America is enduring nothing less than the wholesale transformation of our political culture into a multimedia spectacle. It would be something of an understatement to say we've never seen anything like this before.
Sure, our politics have been evolving in the direction of entertainment for a long time. But on Jan. 20, the final stage will be complete. America will be led by a man who is the embodiment of celebrity-tabloid culture, and we will all be reduced to characters in the greatest reality TV show on Earth.
Compare the looming Trump presidency to Ronald Reagan's administration. When he was elected president in 1980, critics fastened onto Reagan's background as a B-movie actor to make sense of his style of governance, reducing it to a form of entertainment. The Gipper, they said, was more like someone playing a hokey Hollywood version of a president than the real deal. No wonder the American people liked him, and kept on liking him. He was the "great communicator," the "teflon president," who charmed the nation with his Oscar-worthy performance as the head of the executive branch of government.
And yet, Reagan's presidential performance largely conformed to historical expectations for the role. He did what presidents do: hired (mostly) competent people to run the government; advanced a coherent agenda in both domestic and foreign policy that was close to what he promised to do while campaigning; proposed budgets; negotiated and compromised with congressional leaders; gave speeches that defended his positions and tried to rally support for them. And he did it all with charm, warmth, and a twinkle in the eye. That's where the entertainment came in, providing a layer of Technicolor gloss and dramatic flair to the normal quasi-theatrical routines of the office.
What Trump is doing is categorically different. He's not adding a patina of tabloid-celebrity to the office of the presidency so much as transforming it wholesale into a massive reality show. This includes trolling the Chinese government by speaking on the phone with the president of Taiwan, directly attacking Boeing and Lockheed Martin, cyberbullying a union leader in Indiana, denouncing the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton, and even dismissing the credibility of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Are you not entertained?
And this is just a taste of what's to come.
Consider for a moment how Trump is likely to interact with Congress. Normally, you'd expect a new president to announce a domestic policy agenda in the opening days of his administration (building on themes in his inaugural address and statements prior to Jan. 20). There would be more speeches, negotiations, horse-trading, lobbying, arm-twisting, backroom deals, and so forth. It would all follow a familiar script.
Not on The Trump Show.
Trump seems intent on transforming the GOP into a working-class party, which means spending on infrastructure, putting up barriers to immigration, imposing tariffs, and browbeating, humiliating, and verbally abusing businesses that try to move jobs overseas. Some of those goals Trump can achieve by taking to Twitter and lashing out at CEOs. For most of the rest, he'll need Congress. That's why Trump has picked as secretaries for several Cabinet-level departments and agencies (Health and Human Services; Education; the Environmental Protection Agency; Housing and Urban Development) people who will give House Speaker Paul Ryan and the right-wing Freedom Caucus free rein to pursue their anti-government dreams. His opening bid will be to say that the party owes him some concessions in return for the free hand he's given them in so many areas. When they resist him, as they probably will, The Trump Show will begin in earnest.
Trump will make the bully pulpit look like an anthill. He'll use all the powers at his disposal — incessant tweets (and the media's obsessive coverage of them), call-ins to morning shows, speeches, rallies — to go over the heads of Congress, appealing directly to Republican voters, using insults, conspiracies, and outright lies to whip them up into a frenzy of support or opposition to anything Trump wishes. Then the calls, emails, and online abuse will flood into the offices of any congressman daring to oppose the president.
Does Ryan want to pass his favored ObamaCare replacement? Or partial Social Security privatization? Then he better play ball with the president and give him what he wants on infrastructure, trade, and immigration. Because if he doesn't, Trump will sink it all. Think he's above turning on the GOP leadership, calling them enemies of working people, railing against them for destroying entitlements? If the past 18 months have taught us anything, it's that Trump isn't above anything. He won't hesitate to conjure up a tidal wave of furious opposition and even join forces Democrats to scuttle every bit of Ryan's precious conservative agenda if he thinks it will advance his own plans and keep himself center stage in the national drama.
Will it work? It depends on what you mean by "work." If it means Trump getting what he wants, policy-wise, it just might. Think of how most elected Republicans stayed on board the Trump train through the campaign, despite behavior that repulsed many of them. They stayed put because they were terrified to face the wrath of their own Trump-supporting voters.
But there's another meaning of "work." Even if Trump gets nothing from Congress, he will still have succeeded in putting on an immensely entertaining performance for the American people. You can just hear the comments now, echoing across the country: "Can you believe what Trump just said that about Ryan?" "Look at how he makes him jump!" "Trump might be obnoxious, but he's the only one in this party who really cares about working people." "I wish there were more people like him in the GOP."
"What will he do next?"
Tune in tomorrow to find out. It's going to be one hell of a show.