Charlie Sheen’s Cufflinks and the Sun Mask of Augustus — Trump’s Classlessness Is His Least Egregious Failure
Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said a healed femur bone was the first evidence of human civilization. Not mere existence, but civilized society. That excavated bone — the proof that someone somewhere had healed an injured member of their tribe, helped them survive while they couldn’t contribute to the whole, would be followed by stone tools and bronze jewelry, ceramics, writing implements, art, and evidence of the evolution from nomadism to agricultural societies to industrialization.
And when the space archeologists of the future return from Elon Musk’s Martian pod colony to excavate Trump’s America they will find metaphors among the ruins. What society will we leave for them to study? This crumbling empire won’t be without its absurdist histories.
I offer one example and three metaphors for the futurists to consider with whatever informed retrospect they might regain while researching Trump’s America.
Charlie Sheen’s Cufflinks
Though Trump endlessly imagines himself adored by every audience, everywhere, an Anglophone talk show hosted by a gay Irishman with an international audience is an undoubtedly more cosmopolitan place than a gimcrack draft-dodger will ever find himself as an anticipated guest.
And it is on this, the deliberately bawdiest of talk show couches,that Charlie Sheen shared with Graham Norton the story of the Gasbag in Chief who had once gifted him his own cufflinks to apologize for missing Sheen’s wedding — a wedding Trump had not been invited to.
As Sheen tells it, Trump took off his own cufflinks, in a shirt-off-my-back-type gesture, and pressed them into Sheen’s hands insisting they were Harry Winston platinum and diamond.
Years later, when Sheen was having some jewelry appraised, and for shiggles, he tossed in the cufflinks for appraisal only to find out they were not Harry Winston. Nor flawless diamonds. Nor platinum.
Trump epitomizes the empty gesture, the unsolicited deceit. And “cheap pewter” and “bad zirconia” were exactly what so many of us thought Trump’s chances were during the 2016 US presidential election. But unlike Sheen’s 2016 confidence, the “dog shit charlatan circus” did not leave town. Not enough “good and decent people” voted against him. Four years later, that stupefying democracy-demolishing circus left almost 500,000 Americans dead and refused to adhere to our fabled 250 years of peaceful transitions of power. He gave us an insurrection instead. And a shirtless mama’s boy in face paint and a fake Viking helmet came to symbolize a siege that proved Blue Lives (only) Matter to white supremacists when they’re destroying Black Lives.
The Sun Mask of Augustus the Strong
Copper is a more expensive veneer than any swindle Trump has ever actually invested in. It seems the greater the fraud the greater the victory in Trump’s “business” “philosophy”. But from “luxury” condos made from the cheapest bulk materials money can lie to shooting frozen steaks out of a t-shirt cannon at a casino opening, Trump has much in common with a 17th-century fox-tossing gold-crazed ruler called Augustus II the Strong.
Augustus frequently wore his copper sun mask to parties and dinners, letting people think it was pure gold. Trump is not invited to anything glamorous anymore but no one mistakes the bronzer he splashes on like aftershave for a natural tan.
Art historian Dr. James Fox describes “a fantasy vision of the glittering court Augustus aspired to create,” and the envy he must have felt for Aurangzeb, the Mogul emperor purported at the time to be the wealthiest man in the world.
Both Augustus and Trump resented their rivals and styled themselves as they imagined themselves — Baroque, powerful, elite. But Pax Americana is a greater farce than made-in-China MAGA merch. Our foreign invasions have slowed, but the Trump administration inflicted on Americans what we have long inflicted on the rest of the world. As Sri Lankan writer Indi Samarajiva incisively explained, “For once, the war is on you.”
Trump’s “palaces” are the modern showpieces of what powerful men have always built — image, fantasy. Many of the world’s palaces remain architectural marvels of historical import. Trump’s will not. Augustus the Strong’s Dresden palaces will. And his obsessive quest to create gold, to be the wealthiest man in history parallels both Trump’s delusions and his failures.
“But Augustus had one object that perfectly captures the failure of his grand ambitions,” explains Dr. Fox of Augustus’ sun mask. “It embodies that desperate desire of Augustus to enter the pantheon of the great gods and the great kings … but he wasn’t rich enough and wasn’t powerful enough to be one of them. And that is why this mask is made of copper with a little bit of gold put on the top of it.”
No other than Augustus himself had a teenager and amateur alchemist k̶i̶d̶n̶a̶p̶p̶e̶d taken into protective custody after he attempted to burn feces into gold. If goldmachertinktur, the transmuting of base metals into gold were in fact possible, it would be done for Augustus.
Johann Friedrich Böttger could only avoid the gallows and earn his freedom back if he produced the coveted gold. He was 19. Relegated to a windowless dungeon, he tried for twelve years to no avail.
Failing to turn shit into gold is the original Art of the Deal — from universities to airlines to casinos to marriages to presidencies there is nothing Trump can’t leave worse than he found it.
But the major difference between him and Böttger is that Trump’s boasting and failures seem to punish and imprison anyone but Trump himself. Were it not so morally infuriating “Teflon Don” might be impressive.
That McMansion/Garbage Dump Episode of The X-Files
1990s sci-fi found its pop-culture prominence in the sexual tension between brainiac FBI agents Mulder and Scully. Her academia was traditionally masculine. His was emotional, “female”. It was a fresh take.
Six seasons in, their adventures took them to a fictional Southern California housing development with Draconian CC&Rs. They posed as newlyweds moving into a murdered couple’s McMansion to investigate. In this Stepford-lite community, they eventually discover a landfill beneath the suburban illusion of wealth. At the end of the episode, the murders are hastily solved by a last-minute reference to a Tibetan thoughtform, a Tulpa apparently conjured by the fanatical HOA president to enforce compliance with the CC&Rs. And scene.
It was not a great episode. But dictatorial men with leadership complexes and precariously building the appearance of wealth on top of actual garbage is, as they say, quintessentially Trumpian.
Trump leaves a shameful legacy of emboldening white supremacy and casually trivializing misogyny in his insurrectionist wake. He damaged our international relationships and trashed our domestic strengths. And he leaves behind a bigger body count than any of us dared to imagine in 2016 when we were scared of just how this volatile unqualified man might profane the highest office in the world.
I take only small comfort in the fact that his rightful successor is a diplomatic man with political gravitas and a rescue dog. The president of the United States shouldn’t be anything less than highly educated, politically savvy and internationally respected.
Trump’s nouveau riche self-delusion may define his classlessness. But it’s the least of his offenses. Almost everything President Fast Food did was a kitschy metaphor for his own cruelty and his tastelessness in all things political and human.
Of course his public relations and policy recommendations were as sophisticated as throwing paper towels at hurricane victims and dropping waterbombs on burning cathedrals.
Let them eat bleach!
But as the pandemic rages on and white supremacy simmers and broils across our country every step of progress matters. We do not have to be defined by Trump’s legacy of tacky.