Ross Douthat: Laughing through the Trump Era

(Jon Elswick | AP) The cover page of the report issued by the Department of Justice inspector general is photographed in Washington, Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. The report on the origins of the Russia probe found no evidence of political bias, despite performance failures.

An essential motion picture for the Trump era is one that I didn’t particularly care for when it first came out. I speak, of course, of “Burn After Reading,” the Coen brothers’ pitch-black comedy about morons attempting spycraft in Washington, D.C., which upon first viewing seemed too unremittingly misanthropic, too grimly contemptuous of its characters, without the flashes of grace that illuminate the darkness in most Coen depictions of human folly.

That was in 2008; how young and naïve I was back then. Just over a decade later, the Coens’ portrait of grasping fools and self-important Beltway nitwits trying to behave like characters in a John le Carré novel seems less like misanthropy and more like prophecy — a vision of amoral political buffoonery that’s arguably the most realistic depiction of Trumpiness to date.

I am not the first to point this out: Jeet Heer of The New Republic has been a frequent “Burn After Reading” booster, and he devoted a short essay to the movie in 2017, comparing the attempts of its chucklehead antiheroes, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) to sell what they think are state secrets to the Russians to the blundering, “if it’s what you say I love it” way that Donald Trump Jr. and his cronies tried to hook up with Russian dirt-peddlers in 2016.

But Heer’s take needs updating now that we have the inspector general’s damning report on the credulous, overreaching FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties — a report that rounds out the Russiagate narrative by revealing the breadth of farce involved.

If you imagine “L’Affaire Russe” as a movie pitch, it would promise to tell three intertwining stories. In the first thread, Russian hackers use the simplest of phishing techniques against clueless Democratic muckety-mucks to tap into a bunch of Democratic Party emails, exposing not state secrets but a bunch of squalid intraparty backbiting.

In the second thread, the dolts and self-promoters surrounding a buffoonish presidential candidate try to make contact with the Russians, something the Russians don’t particularly want and the dolts are too doltish to accomplish — leading to absurdist scenes like the famous Trump Tower meeting, where Don Jr. shows up expecting a big intel deal and instead gets a lecture on Russian adoptions while Jared Kushner tunes out and checks his phone.

This comedy of hapless would-be dirty tricksters then weaves into the third thread, the one the inspector general report has unspooled for us: In this part of the movie, the law-enforcement agents watching the Russian hacking unfold become convinced — with an assist from a top-secret dossier compiled by a handsome ex-spook who used to pal around with the buffoonish candidate’s daughter — that they’re investigating a vast, world-shaking conspiracy, complete with Russian intelligence assets in the Trump campaign and secret Prague meetings to set the agenda for a Manchurian candidacy. And then their investigation, which focuses on a couple of random, comic Trumpworld figures and comes up empty, gets taken up by a credulous media, which spins a narrative of noble G-men and legal eagles who are supposedly about to reveal Putin’s baroque, dating-to-the-1980s conspiracy to install a puppet in the White House, knock out our power grid and probably poison our precious bodily fluids as well.

To borrow from Oscar Wilde, it would take a heart of stone to contemplate this tale without some laughter — enough to easily justify casting comic actors in all the different parts. (I’m thinking Will Arnett doing the full Gob Bluth as Don Jr., George Clooney playing Christopher Steele in full handsome-bungler mode, Vince Vaughn looming as Jim Comey, Kate McKinnon radiating paranoid intensity as Rachel Maddow, Bill Murray as a nearly-comatose Robert Mueller and — post-prison — Roger Stone and Anthony Weiner as themselves.)

Of course the stone-hearted will object that we shouldn’t laugh so long as the punch line is still that Donald Trump is president. Sure, at some point we might be able to look back and find mordant comedy in an arc like Comey’s — who sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by announcing a last-minute investigation of the infamous Weiner laptop and then remade himself as a self-righteous icon of the Resistance by legitimizing “pee tape” rumors. But the time for laughter is later, once Trump is gone, the shadow of corruption lifted and all the vulnerable and marginal people victimized by this administration can breathe safely once again.

I have two answers to this case against laughter.

The first is a rejection of its final premise: Trump has indeed hurt vulnerable people, but between the leaven of incompetence in his cruelty, his rejection of some of the disastrous ambitions of his predecessors and a certain amount of fool’s luck, his administration is arguably responsible for fewer human tragedies so far than more high-minded, less personally degraded presidencies.

And I don’t just mean to reference George W. Bush and the Iraq War here. To return to the subject of my last column, in President Barack Obama’s first few years in office about 1,500 U.S. soldiers and thousands more Afghans died for a futile and dishonestly justified campaign. If laughter was permissible while that deadly folly was transpiring (mostly out of the public eye), it’s probably OK to laugh at our situation now.

The second answer, meanwhile, is a mild suggestion that a little more laughter might actually be good for the anti-Trump Resistance. In particular, anti-Trumpists might be a touch more effective if they could recognize how humorlessness and constant self-important dudgeon frequently helps the Trumpian cause, by setting up the dynamic I just sketched in my movie pitch — where the country is asked to choose between two kinds of folly, one squalid and corrupt but the other pompous, insufferable and paranoid in its own self-important way.

The latter sort of folly is at its worst, not on the far left, but on the establishment center-left and the Never-Trumper center-right, to which I belonged in 2016 and still do, in the sense that I continue to regard our president as unfit for his job and undeserving of a second term. But that belief, it seems to me, should coexist with some self-awareness about the many blunders by the great and good that brought us to this pass, some instinct for how absurd it sounds to write and talk as if the republic dies daily only to be resurrected overnight and slain by Trump anew, and some recognition that when our law enforcement agencies send their G-men to save the Republic from Vladimir Putin, sometimes they don’t send their best.

Or to bring things to a finer point: If you couldn’t see, long before the Mueller report fizzle or the latest revelations of FBI incompetence, that Comey was a fundamentally comical figure rather than a paragon of old-school American virtue, then you have no business leading a resistance movement against a president whose main political talent is to make his rivals look ridiculous.

At the end of “Burn After Reading,” the pompous, alcoholic CIA-agent character Ozzie Cox, played with urbane self-delusion by John Malkovich, confronts one of the civilians he believes has tormented and blackmailed him. “You represent the idiocy of today,” he says. “You’re part of a league of morons.”

That Malkovich’s character is himself an idiot, that “League of Morons” could be an alternate title for the entire Coen farce, is obvious to any viewer. And at this point, the reality that many would-be saviors of the Trump-era republic bear an unfortunate resemblance to Ozzie Cox should be obvious to our own black comedy’s audience as well.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.