Friday, April 29, 2011

Creeping Trumpism and Pizza You Can't Believe In

It's a big world we live in, and there are all kinds of people in it, and a great many of those people are going to see things differently than you or I might. To take a vexingly current example, there are people out there who look at Donald Trump and see a gutsy hero of capital, an innovator and a job-creating doer who has more-than-earned his gold-plated luxury urinal and gold-plated luxury urinal cakes, his monogrammed helicopter, and the right to squint and bluster and fart along through our culture looking like a bullyfaced honey-baked ham. Other people look at him and see a bullyfaced honey-baked ham who is – and this would actually be poignant, if it were anyone but this particular clownshod bullyfaced honey-baked ham – not even very good at being a bullyfaced honey-baked ham.

Or, to be more specific, a bullyfaced honey-baked ham who was too lazy and inept to even do his frankly racist recent rube-trolling properly as regards President Obama, and who is loathsome enough to make that most loathsome of bottom-scraping rhetorical irresponsibilities his attention-getting method of choice. Whose buildings from the '80s look like Soviet housing projects swaddled in gold leaf and whose hilariously classy-joe recent ultra-luxury condominium projects are grandiose marble-tarded mausoleums that look like what Yankee Stadium thinks about when it masturbates. Who apparently uses the phrase "piece of ass" in conversation the way non-assholes use prepositions, and who, as Anna Holmes points out in the Washington Post, has lived his life like someone who really means it when he uses that phrase. Who is in every way a squirm-inducing parody of a steak-fed billionaire phony, except with some long-running and serious-not-a-joke urban-redneck racial issues, the aforementioned throwback misogyny thing, and a boorish ignorance so raw that scan decidedly un-phony and totally, nauseatingly convincing. Also, he made the face you see above while getting worked over by Seth Meyers at the White House Correspondents Dinner – which, sidebar, yuck on that thing – and then, in a virtuoso bit of unintentional self-satire, proceeded to knock Meyers' delivery afterwards on popular special-needs morning show Fox and Friends.

But anyway different people perceive this particular bullyfaced honey-baked ham differently, and while both those sides are regarding the same rancid, decay-fuzzed hank of sad protein, they differ in re: its rancidity and appetizingness. "That's democracy," as YOUR President likes to say right before some act of futile meliorativeness. So there's that – different people see different things differently, as is their right. You almost certainly do not know anyone who likes Michael Bolton, and it's true that you should throw his standing-in-line-at-the-drugstore soul music and linen-and-vest wardrobe in the garbage, but that guy sold millions of records and presumably is selling out some cold, vast room in Vegas right now. No one you know probably gave even the smallest shit-shard about the recent royal wedding – and no one that anyone knows understands why American news networks herniated their Blitzers trying to out-obsequy each other in their coverage of another nation's garish fatuity – but it's obvious that there are people out there who do care about it. I imagine pleasant, slightly dotty unmarried British ladies and some of your more overcompensatory newbie American camp aficionados, but that's a few million short of the actual tally. Funny old world, etc. Tackiness is a matter of perspective – cf. the bullyfaced ham from a few grafs back – and some people just like excess.

Which, you know, is their thing and I guess good luck with that. And while I'd argue that there's a place for excess in moderation – what I'm saying here is that I am going to get drunk sometimes, and that's just how that is – I feel increasingly queasy at the idea that the unembarrassed and indeed proudly single-minded pursuit of excess should be humored as another to-each-his/her-own choice. All you have to do is look at a glowering, parodic nightmare hair-steak like Trump to see what a steady diet of every-fucking-thing-you-can-get actually makes you – it might make you rich, but it also gives you a fat, sour soul and a big, dumb, vain heart. But while it is kind of a bummer to have him all up in our monitors, Trump's being Trump-y is Trump's problem, finally. Scale Trumpian humorlessness and vulgar vainglory up and out through the culture, though, and we've all got a problem – namely cruel, crude people who can't listen to and won't care about other people except as obstacles to be cleared on the road to getting more More, and who can't smile for fear of showing some sort of weakness. People who put themselves at the center of a stupid and terrifying universe, and as such are incapable of being serious about anything but themselves, and of laughing at anything but what their own jokes. Trump's weaponized vanity is the way he has chosen to fight a war he can't win against a world he's too scared (and maybe too dumb, and probably too uncaring) to try to understand. That he doesn't appear to have an inner life is kind of sad, but his outer life – a world of surly charlatanry, rageful and prideful ignorance, transactional personal relationships and big steaks – is gaudy and bleak in the extreme.

