~ Starring: Pennywise the clown and his presidential counterpart ~
A woman is speaking. A few feet behind her stands a man in a big-shouldered suit and red tie. As she moves around the stage, addressing the audience, his signature poof of orangey hair lurks in the background. The orange hair, the bright red tie, the sour expression. He’s just standing and watching, but it’s unnerving as hell. The cameras repeatedly capture this dynamic: a woman is speaking; a man creeps behind her.
Whenever I see these images of Clinton talking and Trump lurking, my horror-obsessed brain skips across the media landscape to another menacing figure: the creepy clown that’s been cropping up in the US, Canada, and the UK since August. From reports of clowns trying to lure children into the woods of South Carolina to the one who hitched a ride on the back of a Detroit bus, wigged, white-faced characters are turning up in unexpected places. And I’m not the only one who’s making the connection to Donald Trump. The emergence of a Trump-as-Pennywise meme and Mary Valle’s cool piece in The Guardian indicate that people are wondering if creepy clown sightings have something to do with, as Valle puts it, “a bona fide human-like sociopath [who] is very close to grabbing the One Ring of Power.” Is Trump a kind of lodestone drawing these frightening figures out into the open?
So here’s what I’m thinking…
The “official” take on clowns is that they’re cheerful, benevolent, kindly figures—bringers of magic into the lives of the young. And I’m sure that there have been children for whom this is true. (Okay, I’m not actually “sure,” but I’m willing to entertain the possibility…) But if I ever encountered these nice, kindly clowns as a kid, I don’t remember them. What I remember is Pennywise the dancing clown, the red-haired baddie at the heart of Stephen King’s It (1986). Pennywise represents pure fear to King’s kid protagonists. He moves from grin to glower in a heartbeat, just as the clown himself morphs into a monstrous black spider at the story’s end. (Seriously.) What King captured so well is the twisted underbelly of the supposedly fun-loving maker of balloon animals. Pennywise is what you get when the smile becomes too big, the gestures too frenetic. It’s too near, too much. And it would kill for just a little more of your attention.
The distance between the official perspective on clowns (fun! innocent! warm-hearted!) and the “kid fears” version is, at bottom, a result of the tension between a dominant story and the uncanny double it breathes to life but disowns. The double embodies all the bad feelings that the “true” story can’t admit. If Trump is the Pennywise of presidential candidates, then, I can’t help but wonder if he’s exposing something about the presidency itself—about the power, whose power, it’s supposed to represent. After all, this is an office that, until 2008, was held solely by white men. This monopoly has been supported by an official story that posits white masculinity as the epitome of reason, responsibility, and benevolence. But beneath this story is a counter-narrative according to which white masculine power rages, terrorizes, exploits, and wounds. For some of us, Trump is this “bad dream” version of white masculinity.
For others, white men are suffering through a bad dream in which arguably the most powerful political office in the world was “taken away” from them eight years ago. (For a brilliant take on the rightwing conspiracy theory that Obama “stole” the elections in 2008 and 2012—and what it means for the upcoming election—check out this excellent piece by Jamelle Bouie in Slate.) And from that same paranoid perspective, another “other” now threatens to take the title. In short, this is a point of view from which Obama and Clinton are playing keepaway with power—and white men are the hapless victims stuck in the middle. (I won’t provide a link, but just consider Alex Jones’ most recent claims that Obama and Clinton are literally demons who reek of sulfur…) No wonder, then, that a Pennywise candidate has emerged to take it all back.
But some of us — many of us — know not to trust this clown. Some of us are well served by a lesson we learned when we were kids. No matter how much they insist your happiness is their main concern, white men that pull faces, wiggle their fingers, and engage in sleight-of-hand are seriously bad news.