The reality TV presidency begins

President Trump will govern with feuds, dramatic plot twists, rose ceremonies, and votes off the island. Get ready.

Will President Trump differ from his reality television persona?
(Image credit: Photo Illustration by Jackie Friedman | Images courtesy MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images, Screenshots via NBC, Vladumir Kolosov / Alamy Stock Photo)

Former President Barack Obama might have believed in the power of heroic oratory, but President Trump is more of the moment.

You can tell from his tweets that Trump spends part of every day watching television and reading the tabloids. He fires off zingers about his successor on The Celebrity Apprentice. He comments on Fox News and Morning Joe segments. He sends columnists and newspaper editors notes on their work. He uses social media and interviews to discuss himself, and his enemies, in the same way reality TV stars use the "confessional" mode to narrate their lives to the camera.

In a way, the conventions of television and tabloids provide Trump a kind of map for navigating life. For him, these media seem to function in the same way that liturgy does for religious believers or the way that great literature and fine art does for the cultured. They provide him with the archetypes for understanding how the universe works: what kinds of characters he deals with in life, and how their storylines will eventually resolve. They also provide him with a guide for how to stay mutually engaged with the public.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

So as the reality TV presidency begins in earnest, what can we expect?

The name-calling will continue. President Trump is not going to give up insulting people for the dignity of the office. Just as the tabloids can define reality with a little tagline like "Wacko Jacko," or reality TV stars bestow upon themselves aggrandizing names like "The Situation," Trump gives out appellations to others: Little Marco, Crooked Hillary. He will not betray his character.

There will be many fake fights and half-fake fights. Trump thinks feuds and reconciliations make for compelling drama. So he had a public spat with Roger Ailes, and another with Megyn Kelly. And then he reconciled with them, as a demonstration of his magnanimity.

When the opportunity comes, Trump will take it to melodramatic extremes — like when he presided over snarling chants of "lock her up" at the convention and then, after he won the election, said that he would not pursue an investigation into Hillary Clinton, because he wanted her "to heal." He doesn't just do this for the public either. His feud with reporter McKay Coppins ended privately with a friendly, even motivating, outstretched hand. He tried the same technique with The New York Times.

I would expect him to feud on and off again with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan throughout his four years, or more, in office. Because Trump is the star of the party, he can easily make Ryan's popularity crumble, and when Ryan breaks down and compromises, Trump will paw his shoulder like a mentor when they get a bill passed.

Expect dramatic plot twists. Trump has always said that being "unpredictable" is an important part of his business and media strategies. The same is true already of his political one. Expect at least a few major betrayals of his campaign promises to be presented as very special episodes of character development. Trump may promise to increase border security, but embrace a form of amnesty. You can almost hear the moment when he narrates his own epiphany: "I was tougher than anyone on illegal immigrants, but I heard their stories and I have to bring everyone together. That's the president's job."

Cabinet members and other senior staffers will get voted off Trump island when they fail. There is always staff turnover during administrations. But Trump's will likely include not just a change of personnel, but clear recaps in the media. Either the accomplishments and reasons why they will be missed as part of the Trump show will be advertised, or blame will be apportioned for maximal impact.

Foreign leaders and other diplomatic personages will get rose ceremonies. For Trump, business is personal and so it will be as he heads the government. When he meets heads of state, he will not stick to the usual script about "shared interests between our nations" and "cooperation between peoples." He will tout his personal fondness for leaders, or the chemistry he has with them. They aren't just coming to negotiate agreements with the head of the U.S. government, they are gaining a friend in Trump himself. Uncooperative foreign leaders will likewise be portrayed in personal terms.

In his mind, Donald Trump has been starring in his own television series in every decade of his public life. There have been messy dramas in his love life. There have been financial successes and setbacks, and a number of spinoffs. And now for the dramatic conclusion of the series, he has somehow become president of the United States.

The stakes have never been higher for him. And because every citizen of this country, and everyone around the world, has been cast as an extra or bystander, some of us already unknowingly fitted with titles like "victim number three" or "gawping man," the stakes have never been higher for us either. Here's hoping we all make it to season two.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us