Los Angeles, 6 February 2017
Imagine you’re a producer at a fancy cable network (congratulations). You’re making “AMERICA”, a political drama about a controversial new president. And let’s say you’re giving a young Australian screenwriter an episode to write (imaginary me thanks fictional you). We might start with a conversation like this:
FICTIONAL EXECUTIVE: [on phone] James, we’d like you to write Ep Two of AMERICA. It’ll cover week two of the new president’s tenure.
ME: [covering phone, dancing. Badly] YES YES YES YES [Then, into phone] Sure, I mean I guess I could fit that in.
FICTIONAL EXECUTIVE: Great. So we need the storyline to be as real as possible – events that could actually happen in politics.
ME: [Shaking champagne. Popping champagne. Getting cork, then champagne in face.]
FICTIONAL EXECUTIVE: You still there?
ME: [spitting] …Totally. Realism. Got it.
Fast-forward a week and I’ve written the outline:
Episode Two: “Fuck Australia”
Previously on AMERICA, the PRESIDENT (a former reality TV star) issued an Executive Order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations. Swiftly called a “Muslim ban”, it prompted global travel chaos, protests, and condemnation. When the acting ATTORNEY GENERAL refuses to enforce the Order, believing it unlawful, the President fires her – the first public firing of an AG since Nixon. Tensions are high. The dismissal risks the judiciary’s standing as an independent branch of government. But the President doubles down with an incendiary White House statement that accuses the AG of betrayal and weakness. She is widely praised for doing her job.
It gets worse when the President claims that only 109 people were affected (his lawyers say 60,000), blames the travel chaos on an airline computer malfunction (nope), and characterizes the resulting peaceful protests as the work of “professional anarchists, thugs, and paid protestors”. This is undercut by listicles of the “cutest kid protestors”, complete with finger-painted signs. Meanwhile, the PRESS SECRETARY says the ban is not a “ban” even though the President calls it a ban, and his COUNSELOR makes up a non-existent “Bowling Green massacre” to justify it.
To change the narrative, the President nominates a new Supreme Court Justice, summoning two finalists to Washington to announce his pick live on prime time TV – an event likened to the “rose ceremony” on THE BACHELOR. Democrats – furious that Congressional Republicans prevented former President Obama from filling this seat with a respected, centrist judge – call the seat “stolen” and threaten to obstruct it. Regardless, the President gets a boost from the nomination of a well-qualified judge.
But things go south when the President uses the National Prayer Breakfast to mock his successor at THE APPRENTICE, ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: “I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, ok?” And news outlets report that, on calls with foreign leaders, the President threatened to invade Mexico to deal with its “bad hombres” and yelled at then hung up on Australian Prime Minister MALCOLM TURNBULL. After backlash at the (denied) insults to Mexico, a vital trading partner, and Australia, a staunch ally, the Press Secretary reaffirms US commitment to Australia, but gets its Prime Minister’s name and title wrong. As the internet points out, there is no “President Trumble” of Australia.
To cap off the week, the President signs an Executive Order gutting regulations imposed to limit reckless banking practices after the 2008 financial crisis, stating: “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank because, frankly, I have so many people, friends of mine, who have nice businesses who can’t borrow money.” The policy is explained by the former CEO of Goldman Sachs. Irony breaks under the strain.
The President spends the weekend at his luxury resort, Mar-a-Lago (at a reported taxpayer cost of $3 million). But he’s infuriated when a Federal Court JUDGE suspends the “Muslim ban”. The President goes on a tweet storm that ignores the separation of powers, argues falsely that “many very bad and dangerous people” may now come “pouring into the country”, and blames the “so-called” judge and judiciary for any future terrorist attacks – a move criticized as the presage to a massive, authoritarian power-grab.
The episode’s tag is Sunday’s Superbowl. In an interview with BILL O’REILLY, before the game, the President embraces Russian president VLADIMIR PUTIN. When O’Reilly counters that Putin is “a killer”, the President shrugs and says: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?” Furious tweets from Republican Senators variously calling Putin a “murderous thug” follow. The credits roll over Superbowl commercials that stress America’s diversity, immigrant heritage, and equal pay for women – widely considered a rebuke from corporate America.
