Showtime recently aired a six-episode run of “Dice,” a semi-autobiographical series that charts the comedian Andrew Dice Clay’s attempts to revive his career amid the usual array of showbiz roadblocks and wise-cracking naysayers. The show has its share of laughs, and it brings to mind Clay’s standup act, circa 1990. You know, the Diceman—the swaggering, leather-jacketed, chain-smoking, Fonzie-pompadoured comedian with the Brooklyn tough-guy guido shtick and jokes so filthy the antiseptic moniker “adult humor” could barely capture their shock value.
Or you might remember him as his critics portrayed him: racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, and every other label our culture can bestow on a heretic. He was a caveman, a hater of all things not male and not white, a harbinger of Western civilization’s decline and fall. Pundits and activists outdid one another in describing Dice’s nastiness, and demonstrations followed him wherever he performed. When he hosted “Saturday Night Live,” cast member Nora Dunn and musical guest Sinéad O’Connor refused to attend.
Never mind that the Diceman was a character, and never mind that plenty of comedians in those days assumed an outsized onstage persona, e.g., Bobcat Goldthwait, Gilbert Gottfried, and Emo Philips. What mattered to critics was that Dice was saying things that were beyond the pale. They didn’t much care if they were hearing the character or the man himself. (Besides, it was hard to tell them apart.) His fans didn’t seem to care, either. Whatever else you can say about Dice, he was wildly popular at the turn of the 1990s. He was the first comedian to sell out Madison Square Garden, and he did it two nights straight.
Dice Was Less about Humor than Truth
Was Dice funny? Meh. He went for the lowest-hanging fruit with lots of faux bravado, dirty nursery rhymes, and simple punch lines, and most of his stuff doesn’t hold up today. (Apologies if you think his “hickory-dickory-dock” rhyme was pure genius.) It’s not so much that he was too “offensive” to be funny, it’s that the jokes were almost ancillary to the full effect of the exaggerated character. The Diceman was pure, unadulterated ego; you were supposed to laugh or cringe at his stuff, not analyze it.
What, then, was Dice’s appeal? In short, it was truth. Not “truth” in any kind of noble or literal sense, mind you, but the truth that dwells in the bowels of undistilled honesty. Simply put, Dice’s fans reveled in the novelty of hearing somebody say forbidden things. Just when the term “politically correct” was becoming part of the popular vernacular—and a rallying cry for an inevitable backlash—Dice’s uninhibited male ego carried the standard for that very backlash.
Guys were being told something was wrong with them for being, well, guys, and Dice’s acolytes countered that too much feminism and sensitivity training was unraveling society. As Chuck Klosterman recently wrote, “Dice’s fans felt like they were hearing something more real than what was happening in an increasingly artificial society. . . . To those who thought political correctness was ruining America, he was a soldier they’d pay twenty-five dollars to see.”
For his audience, there was the savage voyeurism that is the mainstay of both insult comedy and “cringe comedy.” This is the kind of entertainment that makes you turn to the guy next to you and say, “I can’t believe he said that!” The music critic Frank Owen called it “belly-laugh comedy . . . the type of humor that rises involuntarily from the lower depths of your being, overwhelming your better judgment, good taste, and sense of decorum. No matter how cruel, no matter how insensitive, no matter how politically incorrect, you just have to laugh.”
That was the Diceman’s appeal in a nutshell. He took his audience to the edge of the cliff and then led them over it. He said what lots of guys (and more than a few ladies) were thinking but afraid to say, and his applause lines just begged to be repeated ad nauseam by adolescents of all ages.
Welcome to 2016, Diceman
What does all this have to do with life in 2016? Quite a bit, in fact. Donald Trump’s fans like him for a lot of the same reasons that guys a generation ago liked Dice. They’ll tell you Trump says what the others are afraid to say and he doesn’t care about political correctness. He tells it straight! Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg (no Trump fan) tapped into this appeal early in the campaign: “He’s unfiltered. The one thing you can be sure of is that he hasn’t consulted with a political consultant about how to talk.”
Consider his debutante coming-out moment in the first Republican debate, when Megyn Kelly asked him to defend some of his statements about women. “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” he retorted, to much applause. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”
There it was. Besides demonstrating the politician’s instinct for ducking questions, he established himself as the alpha dog at the opening gun, and anti-political-correctness became the central emotional theme of his entire campaign. He grasped the visceral appeal of a man who is willing to say the unsayable, and many of his supporters seem to agree that the White House is no place for thoughtfulness. They’ll tell you the last “thoughtful” president we had was Jimmy Carter, and that guy was much better at building houses than running the country.
