by Danny Stout
The Donald Trump media phenomenon is a postmodern blend of politics and theater. My comments are apolitical; they’re about the amusement of Trump. Who wins the prize for “Best Trump-tainment,” or journalism designed to gratify, placing less emphasis on civic matters? Burgeoning audiences sustain this spectacle as the ratings skyrocket. More advertising revenue in the coffers. Commendable are those fleeing to the PBS News Hour, Charlie Rose, and the New York Times for issues-based news. Millions say no, however, enjoying Donald the barker over Trump the politician. Who can resist the bombastic barnstormer; no one like him has occupied the public square in a century. We’re drawn to spectacle; it’s as engaging as other media of pop culture (e.g., TV dramedy, movies, etc.), and it provides deserved relaxation at the end of a long day. Again, I don’t judge Donald Trump as a political candidate. How well media present him as a thespian is the only goal here. Hopefully, the frameworks for trump-tainment criticism will expand.
Trump isn’t the first candidate to rely on an entertainment-heavy campaign. Lincoln honed the art of sarcasm, and who can forget Reagan’s snarky comment that Jimmy Carter’s message on 60 Minutes only took one minute. FDR had a quick and dry wit, and to Teddy Roosevelt, political pundits were “copper-riveted idiots” and “circumcised skunks.” Responding to the question of why Calvin Coolidge decided not to seek re-election, he told Yankee magazine in 1897, “Because there’s no chance for advancement.”
These candidates are light years from the drama and antics of Trump-tainment. Political issues dominated their speeches; Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt, rousing as he was, is no match for the hurricane of name-calling, shouting, and screaming debates, not to mention physical altercations between protesters and campaign managers. Get the popcorn popping and Dr. Pepper flowing as we review programs depicting the spectacle in the style of Barnum and Bailey. “Step right up!”
Verbal pugilism is an apt starting point. Some call it aggression, some theatrics, but its sports-style coverage is in the same class as a UFC match. Kick-boxing isn’t nearly as compelling as a presidential candidate yell, “Throw em out! Throw em out!” Repeated video clips of Trump’s manager grabbing the shirt of a protester turned CNN into sportscasting. “Did you see that? He grabbed the protester’s collar!” The co-host responds, “No I think that was the man behind him; it’s hard to say there was physical contact.” Videos rolled again when the manager grabbed a journalist, bruising her arm. “No way! She attached him!” Trump screamed.
Then it happened. A Trump supporter sucker-punched a protester in the face as he climbed the stairs of an arena. CNN runs this tape again and again with commentators acting like boxing commentators. “Would you do it again?” the reporter asks the puncher, “Yeah, next time I’d kill him!” Trump’s response fuels the fire of the fight coverage. “If he’s sued, I’ll pay the legal costs,” Trump shouts. The best fight-coverage by journalists goes to CNN.
Winner for “most entertaining headlines,” is the New York Daily News going away. In New York, Chicago, Boston, and other major metro areas, the printed headline incites the day’s conversation. First, are the general Trump heads:
“DAWN OF THE BRAIN DEAD”
“MAKE AMERICA MIGRATE”
“CLOWN RUNS FOR PREZ”
HIS endorsement by Sarah Palin inspired these headlines:
“I’M WITH STUPID!”
“LADY AND THE TRUMP”
Walking up to a Manhattan newsstand, you’re already chuckling. The hard-hitting, thought-provoking front pages that summarize the fight to the White House deserve our prize for Trump-tainment in the headline category.
There’s nothing more enjoyable than seeing a politician unprepared, especially when its about a major issue. Thus the prize for “Best Surprise Interview Question” goes to MSNBC’s Chris Mathews. On the matter of abortion, Trump was ill-prepared to the point where he boldly said women should be punished for abortions:
TRUMP: Are you Catholic?
MATTHEWS: Yes, I think …
TRUMP: And how do you feel about the Catholic Church’s position?
MATTHEWS: Well, I accept the teaching authority of my church on moral issues.
TRUMP: I know, but do you know their position on abortion?
MATTHEWS: Yes, I do.
TRUMP: And do you concur with the position?
MATTHEWS: I concur with their moral position but legally, I get to the question — here’s my problem with it …
TRUMP: No, no, but let me ask you: But what do you say about your church?
MATTHEWS: It’s not funny.
TRUMP: Yes, it’s really not funny. What do you say about your church? They’re very, very strong.
MATTHEWS: They’re allowed to — but the churches make their moral judgments, but you running for president of the United States will be chief executive of the United States. Do you believe …
TRUMP: No, but …
MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman?
TRUMP: Yes, there has to be some form.
The top high-art Trump-tainment prize is a three-way tie between filmmaker Michael Moore, Actress/Artist Tilda Swinton, and Eleanor Margolis of the StatesMan. They claim the entire Trump phenomenon is performance art. Intentional or not, they argue, the greatest value is in reading Trump as a character in a fictional narrative. Tilda Swinton, 2017 Turner Prize winner claims Trump is a post-9/11, post-ironic, pre-apocalyptic performance piece. Margolis wonders when the whole thing will be revealed as such an artwork, not reality.
Finally, the best YouTube Trump-tainment video captures the following quote:
“There may be somebody with tomatoes in the audience,” Trump warned people at a rally in Iowa last month. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”
A close second goes to the New York Post video of former Trump wife Ivana reacting to his deportation-oriented stance on immigration: “Who is going to vacuum our floors and clean our living rooms?”
Naming an overall winner is impossible given its complexity and multiple dimensions. Is it ethical to recognize something like Trump-tainment? There’s something uneasy in watching a presidential race like a situation comedy or a dramedy, or a reality show. Even more compelling is that Trump is seen as an actor, not a statesman nor candidate for the most powerful position in the world. If he was, journalists would insist on more than the superficial rhetoric he dishes out. But, that’s no fun! Yet it’s sad. I laugh, but get that twinge of anxiety intermittently. Snapping out of it, I say to myself, “He’s fighting for the forgotten people by Washington; those crushed by the 2008 economic crash. Perhaps an entertainer can do no worse. Then, I’m, reminded of David Brooks in the New York Times: “Trump’s supporters deserve respect. They are left out of this economy. But Trump himself? No, not Trump, not ever.” For president, that is. As an entertainer, he’s even better than Jimmy Kimmel.