Donald Trump and The Death of Stalin

Will Leitch
·8 mins read

Armando Iannucci is a very nice man and a total pleasure to speak with. This might be a bit of a surprise if you only know the writer/director from his brilliant, caustic political satires Veep, The Thick of It and In the Loop. After all, this is the man responsible for the phrase, “Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up the shitter with a lubricated horse-cock!” Yet Iannucci has taken a turn toward the sunny with his good-hearted, funny and, yes, delightful The Personal History of David Copperfield. The movie might seem like a pivot, particularly after Iannucci’s truly despairing The Death of Stalin, but in many ways, David Copperfield is about the same thing as The Death of Stalin and the same thing we’re all grappling with: What it’s like to live through perilous, unrelentingly difficult times.

Then again: The Death of Stalin sure does feel awfully relevant right now in the wake of President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and the White House’s attempts to hide it behind a fog of misinformation in service of the Dear Leader. GQ talked with Iannucci about keeping optimism alive, what Trump tells us about America, and which member of the administration most resembles Lavrentiy Beria.

GQ: It very much feels like we’re in a Death of Stalin moment right now, with President Trump and all the insanity surrounding his COVID infection. The similarities couldn’t have been lost on you?

Armando Iannucci: Well, Stalin ruled by fear. He terrorized everyone. And as a result … he died. When he had a stroke, people were too afraid, first of all, simply to move him. Then they were too afraid to announce the news. And then they were too afraid to select a doctor, because they might select the wrong doctor. Trump very much exists in this world. 

I read how, when he was on steroids and just spending the day tweeting in all caps, that his family was saying, “We’ve got to stop him. This is crazy.” But none of them wanted to be the one who went in and told him. I mean if they can’t do it, who can? And then there’s the doctors who were told not to say bad things about his health, and so they then don’t know what to say. Then he goes back to the Oval Office even though he’s still infected, and no one stops him then either. That’s all very Stalin.

It is wild that he’s now this snake oil salesman, doing a video: “I have the cure! I’m immune! You too can be immune!” I certainly don’t think it’s helping him. He’s just getting worse and worse. But what will be interesting and hilarious in the final three weeks is that we’re seeing Republicans starting to distance themselves so that they can save themselves. That’s going to happen quite soon, I’m sure.

They’ll claim they were against him the whole time.

Absolutely. Lindsay Graham will say, “well, I was always anti-Trump, I warned you all very early on,” and then he’ll go back to some very old videos to claim that.

There are so many characters surrounding Trump who have their own quirks and eccentricities, not unlike in The Death of Stalin. Do you see specific parallels between Stalin’s people and Trump’s people? Is there a Beria in this administration? 

Is Jared Beria? Jared might be Beria. Actually: Stephen Miller is Beria. That seems right. What a shame what’s happened to him recently. What a damn shame. I think Lindsay Graham is Malenkov. The one who’s all, “I’ll just say whatever I need to get me through this” but believes nothing.

Trump and Stalin have so many similarities, particularly in matters of media manipulation, but what’s amazing about it is that if someone told Trump, “you’re like Stalin,” his response might be, “Who’s that?”

“I get along well with Stalin, the leader of Russia. I have no problem with the leader of Russia. I hear he did a very good job.” But yes, there are so many similarities. Stalin erased history. He literally erased people out of the books. Trump absolutely does that. If, say, Ivanka did something terrible, he’d tweet, “I don’t know Ivanka. Never heard of her. I hear she’s my daughter, I met her once or twice, but honestly, she sounds terrible. I didn’t have much to do with her.” It’s all airbrushing.

And yet he has still been remarkably successful, in his own way.

When he got into office, people thought, “well, he’s mad, but there are enough people around him who will not put up with it.” What has been most terrifying is seeing how, in the party itself, once they had power, they thought, “we’ll say and do anything to hold onto the power.” I’m sure once the end times come in three weeks, that will all change. But people you thought would be spirited, like a Marco Rubio, they chose to stay quiet. I think that’s possibly what has galvanized the opposition, right down the ticket. People think the party didn’t turn up.

Has all this changed your view of America?

I have always found working in America a joy. I find America a generous, open, big-hearted country. There are obviously issues—inequality, race—but on the whole, it is a wonderful place. But the machinery of government is broken. The entire Constitution is predicated on both parties being able to come to a compromise. But if they’re not prepared to compromise, they’re absolutely stuck. Nothing can happen. That’s where we are at the moment. How you get around that, I don’t know. Maybe this next cycle will fix that. I hope.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is cheerier than your other films by a wide margin, but a lot of its themes—oppressed people trying to keep their wits during terrible times—run through all your work. It has darkness just like your other films, but it’s about being positive and triumphing over adversity. Was that a conscious decision, to turn to something more uplifting and upbeat?

I’ve always loved Dickens, because he’s always done the things I admire: He takes on big themes, poverty, wealth, debt, the law, snobbery, schooling, but he shows the little person in the middle of it. It makes him very modern. He wrote episodically as well, in little installments; he’s very Netflix-bingy. I binge-read Charles Dickens. I did kind of think after Death of Stalin and ten years of Veep and The Thick of It and In the Loop, which are largely about how politics isn’t working, I wanted to do something that felt positive precisely in response to what’s happening now. There is danger in that negativity, particularly here in England. It can portray the country as very negative, and I really don’t think we are. We’re a very open and generous country. I wanted to celebrate that.

I just did an interview with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, and he told me, “I think it’s our duty to maintain a certain amount of hope for people that can’t maintain any hope. I think that if you're able to muster it up, I think that’s your fucking job.” It feels like your David Copperfield survives because of that hope and that good cheer.

First off, I love Wilco, and that’s a great quote. That’s exactly why I wanted Dev Patel for this role. You want Dev to do well. He’s such an open and giving personality that don’t want to see him go under. A lot of the people you want to remember in stories are the villains—Darth Vader, the Daleks in Doctor Who—and it’s difficult to portray goodness in an interesting way. Dickens does that. You want to spend time with the good people. Whether it’s their eccentricity or their inventiveness, he makes them very human.

Have you turned over a new leaf now? Now that you’ve made David Copperfield so sunny, is all of Armando Iannucci’s work going to be happy and mirthful now?

We’re in the middle of writing the second series of Avenue 5, and … it’s bleak. It has been written through the filter of what everyone has been going through for the last 6-8 months. It’s about isolation. It’s about not knowing when the end is going to come, about not knowing who’s in charge. But don’t worry: It’s also very silly.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Originally Appeared on GQ