By contrast, Democrats and quite a few Republicans see Trump much as the self-appointed tastemakers once saw the Diceman. Behold the labels: Trump is “an embarrassment,” “a fundamentally sad figure,” and “a sniveling coward”—and that’s just from Republicans. His critics on the Left are apoplectic. To them, Trump is an “insane bigot,” “a neofascist,” and an “Orwellian thug” (an embarrassing misuse of the adjective “Orwellian” if ever there was one). He’s the master of “middle-finger politics” and “a loser” prone to “petty bullying, attacks on women, cheap racism, [and] flagrant narcissism.” He’s “a serial-lying, xenophobic, offensively bombastic, crude, hate-mongering narcissist with a long list of business failures.”
Grandiose historical analogies, reductio ad Hitlerum, are very much in vogue. One Salon writer tells us Trump’s views are “as personally odious as Hitler’s,” while Danielle Allen argues in the Washington Post that Hannah Arendt’s musings on the banality of evil apply to Trump. Comedians Louis CK, Sarah Silverman, and Bill Maher have joined the chorus. “It was funny for a little while,” writes CK. “But the guy is Hitler. And by that I mean that we are being Germany in the 30s.”
Status Anxiety Over White Men
Interestingly, the doyens in the journals of record reserve some of their most scathing barbs not for Trump, but for his fans. Reading these commentaries, you can learn that “the core of the Trump phenomenon is decades of dog-whistle race-baiting made real: Trump is animating white racial fears.” You can learn that his supporters are “Americans with authoritarian inclinations,” and that all those “racist, xenophobic, misogynistic graybacks” are “fascist-supporting Trump voters.” If these are hardly original conclusions, perhaps one can understand the journalist’s temptation to oversimplify when a deadline looms.
These assessments closely mirror those of the Diceman’s critics, who saw the comedian’s popularity as proof that America’s male population was irrevocably degenerate. One wrote back in 1990 that Dice had mastered “the language of the embattled white tribe,” i.e., people who “resent integration—especially affirmative action—as an imposition and a threat.” Jon Pareles of the New York Times argued that “as [Dice] lashes out against women, gays, the Japanese, or anyone else who would seem to stand in the way of his own gratification, his popularity shows that others identify with that anger, whether he intends to exorcise it or stoke it.”
White, male status anxiety was a consistent theme. “Mr. Clay has devised a public persona,” wrote Pareles, “that carries male high-school humor, bawdy and bullying, to the world outside the locker room. In the process . . . it exploits the tensions that are arising as white heterosexual males find that the days of unquestioned dominance are over.” Others implied that Dice was provoking violent behavior by encouraging fans’ fascistic tendencies. John J. O’Connor of the Times suggested that “anyone who has witnessed a Clay performance, with its mostly white, mostly male audience shouting and rising to its feet with clenched fists, comes to a fresh realization of what a Nazi rally must have been like.”
I don’t want to belabor the comparison. Critics seem to hate Trump slightly more than they hate his fans. And while Dice was just a guy who told jokes, Trump seeks the nation’s highest office. But it is hard to deny that much of the anger directed at Trump is for what he and his “tribe” represent—and for his unorthodox methods of persuasion—as much or more than it is for his policy positions. More to the point, many of Trump’s supporters, like Dice’s fans of yore, recoil from elites who seem hell-bent on controlling the words, deeds, and thoughts of working-class men.
Kill that Straw Man Dead
A few reporters have actually tried to understand Trump backers’ feelings of alienation and powerlessness in a rapidly changing society and in an economy that has left many behind. Others lament the caricaturing of Trump voters, though they do not necessarily support Trump himself.
The great Joe Bob Briggs has highlighted the First Amendment roots of Trump’s appeal. Still others have gone so far as to print these voters’ words verbatim—a practice that would be more common had not so many writers already decided these supporters are beneath consideration.
Anyone actually willing to listen to them will hear nuanced concerns about stagnant wages, outsourcing blue-collar jobs, unchecked immigration, big money in politics, health-care costs, the venality of political elites, disadvantageous trade deals, the threat of militant Islam, the specter of more unwinnable Middle Eastern wars, and the like. Looming over all of this is the “political correctness” factor. Many of the voters who are (perhaps legitimately) frustrated with the political, media, and business elites do not much appreciate having those same elites simplistically interpret their sentiments as racist and sexist. “Trump’s becoming an icon of irreverent resistance to political correctness,” writes one libertarian pundit. “It’s why people like him.”
