My friend Bernard was chuckling even before I sat down.
"Ha! Donald Trump has won the bet!"
"Donald! This whole campaign of his has to be based on some crazy bet. He has to have bet someone that he could enter the race and lead in the polls."
It had been a long time since I'd met Bernard for lunch and I was surprised to see him looking so animated. Apparently the Trump campaign had got his blood flowing.
"Um, so many questions Bernard. First, are you a Trump fan? Second, have you ordered?"
"Of course I'm a fan! What other country could create a Donald Trump? He's a phenomenon!"
"You think this ... this ... um, man, should be president?"
"Of course not! You didn't ask me if I was voting for him. You asked me if I was a fan." As we were talking, the waiter brought his sandwich and he hastily stuffed a bite of Reuben into his cheek and began to talk. I was partly interested in what he had to say and partly distracted by the question of whether he would manage to swallow the bite rather than spray it across the table. "Did you hear about the origins of the dada movement?"
"It was nonsense, right?"
"Sort of," Bernard answered. "They actually began as a satire of politics and it morphed into an art movement. They were attacking the rationality and nationality that had just given the world the Great War. What we call World War I. But their attempts at nonsense as an alternative to the rationality that led to the madness of war actually resulted in a somewhat coherent art movement. Their whole point was that there was no point, a point they actually made quite well."
"And .... "
"This is Trump! The man is art! He's an art movement! He's mocking American values by embodying them and taking them to their extremes. His Trump Towers, these incredibly phallic symbols that tower over their surroundings. His fear of anyone you're unlikely to see in a WalMart. His insistence on appearing in reality shows and now campaigns, the only places in American society in which it's considered appropriate to wax rhapsodic about your own virtues and denigrate everyone else. In the past, someone like Sinclair Lewis had to create a character like Elmer Gantry for us to understand American culture. Donald Trump is like Elmer Gantry and Sinclair Lewis in one! He's the author and the character. He's the dada movement personified and delivered a century after the dada movement. He's a genius!"
"Well," I hesitated, not really in the mood for a fight but still not sure whether criticizing Donald would launch Bernard into a rant against me or just make his point, "he certainly tells us often of how smart he is."
"Haha! He is! He's brilliant! I don't think that even he is smart enough to understand how brilliant he is! There are 7 billion people on this planet and he gets more coverage than any 1 billion of them. He is the idiot savant of modern culture."
"But who is supporting him?"
"Well, everyone has that one crazy uncle at Thanksgiving who says such outrageous things that no one quite knows how to respond. Now, thanks to polling, we know how many crazy uncles there are."
"Enough to win an election?"
"No! Of course not! But the fact that he's doing so much better than anyone thought is enough to make everyone alarmed. He's like a one-man voting awareness campaign. At this point, the odds that he wins the Oval Office and that he admits that all of this was the most elaborate prank ever played on American voters are about equal."
"You think that he's going to jump out and say, 'Candid Camera!'?"
"You think he's going to win," Bernard rebutted.
"Er, no," I responded.
"That's it! That's the beauty of it! Everyone on the right is running around scared to death that they'll die in a terrorist attack. There's a nearly zero probability that you - or any one American - will die in a terrorist attack. In 2011, about as many Americans were killed by terrorists as were killed by their own furniture. Someone will likely die in a terrorist attack in the next few months but it won't be you or the guy worked up about it at a Trump rally. "
"But it could happen."
"Sure! Could. Few events have a zero percent probability. Which brings us to Trump."
"You think there is a zero percent chance that he'll win?"
"No! And the fact that there's a non-zero chance terrifies everyone on the left in the same way that being killed by terrorists terrifies those on the right. The whole chattering class of pundits and voters is terrified. Political discourse is now driven by two near-zero probability fears: being killed by a terrorist and living under a Trump presidency. It's better than the plot for a Marx Brothers film."
"You find all this amusing?"
"What's the alternative?"
"Find it alarming," I asked. He shook his head.
"You think that my being alarmed is going to make any difference to anything but my blood pressure? At my age I can't afford to be alarmed by improbable events. I could keel over at any minute and I should worry that a reality-TV star is going to win votes? No! I'll just enjoy this spectacle."
"So Donald is now your favorite show?"
"Donald is a show for the ages. I can hardly wait for the musical to come out. Donald singing, 'Donald! I love ya!'"
"There's a musical coming out?"
"Oh! That! That is a high-probability hope of mine and that trumps two near-zero probability fears." He paused. "Trumps! Get it?"
I still didn't but it made Bernard happy so I decided to just follow his lead and order a sandwich, shake my head at the improbability of so much energy going into such low-probability events, and join Bernard in brainstorming about the lyrics for the Trump musical.