Will Donald Trump find ways to further degrade his presidency?
But it’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on Thursday’s achievement: his setting aside the duties of office long enough to trash-tweet a morning TV talk-show host and insist she was “bleeding badly” from a facelift the last time she showed up at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Oh, and she’s “low IQ crazy” and her co-host and fiancé is a “psycho.”
This from the president of the United States.
I offer no fresh insight in observing that we live in an age besotted by celebrity, the fame that consists above all else in being famous. Trump — a product of celebrity’s engines and often a skillful manipulator of them — is quintessentially the president such an age deserves. The irony, of course, is that the principal agent of celebrity is attention by media, the cultural and political force that Trump dreads and ceaselessly disparages, even as he pays anxious attention to its every smile, frown and erased wrinkle.
I offer these observations with some authority and in the spirit of contrition. Decades ago, as a 24-year-old on the founding staff of the weekly magazine People, I was an unimportant soldier in the early hours of celebrity journalism’s assault on whatever kind of journalism we succeeded in polluting and upending.
Within a few years Trump figured — ludicrously, then as now — in the pantheon of New York personalities worthy of the occasional potshot. The coiffeur, the gold-plated vulgarity, the tiny fingers. But Trump the boor was a bore. The real job perk — for me, anyway — was getting to hang out with Tennessee Williams or Bill Buckley, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol or, farther out on the margins, performance artist Chris Burden.
Burden was famous for, among other things, a video that showed him getting shot in the arm, a crazy ordeal to which he submitted in the spirit of existential adventuring. (The weekly in its start-up years had not yet found the narrow focus on Kardashian-like celebrity that would make it the most lucrative franchise in magazine publishing history. This was the pre-click era, and as we felt our way toward the throbbing pulse of American culture, we reporters were allowed a certain latitude that sometimes left readers scratching their heads.)
Burden died two years ago, not of a self-inflicted gunshot. He came to mind Thursday morning as the eye drifted from news of Trump’s Twitter assault on MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough to the story of a pathetic young man in rural Minnesota who died of a gunshot wound inflicted collaboratively by the young woman pregnant with their second child.
By all accounts, Monalisa Perez, 19, and Pedro Ruiz III, 22, were even more excited by the possibility of celebrity than by the prospect of another baby to love. Their calculation was that a YouTube video of the shooting (which they stupidly thought would not be fatal) might drive the number of their “followers” sky-high. It has. Ave atque vale, Pedro.
Celebrity is nothing new. Human history is replete with examples of people whose renown exceeded their accomplishments by a little or a lot: from Alcibiades to Beau Brummel to Zsa Zsa Gabor to Lance Loud and Prince Charles. What’s different — and, in the example of Trump, deeply worrisome — is the conjunction of mere celebrity with real power. A presidential run that began as a what-the-hell gambit in negotiating a new TV contract took on a life of its own. A reality TV star posturing as a virtual president suddenly found himself ensconced in the Oval Office.
The assumption by Trump’s critics that he would be far less capable as a president than as a candidate has proved to be a severe understatement. That he would not quite grasp the difference between governance and self-aggrandizement turned out to be an ethical problem that would also engulf his entrepreneurial offspring and inspire the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate putative links to the Russian oligarchy.
But the most startling revelation in Trump’s Twitter outbursts is this: that he takes the chatterboxes who fill the airwaves between ads so damn seriously. Accords them such menace and potency. Devotes so much time to their shows — all the while claiming, of course, that the shows are “failing” and unwatchable.
Mika Brzezinski? Joe Scarborough? Megyn Kelly? The reporter with the physical handicap that he publicly ridiculed? Not to mention the beauty queen he angrily fat-shamed in the wee morning hours last fall as he rebuilt his ego following a particularly shaky debate performance against Hillary Clinton. Trump accords them the stature of Xi Jinping, of Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel and other international figures who are now running circles around him.
On reflection it probably should come as no surprise, this apparent inability to navigate the boundary that distinguishes governance from showmanship, the real from the virtual. In Trump’s mind there is no difference.
He is appalled and yet riveted by TV celebrity because, in essence, his own celebrity is his one incontestable lifetime achievement. He was merely born to money, lucky bucks. His presidency is accidental, a publicity stunt that yielded a “victory” but — to Trump’s endless frustration — not enough votes to comprise a majority.
The Trump paradox is that, if he even grasps the difference between TV ratings and what eggheads call realpolitik, he is much more concerned with the former than the latter. His Twitter eruptions are sick, but they are also silly — unless, perhaps, you are on the receiving end. Maybe we should be grateful that Twitter is there to provide sublimation for an unstable man so near the nuclear button. Real eruptions from the arsenal of our lethal powers would leave the planet “bleeding badly.”
What’s appalling about Trump, what has dragged his approval ratings into the cellar and inspired global ridicule and dismay, is that he seems more obsessed with defending his celebrity from media naysayers than with defending the dignity of the nation and the office in which he is supposed to serve.
Optimists might hope that the Trump presidency, assuming we survive it, will exhaust celebrity’s bizarre hold on our political culture, that it will lay bare both the fakery and the triviality at its heart. Six months in, I’m less sanguine.
Saturday, rather than let the whole thing go, Trump moved on up the NBC corporate ladder with his Twitter attacks. He gave Scarborough and Brzezinski a pat on the head — “not bad people” — and instead hissed his venom at their “out of control” NBC bosses. Maybe Trump’s next move will be to go all the way. Go “big time,” as he might say. Maybe he’ll move on beyond morning show chatterers and faceless execs and bring his psycho-diagnostic skills to another, much more famous member of the NBC family: the troubled former reality-TV star now sidelined in the Oval Office he disgraces a little more each day.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.