THE TRUMP SHOW

He’s play­ing the char­ac­ter of ‘pres­i­dent,’ says The Post’s Marc Fisher. Gov­ern­ing mat­ters less.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - WASH­ING­TON POST IL­LUS­TRA­TION US­ING IS­TOCK AND GETTY IMAGES

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 time-worn 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 time­tested method by which the star builds ex­cite­ment, de­mands at­ten­tion and cre­ates soap-oper­atic sto­ry­lines 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.

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 twostate 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.

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 on the week­ends 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.

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.

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.

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.

JABIN BOTS­FORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pres­i­dent Trump has brought his the­atri­cal style, honed over decades in busi­ness and on TV, to the White House.

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