The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

President Trump wants to put on a show. Governing matters less.

The product may change, but the star is always the same.

The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher helps explain why when it comes to this presidency, the most important thing, is how it looks. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)
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Last spring, while reporting The Washington Post’s biography of Donald Trump, I asked an executive who had worked for Trump for more than three decades to help me understand a central contradiction about the man: How could he be at once the micromanager who in the 1980s would call an employee at 2 a.m. and order her out of bed to clean up litter he’d noticed in the lobby of one of his buildings, and also the boss who was so detached that he claimed to be ignorant of his hotels’ finances as they fell into bankruptcy?

The executive offered this guidance: “If you’re ever confused about Trump’s motives, go to showman first.” The building lobby was a showcase for the Trump brand, requiring the close attention of the man behind the name; the finances were backstage stuff, easily ignored.

Those words keep coming back to me as the timeworn rituals of Washington are washed out by the bright glare of President Trump at center stage. News conferences, diplomatic summits, relations with Congress, campaign-style rallies — the public-facing aspects of the presidency are being blown up, flipped on their heads, transformed into platforms for the master marketer to play out his unique approach to brand enhancement.

What Washington has been trained to perceive as disorder — a blizzard of contradictions, a president saying one thing while his top appointees say the opposite — is actually a long-running theatrical event, The Trump Show, a time-tested method by which the star builds excitement, demands attention and creates soap-operatic story lines that at least superficially seem like success. The most important thing about this presidency, to the man in the Oval Office, is how it looks.

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For Trump, the product almost doesn’t matter; it can be hotels or casinos or steaks or wine or water or a university. It can be severe moves against illegal immigration or treating the children of undocumented immigrants with “heart.” It can be a one-state solution for the Middle East conflict or a two-state solution. It can be a “Muslim ban” or an executive order that his aides insist is anything but. The persona, more than the content, is his concern.

The Trump Show is new to the White House but old hat to anyone who has watched its star as casino magnate, hotel builder, pitchman for all manner of products or reality TV host. Three decades ago, he used the news media, especially the New York tabloids, to build his brand by directing attention away from his troubled Atlantic City casinos and toward the collapse of his marriage to Ivana Trump and the flamboyant, playboy lifestyle that he wanted his audience to believe he was leading.

“The show is Trump, and it is sold-out performances everywhere,” he told Playboy at the time, referring to his own divorce. In frequent conversations with TV and print reporters, he perfected the art of showmanship, turning personal anguish and tragedy into a startlingly public and breathtakingly popular drama. By his own account, Trump put so much energy into generating coverage of his personal soap opera that “I took my eye off the ball” at his casinos, which would saddle him with six corporate bankruptcies.

What does Trump do when he loses? He acts like it never happened.

Similarly, Trump’s daily delivery of detours and distractions in the White House is meant in part to mask discord or disarray. But more than that, it’s a continuation of a career-long strategy to focus the audience’s attention on the man in the moment. In this show, what happened yesterday, last week or 10 years ago is always crowded out by what the master of ceremonies is doing right now. He has been, and must remain, the sole focus of attention.

The Trump Show is simultaneously disturbing and effective. He uses it to take credit, levy blame, bully enemies and entertain supporters. I watched Trump’s marathon news conference this month from a barbecue joint west of Dallas, where some in the lunchtime crowd nudged one another with delight as the president skewered reporters and made outrageous claims. The audience read the proceedings as a show: When one man told his friends that Trump wasn’t actually answering questions about the role Russia may have played in influencing last fall’s election, his lunchmate replied, “He’s just smacking down the media.”

Already, Trump is constructing his presidential brand as a series of personal moments — anecdotes about jobs saved, denunciations of wayward opponents, boasts about his victories. He may not sound presidential in his rhetorical style, except in his sometimes-stilted news conferences with foreign leaders, when he is uncharacteristically subdued, speaking in longer, more complex sentences and in softer, quieter tones. His energetic handshakes with whiplashed heads of state, the al fresco power tableaux he stages every weekend at his Mar-a-Lago beachfront estate, his prime-time announcement of his Supreme Court pick in the stately East Room — this is already the most theatrically minded presidency since Ronald Reagan’s.

Yet the Trump Show is elementally different from Reagan’s media-savvy presidency. Reagan’s image-maker, Michael Deaver, created dramatic settings for his boss in service of policy themes. When Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall and dared Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the point was to enhance the message: a push to end the Cold War.

President George W. Bush, whose administration studied Deaver’s methods closely, spoke to the nation on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks from Ellis Island, with a breathtaking view of the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop. The setting delivered Bush’s message of tolerance, respect for Islam and resolve to defeat terrorists just as much as his words did.

