There is the version of Donald Trump that everyone gets served, and it is an extremely luxurious experience—a thick and luridly salty braise of all-beef bombast served smothered in a chunky and flavorless dressing that looks like ranch but tastes like vinegar and forgetfulness. It is fatty and extremely bad for you; styrofoam is almost certainly an ingredient in this dish. But this is not the only version available. Those capable of paying for it—that is, rich people willing to pay large amounts of money to attend private fundraising dinners with the president—can access an even richer and more flavorful homestyle version of this dish. This is the premium brain sludge. Extra wet.
At a private fundraising event in Missouri on Wednesday, which was first reported in the Washington Post, Trump was ladling out hot servings of The Good Stuff. The chewiest item on the buffet, and the one most widely covered, has been Trump telling a let’s say unhurried story about how he just made a bunch of shit up about trade deficits in a meeting with Justin Trudeau, and then making some more shit up for the Missouri audience about how he turned out to be right, actually. Great stuff, to be sure. But the part of Trump’s all-you-can-eat mumble sesh, for my money, is this bit from the Post’s report:
He accused Japan of using gimmicks to deny U.S. auto companies access to its consumers, said South Korea was taking advantage of outdated trade rules even though its economy was strong and said China had single-handedly rebuilt itself on the back of its trade surplus with the United States.
“It’s called the bowling ball test; do you know what that is? That’s where they take a bowling ball from 20 feet up in the air and they drop it on the hood of the car,” Trump said of Japan. “And if the hood dents, then the car doesn’t qualify. Well, guess what, the roof dented a little bit, and they said, nope, this car doesn’t qualify. It’s horrible, the way we’re treated. It’s horrible.” It was unclear what he was talking about.
It really is unclear! And yet, as the Post’s Josh Dawsey noted on Thursday, this particular thing—the famous bowling ball test, which you hear so many talking about more and more every day—is something that Trump talks about all the time!
It doesn’t matter what the meeting’s about. Maybe it’s about diplomacy, maybe it’s about staffing, maybe Trump just called a bunch of cabinet members together to talk to them about how Cheryl Tiegs “was definitely very interested, very strongly interested” when they met at a nightclub in 1989. It doesn’t matter, because sooner or later this man is going to stir the room-temp oatmeal of his brain and the bowling ball test is going to come up. Have you heard about it? They drop the bowling ball right on the car. It’s horrible.
In a way that is always kind of true but seldom quite this true, it is impossible to tell what the big fella is talking about, here. There are some things he could be misremembering—HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg noted that there was once a David Letterman skit in which Hello Deli owner Rupert Gee and two audience members dropped bowling balls on cars from the top of a building. It probably isn’t that—Trump is a Leno guy if ever there was one, that is a lot higher than 20 feet, and this is happening in midtown Manhattan and not a Japanese automotive plant. But, again, the president has not given us much to work with.
So what else is there? It seems like something that might have happened in the doofy 1986 race-farce Gung Ho, but it didn’t. Given that Trump almost certainly believes that every event in the 1993 film Rising Sun actually happened in real life, it’s hard to know to what extent this is something that he is misremembering in some way from a movie or television show or whether he has just burped it up whole from the damp and clotted depths of his imagination. We may never know, as Trump himself clearly believes that it is a real and documented thing that happens all the time, and because there is nothing that Trump believes now that he will ever disbelieve. But I have an idea.
Here is what I think: bearing in mind that we know Donald Trump has not assimilated a single new piece of information since 1994, and bearing in mind that we know he watches television constantly at ear-splitting codger volumes, I think that Donald Trump is remembering a 1992 television commercial in which a ball bearing rolls over the sensuous contours of a Lexus sedan.
The ball bearing—which astute viewers will have noticed is significantly smaller and lighter than a bowling ball—is placed and not dropped onto the car. The point of all this is to highlight the craftsmanship and formal elegance of the car, and not whatever crafty or pernicious thing Trump sincerely believes is being achieved or proved when Japanese automakers drop a big old bowling ball onto the hood of a just-manufactured car. It’s not at all clear what Trump thinks any of this illustrates, but given what we know about how his miracle mind works and doesn’t work, it fits. He has, over the course of decades, turned that graceful tumbling ball bearing into a plummeting bowling ball; he has recast its elegant course over the car’s lines into a crashing destructive plummet. This is what he does—he makes things bigger in his mind, and he makes them go boom. He never really understood what any of it was about or for, probably—he is more a price guy than a value guy, and has only ever understood elegance as being synonymous with gold leaf. Given the state of his brain these days, it seems safe to say that any understanding he ever had of this ad is now clearly a long time gone. But he did successfully remember that Lexus is a division of Toyota, which is in fact a Japanese company.
As with so many things to do with Trump, what any of this does or could ever mean—to him, for us, whatever—is not really knowable. It may be that it is not for us to know, or worth wondering about. It may be that actually knowing what he means, or what he meant, or what he thinks he means or meant, would only make it worse.