While watching reruns of the Sundance show Iconoclasts, it occurred to me that few figures live up to this title quite like Andy Kaufman. Whether performing an Elvis impersonation, barking at audiences as Tony Clifton, engaging in his Mighty Mouse routine, or wrestling women after intentionally degrading them (in an effort to push cultural boundaries?), Andy Kaufman anticipated the current era of IG influencers, political pundits, reality TV, and endless narcissism. But most of all he anticipated Donald Trump.
Belle Delphine, Kourtney Kardashian, Howard Stern, Snooki, and Ashton Kutcher owe Andy a debt of gratitude. But no figure is more the direct descendant of Andy Kaufman than Donald Trump.
Trump, like Kaufman before him, plays with expectations, forcing audiences to question reality. They both also know how to provoke a media frenzy, to play the media and beat them at their own game.
Neither Kaufman nor Trump were ever necessarily concerned with right or wrong. They just wanted people to wake up. Their intention was to destroy boundaries, to make the improbable seem very palapable. Or, as Kaufman himself put it, “I just want real reactions. I want people to laugh from the gut, be sad from the gut-or get angry from the gut.”
The TYPE of reaction was IRRELEVANT to Kaufman; the important point to Andy was THAT THERE WAS A REACTION. Trump is the same way. Countless times during his campaign he’s made an extreme policy proposal because he knows it will drive the media crazy. So when he proposed the Muslim ban, for example, he knew this was a totally ridiculous, highly-controversial idea. He didn’t care though. The goal was get the media to cover him endlessly, to provoke a massive, visceral response.
Andy was also great at hiding the fact that he was being satirical. This is how he had those fights in the ring with Jerry Lawler. He acted so offended by Lawler on late night talk shows that many didn’t know he was being tongue-in-cheek. Trump behaves similarly. His Twitter rants, the tangents he goes on, are, in a way, a kind of public performance, a satire that the media feeds into endlessly. They get incredibly offended — which only helps Trump gain more media coverage — thereby unwittingly helping his reelection campaign.
“The Fake News,” claim Trump makes, too, further fits in perfectly in Andy Kaufman’s world. Kaufman was obsessed with how everything was staged; with the way all is ultimately a performance. For this reason he often stayed in character long after a director called “CUT! Once, he even had Bob Zmuda play Tony Clifton at a gig, sat in the audience, and heckled his own character. Trump’s technique, meanwhile, is to talk a lot about how his media coverage is biased and unfair. He also emphasizes how other candidates merely read from the teleprompter. He improvises more, he says, which is a way of positioning himself as a more authentic option.
As if all this were not enough, Trump and Kaufman both responded to getting booed by audiences in virtually the same way. Think of Andy Kaufman reading The Great Gatsby on Saturday Night Live or the way audiences booed Trump during several debates. Neither got flustered. They almost seemed to revel it, to desire more of the same. For they knew that as long as audiences were paying attention they were, to use a phrase from Charlie Sheen, “winning!”
In sum, both figures rose to prominence by satirizing others, provoking extreme reactions, and highlighting the artifice of mass media. Andy Kaufman is the key to understanding Donald Trump.