And that's Donald Trump for you, I guess, although Donald Trump is always an extreme case – not just A garish condominium where the bathrooms don't necessarily work, but THE MOST garish condominium where the bathrooms don't necessarily work; not just a thin-skinned, callow mega-asshole, but the most thin-skinned, most-callow mega-asshole in the whole world. But go a little further down the capitalist self-parody food chain and you've got something that's more humanesque than Trump, but maybe in some ways sadder. Because Donald Trump, while he is indeed an organism moving around the world taking heroic gulps of oxygen into his rich pink lungs – I've seen him in person, and can report that he is more or less a living thing – is also not really like anyone you'll ever have to deal with. Whereas Papa John Schnatter is probably like someone you know from work, and a better example of what a scaled-down Trumpianism looks like in someone other than Trump, who is really more like a Golem crafted from Viagra slurry and dredgings from the bottom of the Long Island Sound than he is a human

I've already smeared plenty of verbiage on Schnatter, and while I obviously enjoy doing that I should probably point out that my problem is less with the guy's terrible pizza than his peculiar and puzzling insistence upon putting his tan, meaty face front-and-center in his advertising. That Papa John's pizza is crummy – salty and cheese-squelched and fatally mall-bound – is, finally, not a hanging offense. No one has passed a law making me eat it, which is maybe my favorite thing about the United States at the moment. But to see him promising that you can Taste His Virtue in every slice of his lousy pizza is to see a man struggling with a chronic case of what is, albeit entirely too slowly, killing Donald Trump. That is, Schnatter presents as a man so self-enamored and self-fascinated – and so peculiarly cut off from things that aren't himself – that he has a difficult time talking about anything but himself, even when he could be talking about one of the most appetizing things known to man, which also happens to be the thing he manufactures and sell for a living.

And so in the commercials for his international pizza concern, instead of seeing pizza – which is delicious and can be photographed attractively; one wise move for Papa John might be to photograph pizza from another establishment – you get a face-full of Schnatter, Schnattering on very seriously about "100% fresh dough" (alternatives being?) and explaining that "better ingredients, better pizza is a way of life," which is 1) hilarious ("What'd I do on Saturday night? Scrutinized green peppers, as usual") and 2) doesn't even mean anything. And of course you also get the dewy close-ups and the decontextualized and seemingly unmotivated good-guy laughs and those awkward high-fives pistoning out towards the too-giddy Caucasian exurbanites that absorb those unmotivated kamikaze "Papa's In The House" pizza-invasions in his commercials. I'm aware that these are commercials, and so not necessarily deserving of these or any keystrokes, but Papa John's ads increasingly look like political ads: in earnest, pore-inspecting close-up, Schnatter (or Candidate X) delivers a heartfelt, heavily platitudinous address about something – an un-understood faith in an imaginary definition of American exceptionalism in the political ads, a fucking way of life predicated on the use of super-premium pepperoni in the other – that is so ill-understood and insignificant as to totally opaque.

It's ridiculous, but it's not ridiculous (just) because the pizzas Papa John is getting all dewy about are so defiantly Indiana-n, so crassly mass-produced, and so frankly unappetizing. It's ridiculous because the dude is so serious about himself and the crummy food that made him a multi-millionaire. And while it's a stretch to look at those queasily cholesterolic nightmare-pies as being an expression of Schnatter's own cheese-clotted soul, his branded vanity – and again these are commercials for pizza, which is infinitely more appealing-looking than some Kiwanis Club doof talking earnestly about core corporate values – is another side of the same unthinking excess evident on his pies. It's one thing to be self-absorbed enough to put your name on a pizza place's awning – a million Fat Sal's and Cousin Joey's and Original Famous Ray's do that, sea to shining sea. It's another to be so self-absorbed and humorless that you can't talk about the pizza you put your name on without insisting upon the ways in which it reflects your own flinty virtue.

At some level I'm inclined to see the Papa John's Royal Wedding Pizza above as a symbol of something dreadful – and honestly it's pretty terrible to look at – but I think in a lot of ways it could be worse. While there's a sense in which the PJRWP is clearly the poisonous of a bunch of different delusions and stupidities and excesses and so on, there's at least a simple honesty to it. It's a joke – there's a pepperoni flower on it, and also look at that fucking thing – and while there's plenty of that sad whimsification-of-food that I hate so much at work, it's also at least in on it's own joke. Let a thousand pepperoni flowers bloom, honestly. I'll take a joke pizza over a dead-serious pizzaiolo any day. That horrifying pizza at least knows that it's a joke.

(Thanks to Richard Timm and Jeff Johnson for sending news of the PJRWP)

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