Culture

The Trump Era as Unintended Political Satire — Recalling Peter Simple

President Trump at the G7 summit in Italy in May. (Photo: Stephane du Sakutin/Pool/Reuters)
In looking at the alternative universe created by the legendary Daily Telegraph columnist, present-day Americans look into a mirror.

Back in the 1970s, I had an office next door to one occupied by the Daily Telegraph’s great satirical (and occasionally surrealist) columnist, Peter Simple. For about 40 years Peter Simple delivered four times a week a superbly funny column, each one divided into five items and amounting to about 1,000 words in all, which depicted an amazing menagerie of imaginary characters — fantastical creatures from an alternative universe but also oddly similar to real living persons who appeared in the paper’s regular news pages.

These inventions included Dr. Spacely-Trellis, the go-ahead bishop of Bevindon, ecumenical “trans-faith” leader, and author of God the Humanist; Dr. Heinz Kiosk, psychological adviser to the Gas Marketing Board, who described Enoch Powell’s restrictionist speeches on immigration as “a cry for help”; Mrs. Dutt-Pauker, the progressive Hampstead thinker, whose homes included Marxmount in London and Leninmore in the West of Ireland and who thought that the white Rhodesians, in addition to being white and reactionary, were rather common as well; Stan and Janet Nodule, the traffic-jam fans whose idea of a good time was either a terrific “snarl-up” or a picnic on the hard edge of motorways; Dr. Abdul Castrumba, the portable all-purpose revolutionary leader, who graduated in time to become a great neo-Koranic scholar and professor of social subversion at Soup Hales university; Mary-Lou Ogreburg, born in Dissentville, Ohio, who now directs the People’s Bread and Marmite Street Dance Theatre Workshop in London; Royston Vibes, 18th-year sociology student and leader of the Aztec Liberation Front in the Midlands town of Stretchford, who claims the public library as Aztec territory in perpetuity since it was first occupied by his ancestors after they had crossed the Atlantic in stone boats; and Senator Patrick Flannelly, legendary orator and sympathizer with the Irish Republican Navy.

You can find a full list of Simple’s characters, together with a list of published compilations of his columns here.

They add up to an astonishing achievement, and I can think of very few long-running journalistic performances that compare to them. The nearest one, though very different, is the commentary on news of religious interest that the late Father Richard Neuhaus wrote in the last 20 or so pages of his own magazine, First Things. Both gave their readers what the novelist Kingsley Amis called the feeling that “They can never win” even though they have been winning pretty steadily since about 1968.

And that posed Peter Simple a particularly difficult problem.

Peter Simple in real life was the writer Michael Wharton who, unlike his grandly aristocratic columnar personality, was a modest, unassuming, and soft-voiced middle-class journalist from the West Riding of Yorkshire. His secretary, Claudie Worsthorne, the wife until her death of Perry (Sir Peregrine to you) Worsthorne (deputy editor of the Sunday Telegraph), would lament, over a gin and tonic in the next-door King and Keys pub, in her distinctive French accent: “Oh, poor Michael is in terrible straits today. ‘E is pacing the floor fruitlessly. ‘Ow can anyone write satire when the front page is full of it every day? ‘E cannot possibly catch up with reality.”

I remember a young editorialist suggesting that some government policy should be carried out ‘like a military operation’ and my boss, Colin Welch, responding with the mild question, ‘Erm, have you ever served in the armed forces?’

Amazingly, Michael managed. But it was hard going, and since his death reality has sped up. The last week alone witnessed an avalanche of news stories each one of which would have given an old-fashioned quill-wielding satirist like Jonathan Swift enough material for a book. And on occasions life seems to imitate art.

Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, for instance, looks so much like a refugee from the Simple column that I’m surprised he got through immigration. Within one week this successful Wall Street financier had “schmoozed the media,” apparently successfully, at his first White House briefing; held a late night “expletive-laced” telephone conversation with a political correspondent for The New Yorker; denounced both Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon — from time to time the president’s two closest advisers — in, er, expletive-laced terms ; secured the replacement of his rival Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff; and, smiling through, was still the tough-talking White House communications chief at the weekend.

He even charmed the BBC with his amiable boasting that unlike backstabbing Washington lowlifes, he was an admirably straightforward “front-stabber” from a tougher and more authentic Brooklyn. His denunciations of Priebus and Bannon in his interview with The New Yorker — where he plainly realized too late that he was talking on the record — didn’t quite reflect this open-hearted candor. But his flamboyant success seemed to herald the transformation of the Trump White House from a quasi-Republican administration to a full-blown Noo Yawk one, peopled by characters from Damon Runyon, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, and Wall Streeters like Gordon Gekko.

It was not to be. I had just written “No word yet on whether he still reports directly to the Prez or whether in future he will have to go through the formidable Kelly. So his rough ride may be over. Or he may be enjoying that brief moment of stillness at the highest point of the roller-coaster before his car descends suddenly into oblivion.” And that final fate turned out to be the case: The Mooch had roared — once.

