It is becoming increasingly clear that to speak of a “Trump presidency” is a misnomer. There is no presidency, at least not by traditional standards. There is a “Trump show,” and that makes all the difference in the world.
I and many others have written about how heavily our president borrows from entertainment: the cooked-up suspense (this week’s “calm before the storm” remark), the high concepts he keeps purveying (“Build a wall!”), the strong-man movie persona attached to the common man appeal, and the psychological underpinnings that tap American’s contrarian anti-elitism, which is a staple of our popular culture. By means of all these things and others, Trump has not only turned the presidency into a B-movie, which would be a remarkable feat unto itself; he has turned it into the very dregs of entertainment: a reality TV show.
This much is readily apparent to most people and has been much discussed. What is less apparent is how thorough the conversion has been and how dire the consequences. The media continue to view Trump through a political lens when an entertainment lens would be more appropriate. They continue to report on the ongoing chaos in the White House as if this were some sort of dereliction and not design. They continue to treat his tweets and intemperance as political errors of a novice or perhaps a borderline psychotic, and not as a complete reimagination of the presidency.
Whether by design or experience—and I suspect it is both—Trump never saw the presidency as a political institution. Originally, I wrote earlier here, he thought of it as a form of celebrity—the best way to get attention, which is what celebrities do. Now I fear that I was too optimistic. He actually seems to see it as an entertainment—not just a way to be the center of attention, though he clearly loves that—but as a way to tickle the public appetite for excitement. In doing so, he has replaced political values with entertainment values. Politics mean nothing to him. Policy is a bore for him as for most Americans. They want a show. So does he. And he intends to provide it.
Years ago, Philip Roth, in a dazzling story, titled “On the Air,” speculated that life itself might be a show. “What if we are all only talent assembled by the Great Talent Scout Up Above! The Great Show of Life! Starring Everybody! Suppose entertainment is the Purpose of Life!” Though these sorts of speculations are above Donald Trump’s capacity for cogitation, he seems to have latched onto the idea by instinct. Suppose entertainment is the purpose of politics! Suppose everybody is sick and tired of the same old same old: the policies and programs, the negotiations and compromises, the diplomatic caution, the measured words and politesse. When I wrote Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality nearly 20 years ago, I knew that entertainment had infected politics to give it some oomph. It hadn’t occurred to me that entertainment might replace politics. But it occurred to Trump. He knew that a lot of people would prefer entertainment to politics. He became the instrument.
Among the many explanations for the Trump phenomenon—and I have proposed a fair number myself—I would add this one: He knows how to put on a show for an electorate who likes shows. He thinks in terms of episodes. He knows how to bait the press into asking “what happens next” and to keep juicing the narrative. Chaos is an awful way to run an administration, but it is a wonderful way to keep people riveted and to distract them from policy discussions. And here is another thing about the show: It never ends. It is all Trump all the time. No entertainer has ever come as close as he has to monopolizing the ink and air.
Trump is unquestionably our worst president. Yet, in terms of air time and occupying mental space, he is our most successful entertainer ever. He doesn’t care about the first. He clearly obsesses over the second.
It is important to note that an entertainer’s success isn’t necessarily measured by popularity. It is measured by ratings—by how many people tune in. Typically, of course, there is some relationship between the two. We generally watch or listen to people we like and avoid those we dislike. Trump is something of an anomaly. His popularity is low, as seen in his approval numbers. A Gallup survey even found a “Trump unhappiness effect”—that is, unhappiness that is a result of Trump.
But his “ratings,” as determined by the national preoccupation with him, are through the roof. You can call it a form of rubber-necking, gawking at the disaster and unable to look away. Whatever you call it, Trump is putting on one hell of a show. It’s just that it comes at the expense of everything else, especially governance.
In fact, the less stability there is, the better the show. This turns everyone in Trump’s administration into a character (has there ever been an administration with as many loons as this one?), and a foil for the Great Leader, and keeps the audience, us and the press, guessing as to who will fall next. The media devoted more time this week to the fate of old sobersides Rex Tillerson than to the imminent decertification of the Iran nuclear agreement or to the crisis over North Korea. Tillerson was soap opera. Iran and North Korea were—yawn!—policy.
This is how Trump wants it. He loves the unexpected, the inappropriate, the unacceptable—not necessarily, as most commentators say, because it disrupts business as usual and plays to his populist “alt-right” base who want to see the government explode, but because it is much more entertaining than the smooth operation of government with professionals at the helm. Even his reprehensible comments on Charlottesville might have had less to do with white supremacism than with revving up The Trump Show. It is all about the show. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the press, in a bizarre symbiosis, surreptitiously enjoys all this pandemonium, even as they scold him for it. It is more fun for them, basically political gossip, which they seem to like to indulge, rather than policy analysis, which they don’t.
Obviously, entertainment and politics do not provide the same gratifications, and entertainment values can gut political values—which is where Trump’s newly invented apolitical, ratings-driven, showbiz presidency can get both dicey and dangerous. Ratings, after all, are a function of entertainment value. A flagging TV show often resorts to new plot devices—a surprise murder (“Who Killed JR?”), a wedding, a baby or any number of cliffhangers—to reignite viewer excitement. But what does an entertainer-in-chief do when the entertainment wanes?
Trump’s hasn’t yet, those approval numbers, again, notwithstanding. His show is still going strong. But those approval numbers are mired in the 30s, and while that doesn’t seem to matter for the show itself—the depths of his depravity have an odd sort of fascination, even if you loathe him—they do matter for one thing: whether the show will get renewed. That is, re-election. At some point, Trump fatigue is bound to set in. He is a one- or maybe two-trick pony. His shenanigans will grow stale. People will tune the show out. They may even opt for politics again after the diversion.
I have a strong feeling that nothing frightens Trump the Entertainer as much as this prospect that the show will be canceled, and I suspect that nothing occupies him more than cooking up a new trick, a new narrative arc that will boost his popularity in order to keep the show running. Trump has no historical consciousness whatsoever, but he surely realizes that Americans always rally around their president in wartime and that presidents, at least in the short run, can always conflate military action with support for the troops. It is the oldest trick in the patriotic book. Republicans would naturally fall into line. Democrats would castigate and be castigated in turn for not supporting the president.
Which is where North Korea comes in. We hear repeatedly that there are enough adults in this administration—three: Defense Secretary Mattis, White House Chief of Staff Kelly and Secretary of State Tillerson—to temper Trump’s bellicosity, and that when he blows off steam against North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, he is doing just that, though he is also pumping up The Trump Show.
But what if Trump decides that Season Two needs a military attack? What if he decides that the best narrative arc is the US and North Korea on the brink or even over the brink? In Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary, one interviewee complains that Lyndon Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, could be excused for pursuing a wrong-headed policy based on the fallacious “domino theory,” but they couldn’t be excused for continuing to prosecute the war when they knew it was unwinnable. But what if a President Trump cooks up a war not because of any geopolitical theory, but because it is the surest way of boosting his ratings? Is there any excuse then?
Oh, I know this is beyond cynical. I fully realize that even some diehard anti-Trumpsters will say he wouldn’t possibly, couldn’t possibly go that far. They think his threats are all overblown rhetoric and bluster, of which he is a master, and their fear is that he will miscalculate.
My fear is that he is calculating precisely what he wants. We have never seen Trump cornered, never seen what he would do if there was seemingly no way out, never seen what would happen if the show were about to sputter and die.
Trump is the most powerful showrunner in entertainment history. Does anyone really think he’ll let us pull the plug on him?
This post was first published on BillMoyers.com.
Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today’s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.