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Trump as TV character: Here’s help in understanding him

“Try to understand Donald Trump as a person with psychology and strategy and motivation, and you will inevitably spiral into confusion and covfefe. The key is to remember that Donald Trump is not a person. He’s a TV character.”

I quote the paragraph above (and most of what’s below) from an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times by the paper’s chief TV critic, James Poniewozik — a piece I gather he boiled down from a full-length book he wrote titled “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America.”

Trying to understand Donald Trump, or his appeal to the roughly 40 percent of Americans who approve of the job he is doing as president, has frustrated me for going on three years. Maybe Poniewozik gets it. At least I had that feeling reading his piece.

I watch plenty of TV, mostly news, sports and old movies. But I must confess, to my utter disgrace, I have never followed any of the gazillions of shows in the category of “reality TV,” which always strikes me as a hilarious name for a category that seems further from reality than a mediocre episode of “Leave It to Beaver.” But I don’t really know.

Perhaps a solution to two mysteries

But trying to understand what inspires Trump to constantly behave like such a jerk, and how this routine somehow got him a four-year term in the Oval Office has eluded me. And for a least a nanosecond, reading “Audience of One,” gave me a fleeting feeling that maybe this was the solution to both mysteries. I can’t explain Poniewozik’s theory any better than he does, so I’ll just pass along a taste. Writes he:  

If you want to understand what President Trump will do in any situation, then, it’s more helpful to ask: What would TV do? What does TV want? It wants conflict. It wants excitement. If there is something that can blow up, it should blow up. It wants a fight. It wants more. It is always eating and never full. …

Donald Trump’s ‘Apprentice’ boardroom closed for business on Feb. 16, 2015, precisely four months before he announced his successful campaign for president. And also, it never closed. It expanded. It broke the fourth wall. We live inside it now.

Now, Mr. Trump re-creates the boardroom’s helter-skelter atmosphere every time he opens his mouth or his Twitter app. In place of the essentially dead White House press briefing, he walks out to the lawn in the morning and reporters gaggle around him like ‘Apprentice’ contestants awaiting the day’s task. He rails and complains and establishes the plot points for that day’s episode: Greenland! Jews! ‘I am the chosen one!’

As The Times has reported, before taking office, he told aides to think of every day as ‘an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.’

Mr. Trump has been playing himself instinctually as a character since the 1980s; it’s allowed him to maintain a profile even through bankruptcies and humiliations. But it’s also why, on the rare occasions he’s had to publicly attempt a role contrary to his nature — calling for healing from a script after a mass shooting, for instance — he sounds as stagey and inauthentic as an unrehearsed amateur doing a sitcom cameo.

His character shorthand is ‘Donald Trump, Fighter Guy Who Wins.’ …

There’s more, and I think maybe it’s brilliant. The whole piece is here. It makes me want to give up TV completely, but not while the Twins are in a pennant race.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Erik Granse on 09/09/2019 - 10:34 am.

    Nothing in that article is surprising; it’s obvious that Trump is solely playing for attention and praise and has no interest in actually doing the job of President.

    What the article doesn’t address is the question I’ve had for years: Why are so many people so content with a clown for the leader of the country?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/09/2019 - 01:45 pm.

      It’s what TV has told them is normal.
      And Trump believes that all he has to do is write a script and reality will conform to it.

  2. Submitted by Donna Berry on 09/09/2019 - 03:38 pm.

    Focusing on Donald Trumps personality and possible mental illness is not useful. It isn’t the real story, and is at worst a dangerous distraction from real journalism. Donald Trump continues in office because the Republican party and its power brokers want him there. Focus on them–not the circus. I don’t care how interesting you find the book–it too is distraction, and we do not have time to follow every slight of hand and every shiny object Trump and his ilk present. Please, don’t waste your readers time with this.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/10/2019 - 08:30 am.

      Donna, you have touched on a basic truth regarding the Trump presidency. It came to be in large part due to the media’s obsession with everything Trump; every Tweet was cause for outrage; nothing was too small to let lie, and things too small to matter could be spun up into a tempest in a teapot. The same media behaviors that led to term one will cause him to be reelected. The President should send Eric Black a thank you note; Eric has done more than his part.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/10/2019 - 06:03 pm.

      To continue the metaphor abuse; the Republican party is on the back of a tiger and doesn’t know how to get off. Without him they wouldn’t have the Executive branch, and thus not the Supreme Court. If they dump him they may have their self respect, but a lot less power.

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