Before Donald Trump was the leader of an authoritarian regime, he was a television star. And wherever he goes, gravity of the situation be damned, he refuses to let anybody forget it. You'd think he'd have the self-awareness to shut up about it at a damn National Prayer Breakfast, but this is year zero and the old rules are dead.
At a National Prayer Breakfast, presidents normally give a nice little speech about the importance of faith. Trump really did not do this. Taking the stage at the improvisational holy place that is the D.C. Hilton, President Trump spoke at length about his old show The Apprentice. I could paraphrase, but again, the old rules are dead, so what the hell, let's just quote him: “I said to the agent, I'm sorry, the only thing wrong — I actually got on the phone and fired him myself, because he said ‘you don't want to do it, it'll never work, it'll never, ever work, you don't want to do it.’ I said listen. But I really fired him after it became the number one show. It became so successful ...
“We had tremendous success on The Apprentice, and when I ran for president, I had to leave the show. That's when I knew for sure I was doing it. And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place, and we know how that turned out. The ratings went down the tubes, it's been a total disaster, and Mark [Burnett] will never, ever bet against Trump again.” Then, in front of a crowd that theoretically takes God seriously, he said “I just want to pray for Arnold if we can, for those ratings, OK?”
The Apprentice was a reality show. And while reality shows usually aren't scripted, they are very much directed. They function by encouraging the onscreen talent to behave in a way that drives viewership, and through positive reinforcement and other forms of wheel-greasing, producers encourage talent to embrace a character. Often, they will realize that the simplest road to success is to generate outrage and spectacle, to antagonize and make enemies and incite conflict and deliver dramatic proclamations.
And once the reality show ends, it's easy and often necessary for the talent to continue their pattern of behavior, to stay in character, because it gets attention, and attention is an asset to a reality performer, whether positive or negative. They have to draw attention to the brand they’ve cultivated, which outlives the show. Trump got to the White House in part because he knew how to make himself and his brand the center of attention at all times. He couldn't stop doing it. And that ability transcended the fact that his actual campaign appeared to be burning to the ground.
Since winning the election, Donald Trump has not stepped out of character, nor has he discovered humility, something you'd know to be impossible if you've ever heard him open his mouth to form sounds. Nine days before beginning his presidency, in an explosion of “I’m not here to make friends” bravado, the man held a press conference in which he told a CNN reporter to be quiet in a tone of voice conventionally reserved for saying “shut the fuck up.” He called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.” It was preposterous, it was unbecoming a president, and it was unquestionably a performance.
He talks shit on Twitter — about the size of his crowds, about actors and TV shows he doesn't like, about imaginary voter fraud. He refers to any journalism competent enough to view him unfavorably as “fake news.” His conduct is so stupid it's almost intoxicating — not like how alcohol is intoxicating but like how paint thinner is intoxicating. I mean, he picked a fight with Australia. That shouldn't even be possible. But it is. And it's also performance.
In his first prime-time television interview as a sitting president, he rambled incoherently about the size of his crowds and the magnitude of his victory, sounding like David Brent at his lowest moments of self-deception in The Office. And he called the world an angry place in a dark and conspiratorial tone that suggested a madness reserved for those who fall asleep at 2 a.m. with Fox News barking in the background. But there were cameras there. This, too, was performance.
As president, Donald Trump has not and will not stop being a reality television performer. But performance is not policy. His incomprehensible non sequiturs and combative fictional pronouncements about the state of the world are not laws. They make America look like shit, and they have the smell of bad policy to come, but they aren't policy unto themselves.
The question, then, is this: Of what utility is a reality television performer to an infant authoritarian regime? The answer is distraction. Sleight of hand. Donald Trump drives the entire news cycle in a way no president ever has. He makes sure everyone is looking at him all the time. And when everyone is looking at him, his regime is elsewhere, sputtering sickeningly toward life.
“The question, then, is this: Of what utility is a reality television performer to an infant authoritarian regime? The answer is distraction.”
