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Actors play to different audiences. So do politicians

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As an improvisational comedian, I have different audiences. One is during rehearsals with my troupe, when it’s my own colleagues—my peers and fellow actors—watching. This is a “tough house.” They know me, and they know the rules of improv. If I violate a rule, my fellow actors instantly see it. They add frisson to rehearsals. But their approval is also valued, even craved. The most satisfying hurrahs come from those who understand how hard you’re working.

My other audience consists of the public, the paying customers. On performance night, they file into the theatre to be entertained. Maybe it’s Friday night, maybe it’s a date; they just want to have fun. They don’t know the rules of the stage, nor do they care. They don’t know us personally: our anxieties, our habits, our strengths and weaknesses. When a player makes a technical mistake—the kind his peers would easily spot—the public audience doesn’t know. This makes them more fun to perform to. They’re forgiving.

Politicians, too, play to different audiences. In Trump’s case, he has many such, but two in particular stand out. One of his audiences, which is the equivalent of playing to his peers and colleagues, is the U.S. Congress: his fellow elected politicians, who under our Constitution are co-equal with the presidency. This week, with Corker’s and Flake’s incredible denunciations of Trump, the Senate has been a tough house for Trump to play. They know how an American president ought to act; they know Trump’s tricks, how he debases the office. They perceive every stunt, every incompetence, every insane tweet, every lie. Trump understands he’s being judged by them on a professional level, and he hates it. When he was a pussy-grabbing billionaire in New York City, he had no peers. This is why Trump’s doppelganger, Bannon, is out there targeting Senate Republicans. He wants to get rid of the tough crowd, the peers, and replace it with the political equivalent of the paying audience. Better a Roy Moore than a John McCain.

“They think you’re idiots,” Bannon told a crowd yesterday. In case the “they” of his scorn wasn’t apparent, Bannon made it crystal clear. “I’m talking about Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans.” Trump’s easiest house to play to is, of course, his base. They’re not there to judge or critique him. They want to be entertained. When you play to a supportive public, you can feel the waves of energy. It lifts you up on waves of love; it’s addictive. This is why politicians love to get out of harsh, judgmental Washington and back to their base. It’s why Trump craves his red state rallies. His supporters are not looking for intelligent analyses of complicated policy issues (although they should be). In the words of Republican congressman Thomas Massie, they’re looking for “the craziest son of a bitch,” and in Trump, they found it.

This is why Bannon got it right when he accuses Senate Republicans like McConnell, Corker and Flake of thinking that Trump supporters are “idiots.” Every sane Republican thinks Trump supporters are “idiots.” Because they are! As a wordsmith, I have to be careful how I use such terms. The word “idiot” can refer to what used to be called a “retarded” person, “mentally equal or inferior to a child two years old,” according to my Webster’s dictionary. That’s not how I mean it when applied to Trump supporters. I readily concede they are “mentally superior” to a two-year old. But another meaning of “idiot” is “ignorant person,” and that is what Trump supporters are. It’s how Republican Senators like McConnell, Flake and Corker see them, too, although they can’t come out and say so.

These Trump supporters know that many Americans view them as idiots, and they resent this. It’s a huge part of the reason why, in their pique, they voted for Trump in the first place: to stick their finger in the eye of the “elites.” When Trump shows up and encourages them in their resentments, they love it. He plays to them, they play to him.

As an improv performer, I understand Trump’s affection for his base. I too prefer to play to the public. It’s easier. But I know that playing to my peers, while harder, is healthier for me, professionally. They hold me to a higher standard. If I want to grow in my craft—which I do—then feedback from my peers is what I need.

Trump also is a performer. Like his authoritarian peers around the globe—Erdogan, Duterte, Putin–he isn’t interested in getting better at his job. He has no interest in policy issues, in history, in the moral impact of the presidency. He’s interested only in holding onto power. His two audiences—the base and the Congress—will never stand in his way, the first because they don’t want to, the second because they can’t. But there is an audience Trump can’t charm or browbeat: Robert Mueller.

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