Have you ever wondered why clowns often scare so many little children? Clown costumes and makeup amplify and distort normal human features and dress. We may see them as funny, but their image and demeanor can also appear monstrous. Much of clown behavior is exaggerated and it can even appear anti-social. Thus, some perceive it as threatening. Even some adults find clowns and their antics unsettling.
Characters in movies like Killer Clown in 1978 and “The Joker” in the Batman series of movies and TV depicted evil clowns. Dozens of other movies have portrayed clowns who were evil underneath their comic façade. Strangely, well, maybe not so strangely, in 2016, a rash of “creepy clown” sightings occurred in several states across the nation. Some have suggested that such “clown sightings” surge in periods when social anxiety is high. The sightings connect with the psychological effect of priming, a phenomenon where a “priming” stimulus triggers another stimulus associated with anxiety.
Well, 2016 certainly was a year full of stressful stimuli that produced a lot of social anxiety, which endures today with the Trumping of American democracy. How can the public persona of Donald J. Trump appear so laughable to some and so scary to others, while appearing as a savior to the new racist white nationalist base of the Republican Party? I think the clown-suit metaphor applies well here.
It is interesting to note that during the 2016 Republican primaries, some critics characterized “The Donald” as the lead clown in the “Republican Clown Car,” loaded with candidates of dubious merit and peculiar penchants. Most, however, had actual political positions, however extreme, and they were career politicians.
A key feature of clown suits and makeup is that they reveal only the illusion of an extreme character and nothing about who may hide behind them. Regular comedians can be funny without the aid of the anonymity and the extreme caricature offered by the clown suit. But Trump is no comedian; his clown suit hides a very dark personality revealed only by decades of investigative reporting of his disturbing immoral if not entirely illegal behavior patterns, such as revealed by David Kay Johnston,  who on meeting Trump in the 1980s immediately identified him as the modern P.T. Barnum.
The most striking thing about the clown suit that is Donald J. Trump may not be the constant flow of outright lies or the degradation rituals to which he subjects his subordinates, but the emptiness behind it all. Also striking is the extent to which his “base” (or should I say, fans?) can sustain a degree of adoration for a façade behind which lies only angry emptiness. If we look behind the demagoguery of the public persona, we find no coherent policy in any political, economic, or social domain, only undifferentiated hatred and greed.
The leaked conversations with foreign leaders such as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull provide a glimpse of what lies behind the façade. A complete lack of knowledge or focus upon the policy matters discussed was exposed. In private conversation, Trump sounds obsessed with the effect that various actions or agreements might have on his public persona, which is the clown suit itself.
Tragically, in private conversations, Trump reveals himself as concerned only with his unending candidacy for adulation and the potential persuasive entertainment value his actions might have. When we look for a political grounding for the public persona in private conversation, we find that there is no there there. Sure, he acts in the interests of his own financial gain and that of the billionaire class. But the clown suit is otherwise empty of substance.
If we dare to look behind the clown suit, we find not a presidential person, but an empty cluster of psychopathologies incapable of rendering a rational policy decision of any kind. Many politicians suppress their personal values and even rational policy analysis to achieve their political goals related to election or re-election. They pander to the richest industrial and financial interests in search of the funding of their next campaign.
Yet some, like “maverick” Senator John McCain occasionally stand on principle when confronted by the institutionally and socially destructive legislative maneuvers of a Mitch McConnell. Meanwhile, “President Trump” bills the secret service for renting space in Trump Tower or equipment at Mar-a-Lago needed for his protection. When we look behind The Donald’s clown suit, we find no principles or a genuine person, only the emptiness of narcissistic sociopathy, and as a clinical therapist suggested to me, a bit of autism.
Trump’s latest cold indifference to the death of a young woman who a neo-Nazi killed using an ISIS terrorist tactic during the racist white nationalist neo-confederate torch-light demonstration in Charlotte, confirms the empty hatred behind the clown suit of the pseudo-president. It also reveals his unbounded willingness to exploit the hatred of others, as well as his own hatred, in service to his own demagoguery. The new boldness of fascist and racist groups in America increases in direct proportion to the equivocating cover provided by the empty clown suit of Donald Trump.
Chuck Todd opened Sunday’s “Meet the Press” program after the Charlotte tragedy with the question, “Did he lose his moral authority?”
What? Well, yes, we generally assumed that presidents have moral authority by virtue of the high office they hold. However, …
The Empty Clown Suit never had any moral authority.
 David Kay Johnston, The Making of Donald Trump (New York: Melville House, 2016).