An actual clown on the debate: 'I hope we can set the record straight on what clowns actually are, and they are not Donald Trump'

An actual clown on the debate: 'I hope we can set the record straight on what clowns actually are, and they are not Donald Trump'

September 30, 2020
  • At Tuesday's night presidential debate, Democratic nominee Joe Biden called President Donald Trump a 'clown.'
  • Business Insider spoke with Tim Cunningham, a clown and emergency nurse, about the usage of the term in the debate.
  • Cunningham said he laughed when he heard the term used, but that Trump does not exhibit the virtuosity of a clown.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Tim Cunningham decided to watch the presidential debate while on vacation.

Tuning in from a rural cabin in North Carolina, Cunningham felt he should fulfill his "obligation as a citizen" and listened as Democratic nominee Joe Biden called President Donald Trump a "clown."

One undecided voter — who said he voted for Trump in 2016 — was asked by CNN post-debate whether it was appropriate: "Is it great that Joe called him a clown? No, but when the shoe fits. When the clown shoe fits."

It was a clownish moment that reverberated around the world, but for Cunningham there was particular personal resonance. That's because he's a clown.

"When I heard it, I laughed out loud," Cunningham told Business Insider. "I'm fully behind what Biden is trying to do. We need to replace this person as soon as possible — this person being the current person who calls himself president."

Cunningham began studying to be a clown in 2000, and began working with a nonprofit clowning organization in 2003. After working as a hospital clown, he was inspired to go back to school and become an emergency nurse.

Today, he works as a nurse admin in Georgia, where he's been working with nurses and caregivers to help weather the COVID crisis. 

For Cunningham — who stressed that his opinions are his alone — Biden referring to Trump as a clown is a nuanced issue. He stressed the artistry that goes into clowning, saying that clowns are ultimately "virtuosos."

"The clown is capable of making that virtuosic act look easy, and in making it look easy, they also open themselves up to vulnerability and failure. And that's where the clown is beautiful, because we see an artist doing this incredible feat, and then every now and then they have a hiccup and they fail," he said. "And it's that moment of failure that we laugh. And then they bounce back up. They're truly resilient, and they guide us through a performance, and they connect with us."

While a clown may be virtuosic, that's not necessarily true of who the "c-word" was lobbed at last night. Does the clown shoe fit?

"The person who calls himself president is clearly not a virtuoso," Cunningham said. 

And that gets at the paradox of calling Trump a clown, according to Cunningham. While he may not exhibit the traits that Cunningham identifies as intrinsic to a clown, the usage of the term against him instead reflects where societal standards lie.

"It's concerning that Trump has lowered the standards of human decency so much — lowered the standards of what it means to hold the office of president, to be one of the most powerful people in the world — he's lowered it so much that the response from otherwise highly intelligent, compassionate people is to denigrate him by calling him a clown."

Cunningham said that ultimately he's both "offended" and "honored" by Trump being termed a "clown."

And looking towards the future, he said that, like a clown, he maintains a sense of optimism — and hopes for a future where, instead of bouncing back, we can bounce forward.

But there is one thing he wants to clear up:

"I hope we can set the record straight on what clowns actually are, and they are not Donald Trump."

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