PARIS — I do my best not to get pulled into the rabbit hole of U.S. election coverage. It's hard to imagine, at this point, how any poll or tweet or scandal could possibly affect the outcome. Can our global news site really find a new angle to help explain Donald Trump? Can anyone? Still, as an American citizen living abroad, I do feel the obligation a few times a day — often late at night — to peek on my phone to see if something truly unpleasant has happened to our president.
No luck again last Wednesday night, but I did stumble on news from another blast from New York's past: David Blaine was at it again. For those not familiar, the Brooklyn-born star burst on the scene in the late 1990s as a sort-of-intriguing latter-day Harry Houdini, mixing old fashioned magic and escape artist suspense with modern-media showmanship.
Among the stunts he performed were surviving six feet underground for seven days, enclosing himself in a block of ice for 63 hours, standing on top of a 100-foot-high pillar for 35 hours. The challenges tended to always include severe deprivation of food and water and sleep, and often oxygen; and Blaine would inevitably emerge staggering before a mob of flashing cameras and offer some vaguely cultish words of enlightenment. "I saw something very prophetic," he said in 1999 just after the Buried Alive casket was pried open, "a vision of every race, every religion, every age group banding together, and that made all this worthwhile." As we say in New York: quite a numbah.
So two decades later, with the rest of my family sound asleep, I could go on YouTube, to watch the now 47-year-old floating up, up and above the Arizona desert, pulled by a giant colorful bunch of helium balloons toward a record altitude. I could have fast-forwarded but didn't want to miss the beautiful panorama shots and close-up details, the rising tension of Blaine going higher and higher, the temperature dropping, exchanges with mission control (and his 9-year-old daughter) as he fumbled to attach the parachute … and whoosh: He'd cut himself loose and safely sky-dived safely back to earth. It was gorgeous, it was pointless, it was inspiring, it was 1:37 A.M.
Blaine rises above the Arizona desert Sep. 3 in "Ascension"
But this internet rabbit hole was bound to go deeper. I had to dig up footage of his stunts from the past, discover details of his biography I'd otherwise never care to know, including one that has landed me right here.
Popping up at several points over the years was an on-again, off-again business relationship with that other overexposed New York illusionist: Donald Trump. The two products of late 20th-century television hype were destined to find each other … and are really two sides of the same coin. One in a suit, the other in t-shirt or turtleneck; one mean-spirited and opinionated, the other obtuse and whispering one-world aphorisms. Money and luxury v. self abnegation and suffering. Still they're united by the same single driving quest: to fill an unquenchable thirst for attention.
That was what brought Blaine dangling into the stratosphere and onto my smartphone. It's of course also what drove Trump to run for president.
They're united by the same single driving quest.
So four years later, we've been left haunted not only by what he's wrought, but also by our inability to find satisfactory explanations for the damage done and time wasted. Those of us in the news business have had our own struggle reporting on this horse-loose-in-a-hospital story, unable to "construct a narrative" that can offer either solace or respite. And that leaves us imagining alternative universes...
What if instead it had been Blaine? If Trump could pull off the ultimate reality show where the world is forced to watch him bully and spout opinions from the White House, why couldn't the American presidency be turned into one long extreme stunt? It might look something like this:
It's late 2015 when DT steps aside, leaving the stage to DB, who announces his "greatest trick of all." In early 2016, DB begins to dominate the Republican primary, standing on his head throughout each debate and promising that the power of collective positive thinking will make all that's wrong in America disappear. Opponents and pundits laugh him off, and the votes keep pouring in. Autumn 2016, and there will be no debates with his Democratic opponent because DB is wrapped in an American flag and hanging from a crane over the Grand Canyon until one week after election day. It's 2017 and President Blaine travels alone to his first NATO summit in Brussels in a one-man pedal-powered submarine — arriving on the Belgian coast two days after the summit had ended, exhausted and muttering: Alliances are all we have, alliances are all we are. A deadly pandemic hits and POTUS infects himself on live TV. Police violence sets off protests around the country, but the president is incommunicado, on the 27th day of his quest to break the Guinness record for most days locked inside the White House refrigerator ...
You may see where I'm going, but it's not there. This last-ditch attempt at narrative constructing will not try to calculate the relative damage of a vanishing commander-in-chief mumbling for four years in a thermic body suit compared to one in business attire barking non-stop awfulness. I turn back instead to one final vision that's come to me as I write: It's DT in dark suit and red tie, attached to those same beautiful colored balloons above the Arizona desert, floating higher and higher … slowly fading from camera range.