The Trump Presidency: Tune In Or Tune Out?
PARIS — "Previously on President Trump …" We have gotten used to following the news from the White House as we would a prime-time television drama. This week's plot includes the long-awaited boot for Big Rex. Did he know it was coming? Who said what to whom, and when? What does it mean for Vlad? For Xi? And Kim??
The current Foggy Bottom plot line follows last week's installment of metal tariffs for our allies, with Trump boasting that trade wars are "good and easy to win." That was followed by chief economic advisor Gary Cohn resigning, just hours after the president said that "everybody" wanted to work with him at the White House. And, for an end-of-the-week cliffhanger, there was the surprise announcement of historic talks with North Korea, a country Trump had threatened a few months ago with "fire and fury." Oh, and don't forget Stormy Daniels, whose breakout performance could turn her into a recurring character.
None of this should surprise us, of course, coming from a president who is also a former reality television star and who reportedly told his top aides that they should "think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals."
As for the rest of the world, where Netflix series are the vehicle of choice for spreading American culture, the search for show business metaphors is on. "During his election campaign, Trump coined the image of Washington as a "swamp," a picture that looks less like reality and more like the scripts written in Hollywood — probably because the candidate knew Washington mainly through such works of fiction," Adrian Daub wrote last year in the German weekly Die Zeit. "Could it be that the all-pervading cynicism conveyed on such shows as House of Cards has contributed to Donald Trump overtaking fiction?"
None of this should surprise us coming from a president who is also a former reality television star.
Columnist Jean-Pierre Robin of the French daily Le Figaro landed upon a more dated analogy, after Trump announced the heavy steel and aluminum tariffs last week. Robin likened Trump's America to the 1965 movie La Vieille Dame indigne (The Shameless Old Lady), based on a story by German playwright Bertolt Brecht. In it, an aging woman, having raised her kids, proceeds to spend all her money and do whatever she damn well pleases.
There have been other, more colorful attempts to draw comparisons to this new peak in presidential theatrics, particularly in light of developments in Italy, which has its own national drama playing. There, an inconclusive election last week saw the return of Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister whose biography (and behavior) may be more similar to Trump's than any other global leader.
Yet the hotspot where the stakes right now are highest is North Korea, after last week's surprise announcement of an unprecedented meeting planned between Trump and dictator Kim Jong-un. It was only few months ago that Kim pulled out his own evocative image of Trump, calling him a "dotard" —an obscure word used by the likes of Herman Melville, William Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien. Perhaps that was something he found in translation.
If the search for hope and meaning in the Trumpian world feels futile, you may want to follow the lead of Erik Hagerman, a 53-year-old from Ohio who decided to shut out all news from his life since Trump was elected. "It's not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation," he told The New York Times. "It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust."
For the rest of us, the only option is to keep watching, closely or loosely, as Trump prepares for the next episode. Reality is not (just) a show.