Playing the Trump Card
Monologuist Mike Daisey
“Over a year ago, before Donald Trump declared his candidacy, as rumors were swirling that he would run, it occurred to me that he sits very comfortably in a universe of people that I often talk about. I cover a variety of topics in my monologues, but one of my central motifs for a long time has been megalomaniacal men,” monologuist Mike Daisey told Pasatiempo. “Trump has been famous almost exclusively for being rich since before I was born. At the time I didn’t think he was going anywhere in the election, but I thought it would be an interesting anecdote to use to wrap up his biography. As things went on, his candidacy swallowed the piece, because it had to, and then the election became the lens through which I look at Donald Trump.”
Daisey performs Trump Card at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Monday, Sept. 19. Asked where his fascination with megalomaniacal men comes from, he didn’t hesitate. “It reminds me of myself. No one becomes an independent artist in the American theater without an element of genius or madness in them. I’m not even functioning as a traditional playwright; I make my own work. There are very few people doing that, and the very idea that one could requires a certain specificity of vision.”
As he does in many of his pieces, Daisey weaves his own biography around that of his subject, but there are fewer digressions and less personal reflection in Trump Card than in some of his past work, mainly because information from the campaign trail changes daily and Daisey has to stay on top of what Trumps says and does. The core of the piece, however, is about Trump’s nature and character, which Daisey said do not change day to day. For those assuming
Trump Card exists solely to reinforce the opinions of those who would never vote for Trump, he plans to subvert those expectations. “If you’re at the theater, you’re probably a white liberal person who is fairly wealthy. You’ll have to examine your complicity in this situation.”
Daisey’s oeuvre includes a 29-night live theatrical novel, totaling 40 hours, called All the Faces of the
Moon, which ran at the Public Theater in New York City in 2013. He has a podcast called All Stories Are
Fiction, and numerous monologues on people who fascinate him, from Chelsea Manning to L. Ron Hubbard to P.T. Barnum. In Yes This Man (2014), Daisey talks at length about the need for feminism as well as his own inherent sexism. (The title is in response to the social media hashtag wars about street harassment and rape culture, #yesallwomen and #notallmen.) In The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (2010), Daisey relays a story about a trip he took to China to visit factories where workers make parts for Apple products. The monologue, in which he recalls speaking with underage workers, underground union organizers, and a man who had become disabled from exposure to dangerous chemicals used to manage dust in the factory, was picked up by the public radio show This
American Life, hosted by Ira Glass, in 2012. What happened next opens up a philosophical divide between art and journalism. Two months after running Daisey’s monologue,
This American Life retracted the story because significant portions of it were not true. The hard facts of the
story given as background, including factory conditions documented by Apple’s own internal reports, were sound. What came into question after the story aired were Daisey’s personal experiences, and when a reporter spoke to the interpreter who had visited Chinese factories with Daisey, the whole thing unraveled. He was accused of inventing characters out of whole cloth and attributing problems at factories he had never visited to ones he had. Daisey wound up apologizing to Glass and his listeners. He agreed that the piece did not live up to journalistic standards and should never have been presented as such on This American Life, but he continued to defend the monologue based on his idea of theatrical truth. He said this kind of truth uses the arcs of memoir and drama to tell a story and elicit an audience’s compassion for a subject.
“I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context, in the theater, that when people hear the story in those terms, that we have different languages for what the truth means,” Daisey told Glass in an interview.
“I understand that you believe that, but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people go to see person talk — people take it as literal truth,” Glass said.
“I believe that all stories are subjective and it’s actually very difficult to extract any objective knowledge out of the soup of impressions that every human being brings to every story,” Daisey told Pasatiempo. “I have conflicts with some of the things that are central to American journalism’s idea of itself. Increasingly, as the world changes, it’s become clear that American journalism isn’t unbiased.”
If Daisey and Trump share a disdain for American journalism and an appreciation for the fabulist turn of mind, that is their slim tract of common ground when it comes to basic worldview. Daisey is a liberal. He doesn’t agree with Hillary Clinton on many policy positions — “except for women’s rights, she’s basically Reagan,” he said — but he’s intrigued by her as a person and has no trouble seeing her as presidential. “Obama did some fantastic things, but his presence in the White House intensified the quality of the right’s racism. We’re signing up for an ongoing culture war, because it’s four to eight more years of it, just directed at a woman this time,” he said. “For people with really regressive belief systems about identity, this must be a nightmare. They must be terrified. I feel like that dictates a lot of who Clinton is. She’s battle-hardened and sort of secretive, and that makes sense. It’s not surprising that she doesn’t trust easily.”
He went on to expound on the gendered nature of presidential elections, which forces the public to judge Clinton’s charisma, or lack thereof, based on a history of exclusively male candidates. “I don’t know if we’re weighing her properly. It’s clear that the people who have worked with her and know her well have tremendous loyalty to her. If she wins, I’m looking forward to getting to know her better, even though I find it disturbing that she’s even more hawkish than Obama about foreign policy. I’m really concerned that in the next four to eight years we’ll be drawn into another war. I don’t see a way out of it because — not to tip my hand, but as I talk about in the show — I really see this as a choice between a flawed, human candidate and the gateway to the apocalypse. One side means we get up in the morning and the other side means the sky is raining blood. When you’re given that choice, you take the human over the end of the world.”
NO ONE BECOMES AN INDEPENDENT ARTIST IN THE AMERICAN THEATER WITHOUT AN ELEMENT OF GENIUS OR MADNESS IN THEM. — MIKE DAISEY
Mike Daisey’s prop Trump projection; top, Daisey