Trump’s events, by contrast, are crafted to focus on the president’s power and authority. Sometimes Trump makes policy seemingly on the run. When he says on stage with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he’s open to a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and his own U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, says the very next day that the administration is “absolutely” committed to a two-state solution, that’s not a policy difference but rather evidence of how the show works. Trump’s statement focuses attention on him as artisan of the deal. His appointees can come in behind him to deliver the actual content.

So on the Trump Show, NATO is “obsolete” and the president will always put America first. If Vice President Pence then tells European leaders that America remains fully committed to the alliance, that’s okay, because the show isn’t meant for them; it’s meant for Trump’s TV audience at home. On The Trump Show, it’s outrageous and absurd to think that the Russians meddled in a U.S. election. If Defense Secretary Jim Mattis then says that well, maybe they did, that’s fine, too, because the show is not about diplomatic and legal reality; the show is about building Trump’s image of strength, success and control.

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For decades, Trump has devoted his time and energy more to the facades of his enterprises than to their underlying structures. When the board game manufacturer Milton Bradley introduced a Trump game in the 1980s, its namesake was guaranteed 60 percent of the profits. When the game’s inventor visited him at Trump Tower, Trump didn’t even want to see how it was played. But although his contract didn’t require it, Trump volunteered to fly up to Milton Bradley’s plant in Massachusetts to stage a media event where he could be seen as a job creator.

Trump wants to manage the economy by personally running every business. He can’t.

The key to his business success, Trump wrote in several of his books, was to solidify in the public’s mind that “Trump” meant ambition, wealth and a distinctly personal expression of success. Some of his ventures would flop, and some would make piles of money, but he would sit at the core of all of them, insisting that he — not his staff or his company — was the star.

Everything else serves that idea — his relations with women, bankers, the media, the public. Details are important only when they affect the brand. If he’s not quite certain whether the nation should have a strong dollar or a weak one , or if he’s planning to speak “in a broad sense,” as his press secretary put it, rather than in detail, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, or if he appears not to be fully informed about the nation’s one-China policy — that’s beside the point of the Trump Show.

From nearly any other political leader, a statement such as “Now arrives the hour of action” — either the most stirring or the most chilling line in Trump’s inaugural address, depending on your attitude toward him — might smack of demagogic notions of leadership. But in Trump’s case, such rhetoric speaks at least as much of showmanship as of nascent authoritarianism.

Diplomacy and politics have traditionally depended heavily on nuance and shades of meaning. The Trump Show spurns subtlety. Trump has always put more energy into staging a riveting performance than into the measures by which business titans are normally judged (steady profitability, happy stockholders, fulfilled employees, good deeds). He focuses on how things look, positioning his dates, girlfriends, wives and children as avatars of wealth, dressed and posed to impress the common man.

So it should come as no surprise to hear from top staffers that Trump approaches the hiring process much as a casting agent decides which actors get roles — whether it’s a crusty combat general in charge of the Defense Department or a silver-haired alpha male executive at State, the look matters.

Similarly, when Trump blasts cable news channels in his tweets, speeches and news conferences, that reflects both his extreme dedication to watching coverage of himself and his decades-long role as TV critic. Throughout his career, Trump has made a daily habit of critiquing those who cover him, calling up reporters and sending writers hand-scrawled comments on their stories. Their work, in his view, is a reflection of his image-molding efforts — a show about his show, and he has always felt proprietary about it.

Trump follows all the rules for reality TV villains

The line between showbiz and politics has been blurring for decades now. In the ’60s, it was still a bit of a shock to learn that Richard Nixon had hired TV producers — including a young Roger Ailes, later the pioneer of Fox News — to run his campaign. Decades later, Reagan was criticized for having Deaver stage his appearances.

All of that has become utterly routine, of course, and now any politician who didn’t also aim to entertain would be considered odd. But the Trump Show takes us a step beyond. When he and Netanyahu spoke at their news conference, they had not even held a meeting yet. Such appearances are normally meant to communicate what the leaders have already talked about. This show was only about the show.

In The Post’s interviews with Trump, he often took on a strange, puzzled look when confronted with some contradiction between what he’d said in the past and what he was saying now. “Only you people care about that,” he’d say, whether the topic was his tax returns, his coarse relationships with women or his longtime liberalism in the years before he decided to paint himself as something of a conservative. The show is always now.

Great theater both entertains and confronts. Trump gets the first part — his brand of performance aims to deploy his audacity and his authority to rev up the audience and soak up attention. But neither at his campaign rallies nor in the opening weeks of his presidency has he challenged the crowds’ thinking. The Trump Show is, as ever, a spectacle, a cavalcade of provocations. It is designed not to prompt thought or even to persuade, but to sell tickets to the next performance.