Donald Trump is actually Tony Clifton. Keep reading, kids. I'll explain who Tony Clifton is/was, in a roundabout way.
Let's start with press interviews. Every journalist interviewing candidates aspires to be Tim Russert. The late Tim Russert was the longtime host of Meet the Press. The Sunday morning talk shows are pointless and stupid. Once upon a time, they were ever-so-slightly less pointless and stupid because Tim Russert had one skill. He could recall every statement ever made by any candidate, and grill them on the inconsistencies so that we, the audience, could enjoy the schadenfreude of watching narcissists squirm. How good an interviewer was Russert? That is up for debate. What is not up for debate is that every interviewer currently living is a pathetic imitator. I thought Russert was decent. Decent is an impossible dream to the current crop of wannabes.
The Russert model relies on the premise that the person being interviewed is open to evidence. More subtly, it relies on the premise that the person being interviewed is a person, not a character. That brings me to Tony Clifton.
Tony Clifton was a caricature of an obnoxious, incompetent and all-around-vile lounge singer with an overinflated opinion of his own greatness. Comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman created the character, along with Bob Zmuda, to have fun by prodding the audience. Most of the time, Kaufman played the character. The key to the joke was that Kaufman could never admit that Clifton was just a character. In order to keep the joke going, sometimes Kaufman would have to appear alongside Clifton. In order for that to happen, Kaufman's partner, Bob Zmuda, would have to perform as Clifton. Everybody knew it, and everybody had to play along. Here is a clip of an old interview in which Merv Griffin talked to Kaufman about Tony Clifton.
Griffin knows that Clifton is a character created by Kaufman. In order to do the interview, though, Griffin has to play along. Imagine a self-important journalist trying, in all seriousness, to get Kaufman to admit that Clifton doesn't exist. How absurd would it be?
As it turns out, we have a not-quite answer. Remember when Stephen Colbert had a show in which he pretended to be a Bill O'Reilly-type figure? For a decade? Well, during that period, Colbert would rarely give an interview breaking character. His inspiration was clearly Andy Kaufman. (Sacha Baron Cohen has been known to pull the same schtick as, for example, Borat). As the character of "Stephen Colbert," Colbert appeared on Meet the Press with Tim Russert.
Russert knew to play along. Imagine how stupid Russert would have looked if he hadn't. The character of Colbert was that of a self-important jackass who never thought before he spoke. He was impervious to evidence, unwilling to admit ever being wrong, and utterly confident in everything he said. To confront the character with logic or evidence, then, and hope for a reasoned or semi-reasoned response would be to miss the point.
I know what you're thinking. What could any of this possibly have to do with "Donald Trump?" Note the quotation marks. One might wonder how much of "Donald Trump" the candidate is a Clifton-like creation, and how much of it is real. The more Clifton-like the candidate is, the more futile normal interviews become.
Does Donald Trump believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya? Almost certainly not. He first dipped his toes into birtherism by asserting that he had only a small amount of doubt over where Obama was born. The problem was that, when confronted with evidence, he either needed to admit that he was speaking from ignorance, or dig in his heels. He chose the latter. Why? He was playing to an audience. Trump's birtherism is about as sincere as Tony Clifton.
On the other hand, what about getting Mexico to pay for a wall? Quite simply, I don't know of a dumber campaign promise from a major candidate. Ever. There is no chance whatsoever of this happening. None. Zero. Physicists will claim that for any possibility that doesn't violate physical laws, there is an alternative universe in which that possibility happens. There isn't even an alternate universe in which Mexico pays for a wall. Anyone who believes this promise knows less than nothing about politics. How informed do you think this guy is?
And yet, Trump almost certainly believes it would happen. Why? The greatness of Donald Trump is the one thing we know for certain that Trump really believes. That still leaves interviewers in a bind. If asked what policy tools a president would have to get Mexico to pay, Trump won't answer. He will simply assert the greatness of his deal-making skills and his intrinsic powerfulness.
How does one interview Donald Trump, then? Half the time, he doesn't believe what he says, and the other half, he is just too clueless about how government and policy work to give a reasonable answer to a policy-based question.
The challenge of trying to interview Trump, then, is that getting a serious answer is as futile as trying to get Tony Clifton to admit that he is really Andy Kaufman (or sometimes Bob Zmuda).
Here is my advice to serious journalists, then. Stop interviewing Donald Trump. How unprecedented would that be? About as unprecedented as a presidential candidate who has more in common with Tony Clifton than with any past president.