When I think about Donald Trump, I think about Dr. Sandra Lee. Her TLC show, Dr. Pimple Popper, features nauseatingly graphic footage of appointments and operations wherein she treats patients who come in with, as TLC puts it, “blackheads so big and cysts so goopy, they have to be seen to be believed.” The show’s 2018 holiday special, entitled “The 12 Pops of Christmas,” pulled in 1.5 million viewers, outperforming the Lakers game, Jersey Shore, and CNN.1 That is to say, people love this show. There’s something cathartic about the sweet release of all that nasty fluid. It’s not the nastiness that we enjoy but the removal of it. This is the connection I make between the show and our current president’s career in public office: he [unintentionally] surfaces some of the dirt America likes to keep under the rug.
Cystic Acne, Donald Trump and Racism. What Do They Have in Common?
While Dr. Pimple Popper is closer to a Criminal Minds-style procedural show than a medical textbook, Dr. Lee does go to great lengths to delight and disgust her audience with some grotesquely fascinating educational content. For example, the latest episode, “Mama Squishy’s Lemon Custard Steatocystomas,” includes an explanation, from the doctor herself, of what cysts are and how they work. (It is my official position that the producer who gave this episode its title deserves a Nobel Prize in Literature, but that is neither here nor there.)
The discussion of cystic acne is particularly interesting. The term refers to the type of painful, deep pimples that lie beneath the skin. My experience with this type of acne involves a potent cocktail of emotions. I feel guilty for eating so much oily food and sad about the ugly red zit on my chin. Featuring most prominently, though, is manifold anger. There’s anger that my own body has turned against me, and anger at myself and my habit of eating McDonald’s for breakfast three times a week. But there’s also a metaphysical, conceptual rage, a moral offense. These zits are liars and cowards. They hide, having covered themselves in the dermis, refusing to show their faces and confront my fingernails. I can’t even get at the problem by cleansing my skin; it won’t make any difference. It’s too late. The zits refuse to man up2 and say it to my face, and they are all the more hurtful for this reason.
So where cystic pimples exist in disguise, the president of the United States is the opposite: a big, red zit. He doesn’t conceal the truth. Mr. Trump will say what he feels when he feels like it. Yes, he famously makes a routine out of lying to the press and the populace, but in another sense, he practices a type of toxic honesty. He serves a parallel function to blackheads by thrusting ideological dirt to the surface. In speaking his twisted truth, he says what other politicians only hint at. These things are not actually true, but they truthfully represent his own sentiments. For instance, immigrants from Haiti “all have AIDS.” On former President Obama: “Was it a birth certificate? You tell me.” On people from war-torn nations like El Salvador, where migrants have been granted temporary protected status: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” On Mexican immigration: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. … They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” I could go on with the quotes, but I’m sure nobody needs to be reminded of the Executive-in-Chief’s impressive portfolio of vitriol.
Each of these hateful comments is another pimple. Previously, these All-American sentiments have been cystic, successfully cloaked in National Security language or Public Health terminology. Buried in jargon, hostility towards Black and brown people, especially those standing on the wrong side of the border, can be tolerated by white America. After all, we’ve had a Black president, right? Remember the Thirteenth Amendment? Remember the Civil Rights Act?
Another gem of knowledge I’ve gleaned from Dr. Lee is that chronic acne is less dietary and more hormonal and hereditary. It’s coded into your DNA. A nation founded on white supremacy and chattel slavery cannot be easily redeemed with foundation and highlight, or by charcoal scrubs and tea tree oil. Sometimes the pimple needs to be gouged out, brought suddenly to the forefront. That’s what Sandra Lee and Donald Trump have in common. They don’t bother with hiding the filth. Both understand, or at least abide by, the timeless wisdom of the Shrek franchise’s protagonist: “Better out than in, I always say.”
Through Ugly Truth to Abscess?
In neither case is the pus something to be celebrated, but at least it’s not able to hide this way. Racism in 2018 is undeniably present. This, I optimistically posit, has served as a wakeup call to white Americans who could previously claim innocence or ignorance about the inhumanity of many American policies. (Think immigration, invasion, imprisonment, and inhumane policing, which all involve political violence against people of color.)
Whereas 2012 and 2016 saw a 20% Republican lead3 in the country’s white electorate, Trump’s party lost half of its hold on white voters in the 2018 midterms, with a lead of 10%.4 This is in no small part thanks to the president’s policy of honestly expressing his own hateful truth. The president himself says as much, in his own backward way: “I can never apologize for the truth.”5
Perhaps I’m being too generous. After all, nobody could claim that it’s Trump’s intention to expose American racism. But the proof is in the pudding; it’s in his own denial as he continues in the above interview: “Why, when I mention [the criminal status of people immigrating from Mexico], all of a sudden I’m a racist. I’m not a racist. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” He exacerbates the necessary swelling of a national pimple, ready to be popped.
1 “Thursday cable ratings: ‘Thursday Night Football’ tops all, ‘Dr. Pimple Popper’ Christmas special debuts strong,” TV by the Numbers, Tribune Media Services, 2018, bit.ly/2R0U5x6
2 The phrase “man up” is used intentionally here. My anger in these cases takes on a masculine energy that I otherwise work to train out of myself.
3 “Behind Trump’s victory: Division by race, gender, education,” Pew Research Center, 2016, pewrsr.ch/2sQfeKt
4 “The 2018 midterm vote: Division by race, gender, education,” Pew Research Center, 2018, pewrsr.ch/2QT8I5P
5 Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “Donald Trump’s false comments connecting Mexican immigrants and crime,” The Washington Post, 2015, wapo.st/2rE4el1