The legendary Stephen Sondheim wrote the song Send in the Clowns as part of the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. The song is a ballad in the second act where the character Desiree reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life.
The song was popularized by the likes of Judy Collins and Frank Sinatra and, just about one year ago, Barbra Streisand returned to Madison Square Garden after a 13 year hiatus to do a send-up of Donald Trump featuring Sondheim’s song. Then, it was largely about his financial shenanigans. But her parody is perhaps more relevant now than ever as Trump’s response to the twin plagues infecting our nation—the coronavirus pandemic and systemic racism—are addressed almost comically on the national stage. And this week, Trump’s minions have been unleashed in pathetically public ways.
Resident congressional clown Louie Gohmert (R-TX) has come down with coronavirus (apparently, “resident” should be taken literally since it is reported that Congressman Gohmert lives in his office). Gohmert has been an ardent supporter of Donald Trump and a fool-who-walks-the-halls-of-Congress-without-a-mask. When informed that he had tested positive (he was only tested because he was about to fly to Texas with the President), his initial response was to blame wearing the mask. He then compounded his foolishness by telling Sean Hannity that he would start treatment for his infection by taking the drug hydroxychloroquine which has no proven efficacy against the virus. You can’t make this stuff up.
But Donald Trump does not need Louie Gohmert to take the spotlight from him as a clown. Everything the President seems to do–from raising the possibility of injecting bleach into the body to fight the virus to his photo op in front of St. John’s Church to his bromance with Vladimir Putin to his recent racist appeals to suburban whites–smacks of clownish behavior. Joined by another administration jester, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Trump announced rescinding the Obama-era fair housing act. This smacks of idiocy on so many levels—ethically, empathetically, electorally—that it is hard to see it as anything other than clownish behavior.
Trump tweeted, “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood,” and Carson chimed in that the 2015 rule was “unworkable and ultimately a waste of time for localities to comply with.”
Let’s remember the role that clowns play in performance lore—from rodeos to Broadway—they are employed when things get dangerous or subjects become too hot to handle. And Sondheim’s lyrical intent is laced with sadness. This is where we are as a nation—on a razor’s edge at home, our prestige precipitously falling overseas. Seemingly without many weapons left in our arsenal to right the wrongs that have so divided us as a people, we turn to grim humor and watch in disbelief as the administration sends in the clowns. Sondheim’s lyrics are particularly poignant:
But where are the clowns
Send in the clowns
Don’t bother, they’re here