“Just remember,” President Trump said last summer in Kansas City, Mo. “What you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
As the boastful businessman turned reality television star turned polarizing president not only bends the truth, but distorts shared reality, it has fallen to bit characters in his high drama, like the fools in Shakespeare’s plays, to remind viewers that what they are seeing is real — and yet just as peculiar as it appears on-screen.
The most recent reminder came in the form of a wink from a member of the British royal family. When Camilla Parker Bowles, the Duchess of Cornwall, quickly closed and opened one eye behind Trump’s back on Monday, was she letting us in on a secret? Making a joke? Alerting us to an indecency?
Whatever else it was meant to communicate, if anything at all, the wink — labeled “cheeky” on social media — came off as an acknowledgment that the spectacle was really unfolding. In other words, it seemed to be an affirmation that, contrary to what Trump said last year, what you are seeing and what you are reading is exactly what’s happening.
It is a message that has been communicated by characters as disparate as “Plaid Shirt Guy” and the gentleman whose epic eye roll registered his disbelief in Trump’s assertion that his predecessor was the “founder of ISIS.” One act even featured the first lady, Melania Trump, clothed in an olive-colored costume advertising how little she cared about it all.
These have become defining moments because the actors, intentionally or not, have broken the fourth wall in the performance that is the Trump presidency, seeming to suggest shared knowledge with outsiders. With that subversive potential, often more promising than outright protest, they announce themselves as subtle heroes, like the court jester who parodies the actions of more prominent figures. They expose deceitful language, threatening to disrupt the established order.
The role was played most recently by Camilla, the wife of Prince Charles. Hardly a social outcast in the model of Shakespeare’s most memorable fools, she nonetheless fulfilled the function of the host, entertaining a nobleman’s guests.
The royal couple welcomed the president and first lady for tea at Clarence House on the first day of the Trump family’s three-day romp in Britain, what the Bard called “This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle.”
Back down on solid ground, the president was on his best behavior when he posed for photographs that afternoon with Charles and Camilla. As the prince gestured for them to proceed to tea, the duchess turned in the opposite direction and gave a wink to royal officials and members of the press.
The sly gesture stoked speculation about what the duchess, 71, was trying to convey. Some suggested it was a longing to flee her brash American guests.
Others simply celebrated the rare moment of irreverence in the midst of an elaborately choreographed show of stability and solemnity by a nation at war with itself over its planned exit from the European Union.
Camilla is the most senior female royal after Queen Elizabeth II. Once vilified because of her affair with Charles when he was married to Princess Diana, the duchess has taken up weighty causes, from osteoporosis to sexual violence. And her husband has been an outspoken advocate on climate change, which Trump has called a “Chinese hoax.”
Her nonverbal aside resonated because it seemed to say that partaking in the spectacle, witnessing its veracity up close, hardly made it less surreal, Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2016. As the late Philip Roth once observed, the task is simply to “make credible much of American reality.”
“It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination,” Roth wrote in Commentary magazine in 1961. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Indeed, in this case, there is hardly any need for invention. The facts themselves are hard enough to believe.
“Mr. Brexit,” as Trump called himself in 2016, had really come to meet with Prime Minister Theresa May, about to lose her job because she had failed three times to deliver Brexit, after personally voting against it in the nationwide referendum three years ago.
The American president was really being welcomed by members of the royal family, after saying in a recorded interview that Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was “nasty” about him — and then tweeting that he had never called her “nasty.”
Camilla’s wink was seized on as a sign that these events are just as unbelievable to their participants as they are to outside observers who feel gaslighted by the president’s rhetoric. Such signals from people on the inside have the power to break through that spell.
Others before Camilla have fulfilled a similar function.
At a campaign rally in 2016, a man seated behind Trump rolled his eyes when the Republican candidate suggested, outlandishly, that President Barack Obama was the founder of the Islamic State. The nonverbal response from someone in attendance was embraced as a recognition of how absurd the claims were, even as others applauded in support.
Even more overt were the reactions of Tyler Linfesty, a 17-year-old who appeared just beyond Trump’s shoulder at a pre-midterms rally last year in Billings, Mont. The teenager, dubbed “Plaid Shirt Guy” in reference to the multicolored hand-me-down from his brother, raised his eyebrows and chewed his lips as Trump fired off falsehoods from the podium.
Linfesty glanced around at other audience members as if to say, “Am I the only one who’s hearing this?” The answer was a resounding no, as viewers swooped in to declare the teenager — and supporter of the Democratic Socialists of America — a hero. He was eventually removed from the rally. But a meme was born.
Some of the signals have been more ambiguous.
Last summer, the first lady stumped the nation when she left for a trip to Texas, to tour a facility for migrant children, wearing a $39 Zara jacket emblazoned on the back with the words, “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” At first, it seemed possible that she was attempting to troll her own husband — a possibility not diminished by his readiness to swoop in and declare the jacket a jab at the “Fake News Media.”
The assurance by the first lady’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, that there was “no hidden message” only intensified the debate. Some saw the statement of indifference as directed not at the president but — whether she intended it this way — at the migrant children whom she was visiting.
A clarification eventually came from the jacket’s owner. But the first lady’s declaration that the wardrobe piece was intended for the “left-wing media” did little to end the speculation about whether it held deeper meaning. The sign from inside Trump world — from a former fashion model, no less — had taken on a life of its own.
Her attire was more straightforward for the state visit, paying homage to British landmarks and members of the British royal family.
So, too, the Duchess of Cornwall took no risks with her wardrobe. Her knowing response to the presidential pageantry was left instead to the blink of one eye.
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