A common reaction to Donald Trump’s presidency has been a sense that reality has outstripped even the most feverish fiction. The only thing to do when the world has come to feel like the implausible output of an ambitious but not particularly talented television writer is to cover it that way. Welcome to our recaps of “The Trump Show.”
You know, for a minute it seemed like this was going to be a quiet, even restrained, episode of “The Trump Show.” With the main character, President Trump, off in Bedminster, N.J., for 17 days — “The Trump Show’s” equivalent of stranding Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) on Dragonstone — I thought “The Trump Show” might be giving us a mid-season respite from cliffhangers and Anthony Scaramucci-style whirlwinds. How wrong I was. It gave us the prospect of nuclear war instead.
The truth is that “The Trump Show” has never really been a series you could feel good about watching. Sure, it was thematically strong, bringing to the surface a rich and nasty welter of racism, sexism and disdain not merely for elites, but for all expertise. But while the show possesses a strongly moralistic streak — people who try to team up with the main character often find themselves not merely ethically compromised but personally wrecked and humiliated — watching it isn’t a strictly moral enterprise. While we gawk at the outlandish, norm-busting antics of its characters, we’re still watching, treating them like entertainment rather than turning off our television sets in revulsion. We’ve been culpable, in our own tiny way, in their elevation.
To a certain extent, the latest twist on “The Trump Show” feels as much like an indictment of us for watching as it is a condemnation of the characters who are going through this mummery for our benefit. We’ve stuck with “The Trump Show,” alternately horrified and amused, thus far; the series seems to be asking us where the line is, what thing would make us stop live-tweeting and speculating over plot twists and simply say enough. It’s revealing of the main character that the writers room feels like it can have him behave this way without any drastic change in his persona. But the answer to that question says just as much about us as it does about him.
So we’ve been treated to the spectacle of Trump threatening North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury,” declaring that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded,” and presumably ready to fire, should the Hermit Kingdom continue with its provocations. The language he’s chosen makes Trump sound a lot more like the man that he’s threatening than the leader of the United States.
In fact, in a show known for its ability to make us feel sympathy to wholly unsympathetic characters, this just might be the most dramatic one yet. Trump has been so hasty and overwrought that he’s made the North Koreans sound correct and reasonable when they call him a “guy bereft of reason.” A statement released by the North Korean military declared that Trump was “extremely getting on the nerves” of the nation’s “infuriated” artillerymen. Is there any other possible response to that than agreement?
Minor characters on the show have been struggling alternately to parse the bright lines Trump seems to have drawn and to insist to the world that nothing has changed, to reassure the public that North Korea’s missiles probably can’t incinerate U.S. cities and to assess more candidly the evidence of North Korea’s nuclear developments. But the truth is, this series is called “The Trump Show” for a reason: One character looms so far over everyone else, from his prized daughter to the show’s rotating cast of Redshirt staffers that no one else can really make an impression, much less a difference.
And that’s the thing about all of this. We can tell ourselves that we’re watching to see just how bold Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s press conferences will get, or whether Jared Kushner can achieve peace in the Middle East, or what Barron Trump’s first year at a new school is like, or even to see if the new chief of staff can deliver the long-promised pivot. But the truth is, we’re watching for this: We’re tuning in to see just how bad it can get, and even as we’re aghast, we’re still enraptured. If you’re watching “The Trump Show” to feel morally superior, you’re doing it wrong: The whole thing is just a dark mirror held up in front of us, if we have the self-knowledge and courage to recognize ourselves in the reflection.