19 June 2017

Vanity Fair: “The Inside Story of the Kushner-Bannon Civil War”

As everyone knows, the president himself is inordinately engaged with cable news, and his roots as an entertainer lie in reality television. And it may be that reality TV has lessons to offer. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a co-creator of the Lifetime series UnReal, told me that she found Trump to be eerily similar to her UnReal antihero, Quinn King, the female producer of a Bachelor-type reality show, Everlasting. Like King, Trump has a knack for expressing shocking sentiments that others may recoil from, Shapiro told me. And, like all great reality-TV personalities, Trump and many of his staff are “sound-bite machines” who share certain qualities: megalomania, a delusion of grandeur, a willingness to say anything, and little regard for what anyone else thinks: “They are this functionally dysfunctional ramshackle group of people who have come together through their own extremes.” Shapiro is currently preparing the third season of her show, and I asked her the secret to maintaining interest season after season. She said, “A rotating cast of characters always helps.”

Hate-watching is a key element of reality television: viewers get a surge of superiority and catharsis when watching characters they do not respect but in some strange way are drawn to. “It’s incredibly satisfying to hate-watch [Trump]”, Shapiro said—and the same goes for watching members of his staff. Senior West Wing aides, like the president himself, exhibit a trait that is essential for a successful reality-TV show: they are largely unself-aware, not fully realizing “how they are perceived, because they will keep stumbling into the same mess over and over again, and they are really easy to place in a cast of characters”, said UnReal’s Shapiro. They are, in part, reliable caricatures of themselves.

Sarah Ellison

While not particularly new, this analogy between the Trump administration and reality TV works remarkably well; it would be fairly entertaining if the fate of the world would not hang in the balance.

Map Donald Trump White House
If walls could talk, the saying goes—but given the leaks from Donald Trump’s White House, they hardly need to. Map by Mark Nerys

The way I see it, the trouble with modern politics is the growing disconnect between the abilities needed to win elections and to govern competently. Winning elections in the age of social media is more and more about entertainment, putting on a good show for the bored masses – something that Trump managed to do very well, although mostly in a negative way. Governing on the other hand requires patience, diplomacy, experience, qualities Hillary Clinton definitely had, but she couldn’t garner the right amount of voter enthusiasm. I’m afraid this problem is only going to get worse in the coming years.

When Trump was thinking about the finalists—they included New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, along with Pence—he reviewed thick briefing binders. At the time, Kushner joked to campaign colleagues that Christie’s read like a John Grisham novel, Newt’s read like a Danielle Steel novel, and Mike Pence’s read like the Bible.

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