With all the trappings of a prime-time reality television series, the bumbling, yet ever-captivating Trump administration has offered scandal after scandal with a flagrant disregard for optics and a ‘no such thing as bad press’ mentality, all at the behest of a literal, reality T.V. juggernaut. This comparison is by no means a novel one. The similarities between President Trump’s behavior in his old career and that in his new one have not gone unnoticed, as President Trump is operating with the same controversial gusto just in a new setting with more consequential challenges. It’s almost as if he has just gone from Keeping Up with the Trumps to Trump & Co. Take the White House.
For his producers (i.e. the media), President Donald Trump’s parade of never-ending offenses, gaffes, and “alternative facts” are a ratings goldmine, providing enough daily fodder to stoke the flames of controversy and keep people refreshing their news feeds for whatever anger-inducing antics are surely in store. Every day in this administration has been gate-able—worthy of that Nixonian suffix for any mishap, political or otherwise, brought to the public eye.
Not since President Clinton’s impeachment has politics been so alluring, so salacious, so en vogue.
In a democracy, it would seem that a public fascination with politics is a great thing—in fact, it’s the ideal scenario. However, there is a caveat with this analogy. If the Trump administration is a reality show with the president serving as its star, then we, the people, are the audience.
We entertain him and are entertained by him, but we do not control the president or his actions. We do not control his policy, and that is the distinguishing problem of our current situation. The public is largely consumed not by policy, but by politics—that volleying term which can either be a framework for progress or hollow pageantry in the name of power. Rather than pushing to change the channel, we dully watch on. Yet, as we outwardly profess our incredulity at the state of the union and our anticipation for the next episode, we secretly enjoy the drama of it all.
This banal, public stagnancy was neither inevitable nor always present. In the weeks following the election, protests abounded, and many—myself included—did not stop at being disheartened by the results, but instead were hopeful for the prospect of a newly energized public who would recognize that political efficacy does not start and end at the voting booth.
As the weeks went on, however, and the oddity of the Trump presidency became routine, we all slowly slipped into a collective coma—our lurching passions lulled into inert rage.
Nowadays, criticism of President Trump is haphazardly lobbed in all directions as the target has become so wide that it is simultaneously impossible to miss and meaningless to hit. The mainstream media, with its devotion to all things sensational, is the main culprit of the commercialization of the Trump Brand and thus is President Trump’s greatest benefactor.
The media’s preoccupation with the president’s typos, Twitter rants, and general acts of national embarrassment—all of which warrant attention to a cursory degree—has dangerously served as a distraction from those long-term policy initiatives that will ultimately prove more impactful to Americans than “covfefe,” but will accrue only a fraction of the coverage.
This fixation with the more colorful elements of the Trump presidency restricts collective public action by shifting the focus from the president’s policies to his degradation of decorum. Inevitably, such a shift stifles democratic engagement by posing the irreconcilable, raucous individuality of one man as the fundamental problem of the Trump administration, rather than the democratically malleable implementation of public policy.
Our more superficial criticisms of President Trump yield only superficial solutions. Take, for example, the media’s favorite catch-all condemnation of the president as being “unpresidential”—a term so meaningless that Microsoft Word has just lambasted it with a tell-tale red squiggle. That which is presidential is that which is precedential; this linguistic rule is not violated by the fact that President Trump has chosen to forgo tradition and formulate precedents of his own. The media, however, has synonymized being presidential with being respectable, thus reducing the role of president to that of a figurehead and representative meant only to imbue national pride.
This reductionist mentality is evidenced by the few occasions in which the media has lauded President Trump. One such moment occurred as the president delivered his first address to joint sessions of Congress. CNN’s Van Jones—a typically ardent critic of Trump—asserted that, “He became President of the United States in that moment, period,” simply because President Trump, for once, denied his instincts to nonsensically adlib by simply delivering the speech that had been prepared for him. Fareed Zakaria expressed exactly the same sentiment concerning the president’s bombing of Syria, an act which was almost universally applauded in the media as being a “beautiful” display of American force, for symbolic rather than strategic reasoning. If reading off of a teleprompter or bombing another country to send a “message” constitutes the full range of becoming a president, any literate individual, when given the nuclear codes, is up to the task.
Further evidence of this presidential reductionism is the media’s, and, consequently, the public’s, new trend of retrospective glamorization of former presidents. An unhealthy nostalgia for the days of decorum constantly wafts through the American political sphere as Democrats and Republicans alike scoff at the antics of the Trump administration. After a benefit concert for hurricane relief, at which the five living former presidents made an appearance, social media longed for less controversial times, as even a Democratic United States senator took to Twitter to say that he missed “every one of these guys.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), too, is on the record begging the universe to “Please bring back George W. Bush.”
This regressive, historical revisionism, however, is exceedingly harmful. By encouraging President Donald Trump to become more like President George W. Bush, we might get a president that tells good-natured anecdotes about choking on a pretzel instead of sexually assaulting women. Or, we could get the waging of an illegal war and 500,000 dead Iraqis, so be careful what you wish for. While one could argue that, barring the younger former President Bush, the other four presidents are far more worthy of retroactive praise, let us not forget that each one is responsible for their own set of war crimes.
Rather looking towards former presidents for inspiration or to the current one for dignity, the American media and the public alike should revitalize and refocus their efforts to overseeing the policy matters that will have genuine and lasting impacts. It is so easy to get caught up in the scandalous details of the Trump White House, especially when the president himself, more often than not, doesn’t seem to understand his own policy measures–a fact which is doubly ironic given that he is often criticized for getting both his opinions and his news from network television.
Still, we must remember that the man is not the administration, let alone the entire government, and that it is we, the people, who ultimately bear the burden of progress in this country. It is time we wake up and stir the opposition again. In becoming passive and complacent spectators of this Trumpian reality show rather than active participants of American democracy, we have asked less of the president and less of ourselves.