So the Scaramouch, a stock clown figure of old Italian comedy, is goneas White House communications director. Anthony Scaramucci’s foul mouth was never going to pass muster in a White House run by a retired United States Marine Corps general. John Kelly, President Trump’s new chief of staff, duly took care of him.
Scaramucci was perfect right down to his name. The Scaramouch, to quote my Webster’s dictionary, was a “braggart and a poltroon” in the theater that emerged in 16th-century Italy. Boastfulness and cowardice are Trump trademarks, one the other face of the other. In his White House job, Scaramucci communicated stupidity above all.
Good riddance to him. After he’d unloaded his bile, Scaramucci askedus all in a tweet to pray for his family, which seemed a bit rich. Still, I do want to thank the Scaramouch. He came straight from Central Casting. In his total absence of dignity and decorum, his violence and his vulgarity, he was the emblem par excellence of the Trump White House. That reports of his wife filing for divorce surfaced during his brief apotheosis completed the picture. Fast-talking and fatuous, self-important and servile, he embodied the “commedia dell’arte” of Trump’s dysfunctional crew.
The commedia featured larger-than-life stock characters like the Scaramouch. They included deluded old men, devious servants, craven braggarts and starry-eyed lovers. The president, at 71, is clearly a “vecchio,” or elder. He is probably best imagined as the miserly Venetian known as Pantalone wandering around in red breeches with the oversized codpiece of the would-be womanizer.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, fits the bill as the “Dottore,” who, as Jennifer Meagher writes in an essay, is “usually depicted as obese and red-cheeked from drinking.” I’m tempted to offer the role of the belligerent, windy “Il Capitano,” or Captain, to Sebastian Gorka, a deputy assistant to Trump, who recently told the BBC that, “The military is not a microcosm of civilian society. They are not there to reflect America. They are there to kill people and blow stuff up.”
The lovers, of course, have to be Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner — they of the almost bloodless perfection — whose doting father complicates their sumptuous lives by bestowing upon them titles and tasks for which they are unqualified. The lovers grow quieter and quieter but are so pale they are unable to blush.
Will Kelly close down the “commedia?” The White House is supposed to run the free world. It’s time for seriousness. The president, busy and colorful and burrowing as a chipmunk, appears to have awoken to some vague desire for discipline that Kelly’s predecessor, Reince Priebus, was unable to provide.
It has to be said, in passing, that Priebus and “cojones” are utter strangers to each other. Ousted, Priebus confused taking the high road — territory unknown to this administration — with gelatinous loyalty to the president who knifed him. It is hard to keep up with these guys. If one tries too hard the urge to take a shower and scrub off the oleaginous ooze becomes overwhelming.
But back to Kelly: I doubt, however tough the new chief of staff may be, that the commedia is at an end. The Scaramouch was just a stand-in for the president he professed to love. The real “braggart and poltroon” sits in the Oval Office. The key to understanding him is probably that oversize codpiece.
What but some profound sense of inadequacy could explain the neediness and the nastiness, the pout and the pettiness, the vanity and the vulgarity, the anger and the aggression? This president gets off on the humiliation of others. He is inhabited by some deep violence to which self-control is a stranger. It is almost painful to watch the degree to which he pursues self-aggrandizement. He confounds masculinity with machismo. As J.K. Rowling put it in a tweet: “You tiny, tiny, tiny little man.”
In a single week, Trump reminded everyone — if a reminder were needed — just how mean he is. He tweeted an announcement that he had reinstated a ban on transgender individuals serving in “any capacity” in the United States armed forces, and suggested during a visit to Suffolk County Community College in New York that he wanted law enforcement to be “rough” on suspects.
The transgender decision (the one Gorka defended to the BBC by exalting the military’s mission to kill people) was, in the words of Stephen Burbank, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, “an engine of malice.” It illustrated how, “In the realm of moral leadership, President Trump is leading a race to the bottom.” The military promptly said policy would remain unchanged until the White House sends the Defense Department new rules. The police department in Suffolk County also pushed back; it would not tolerate brutality.
Multiple forces in American society are pushing back against Trump. But this is the president we have: turbulent, chaotic, boastful, cowardly and violent. He thrives on the commedia that brought the bilious Scaramouch to the White House. Kelly’s task is enormous. Because life is not comedy, much depends on his success: things like war and peace, for example.