The Placebo President


Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 10.41.41 AMAs I have occasionally mentioned on this blog, I am currently working on a book on the many ways that our own brains can deceive ourselves. Placebos, hucksters, healers, hypnotists, and con men – it’s all in there.

It’s a fascinating subject and one that constantly reminds me to be careful about what I think I know. Our brains are wired to be accept what we see based on the things we expect to see. And sometimes, like with the gorilla in the basketball game, the most obvious thing can slip past our eyes just because it’s not what we were expecting.

Such as the fact that Donald Trump is actually a brilliant 1970s-era comic in disguise.

Like so many in this country, I have been watching the 2016 elections with some concern. On the one side, it looks like Hilary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. And while she’s said to be effective and capable, I’m simply disturbed by the idea of any one family in the white house for 12 (or 16) years.

kaufman2And other the other side is Andy Kaufman, currently the frontrunner in the Republican race. Andy was one of the world’s greatest comic geniuses and in the past I have applauded his creation of the megalomaniacal character known to some as Donald Trump.

I realized back in 2014 that Trump was actually Andy Kaufman in disguise. And for a while, I have to be honest, I was rooting for him a little.

After all, I’m interested in the power of illusion and Andy Kaufman’s Donald Trump character is the greatest illusion in history. A real live placebo candidate! Plus, his performance was just such an amazing mirror on American society’s worst nature – its greed, its bigotry, its lack of empathy and its antipathy towards intellectualism. It’s just inspired.

I’m reminded of another 1980s-era comedy creation, Bloom County, by Berkeley Breathed. I loved watching Opus and Bill the Cat run for president every year as a kid and a part of me always wished I could actually vote for them, just as a protest. But how could I? They weren’t “real.” They couldn’t actually campaign anywhere but on the comics pages of the newspaper.


I think Breathed knew this and saw the limitations of his medium in 1989. That’s why I also think that Breathed was one of the few people chosen by Andy to be in on his little secret. Perhaps it was a slip-up on Andy’s part, perhaps Breathed is just smarter than the rest of us (I was only 12 at the time so don’t blame me).

But at some point, the cartoonist got in on all the fun. Those who remember the comic will recall that the demented and unintelligible Bill the Cat once had his brain removed and replaced with that of Donald Trump. It was a brilliant series where The Donald struggles to adapt to his new life as a dead cat with ratty fur.

The same Bill the Cat who would run for president every four years. Right? How did we not see it? And at the end of Bloom County’s run, when I can only assume Breathed gave up the strip to spend more time helping his buddy Andy, what reason did he give? Trump had bought Bloom County. Boy, did he ever.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 10.49.49 AMNow, seemingly out of the blue, Opus, Bill and Breathed are back almost 30 years later, just in time for Andy to run for president. When asked if his return had anything to do with “Donald Trump,” Breathed responded, “This creator can’t precisely deny that the chap you mention had nothing to do with it.”

Did you see that? Not only did he not deny it, he couldn’t even bring himself to say Trump’s name. A perfect misdirection.

I should be excited for Kaufman. I can’t possibly imagine the trouble he went to create Trump – to fill in his backstory, to create such a seamless character. How many times he must have wanted to break character – to let the mask slip a little and have a serious conversation about the farce of politics in the communication age. But he didn’t – not once.

But now that it seems Andy’s goal is in reach, I’m not so sure this whole thing is a good idea anymore. We have to remember that a vote for Trump – while hilarious – isn’t a vote for Trump but a vote for Andy Kaufman, the actor playing the millionaire. And what do we really know about Andy? That he redefined comedy in the 70s. That he faked his death to become Donald Trump full-time in 1983. That he has a problem with authority and doesn’t care what anyone says about him.

But would the creator of Trump make a good president any more than the creator of Bill the Cat? How would I know?

So Berkeley, Andy, if you’re out there and reading this, it might be time to call this whole thing off. The joke was amazing and you will both go down in history as the greatest pranksters who ever lived. But this is getting serious. And fun as it might be, I don’t know if we really want a placebo president.

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Photo Credit: Business Insider, The Washington Post, Berkeley Breathed, NBC

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Categorized in: Erik, Mind/Brain, Political, Psychology

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