It has always been appealing to talk about Donald Trump as the reality television president. For all his documented racism, and despite the many accusations of sexual assault, no jab at his unfitness for the job has seemed more ubiquitous than the reminder that he was previously famous as the guy who fired Cyndi Lauper on the tacky boardroom set of “The Celebrity Apprentice.” It’s a dynamic that was palpable this past week, when Trump invited the parents of Harry Dunn, the 19-year-old Brit killed in a traffic accident by American diplomatic wife Anne Sacoolas, to the White House. Without telling the grieving parents beforehand, he had Sacoolas waiting in the next room for a surprise emotional catharsis, to be played out in front of cameras ready to capture the moment. 

This is the ultimate old-school reality TV idea, recognizable to anyone who has ever indulged. It’s mid-’90s, daytime-trash gold — that box in the corner of the screen where we see a guy’s girlfriend waiting to burst onto the set and confront him for sleeping with her sister. It’s that moment on a “Real Housewives” reunion episode when a minor character is trotted out just to catch one of the stars in a lie. Since Trump clearly was looking to sell reconciliation, not conflict, my mind went to a more contemporary example from the most recent season of “Queer Eye,” when Karamo, the near-caricaturishly kind and sincere lifestyle adviser, brings the man he’s making over to a restaurant for a surprise. The guy who shot him and put him in a wheelchair for life is waiting to meet him.

The very temptation to compare such constructed, formulaic theatrics to the drama playing out on the global stage doesn’t just indict Trump: It’s also a condemnation of the rest of us, the viewers who voted him into office. We fell for the spectacle. A few months after Trump’s inauguration, Emily Nussbaum detailed in the New Yorker the way his “Apprentice” persona — the man in the power suit calling the shots, never challenged — was a cardboard cutout that could, at least, appear presidential, however free of substance it might be. Implicit in that point is the dynamic that makes any reality television production work: participants willing to engage in the spectacle shaped around them, and an audience willing to suspend disbelief in the face of that spectacle. Whether you loved or hated Trump, he was watchable because we’d seen all the bits before.

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It’s easy now to point out that for the past three years Trump has been going back to that same playbook. Reality television, as noted by media critics like Nussbaum, political reporters like John Cassidy and the Bravo god himself, Andy Cohen, is the language he knows — a flip book of insults and set pieces ready-made for conflict or humiliation, or just fireworks. But it might be more helpful, or at least more hopeful, to point out all the ways the show breaks down around him: moments when he expects the production to play out exactly as he wants, but participants and viewers refuse to give him any moral or narrative authority. Often these are interactions with normal people, people who want nothing from him, who won’t be made to mean what they don’t want to mean. They are not contestants, they are citizens, and that is a distinction Trump seems unable to make. When he forces them into the show, their humanity in the face of the formula turns the familiar grotesque.

We saw this during Trump’s interaction with Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn, who refused to meet — let alone reconcile — with the woman who had struck and killed their son while she was driving on the wrong side of the road. As they explained later, they had always been willing to meet with Sacoolas, but they wanted to do so at the right moment, with proper preparation, prior knowledge and trained mediators on hand. What they didn’t want was to confront her without warning. That apparently hadn’t occurred to Trump, who reportedly thought he could fix things. 

I can almost understand his reasoning, if only because it’s worked before, at least on screen. I watched that scene where Karamo introduces his charge to the man who shot him, and I enjoyed it, just as I do every “Housewives” reunion, just as I spent my childhood enjoying “The Jerry Springer Show.” Of course, I’m aware of the wild ethical pitfalls and the predictability, the obvious construction of a moment demanding a particular emotion. As a fan, there’s discomfort in watching it play out, but there’s also the pleasure of engaging with a manufactured world where everyone has shown up for the attention. They’ve left normality, and in some ways they’ve left free will, in favor of the show. 

