Millions of Americans trapped in their homes have turned on Netflix and watched the bizarre tale of Tiger King: Murder, Madness and Mayhem. The subtitle perhaps reminding us all of our shared national ordeal. The Tiger King in questions is the gun-loving, platinum-mullet sporting, Joe Exotic, a mix of PT Barnum, Siegfried and Roy and Joe Dirt. Joe runs a broke down road side zoo in Oklahoma. The place is a menagerie of tigers, ligers, chimps, meth heads, ex-cons, and sycophants.
Joe is obsessed with his nemesis, another big cat aficionado, who he feels has been unfairly persecuting him and, who he claims is a hypocrite and crook in her own right. The big cat-owning cohort depicted in Tiger King are the sort of only-in-America hucksters that have sold us snake oil since the dawn of the republic.
Joe has a showman’s gift for keeping your attention and a shameless streak that keeps him immune from criticism or self-awareness. But as we see his empire fall apart, Joe descends deeper into paranoia and the wreckage — let alone the suffering of the exploited big cats — begins to feel unsettlingly familiar. Tiger King is undeniably riveting television. Joe’s a bit of a local hero, running for governor in 2018 as a stunt candidate, but, blessedly, his run never really took off. Not all such joke campaigns end harmlessly, as the world learned in 2016 — a year suddenly eclipsed by 2020 in historic import and horror.
Watching Joe’s toxic narcissism and the destruction of all around him, one can’t but help think of Donald Trump. The terrible human cost of the president’s failed leadership in this crisis begins to mount. The petty and cruel efforts to punish those who cross his path during a pandemic — whether it’s a Navy captain desperately trying to protect his crew or Gov. Jay Inslee advocating for his state — tarnish the office in ways that were hitherto unimaginable. Putting Jared Kushner in charge of anything, after the last three years of inadequacy and failure, is a clear dereliction of duty. This weekend’s news that Trump is firing the Inspector General for doing his job, just another small-minded act of vengeance.
Trump, like Joe, constantly whines about those out to get him. He threatens and bullies. You are either with him or against him. Willful ignorance becomes a point of pride. That the president of the United States shares character flaws with a cheap zoo keeper only makes our current dire situation more dangerous.
We have witnessed years of noxious Trump behavior. But the pandemic has brought out the worst in the president. At a time when the leader of the country could have offered much-needed comfort or a steady hand, he has once again proven himself clearly incapable of empathy, let alone inspiration. Instead, he has boasted of TV ratings while people get sick and thousands die. In the early days, he downplayed the pandemic’s severity and called criticism of his inaction a “hoax” perpetrated by his political opponents. He has repeatedly spread misinformation. He constantly lies about his record in fighting the pandemic. Gaslighting the nation being his signature move.
Trump bragged that he would run this country like his businesses. But Trump always just ran everything into the ground. Two trillion dollars in bailout later, with more on the way, the entire country resembles Trump’s various business ventures. Like his failed casino the Taj Mahal or his steaks or his airline, we are now all debt ridden, insolvent, and headed for the scrap heap. We can, and will, turn this calamity around, of course, but we will be paying a terrible price for the Trump presidency for many years, if not generations, to come.
Spoiler alert ahead.
In the end of Tiger King, Joe Exotic and his cronies turn on each other. Joe goes to jail and the zoo lies in wreckage. His followers watch a fever dream die, while Joe howls from prison about how he was somehow screwed over by his enemies and the injustice of his fate. Americans locked down, terrified, and watching this lurid spectacle should take ample warning.