Part of the reason many people didn’t think Donald Trump would be elected president was because his narrative was terrible.
Not just terrible in terms of its morality, but the overall story the candidate told was chaotic and badly constructed. He changed his mind all the time (and still does). It’s hard, at times, to understand what he’s talking about; his grasp on structure and syntax, on Twitter and in real life, is shaky.
But more than that, everything about the candidate and his candidacy was too on-the-nose. His bid for the most powerful office in the world was a blunt-force instrument wielded by an overgrown toddler. Everything about his public persona was simplistic, puffed-up and cliched. Television — which permeates our lives more than ever and helped make Trump a celebrity — has taught most of us to want more.
Sure, we’ve all seen our share of junky TV; craven time-killers and iffy programming are not hard to find. But in the main, we have been raised by professionals who are really, really good at their jobs. Whether they’re creating hourlong dramas, crowd-pleasing sitcoms or just a regular episode or “Love It or List It,” the storytellers who create content for the small screen have trained us to accept competence as the bare minimum. Whatever our tastes — even if they veer toward the dystopian or unsubtle — we’re used to being able to choose from any array of excellent options from those who build narratives for us.
That’s why, for a long time, Trump’s candidacy struck many in both parties as a non-starter. He latched on to crudely constructed villains (when he wasn’t emulating one). His solutions seemed comically superficial. His speeches were the equivalent of a derivative serial-killer show: They were designed to gin up fear, exclusion and paranoia, and expressly traded on stereotypes, biases and prurient strands of hate-driven excitement. It was all just too obvious and gross. Everything about Trump and his candidacy demanded a rewrite.
He may be getting one.
The problem was obvious in Wednesday’s White House press briefing. Spokesman Sean Spicer has been widely mocked, most notably via Melissa McCarthy’s brilliant portrayal of him on “Saturday Night Live.” Some speculated that McCarthy’s May 11 appearance as “SNL” host caused the White House press office to send out a sub on Wednesday, in order to save Spicer yet another weekend of embarrassment. Whatever the reason, it was a bad idea to put an unprepared understudy on stage.
If, up until now, the Trump White House resembled bad reality TV, the performance of Sarah Huckabee Sanders was terrible dinner theater in a one-horse town. But that description still doesn’t capture how inept it was.
When not laughing, minimizing, condescending, or trying, in a more serious mode, to sell the kind of clumsy, inconsistent spin that clearly frustrated most of the reporters in the room, Sanders said that ousted FBI director James Comey committed “atrocities.” Many of her remarks — like the varying explanations that have leaked out over the past 24 hours — were obvious nonsense, and reporters found many ways to say so, on social media and in their on-air reports.
Sanders looked like a day player who had wandered in from an unfinished “Parks and Recreation” scene, but hadn’t learned her lines. She was out of her depth, and she yet treated the press corps like unruly kindergartners. In an administration where someone as inept as Spicer — a man who spent part of Tuesday night hiding in the bushes near the White House — was the A team, the performance of Sanders, the untested B team, was laughable.
And maybe that is what will turn the tide: The way the Trumpian story has devolved into farce.
Not that the first hundred-plus days weren’t mostly scary. Not that there haven’t been other moments of surreal comedy scattered throughout the attempts to turn America into the home of an incompetent authoritarian regime. But what’s occurring today is different. The administration is becoming a laughingstock — certainly in the eyes of many who have been covering it for months.
Anderson Cooper, who’d clearly reached his limit with Kellyanne Conway on Tuesday night, is far from alone in his eye-rolls; sighs were even more common on cable TV Tuesday and Wednesday. Asked how the plan to roll out the Comey announcement went, an Axios reporter on MSNBC replied, “There was no real plan.” Then Jonathan Swan sighed, and unleashed a compact indictment of incompetence.
Most people in the administration learned what was happening by looking at TVs or “looking down at their phones,” Swan said. “There was basically a two-hour vacuum where they were running around like headless chickens.”
A day and night spent watching CNN and MSNBC reveals that, if they didn’t before, many people covering the administration, or talking about it, now view it as a very substandard imitation of “Veep.” (If only.) A change had come over the TV coverage: The frequently maddening tendency toward false equivalence — i.e., “got to hear both sides” — was often thrown over in favor of what looked like the D.C. version of what a reality-TV addict would call a “loser edit.“
And that is a very serious problem — not for democracy, but for a man who wants to come off like the dominant tough guy in every situation. An administration’s legitimacy is partly determined by the media, and on Wednesday, large sections of the commentariat weren’t buying what Trump and his mouthpieces were selling. There’s nothing like that moment when a critical mass of observers — even in the midst of a crisis — realize it’s OK to sigh, shake their heads and even laugh at the schoolyard bully (and that’s the kind of coverage that no doubt fed into the inevitable rage-tweeting from Trump, a voracious consumer of cable news).
Trump is obsessed with his image, and to be pitied is bad. To be laughed at — to be in charge of an administration that prompts reporters to deploy sarcasm, sigh and roll their eyes — is probably an even bigger fear. He’s not the swaggering, conquering TV anti-hero he clearly wants to be in his mind. In his rage-tweets, the most hated thing to be is “weak.”
Trump has always understood that perception matters. (It’s scary that his obvious assumption that perception matters more than reality could be true, but that’s a column for another day.) The president is said to have picked cabinet members in part based on how they looked, as if he were casting his cabinet like a Hollywood movie. His career and businesses have been built on flash, and on smoke and mirrors. His speeches may be full of bile and hate, but he knows how to draw in a crowd and keep them hanging on his every word.
But this image-obsessed man has lost the plot, if he ever had control of it.
On MSNBC Wednesday, John Dean told Brian Williams that the administration had a “stylistic” problem: It had gone about the firing of Comey all wrong. It looked bad. Talking heads from all over the political spectrum regarded with disdain the firing of Comey — who, seeing his own political demise on TV screens at an FBI event in Los Angeles, thought he had been pranked.
The Trump of “The Apprentice” would have staged it better than that. But he’s without competent editors now. The shapers of this story aren’t up to the job. He’s now starring in a badly constructed reality show, or a garish sitcom, in which he himself is the running joke.
Judging by the masterfully deployed contempt that was evident in everyone from John Dean to Rachel Maddow to Pete Williams, Trump — and by extension, the rickety administration constructed around him — has become a familiar TV type. He’s not the star of the narrative, he’s the supporting player who has no choice but to endure the scorn, derision and mockery of other characters. Trump’s not a fearsome villain, and he may be turning into the punchline.
And as any D-lister could tell the president, it’s hard to come back from being a joke.