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 a genre-hopping television show is to cover it that way. Welcome to our recaps of “The Trump Show.”
For all I’ve argued that “The Trump Show” functions a lot like a soap opera, complete with a huge, feuding cast, a willingness to burn through plots at an aggressive rate, and a gleeful use of cliffhangers, it’s also got a lot in common with Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist play “No Exit”: In watching the show, we’ve committed ourselves to spending an uncertain (though probably not infinite) amount of time with a group of often highly unpleasant people, and yet somehow, we can’t bring ourselves to leave, to turn off the television and to devote our attention to literally anything else.
This week’s episode of “The Trump Show” seemed designed to reinforce that point. Though “The Trump Show” often promises some sort of dramatic change, or at least dramatic events in the form of the Russia investigation and North Korea story lines, and through the churn of characters who round out the Trump administration, this hour of television was a reminder that the protagonist himself remains fundamentally the same throughout it all. And if Trump himself is not actually on a journey, if his character doesn’t actually have an arc, and if the other characters on the show come into contact with him only to be degraded, disgraced or defeated, it’s worth asking ourselves what it is that we’re watching.
We’ve been watching “The Trump Show” for more than a year now, so it’s not exactly surprising when Trump himself returns to the same themes, ideas and patterns of behavior. Still, this was a bit of a greatest-hits lineup.
In West Virginia, Trump literally threw pages of his speech over his shoulder, dismissing the remarks he was supposed to give about taxes as “boring” and returning to the most horrifying moment of his campaign kickoff: his argument that Mexico was effectively exporting rapists and criminals to the United States. Referring to the caravan of immigrants making their way north from Central America, Trump declared “Remember my opening remarks at Trump Tower when I opened? Everybody said, ‘Oh, he was so tough.’ I used the word rape. And yesterday it came out where this journey coming up, women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before.”
In keeping with his habit of making bold statements that could potentially land him in trouble, Trump declared that he had no idea that Michael Cohen, his personal attorney, had paid $130,000 to the adult film actress Stephanie Clifford in order to keep her quite about an alleged affair she’d had with Trump. It was a classic Trump move, denying responsibility, tossing someone else under the bus with great haste and no thought for the consequences, and possibly implausible. Clifford’s attorney has suggested that if Trump didn’t know about the deal, then it’s impossible to say that she and Trump had a binding nondisclosure agreement.
But even if Trump’s disavowal does advance this story line, giving Clifford carte blanche to discuss even more salacious details of their alleged encounters, it’s hard to imagine that the sort of revelation that would have been a bombshell two decades ago on “The Clinton Show” would land with as much force today. For all the minor evangelical Christian characters on the show periodically grouse about Trump’s morality and the possibility that scandals will matter to his more religious supporters, it’s been clear for so long who Trump is that it’s hard to imagine what information could fundamentally change other characters’ perception of him — or, quite frankly, our own.
Trump did finally act on some long-preexisting rhetoric in ramping up his trade war with China, though as of this writing, that has produced more of a slow burn than an immediate economic crash. And the truth is that even that plot ties into dynamics far bigger than “The Trump Show” is really equipped to address. The realignment of the world order away from the United States as the unipolar power dominating the globe is too conceptually big for something such as “The Trump Show” to incorporate into either its day-to-day plotting or its long-range view. This isn’t “The Wire” or “Deadwood.” It’s strange and sad, frenetic and static in a way all its own.