Confession. I’ve become a devoted fan of Pod Save America. I should probably be meditating on higher things, but I really enjoy hearing smart, well-informed people like Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Tommy Vietor and Jon Lovett, spill the beans on what’s really happening in US politics. Ex-Obama staffers all, they know what they are talking about. They don’t pull their punches. They make me feel like progressive values are still alive in the US. And they’re hilariously funny*.
Still, in the last few weeks, even these beltway mavens have struggled to parse the political calculus behind the President’s increasingly erratic words and actions (or, in the latest case of Charlottesville, egregious inaction/silence). I want to suggest, respectfully, they are looking through the wrong lens. Seen as Politics none of this makes sense. But look at the Presidency, as I am sure Donald does, in the context of Entertainment and the logic is impeccable.
Trump, remember, is an entertainer – a blingy hotelier turned game show host. And like the runner of a reality tv show, he thinks less in news cycles, more in daily episodes. That means producing a steady, 24/7 diet of outrage and intrigue, hirings and firings.
It also means assembling a supporting cast that can keep the nation tuning-in when you’re off golfing. While Trump has little use for people of ‘character’, he has a casting agent”s eye for media-worthy characters. Anthony Scaramucci’s appearance was laughably brief by political standards but for a cameo role, perfectly normal. And actually very effective, catalysing as it did, the departure of Sean Spicer and Rience Priebus. two performers who’d outlived their usefulness. Characters, be warned – you have a limited shelf life. It remains to be seen if the square-jawed General Kelly who’s replaced The Mooch will turn out to be a WHTV regular or expendable ‘extra’.
Trump has succeeded very well in turning his game show slot into a truly Prime Time gig. But now the problems really begin.
Season One (“The Campaign”) was a triumph. Supported by millions of fans – yes voters are now truly fans – the US commissioned a second series: “The Presidency”. And as the Donald is discovering, sequels are hard. You have to give the audience what they have come to expect but not how they expect it. Trump is currently ringing the changes on his tried-and-trusted anti-establishment campaign schtick but it doesn’t play so well when it’s the incumbent shouting.
Then there’s the problem of Sensational Inflation. Yesterday’s drama is a yawn today. We acclimatise to shock. Ask the Kardashians. So more and more desperate measures are needed to feed the audience’s voyeurism and stimulus addiction.
But there’s a deeper problem too. The Storyteller has become the Story-dweller. That’s to say, the House on the Hill narrative has come true for this unlikely Presidential contender. Now he has to live in it. It’s like Trump has become director and star in his own personal Truman Show. And the entertainment world is littered with cringeworthy examples of what happens when the lead actor is both sides of the camera.
In story terms (and I explore this in my book Story for Leaders) we have seen the rise of Donald. And now we are witnessing the Fall. The gradient and velocity of the decline will depend a great deal on the loyalty or fickleness of his audience. And his backers.
But ratings will inevitably drop. Even the most potent franchises have their day. And savvy stars know to bow out before they are booted out. This year Wolverine, another superhero with strange hair, hung up his claws in Logan. In 2017 too, Winter will finally come to Kings Landing as Game of Thrones reaches its final, convulsive reel. Even Breaking Bad’s incomparably villainous Walter White knew when it was time to cook his last batch of Meth. And that’s an anti-hero that Donald must identify with. Can’t you just picture him in his West Wing bathroom, tending to his comb-over, sucking in the midriff and practicing I am the one who knocks! into the mirror?
Who knows if The Donald will write in his own exit or wait for the People to pull the plug. But those final credits will roll.
As heartlessly self-seeking as Trump is, the Entertainment Biz that spawned him is a whole different level of ruthless. As soon as his backers – be they his Base, the Republican party, the Alt-Right, Fox News, the MAGA blogosphere, Vladimir Putin or any toxic cocktail of the above – realise he’s lost his audience, Donny will be sent packing. I see him ending his days on the Shopping Channel, the natural habitat for the fake-tan huckster.
We don’t know when that season finale will be. Or what damage he may have done by the time it comes. But come it will. And we know the final line. It’s been built into the logic of this particular story from the start:
*One way to eclipse an entertainer like Trump is to be even more entertaining. And Pod Save America are doing a great job at that. Also, their humour feels like a powerful antidote to the nastiness that’s afoot. If you’re not already a Friend of the Pod, I do recommend a listen.