Playing the part
I heard someone on National Public Radio yesterday remark that we’re all obsessing over politics these days. Hmm … not exactly, I thought. We’re all obsessing over Trump, much as one might obsess over an approaching train if one were nailed to the tracks, but that’s not necessarily politics, at least not as commonly understood.
Trump isn’t really a political figure. That’s one of the countless reasons his election was so grotesque, as was the campaign that led to it. Trump doesn’t care about politics, not genuine politics. He cares about domination and revenge. He cares about profit and fame. He cares about screaming crowds. He doesn’t seriously care about public policy or institutions or the general welfare.
But we care about him, because we’ve been forced to, because he succeeded in getting himself into a position where he can, for instance, launch a nuclear war. But caring about Trump doesn’t feel like caring about politics so much as caring about being a decent human being. Trump is a monstrosity, in the literal sense, and the reasons for that are not political but moral. He’s a moral toxic waste dump.
Trump’s persona, the way he presents himself to us, is The Bully. It’s a part he played on a television reality show for eleven years, and a part he reprised during the endless campaign for president. It’s a part he obviously revels in playing, and that arguably tells us all we need to know about him. He’s a guy who loves to dominate, and is far less happy interacting horizontally, with no ability to bark “You’re fired” at the end.
He’s a pugnacious bad-tempered boss-man who loves to force people to submit to him, and loves it all the more when there’s an audience. He’s not “political” at all, he’s a television personality. This isn’t politics, it’s show biz.
Vanity Fair talked to some reality TV producers after the election to get their views on this mingling of show biz with government. Jeff Jenkins had particularly acute (and frightening) insights.
Jenkins makes a point to note, ‘What you need to hear is that, whether it’s a scripted project or a reality project, the people in front of the camera, they become characters. So, Donald Trump, the judge on his game show, that’s a character. It’s frightening for me to think that other citizens don’t realize that is a character.’
Asked how conscious Trump might be of this character he projects, Jenkins looks to his own reality-show experience for clues.
‘If I were betting, I would place on the side that he is aware that he has [this separate character]. Of course, the character is based on himself, but he’s created a character that is much more than himself. My perception is that he’s aware and he’s running with it because he’s succeeding.
If Jenkins is right that the created character is much more than the actual Trump, there could in theory be some hope that Trump is not quite as reckless and belligerent as the persona he’s playing. One could imagine the real Trump in quiet moments deciding to overrule the character Trump and thus not, for instance, deciding to get in a nuclear arms race with the Russians because Putin goaded him. One could, but … it’s not easy. It’s especially not easy when he’s spent the past two years reveling in the character Trump, and living it on one stage after another. It seems more likely that he has come to inhabit the character Trump, and the slightly less awful one has faded away, like a consumptive daughter in a Victorian novel.
Jenkins points out that Paris Hilton became an archetype on reality TV, one who was quite different from the real person.
In my opinion, Trump is doing the same thing. He has created a character based on aspects of himself, but it’s a character. And citizens believe that character is capable, and it’s just frightening, because it’s a character.
Actors who play surgeons, cops, pilots, physicists on TV aren’t real surgeons, cops, pilots, physicists. They perform the roles, and that’s a different thing.
Vanity Fair quoted another producer, Bill Pruitt, in a follow-up piece. Pruitt worked on the first two seasons of The Apprentice.
There’s a larger issue at hand: non-fiction or ‘reality’ television has obviously become a huge force in shaping the minds of the populace. The Apprentice contributed to that. People lapped up what the producers were putting out, and the danger became real as news directors, desperate to compete with ratings, started putting music under soft news stories. Facebook started pushing altogether fake news. Opinions on Twitter became truths over lies. People were prone to clickbait no matter how salacious or factually questionable it was, and the entire journalism world turned on its head.
At the very same time, some clever producers were putting forth a manufactured story about a billionaire whose empire was, in actuality, crumbling at the very same time he took the job, the salary, and ownership rights to do a reality show. The Apprentice was a scam put forth to the public in exchange for ratings.
Clearly none of this has anything to do with the actual job of being president. It merely looks similar – one guy, “presiding” over stuff. It’s the idea behind the God racket, really, as well as monarchies and dictatorships: you take this one man, see, and he tells everyone what to do, and that way there’s no time wasted on arguing and reasons and explanation and compromise – on politics. It’s arbitrary. Nothing leads to anything, it’s all just assertion and command. No wonder Trump is so happy on Twitter: he can just blurt out his short assertions and commands and then spend the rest of his day being the star at a Triumph of the Will rally.