Paging Donald Trump’s Lawyers: Controversial NYC Playwright Bringing New Trump Play to Philly

Mike Daisey's stories about Apple led to a hugely embarrassing moment for This American Life.

Mike Daisey

Mike Daisey

New York-based author Mike Daisey has published more than two dozen monologues, with subjects that have included everything from Burning Man to L. Ron Hubbard to Steve Jobs. His work is not without controversy. In 2012, the popular public radio show This American Life retracted and apologized for a story it ran about Daisey’s visit to the Apple factory in China, explaining that “many of Mike Daisey’s experiences in China were fabricated.”

Well, Daisey’s latest work will no doubt be controversial as well. In July, the “master storyteller,” as the New York Times labelled Daisey, will perform his brand new monologue The Trump Card at FringeArts — just in time for the Democratic National Convention. We got him on the phone to discuss.

At what point in the crazy and unpredictable trajectory of Donald Trump’s candidacy did you start working on The Trump Card?

In September, at which point, if you’ll recall, everyone was clear that Trump was an incredible joke and would be dropping out any minute now. People were taking bets on how long he would be in it. I was interested in him long before it was clear that he would be the Republican nominee, and I was intending to do the show regardless of how his campaign went.

How does Trump fit into your body of work? How does he compare with some of your other subjects?

I’ve done pieces on L. Ron Hubbard, P.T. Barnum, Nikola Tesla, and Steve Jobs. I’ve talked about people who are megalomaniacal and I’ve written about different showmen. I realized that Donald Trump sat right in the locus of all these kinds of people I do biographies about.

Because Trump went from being a joke candidate to the presumptive nominee, and one with a great chance of winning the White House, how did that change your approach?

It’s evolved alongside of him. I really wanted to talk about who he is in pop culture at large, where the election sort of acts as a backdrop, but what’s happened is basically what happened to the election itself. Trump’s electoral run has swallowed the idea. So I have gracefully conceded to put the election front and center.

The hardest thing in talking about Trump is that a lot of people in the national conversation really don’t understand how he functions. There’s an incredible lack of understanding of where he came from, his 30-plus year history as an American showman. They don’t think about him as a performer.

One of the best.

He can change his opinion at the drop of a hat. He’s immunized against charges of flip-flopping, because he says, Yeah, that’s just what I’m like. And because he’s performing this character we call Trump, a lot of people are so entertained by the shifts and they understand that it’s not real.

There was a recent Washington Post piece so full of startled indignation: How can he lie so often and get away with it? But his supporters understand that his position changed. They don’t see it as lying, because it’s a performance. He’s a character. He’s not real. These are fundamentally different rules than any other politician has played by.

So if he’s been playing a character known as Trump for so long, how do we know who he really is? Have you been able to figure that out?

Your question illuminates something people say all the time about performers, this classical fallacy of theatrical performance, which is to say there is an assumption of reality. We assume there is a real Trump somewhere underneath the performance. And if we could just know the real Trump…

There is no real trump. Just a series of masks. It’s really dangerous to believe there is a level of authenticity somewhere, because that is then a really manipulatable belief, so that when he changes his mask and starts stuttering or a tear falls from his eye, you’ll think: This is the real man behind the mask.

This question of what’s he really like is absolutely irrelevant. Based on his public behavior, which has been extremely documented, should we be afraid of how he will continue to act? That is the question.

And the answer?

Absolutely. Fundamentally, Donald Trump is a bully and bullies are extremely dangerous if you give him the power over you.

So why is he doing so well?

Because he actually speaks to things that are fundamentally true about the condition of being an American in the 21st Century in a lot of the country. I grew up in a very rural state — far northern Maine. From where I come from, and for a lot of people who support Trump, they look around at stagnant wages — you’re making $30,000 a year for the last 10 years — and you don’t give a shit about who is going to be on the Supreme Court. That is not a concern you have.

They believe that both parties are crooked, and they are largely right. They come looking for votes every four years and haven’t done anything for them.

A lot of Trump supporters are sparked by racism, but you need an engine larger than racism. You need what they’re blaming and using racism as an excuse, and that’s the economic situation they find themselves in. If we’re going to come up with a different narrative for how this election is going to be, people need to reckon with the fact that we abandoned those people.

How much is his wealth a factor in his popularity?

We don’t respect the common man in our age. We respect the billionaire, and it’s always a white man. A white male billionaire.

I know this because I live in a city that elected a billionaire to three terms as mayor. In fact, we changed the laws so that we could have him take care of us an extra term. New York City was all, Please, please take care of us. There is this phenomenon that a very rich white man can solve all our problems. That’s psychologically powerful at this time. It’s sort of a disease of late stage Capitalism.

How did the This American Life incident change what you do?

It made me stronger. I am really interested in the gap between the story that gets told, the story that becomes received wisdom, and the story that really is. And I’m really interested in how the media affects that, how the media functions as storyteller and how those stories get told.

Your monologues are a curious mix of fact and fiction.

I mean, they’re theater. One does not need to tell you what is fact and what is fiction in theater. All stories are combinations of fact and fiction.

But doesn’t that get tricky when so much of your material is biographical? Has it gotten you into any legal trouble?

Well, you know, at this point, I have challenged some of the largest corporations and people on the planet from Scientology to Amazon to Apple, and so far, no legal threats.

There’s a very simple reason for that. Fundamentally, libel laws exist to protect people against things that are libelous, but things you say about someone’s behavior that are actually true, it’s very hard to make libel charges stick.

Right, but what about the untrue parts?

With Apple, for instance, everything I talked about is well-documented by human rights groups, even if I didn’t personally experience that. Apple doesn’t what to get into it. They don’t want to open their books.

So whom do you fear more: Trump’s lawyers or supporters?

I don’t fear his lawyers at all. Although I will say, the books I have used to research the biography of Donald Trump’s life, there are stories about how much he’s harassed over the years those authors. It’s hair-raising. But it’s a little late in the game for me to worry about that.

As for his supporters, I work very hard not to be afraid of them. But I will admit that it’s challenging. But I’m trying not to fear them or hate them. I’m just trying to see them clearly.

See Mike Daisey perform The Trump Card at FringeArts on July 14th and 21st. For tickets, go here.

Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.