BEING DONALD: Double Dealing: A film fit for a President?

There have been some wonderful films and novels whose plots have a doppelgänger step in for a leader and guide their country to a better place. How might that happen in Washington to deal with an obviously unsuitable president?

The other day, taking a mid-afternoon break from closely following the continuing madness of the Trump administration, I took two hours away from those unhappy pursuits to watch, once again, a favorite film, Dave. Starring Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella, and Ben Kingsley, among others, the ensemble cast, its delightful script, and the crisp directing, took the mickey out of Washington’s oh-so-familiar, pompous, power hungry figures and their machinations. In case some readers are unfamiliar with the film, the basic story concerns US President Bill Michell, a well-known womaniser (at least to his staff, if not the larger national population), who suffers a massive stroke while in the midst of an assignation with one of his more “devoted” female admirers and staff aides. His two most senior aides, meanwhile, see this unexpected event as an opportunity to carry out a kind of bureaucratic coup d'état – bureaucratic tasty lemonade out of political lemons – when they realise they can hide the mortally ill president in a secret medical suite in the basement of the White House. Then they will bring in a doppelgänger of the president to impersonate the real man, get the vice president removed for corruption, have one of the plotters appointed in his place, and then whisk away the impersonator while the real president finally succumbs to his already-critical condition. The impersonator they find is someone who runs a small employment agency in Washington, but who in the evenings works part-time as a comedian whose shtick is to impersonate the incumbent president, and he is actually really good, even if he doesn’t know much about government. His resemblance is sufficiently impressive, in fact, that it has dawned on the plotters that here is the precise tool they can use as Mitchell’s stand-in (and their own cat’s paw), while they get the wheels of their coup into gear and rolling ahead. Not surprisingly, the plot of Dave borrows significantly from one of Alexander Dumas’ tales of derring-do by the Three Musketeers, The Man In the Iron Mask, as well as Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. In all three cases, the man who replaces – or fills in for – the incumbent is a far better person, with solid, honest principles and real virtues; the very things that are significantly lacking in the incumbent he is replacing. And naturally, the spouse or fiancé eventually figures it out, falls for the better man, and effectively becomes an accomplice in outwitting the miscellaneous malefactors and plotters trying to use him for their purposes. In Dave and in the Dumas tale, the two accidental would-be lovers do get together in the end, while over in Ruritania, Rudolf Rassendyll, the cousin of King Rudolf, doesn’t get to live happily ever after with Princess Flavia, even after he has put everything to right in that romantic Mittel European land. And so, while I have been watching the most recent carryings on, the raving and ranting, the intemperate Twitter storms broadcast in the middle of the night by a restless, insomniac, incumbent US president, both at home and abroad, against allies, friends and innocent bystanders alike – all of this has made me wonder if a scenario similar to any of these three fictional stories could possibly be a pathway towards fixing some of the dreadful things now happening in Washington. That is, of course, if Nancy Pelosi (the once-and-presumably-future speaker of the house) and company can't make things work better – or, at the very least, instill some tough, take-few-prisoners congressional oversight to get some adult supervision on site. But, just imagine if the president really took seriously ill (with or without the triggering assignation), and Chief of Staff John Kelly and CIA Director Mike Pompeo found a presidential impersonator who looked the part with the hair and the sneer, and had all the verbal tics and gestures under his fingers, but whose political instincts were more consistent and much more humane. Would it be too far a stretch to see the pseudo-Trump being ushered into the Oval Office for a try at the tiller? Could things go worse? Okay, too far a fictional stretch for you? Well how about a long-forgotten cousin from Scotland or Bavaria with an uncanny resemblance to Donald Trump, who while on an ordinary tourist visit to America is rounded up as a stand-in for the suddenly indisposed president. They do use really good body doubles for the rich and the famous sometimes in this world. And so, with careful guidance, perhaps he could help calm some of the roiled waters. He might even take some guidance from experienced senior staffers, besides those who are dues paying members of the “Trump Forever” cult such as Kellyanne Conway. But maybe her husband could encourage her to dial it down a bit. Or try this. Maybe it has been a little-known fact that Donald was actually an identical twin, but through some dreadful hospital mix-up – quietly and quickly hushed up – Donald's similarly infant twin had been whisked off to a quiet life on an isolated Idaho sheep ranch, where his only companions were Basque herders sworn to silence and his trusty sheep dog. As it happened, one of his dismissed former aides, on a mind-clearing vacation in Idaho, noticed the mind-shatteringly identical physiognomy of one of his fishing guides on the Snake River. When he heard of the president’s circumstances, he reached out quietly to friends in Washington, and so the plot was hatched. In Hollywood, such things always work out by the final reel. And with the right soundtrack and directorial nonce, it all seems reasonable and doable. In the movies, they call this kind of story the “idiot plot” where nobody notices all the obvious clues and incongruities scattered through the story. The problem, of course, is that Washington is not Hollywood and somebody would notice the change to relative civility in the tweets and the fact that the red tie would finally be tied properly. Sadly, perhaps, we can’t expect a clever scriptwriter’s deus ex machina to wrap everything up. And we realistically cannot expect the Democratic-led House of Representatives to straighten up all the chaos, manage a coherent foreign policy, and establish cogent goals for a more bipartisan domestic policy agenda, simply by having a whole raft of congressional investigations. A government is not to be run effectively through a committee of 250 people. That is why the role of the Republicans in the Senate will now be crucial. They can no longer afford to be hyponotised cheerleaders for everything their pumpkin-haired ringmaster says. Thus, EJ Dionne’s column in Thursday’s Washington Post makes a very important observation. As he wrote:

When a national leader urges that votes be ignored, or that an election result he doesn’t like might best be set aside, we label him an autocrat or an authoritarian.

When it’s President Trump, we shrug. Worse, many in his party go right along with his baseless charges of fraud.

We are in for a difficult two years. Surviving them will require that Republican senators take seriously the pledge they made in their oath of office to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic’. What we have seen so far is not encouraging.

All this is about more than Trump’s obvious meltdown since an election that was bad for him and his party — and gets worse as more votes are tallied. It is about whether Republicans are willing to contain and, when necessary, oppose a man who repeatedly demonstrates hostility to the rules, norms and constraints of constitutional democracy....

It was, thus, good news this week when 14 conservative and libertarian lawyers announced the formation of a new organisation called Checks and Balances. Its ranks include George T. Conway III , who happens to be the husband of White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, and former homeland security secretary and Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.

Their organising statement declared the group’s dedication to ‘the rule of law, the power of truth, the independence of the criminal justice system, the imperative of individual rights, and the necessity of civil discourse’.

Tellingly, they insisted that their commitment to these principles applied ‘regardless of the party or persons in power’ and reflected their faith in ‘free speech, a free press, separation of powers and limited government’.

Up to now, conservatives opposed to Trump have had little impact on their party. Too many, especially among elected officials, have pulled their punches in the crunch and fallen silent under pressure.

The test will be whether four or five GOP senators prove willing to break with Trump’s apologists in their party’s leadership when it matters — and when it’s hard. Defending the Florida recount as legitimate and necessary would be a good start. So would supporting a bill protecting special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and insisting that his findings be made public. Lovely words about the truth and the rule of law are powerless against a president who respects neither.”

The problem in our real world, rather than in LaLa Land or a 19th century romantic novel, is whether or not a half dozen or more GOP senators can come out from their current trance and stand up for the national interest. We must now watch and wait to see if they can resist the siren's call and help steer the ship away from the rocks. DM