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.”
Last week, “The Trump Show” pulled a surprise maneuver: it demonstrated a willingness to let its main character take an embarrassing loss, and its ability to pull together a long-running, logistically complex plot rather than merely relying on week-to-week chaos. This week, it did something different, but still daring in its own way: the series demonstrated that it could keep the camp and grotesqueness to a minimum, while still pulling off a morally horrifying episode of television.
This hour focused on two main plots: the tax bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress that will likely be signed into law by President Trump in January, and a showdown at the United Nations over Trump’s earlier decision to move the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In both cases, “The Trump Show” explored relatively traditional policy priorities, rather than the more bizarre behavior and statements that have so often characterized the fictional presidential administration on this show. And yet, even though it chose understatement rather than flamboyance, “The Trump Show” still managed to clearly show the consequences of these developments, and the way they reflect the moral character of the participants. We’re not quite there yet, but if we get another episode that shows this sort of range, I’ll be prepared to say that “The Trump Show” is on a particular creative roll, finding new ways to horrify us each week.
The tax bill was the cruder of the two plot lines, but crude in a way that’s an expression of the show’s mainstream Republicans, rather than of Trumpian crudeness. The president lent his own twist to it, of course, referring to it by one of his favorite formulations, “big, beautiful,” and claiming, falsely of course, that the changes contained in the bill would “cost me a fortune.” By now, we know his character well enough that it would be more surprising for him to act with restraint and message discipline than to behave like this, to demand a dramatic show of praise from Republican leadership in the wake of the bill’s passage.
The scenes with Trump were obligatory, but they weren’t the entire point of the plot line. Instead, “The Trump Show” calibrated the tax cut story such that we didn’t just focus on his behavior, but on its consequences. Tax cuts are a commitment to excess and faulty economic thinking that Trump shares with the other members of the Republican Party; this is a story line that doesn’t just illustrate other party leaders’ humiliating subservience to him, but a sort of magical view of the world that they shared before he became president.
The Israel storyline suggested another facet of the other characters’ complicity. It’s not exactly news that the United States sees itself as a major power on the world stage and that American leaders don’t like to be defied when they make major decisions. In that sense, the Trump administration’s response to the criticism of its decision about the American Embassy in Israel isn’t a departure from that tendency: it merely reveals the uglier emotions and sense of geopolitical entitlement that are more frequently cloaked in smooth speech and carefully calibrated diplomatic language.
At issue in this episode was a resolution up for a vote at the United Nations that condemned the American decision to move the embassy.
Trump greeted the news of the resolution with flippancy, declaring that he would cut off aid to countries who voted for it (despite his dubious ability to do so).“Let them vote against us,” he blustered. “We’ll save a lot. We don’t care. But this isn’t like it used to be where they could vote against you and then you pay them hundreds of millions of dollars and nobody knows what they’re doing.” By contrast, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, came across as prickly and defensive, pledging to “take names” of the countries who voted against the United States and complaining that “The United States will remember this day in which it was singled out in this assembly for the very act of exercising our right as a sovereign nation.”
Taken together, their responses capture the contradictions of the superpower at this particular moment: dismissive and yet eager for approval, careless of the world order and yet stung by it. “The Trump Show” has showed Trump humiliating his own putative allies before. But I’m not sure it’s ever had an episode that demonstrated quite how much he had in common with them, and the extent to which he had very little to do to corrupt anyone. Understatement in this style isn’t the standard way “The Trump Show” operates: it would be a very different series if that were the case. But it’s nice to be reminded of just how many kinds of things the show can do, and how many ways it can find to show us how deep the rot goes.