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.”
Coming up on the halfway point of its second season, it seems worth taking a moment to stop and consider what has become of one of the signature qualities of “The Trump Show”: its use of anticlimax. On most series, a repeated tendency to walk right up to the precipice of a momentous event before scurrying away would become wearisome and would indicate a lack of courage on the writers’ part. If you want your show to be a certain thing and to operate in a certain mode, why not stick to that, rather than tease the possibility of dramatic change you don’t actually have any intention of implementing?
On “The Trump Show,” though, anticlimax and cowardice are the subjects, and the usual dramatic dynamic is reversed. Donald Trump, the main character, is so defined by his bluster and flip-flopping that it’s genuinely shocking when he follows through with a threatened action, such as his decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey. The series is simultaneously saturated with menace and a trap: We spend all our time watching it dreading the sudden imposition of authoritarianism, and yet we’d be surprised should it actually arrive.
This week’s episode was full of anti-climaxes or potential anti-climaxes.
Take the planned summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which “The Trump Show” has sometimes teased as a potential reverse-heel turn in which our boorish anti-hero emerges as a genuine statesman. This week, Trump acknowledged that the meeting may not materialize, before ultimately cancelling the summit, citing “tremendous anger and open hostility” in the North Korean government’s latest statements. “The Trump Show” is wild but not naive. Unlike Aaron Sorkin, who long argued that straight talk and facts could fix politics, or Beau Willimon, who spins stories that suggest that conspiracy is highly effective in politics, “The Trump Show” has always been clear about the limits of Trump’s negotiating style and the genuine complications of the scenarios he faces.
The same writerly dynamics have played out this week in the China trade negotiations story line. It was simultaneously true in this plot that Trump lacked the tenacity to hold to his position on reshaping the relationship; that the officials representing him in those negotiations have profoundly incompatible beliefs about trade; and also that the Chinese officials have considerable advantages in both style and leverage. There will be no grand speech that changes this dynamic, no last-minute genius synthesis that produces wins for everyone, just a lot of genuine complexity. For all it frequently functions like a high-octane soap opera, “The Trump Show” is gritty and realistic in the best possible way: It recognizes that the dynamics of politics can be obstacles as formidable as any monster or supervillain.
The third anti-climax in this episode came in Trump’s meeting with law enforcement officials about Trump’s belief that he was treated unfairly and perhaps deceptively by the FBI and the Justice Department during his campaign and the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election that followed. The fact that the meeting happened is worrisome, of course. But it appears, at least for this episode, to have ended in a lightly reconfigured stalemate rather than in catastrophe.
It’s entirely possible that Trump will emerge as a full-on authoritarian figure. In the short term, though, he appears to have the fortitude to grouse, tweeting about a “WITCH HUNT!” and the specter of spies all around him, rather than acting with the sense of command and decisiveness that would be genuinely frightening. That’s not to say that these spectacles aren’t disturbing. The prospect of a grown man who was elected to one of the most powerful offices in the world limiting himself to his unsecured cellphone, his DVR and his Twitter feed speaks to a smallness of mind and spirit that is worrying and off-putting. Trump can do great damage to the world by shrinking into himself, even if he never stretches forth his hand to act.