Sad is a condition few people want to be in. You can be sad for yourself or sad for others. Sadness on a massive scale is tragedy, or so said the Greeks, who also gave us pathos. When our pity is accompanied by empathy or a desire to aid the sufferer, this is compassion. Sometimes, however, we pity a person’s situation without pitying the person. If he or she has taken a reprehensible action leading to public shame, we may recognize the situation as sad without feeling sad for the person. This more or less is contempt—one of the artisanal strains of uncaringness within Donald Trump.
More so as a first-time candidate, Trump obsessively used the Twitter refrain “Sad!” for anyone he wanted you to believe had gone down (Jeb! ) and was therefore eminently kickable. It is interesting that Trump applied the exclamatory Sad! so frequently when he never seems to feel sad about any person or situation. Within his damaged psyche, anger has pulled a home invasion on sad.
Still, you have to assume that, in some way, Sad! is Trump’s Room 101. He refuses the reality of any situation that would make him feel sad about himself. Not getting a thing that he wants is a loss that would inevitably lead to Sad! Thus to divert any experience of loss, he immediately pulls a goalpost switch.
For instance, at the very moment a normal human being would apprehend that her Atlantic City casino had failed miserably, Trump seamlessly shifts his objective to getting out of paying for a colossal bungle. Instead of failing to manage a casino, he has succeeded in paying nothing for an astronomic loss. Instead of losing an election to Joe Biden, he has succeeded in refusing to concede the presidency.
Early in that presidency, many pundits likened Trump to P.T. Barnum, as both built empires on fooling the public. But Barnum was actually successful at various enterprises, maintained a friendship with Tom Thumb, and opposed slavery, leaving the Democratic Party to join Lincoln’s Republicans. There was some aspect of “character” you could identify.
Donald Trump is more like one of the curiosities in Barnum’s American Museum. He is an “attraction” to the public precisely because he is not one of “us,” whether you identify as a lover or loather of his campaign to make gristle of our democracy. With his straw hair, spray-on face, and girdled obesity, he presents a package of amusement to millions of admirers who’d never think of emulating his look.
Unlike, say, the story of the Elephant Man, whose core sensitivity summons our sadness and compassion, Trump is an alien being who cannot get emotionally hurt because of that pathological aversion to Sad! As a curiosity, he may be more like one of the case studies in Oliver Saks’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Perhaps the idiot savant twins who can memorize numbers of 300 digits but cannot handle the mundane tasks of daily life. Or that guy with the spike impaled in his skull.
The incident of “person, woman, man, camera, TV”—whereby our Commander-in-Chief dramatized his cognitive memory testing—almost made me feel bad for laughing. He seemed sincerely impressed by his feat of memory. It reminded me of those exercises where young children are shown a drawing of a face expressing emotion and asked to pick the word—glad, sad, mad. You get the feeling that if Trump were shown a downturned mouth, he might undergo some elemental breakdown.
And now, with his Electoral College fail, where has Sad! been for Donald Trump? He doesn’t seem to be using his favorite rejoinder all that much. Some in the media have been straining to apply metaphors that are just too substantive for a bitter, bloated Florida golfer. Nixon’s Shakespearean cri de coeur “I am not a crook!”? Eichmann’s lashing out in his glass box in Jerusalem? Trump is not a sociopath of that caliber—not one for the soliloquy, the slithery rhetorical introspection of a fiend.
When Trump first campaigned for president, his speech-giving vocabulary was assessed at the third- or fourth-grade level—ironically, the age when a typical child might be moving beyond the monosyllabic (“stop” and “steal,” for instance) to the polysyllabic (“Mar-a-Lago,” “disgrace”).
Even as Trump continues his attempt to subvert democracy with malevolent magical thinking, it’s hard not to see the Sad! in his actions—running off to an ultra-rich community that has stated its intention to sue him if he moves back, having said residence redecorated with white marble and an abundance of dark wood . . . and no gold!
And then, coup de grâce, forgoing the $1,200-ticket New Year’s Eve bash to hustle himself back to the home of Comet Ping Pong. Apparently, there is a local need for El Presidente six days before Republicans in the House and Senate plan to object to Congress’s certification of the Electoral College results.
As a child, I’d get heartbroken hearing the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Any five-year-old knew it was a setup by virtue of the word Magic. What killed me was the line “So Puff, that mighty dragon, sadly slipped into his cave.” When no one wants you anymore, you have to slip into a cave that is yours and yours alone—and there is no way of doing so without doing it sadly.
The alt-ending, of course, is that you fight back fiercely, lashing out with your gigantic tail and leveling democracy in the process. Sad! §