Thomas Frank’s recent work does much to explain these developments. He concludes that we are seeing a significant political shift because the Democratic Party has done little to address income inequality and the problems blue-collar workers face. In partial consequence, Republicans have become the party of the white working class, while Democrats have traded their traditional working-class base for a new constituency centered on the professional class, minorities, public sector unions, and young women. These trends began years ago, but the divisions have never been clearer than they are today.
A Revolt over Language Control as a Tool to Maintain Power
Of course, a candidate isn’t “right” just because he speaks his mind, and Trump is wrong about plenty. But make no mistake: it is our culture’s hypersensitive obsessions that have made the man a hero to so many, and it is these same obsessions that have allowed populist anti-elitism to meld seamlessly with anti-political-correctness in this election. The liberal, Western world won’t accept blatant government control of the public sphere, but we do live under a complicated set of ever-evolving social rules governing acceptable language and ideas in the workplace, on college campuses, in the news media, and elsewhere.
There is nothing wrong with calling for more civility in the public square, but sadly the scarlet labels of modern heresy—racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobe, Islamophobe—are more often invoked to bully people into silence and enforce orthodox thinking. Where once liberals defended free expression as a matter of principle, their progressive counterparts now do the opposite, because to truly defend free speech is to believe that ordinary people can decide for themselves the realities of the world around them and the limits of acceptable discourse.
But the mind doesn’t want to be controlled. The mind seeks freedom; the mind seeks truth. As the great Russian novelist Boris Pasternak wrote in “Dr. Zhivago,” “What has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth.” (For the record, Pasternak knew a bit about totalitarianism.) So strong have the social restrictions been in recent years that it is hardly surprising an anti-elite rebellion has taken the form of an anti-PC candidate.
Can we expect unarmed truth from Trump? Of course not. He’s not a philosopher or a theologian. He’s a political candidate and a businessman whose chief product is a brand called Trump. As his campaign has worn on, he has looked increasingly like a combination of the Diceman, P.T. Barnum, and Monty Brewster (Richard Pryor) in the 1985 comedy “Brewster’s Millions.” “Let’s get to the bottom line,” the multimillionaire Brewster tells his audience. “I’m here to buy your vote. . . . [but] only an idiot would vote for me.” He then implores his audience to pull the lever for “None of the Above.”
The appeal of the fictional Brewster is, by and large, the appeal of the real Trump. That is, if a guy is rich and rebellious enough, then he’s also independent enough to indict the entire system. Like any protest candidate (think Ross Perot, Ralph Nader), his countenance is purely oppositional, and he can use words the polished career politicians won’t touch. This doesn’t make him “right,” but one could make a pretty good case that violating taboos is its own form of truth.
PC Killed Diceman; Will It Get Trump?
Back to the Diceman. If we wanted to be pompous about it, we could say he was one link in a long chain of iconoclastic comedians stretching from Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor to today’s provocateurs. Dice couldn’t touch Carlin’s and Pryor’s standup abilities, but consider the ironies. When Carlin developed his classic “seven dirty words” routine in the 1970s, he was expressing a sentiment that was unabashedly liberal. Who are these self-appointed moralists, he asked, to tell you what you can and cannot say?
But by the Diceman’s time, the Old Guard establishment had given way to a progressive one, which, while it did not shrink from profanity or sex talk, sure abhorred anything it perceived to be sexist. (One is reminded of Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel’s confused query, “What’s wrong with being sexy?”)
Andrew Dice Clay was the first comedian to be undone by this progressive establishment, though his downfall had just as much to do with the shelf life of the character. People tired of the dirty nursery rhymes and the greaser act, and those jokes got a lot less shocking in the 1990s and 2000s. After a quarter-century of Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, cable TV, “South Park,” and the entire Internet, is anything shocking anymore?
It remains to be seen whether Trump will be similarly undone. Come debate season, will he change his shtick to broaden his appeal, or will he double down on his message? Since it’s gotten him this far, the smart money is on the latter. But like Dice, Trump may find that swagger can only take a performer so far, no matter how much your most dedicated fans want to see you stay on top.