Trump’s Noo Yawk administration now seems to be morphing into an armed-forces sitcom with generals taking over the senior positions and barking orders at each other across the primeval chaos. Will those orders be carried out? Will they have the desired effect? Has the necessary “reconnaissance” been done? I remember a young editorialist suggesting that some government policy should be carried out “like a military operation” and my old Daily Telegraph boss, Colin Welch, responding with the mild question, “Erm, have you ever served in the armed forces?” (He had not.)

Nor is every retired general a potential Napoleon. Some have a greater resemblance to Peter Simple’s Lieutenant General Sir Frederick “Tiger” Nidgett, retired commanding officer of the Royal Army Tailoring Corps and unemployed Man of Destiny, who waited eternally in the wings for the call of history. It never came. He had to pass the time writing his autobiography, Up Sticks and Away (Viper and Bugloss, £18.99; paperback, £9.99), about the lessons he had learned in his many retreats from empire (“Tap a drum in Fez and its echo will be heard in Jakarta”) and giving prime ministers sage advice on how to conduct the war on terror: “We must build bridges with the average moderate terrorist. Without them, he will promptly shin up the proverbial gum tree like a dose of salts, spitting defiance at all and sundry. Engage him in dialogue, and he will be as putty in your hands.”

We must hope that “Mad Dog” Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and the newly arrived General Kelly are made of more skeptical and less talkative stuff — although the U.S. is itself getting more experience in retreating from empire these days. But even if the leaders of these White House Regulars manage to put together a strategy to calm the chaos by defeating the various mad mullahs and seductive, dark-eyed Russian lawyers swirling around the administration, they will still have the problem of how to subdue President Trump himself.

Trump’s British alter ego on The Apprentice, Sir Alan Sugar, is obviously superstitious and has taken to denouncing the president at intervals like a peasant warding off a devil by naming him.

Let me admit that Trump himself doesn’t seem to appear in Peter Simple. There are faint foreshadowings of a kind of English Trump in the form of J. Bonington Jagworth, the leader of the Motorists’ Liberation Front, who is devoted to “the basic right of every motorist to drive as fast as he pleases, how he pleases and over what or whom he pleases.” But that comparison takes us only up to Trump’s rise on television reality shows before he became an international political celebrity. Interestingly, Trump’s British alter ego on The Apprentice, Sir Alan Sugar, has risen with almost as little trace as Trump and is now a full-blown Lord in the Upper House. Plainly anxious to ward off any suggestions that he and a reality-television-show vulgarian stateside have anything in common, Lord Sugar has taken to denouncing Trump at intervals like a peasant warding off a devil’s curse by naming him. To get some idea of what a British Trump would be like, imagine a combination of Sugar and Jeremy Clarkson — pretty unstoppable, you’ll agree.

And of course the American Trump is bound to be bigger and better. He’s the boss, and there is only so much you can do to subdue or even sedate the boss.

How bad or terminal is that? Don’t good things get done — the naming of conservative judges, the pruning of regulations that obstruct enterprise, Trump’s support for the toughening of migration rules, much else? Sure, the overall picture isn’t a car crash. At the same time, somehow the long-predicted oasis of stability in the administration never arrives. Trump is a Lord of Misrule empowered by tweets to frustrate the most careful safeguards of his keepers and to rush around overturning the compromises and agreements they have worked out. That turns the White House on alternate days into an amazing combination of Advise and Consent and Hellzapoppin’ or a Marx Brothers movie in which Trump is played Groucho Marx.

But just when I am about to demand a recount, I read the Left critics of Trump. Yale historian Timothy Snyder, for instance, looks at this panorama of chaos and bumbling — where small-town liberal judges frustrate the president’s indisputable authority over migration, and his own party falls apart over health legislation that was far more their policy than his — and sees a looming threat to democracy. He goes on record to predict the inevitability that Trump will try to stage a coup d’état and bring American democracy to an end.

Now, Trump may not be a character in Peter Simple, but Timothy Snyder assuredly is, and potentially one of the most hilarious, warning crazedly of Trump’s military conspiracies as the president plays another golf game, suggesting that Trump is organizing the Boy Scouts to march on Washington as the U.S. State Department and Pentagon deny ever having received presidential directives on any topic, and revealing that all members of Congress had been secretly arrested and transported to Guantanamo in the dead of night as Trump is impeached, convicted, and led away in chains. All the time, of course, Snyder would be wearily accepting massive advances for a new book-linked “unreality television” series, Profiles of Resistance, that I believe has already won several Pulitzer prizes.

But I must depart for a moment and lie down. My doctor has diagnosed me as suffering from an illness mentioned in Peter Simple that has not yet become fashionable in America. It’s called passive drinking and will shortly sweep the country. I think I must have picked it up in Fleet Street.

READ MORE:

Trump: The Series — the Comedy We Want Invites Tragedies We Don’t

The Trump Presidency Is a Stress Test

Bonfire of the Inanities: A White House Divided against Itself

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