There are a lot of sayings about how history is always repeating itself, about how if we want to learn about the future, we need to understand the past. But it never feels like it applies to the period in which we are living until we’ve suffered through it and can contrast it with the past, and that’s never felt truer than the Trump presidency. He is an historical aberration, right? We’ll course correct in the next election, and we’ll get back on the path, right? “The long arm of history bends toward justice,” and all that.
I was researching something else over the weekend, however, and I was completely struck by an article I read from 1990. We did not elect an insane man into the Presidency back then, but we did elevate the Trump of his day into one of the most popular people on the planet, and we did so for many of the same reasons.
I heard Aaron Sorkin on Maron’s podcast a couple of weeks ago, and they were talking about why Trump was elected, and I really do think that Sorkin was right: It’s not about Trump’s policies. Or economic anxiety. Or the idea that he’s some great man. It was about racism and sexism, but not directly. Trump was elected in response to progress. He was elected because his white voters thought that the country had gotten too politically correct; they thought that feminism had advanced too far; that civil rights were encroaching upon their privilege. As Sorkin said, the voters didn’t vote for Trump — he was a straw man — they voted to poke a stick in the eyes of liberals. They voted out of spite. It was a fuck you to social progress, to a black President, to the idea of a female President, to gay marriage, to transgender rights. The culture was advancing too quickly for them, so they decided to fuck us over to protect their own status.
The exact same thing happened 30 years ago, although it was not in the category of electoral politics. It was in the comedy world. The paragraph from a 1990 Washignton Post piece blew my mind:
Many commentators believe the [Andrew Dice Clay’s] popularity reveals something about our current culture. In GQ magazine last August, under the headline “The Comedy of Hate,” a female writer concluded that Clay’s fame isn’t surprising “given the intensely polarized America left in the wake of the Reagan years — deteriorating race relations, the rise of Aryan youth movements … and ex-Klansmen who can win state office.” Last December, a male writer in the Village Voice echoed: “Only the ’80s … can be held accountable for a phenomenon like this.”
In a spirited defense of Clay, a young, conservative critic at the Washington Times recently opined that audiences crack up because the Diceman “says things that have been declared off-limits by feminists and other sensitivity police.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? History is a never-ending loop of suck.
Culturally speaking, Andrew Dice Clay was the Donald Trump of his day. And like Trump, Dice was also sham. He was a persona. Andrew Dice Clay was a hacky comedian who did shitty Dad jokes and Elvis impersonations until he struck a nerve with this bit about a racist, homophobic, sexist Italian character. Andrew Clay took on the Diceman’s personality, not out of ideological desires, but because it’s what resonated with his audience. Andrew Clay became what his audience wanted.
If you’ve read any books on Trump and his campaign — and Bob Woodward’s is probably the best — they reveal that Trump, who was basically a non-political Democrat, changed all of his political positions to suit a new audience, and then he leaned into the positions that got big reactions until he became “Donald Trump.” The American electorate created Donald Trump, just as stand-up audiences back in 1990 created Andrew Dice Clay. At his peak, Dice could sell out back-to-back nights of Madison Square Garden. For a couple of years, Andrew Dice Clay was the biggest comedian on the planet.
There’s another paragraph in that piece that also felt weirdly relevant to the Trump parallels:
Regardless of what Dice-mania may reveal about us, it reveals plenty about him. Realizing the distinction between the Dice character and its host, in fact, is the first step toward understanding that Clay is worthy more of pity than either adoration or scorn. He seems terrifically insecure, and resolutely unwilling to confront it.
Like Trump, Dice also appeared as a host on SNL, much to the dismay of many, who probably felt that SNL was normalizing Dice’s racist, anti-feminist, gay-bashing, toxic brand of comedy. In fact, Nora Dunn and musical guest Sinead O’Conner boycotted the episode. And wouldn’t you know it: Dice used childish nicknames to bully her, too, calling her “Nora Dunce.” Trump would be so proud.
If there’s one comforting thought here, however, it’s that Andrew Dice Clay’s career essentially imploded because of the way he alienated everyone. Letterman and Leno rejected him. He was banned for life by MTV. The networks rejected his television pilot. His feature film The Adventures of Ford Fairlane bombed, soon after he boasted that he would be “the biggest movie star in the world.” By the early ’90s, Dice’s career was essentially dead. He was relegated to the celebreality bin, where even his VH1 reality show was quickly canceled, and where he would eventually appear on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, only to be the first celebrity fired.
Granted, he did appear in last year’s A Star is Born, and he was very good in the role, but that wasn’t The Diceman, the Italian caricature. That was Andrew Clay, the mediocre Jewish comedian with the Dad jokes and the Pacino impression.
There is a fascinating coda to this story, too. Some people suggest that Andrew Dice Clay’s career began its trajectory back into obscurity after Andrew Clay briefly punctured through The Diceman persona in an appearance on “The Arsenio Hall” show in which Clay cried. At the 8:25 mark here, for like half a minute, The Diceman betrays himself, and Andrew Clay briefly peeks through. It’s almost the equivalent of Donald Trump doing the unthinkable and apologizing.
I think part of the reason why Dice’s career began to sink after this interview is that his audience, his “base,” realized that Clay wasn’t this horrible, racist, homophobic caricature he pretended to be.
Personally, I don’t think that Clay was as bad as the horrible racist, homophobic Dice, either, but projecting that personality for fame and money is just as evil as Trump adopting political and cultural positions to amass power. The only difference is, I think Andrew Clay grew out of his persona. Trump has permanently adopted his.
What’s also interesting about this interview is that The Diceman talks about his relationship with Donald Trump, who basically made a business decision back then to ban Dice from all of his hotels and casinos. However, the two were still purportedly friends, and Trump apparently paid to fix the roof on the house of Clay’s sister. “No matter what they say, Donald Trump is here to stay,” Dice told Arsenio. “He’s a great guy.” I don’t know it for a fact, but I have a feeling that Andrew Clay would disagree with The Diceman’s assessment of Trump today.
Header Image Source: NBC