than women in other world capitals. This columnist even said the same thing about Washington men. No matter. He was roundly criticized as a sexist and his sanity questioned.
The same fate would befall anyone who wrote about blacks, Jews, Italians, Hispanics, the handicapped, the underclass, the homeless, Catholics -- anyone, really, but the rich, especially if they were both rich and non-ethnic. For instance, when Billy Crystal made a few harmless Italian jokes at the Oscar ceremonies, some congressmen with nothing else to do cranked out disapproving press releases. When Andy Rooney insinuated that homosexual behavior is linked to AIDS, he was castigated for telling the truth, albeit a bit clumsily. The onetime staples of comedy -- drunk jokes, wife jokes, ethnic jokes -- are passe and often for good reason. But however tasteless and crude they sometimes were, they did identify differences among us and were often funny -- no small point.
Now, though, a terrible silence has fallen across the land -- a silence broken only by an occasional comedian, like Andrew Dice Clay, whose notoriety comes not from being funny, but from saying things that are verboten. Most of America is engaged in an interior dialogue. Comments and thoughts that once could be uttered out loud are repressed or expressed only within a particular racial, ethnic, religious or gender grouping. Thus, blacks can say among themselves that they are naturally better basketball players (or dancers), but whites don't dare make the same remark. Jews can fret about the number of Jews implicated in Wall Street scandals, but non-Jews run the risk of being labeled antisemites for making the same observation. And only a woman can comment on the appearance of another woman and not be called a sexist.
So only the rich remain. Both admired and loathed, they have been targets of comedic opportunity ever since envy was invented. Trump, for all his association with the ethic of the 1980s, is just a latter-day version of the Margaret Dumont character in a Marx Brothers film. He not only brings out the Groucho in all of us, but stands in for all the peoples and groups that once -- often unfairly -- were the targets of ridicule. It helps too that Trump is identified with no ethnic group. Nothing about him suggests "victim."
In a way, my old professor Fred Friendly was right, and, anyway, gloating is unattractive. As we all know, the misfortunes of Trump will not enhance our own fortunes any and to think otherwise is immature but -- it has to be said -- oh so satisfying. When it comes to ridicule, The Donald is all we have left. Listen, Fred, have you heard this one: How many Trumps does it take . . . ?