Trump is very loud, easily distractible, and prone to huge public gaffes — or stunts; the difference is negligible — that dominate the average American political discussion. “Did you hear what Trump said? It was outrageous” and “Did you hear what Trump said? It made me sick” are the usual conversation starters, and they are bad ones, because they approach him as entertainment. Disgust is entertainment, too, or nobody would ever watch a horror movie.
When we talk about him like that, when we engage him on his level, we are playing into that sleight of hand. It's probably not a tactic Trump is using on purpose. It's probably just 100-proof ego and instinct. But whether it's deliberate is immaterial, because his Cabinet will use it to their advantage anyway.
Whenever we’re talking about a new and appalling way in which Trump is not presidential, we are not talking about the people he has hired, the magnitude of their viciousness, and the vastness of their capacity for destruction. His campaign is crawling with dangerous men, men who know how to be tyrants better than him. If the president gave a speech tomorrow that consisted of the word “fuck” 500 times without blinking, that would be outrageous — and yet we would be obligated to file it as a distraction, because it wouldn't strip them of their influence.
Another cold fact about reality stars is that they can’t exist without a producer. Just a couple weeks into his administration, and after a lot of guesswork and hunches, it has become clear who Trump's producer is. It's Steve Bannon, whom Andrew Breitbart called the “ Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement.” Since 2016, Bannon, the former CEO of Breitbart's white nationalist propaganda mill (and a former movie producer), has been in charge of Donald Trump, Incorporated. He was Trump's campaign CEO and now he's his chief strategist. He also sits on the National Security Council. When Trump is off being a carnival barker, Bannon is getting work done.
And it's getting done fast. Since Trump took office, he has signed an executive order that essentially prohibits Muslims from coming to our country. He'll never quite admit that, and his Cabinet will never quite admit that. They'll just dance around it, sing a little bit, mention September 11 and made-up massacres, then tie it all together in the bow of keeping this glorious nation of patriots safe. But by barring people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, the message is clear: Muslims are not welcome in America.
And his secretary of state is Exxon Mobil.
And torture is probably coming back.
And he nominated a new Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, who'll probably get confirmed with relative ease. What you need to know about him is that he's a well-credentialed conservative, and by well-credentialed I mean “had a Henry Kissinger quote about the necessity of bending the Constitution next to his high school yearbook photo,” and he's only 49 and looks straitlaced enough to live almost forever.
All of this is the screaming proof that none of Trump's insanity is cute. What he's doing, and what the men around him are doing, is evil. And anyone who tries to rationalize or compromise with him is a coward, because the plain truth is that his actions will kill people. Tearing down the Affordable Care Act will kill people. Turning away refugees will kill people.
When we think about what a fool Trump is, what a child he is, we are not thinking about how his administration is changing this country, and the unromantic, unsentimental specifics of what must be done to resist that change. Rubbernecking doesn't do anything. Calling him a dipshit doesn't do anything. His supporters, by and large, will never think he's a dipshit, and they will never think his appalling conduct is appalling. Their eyes will not open because of anyone's nice sermon. They exist in a different world that does not crest ours, even when they're in the same room as us. And though it may feel like scaling a cliffside to reach them, we have a moral imperative to try, to provide them with truth and arguments founded on truth. And we have to do this even if it feels like we're not getting anywhere.
The tone has been established. The rhythm is locked in. Donald Trump will govern by performance, and the men around him will mold him into what they want through suggestion and whispers and backhanded affirmation. We will be dealing every day with this sleight of hand.
And the only way you beat a sleight-of-hand trick is by refusing to be party to it. Read about the policy being enacted. Read about what the Republicans are doing instead of getting tinnitus in a circus. Read about it and get mad, but don't stop there. Pay attention to the changing laws and the changing government, and pay attention to what we're losing and what we have to get back. That said, we can't work ourselves into the ground. It will take years to be rid of Trump and decades to undo him. This is a long, slow fight of attrition, and most victories in this fight will not be the crescendo of a symphony. And that's all right. The big victory will be built on years of successive small victories, and we will be denied even those if we allow ourselves to surrender to outrage and despair. Losing once doesn't mean you'll lose forever.