If I submitted this outline for Episode Two of AMERICA, my story ends like this: the producer calls and uses the words “ARE YOU [CREATIVE SWEARING] KIDDING ME?!”, swiftly followed by my firing and an afternoon drinking in a Hollywood bar, feeling sorry for myself and pretending (unsuccessfully) to be Hank Moody.
But reader, that outline summarizes news reports of President Trump’s second week.
Of all the things, insulting Australia seemed the most … bizarre. Australia, as Republican Senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain said, “is one of America’s oldest friends and staunchest allies”:
“On the Fourth of July 1918, American and Australian soldiers fought side-by-side at the Battle of Hamel. In the century that followed, our two nations struggled and sacrificed together in World War I and World War II, Korea and Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Those of us who took part in the conflict remember well the service of more than 50,000 Australians in the Vietnam War, including more than 500 that gave their lives.”
Trump’s treatment (and the follow-up of “President Trumble”) just seemed so weirdly petty. I confess that, as an Aussie expat, it stung. According to a CNN source, the President was tired after a long day of calls and “chafed” from Germany explaining the Geneva Conventions to him. (As you would, I suppose.) But that explanation made it worse. As writer/director Joss Whedon Tweeted:
On the world stage, America is the mom at playgroup with the shrieking bully. “He’s just really tired… Donald, that’s Australia’s doll…”
— Joss Whedon (@joss) February 3, 2017
Senator McCain – the 2008 Republican nominee for President – cleaned up:
“I asked Ambassador Hockey to convey to the people of Australia that their American brothers and sisters value our historic alliance, honor the sacrifice of the Australians who have served and are serving by our side, and remain committed to the safer, freer, and better world that Australia does far more than its fair share to protect and promote.”
Seeking distraction, I went to the Upright Citizens’ Brigade, America’s iconic improvisational theatre. There I saw the stunning Magic To Do, a comedy musical, improvised from scratch (a bit like the President’s week). The show began with a couple being chosen from the audience and asked questions on stage: Where are they from? Why are they here? How’s the relationship? (Philly and DC, on holiday in LA, doing long-distance which sucks, but they’re working on it).
Improvised from the story of their relationship, Magic To Do sparkled – a show of intellectual pop and comic dazzle, with dialogue, plot, music, lyrics, and dances invented in the moment, and all the tension and delight accompanying that for its audience. A “Continental Congress” scene – which combined the week’s politics and a double entendre to imagine, ahem, the combined amorosity of three branches of government – got a particularly appreciative laugh. After every number the audience yelled and cheered, and throughout, we turned to each other in darkened rows, lit blue by gels above, amazed and grinning to see creatives invent this, well, magic to do in front of us. My hands stung from clapping, my voice was hoarse. Good old catharsis.
As the performers bowed and the audience whistled and cheered, the performers invited the couple up on stage to share their curtain call. The spotlight fell on him. Then he dropped to one knee and pulled out a ring and the theatre rose in a roar of standing ovation as she said yes and he put a ring on her finger and they clung to each other, as if they were alone on the stage. It was some time before they looked out and noticed a whole theatre of Americans, thundering with applause.
I left with my comedian friends, faces glowing from the house lights, enthusing as we stepped into a cool LA winter night. Outside, cigarette smoke wreathed around the jostling crowd, eager for the next show.
As I waited on the street for the cross-walk light, I spoke to one of the cast, still breathless from the theatre. He heard my accent and stopped my praise of his performance (a literal world first for any actor) and clasped his sweaty hand in mine: “Man,” he said, “I’m sorry about this bullshit. We really like you Australians.”
The show was a shared moment of joy in a country divided, as we stood to applaud music, wit, comedy, love. This handshake was another gesture that shouted out the decency of Americans. And it was magnified on Sunday in Superbowl commercials for cars and carbonated drinks that sang “America the Beautiful” in Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French, English, Spanish, Keres, and Hebrew; that celebrated the immigrant journey, and demanded equal pay for women. To those of you reading from overseas, don’t judge this country by its president but by the goodness of its people. In this dark hour, they shine bright.