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Or I can tell myself that. Those who walked onto the “Jerry Springer” set did so ready to behave in a way that would make the security guards sprint out from the wings. Nobody is more aware of the requirements of their job than a Real Housewife — part of what they’re selling is the certainty that they’re in on the whole thing, so they must deserve whatever comes to them. Even with “Queer Eye,” a show I choose to believe is much less cynical, you can’t feel the emotion Karamo is pushing unless his makeover subject seems to buy fully into the conceit of his own forced catharsis.

This is why the campaign was such a perfect setting for Trump’s reality plotlines and why he always longs to be back within its familiar parameters. He’s comfortable when everyone can believably be accused of being in on the show, and therefore when nobody demands better. Like a reality episode, the stakes of a campaign, and of so much political discourse, feel both hysterically huge and also detached from real consequences. Similarly, when Trump solicited praise from his Cabinet as if he was back on “The Apprentice,” or even had wandered into a “Bachelor” rose ceremony, it felt appropriate — an empty, made-for-TV contest, full of people who would do anything for the star’s approval and a random title, a sea of Bret Michaels and Gary Buseys, fitted with muted blue ties. There are sides to pick, humiliations to gawk at, things to feel, a spectacle so obvious and complete that it’s hard to think anyone deserves anything different.

But Trump cannot make compelling spectacle out of those who don’t want to be a spectacle, and that’s when the show starts to break down. The Dunns didn’t want to meet Sacoolas. They didn’t want to be paraded in front of cameras. They brought to the White House no desire for anything other than justice. Afterward, when their spokesman said that they felt “ambushed,” that a “bombshell” had been dropped, those words nodded pretty explicitly at the reality show construction of the moment, but they didn’t feel exciting or juicy; they were simply describing an act of cruelty — lives interrupted and manipulated. 

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I had a similar feeling when the White House sent Vice President Pence to view the crowded migrant detention facilities at the border. Somehow, officials seemed to think that if Pence performed sincerity and authority, those suffering around him would conform to that desired affect. Instead, Pence stood with his arms folded and appeared unmoved as humans inside cages screamed: “No shower! No shower!” Only a week later, Trump himself met with Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad and tried to play the situation like he was congratulating a triumphant “Apprentice” contestant who would, as these moments have always played out, bask in the glory of a powerful man offering praise. When Murad wanted to talk about why she’d won the prize, for speaking out about her rape and torture at the hands of the Islamic State, Trump could only keep stumbling toward the emotion he wanted — “So you escaped,” he prodded her limply. He appeared unable to muster up even the performance of humanity; that wasn’t what he’d showed up to do.

It’s no accident that Trump’s most excruciating interpersonal failures come in these moments, when he must encounter humans who aren’t politicians or who don’t cover politicians, who aren’t celebrities or pundits, who are not planning to give themselves over to a show of any kind. When they recoil from him, it is so genuine, so unambiguous, that he retains no illusion of control. And the longer he has to govern, the more these moments will occur; these three examples were all from the past four months.

The idea of Donald Trump, president, has always hinged on the suspension of disbelief. No one was ever supposed to think that he was kindhearted or sincere, just that the people he was antagonizing weren’t, either, and that there was some value, some authority or at least some entertainment in his making them twist in the wind. As that conceit ages, calcifies and begins to crack, he’s running out of options.

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More-skilled reality TV practitioners have been dealing with participants who fight against the formula for years. Pushing against the cage is now often part of the show — look at the 2019 Bachelor, Colton, trying to flee the set in heartbreak as the camera pulls back to reveal the crew members working to corral him. But Trump carries on as though it’s 2003 and nobody on TV or watching TV knows any better. His most dedicated devotees will always suspend their disbelief, of course, but even they keep trying to turn the conversation to Nancy Pelosi, to Hillary Clinton, to CNN — figureheads already embroiled in the show, enemy participants long ago stripped of their humanity. These supporters are working very hard to pretend that there’s anything still compelling in a very tired bit. For the rest of us, the viewing experience is too cynical to even be a guilty pleasure.

Twitter: @LucasWMann

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