I wonder if a new trend is developing in the journalistic world in which this or that journalist calls Donald Trump or someone in his administration a schlemiel (see this article – for instance -that calls Sean Spicer a schlemiel character). Mind you – as I’ve said many times on this blog – there are positive and negative readings on the schlemiel (some endearing, others insulting). Think – for instance – of Woody Allen, Larry David, Seth Rogen, Jason Alexander, Gretta Gerwig, or Charlie Chaplin’s portrayals (to mention only a small handful) of the schlemiel. It is a funny and endearing character. Even Bernie Sanders loves it (and it even becomes a question for him in a Rachel Maddow interview. Is he really Larry David – in other words, is he really a schlemiel?
But in Peggy Noonan’s recently op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Trump is Woody Allen Without the Humor” that charm and humor is subtracted. Noonan makes Trump into a schlemiel who….isn’t funny. The article has become very popular and – already – has over 1600 comments. I’d like to briefly look at her portrayal and see what it implies about her take on the schlemiel character. Noonan’s take on the schlemiel – with its shots at the schlemiel’s masculinity – sounds a lot like Bruce Jay Freidman’s negative (and dark) portrayal of the schlemiel in his popular novel from the early 60s, Stern.
Noonan’s subtitle suggests that what makes him a schlemiel are his tweets: “Half his tweets show utter weakness. They are plaintive, shrill little cries, usually after dawn.” This suggests that the schlemiel is a weak character who makes “shrill cries.” This dichotomy between weakness and strength (power and powerlessness) found in the schlemiel character is nothing new. Ruth Wisse draws on it in her introduction to The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.
Noonan’s description actually goes to the core of reading the schlemiel in terms of masculinity and femininity:
The president’s primary problem as a leader is not that he is impetuous, brash, or naive. It’s not that he is inexperienced, crude, and outsider. It is that he is weak and sniveling. It is that he undermines himself almost daily by ignoring traditional norms and forms of American masculinity.
He’s not strong and self-controlled, not cool and tough, not low-key and determined; he’s whiny, weepy, and self-pitying. He throws himself, sobbing, at the body politic. He’s the drama queen….Trump must remind people of their first wife. Actually his wife, Melania, is tougher than he is with her stoicism and grace, her self-discipline and desire to show the world respect by presenting herself with dignity.
Noonan doesn’t stop here. She defines the American male as the anti-Schlemiel. The masculine ideal as the American ideal:
The way American men used to like seeing themselves, the template they most admired, was the strong silent type celebrated in the classic mid-20th century films – Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda. In time the style shifted, and we wound up with the nervous and chattery. More than a decade ago the producer and write David Chase had his Tony Soprano mourn the disappearance of the old style….The new style was more like that of Woody Allen. His characters won’t stop talking about their emotions, their resentments, their needs.
But, says Noonan, while they were “comic” he “wasn’t putting it out as a new template for maleness. Donald Trump now is like an unfunny Woody Allen.” This sentence suggests that while Woody Allen was not putting out a “new template for maleness,” Donald Trump is. This point is debatable. In fact, A.O. Scott has delved into this topic in his resentful piece on what he calls the “end of adulthood” and “permanent adolescence” in American culture. For Scott, this has deeper roots and seems to be a problem that pre-dates Trump. The template goes deep.
Noonan sticks to this theme in the article and – like Scott – ponders the implications:
A lot of boys and young men, who’ve grown up in a culture confused about what men are and do. Who teaches them the real dignity and meaning of being a man? Mostly good fathers and teachers.
The irony – notes Noonan – is that when Trump addressed Boy Scouts in the Boy Scout Jamboree last week he opted to speak to them like a man, he failed.
“His inability – not his refusal, but his inability – to embrace the public and rhetorical role of the presidency consistently and constructively is weal.” Noonan ends her article by saying that the people around him won’t help because Scaramucci – in her view – is yet another schlemiel.
Her take reminds me of Bruce Jay Friedman’s portrayal of Stern in his novel of the same name because the character doesn’t make one laugh. The schlemiel Freidman created in that novel makes one feel pity or – as Ruth Wisse suggests – disgust. But he does have some charm to him which, arguably, redeems his character. Noah Baumbach has learned from this model and casts Ben Stiller in similar types of roles – see Greenberg (2010) or While we are Young (2015).
But Trump is not alone in playing the schlemiel role. Besides Larry David casting Bernie Sanders as a schlemiel, President Obama also tried his hand at it. But he did so with the help of Steven Spielberg. What I’d like to suggest with this is that schlemiel is a fluid character. It can be used, politically, in many ways. Its valence is pragmatic. And perhaps – as I suggest elsewhere – it may mark the difference between cynicism and what Peter Sloterdijk calls kynicism.