Donald Trump’s Pop-Culture Presidency Enters Its Thriller Phase (Opinion)

Ever since Donald Trump appeared on the
horizon of presidential politics, he has mirrored the pop
culture of the past. That’s because Trump, in one way or
another, has always been an actor — a man whose image
precedes his reality. For 35 years, he has been a genius at one
thing: stroking and manipulating the image machine of modern
media. Trump went on the campaign trail as an
insult-comedian/talk-radio-host/pompadoured-Elvis/reality-TV-mogul/badass-in-chief,
and whenever I read now about how Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush blew
it, I always think: None of those mere mortals ever stood a
chance. They were fighting a superhero of populist sleaze who
didn’t need facts and figures — he just needed the best lines.
Trump remains one of the only people you could name who is not
primarily in the entertainment business yet created
himself as a character, a figment of larger-than-life
fantasy. That’s what autocrats do: They don’t sell reality,
they sell mythology.

Pop culture is the metaphysical realm in which Trump operates.
To most Washington insiders, his signature phrase of “You’re
fired!” on “The Apprentice” was just a catchy piece of kitsch.
What they missed is how Trump’s use of that phrase, for all its
comic braggadocio, was profoundly nostalgic, because it
returned you to an earlier America, one in which you
could be fired. (Yes, you can still be fired, but now,
for the most part, you’re downsized — phased out of the
workforce, replaced by a robot or a worker in Guangdong
Province.) Trump was never an old-fashioned patriarch-executive
who had the backs of his employees, but he played one —
brilliantly — on TV.

Now, he plays the president on TV. But, of course, he isn’t
just playing.

With Trump, the reason the pop metaphors keep coming is that
they’re often the only things that explain what’s going on. The
rise of a monomaniacal entertainer-in-chief like Trump was
prophesied by “A Face in the Crowd,”
the still-startling 1957 Hollywood drama in which Andy Griffith
played a folksy demagogue with a sixth sense for how to harness
the power of television. It was prophesied, as well, by
Network,” where
Peter Finch’s Howard Beale becomes a cult of personality riding
the waves of his viewers’ rage (“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not
going to take this anymore!”), though how telling — and
Trumpian — it is that Beale turned out to be a tool of
corporate forces. When Ned Beatty makes his big speech near the
end of “Network” about how the whole world is one giant
corporation, he might be the representative of Big Oil or the
Russian government, explaining to Trump what will be required
if he wants their continued support.

Early on in Trump’s presidency, when he was making his bumbling
phone calls to Taiwan or the leader of Australia, he became,
briefly, a Sacha Baron Cohen character: the tyrant-buffoon of
The Dictator.” And now, just this
week, he has become a figure out of “Dr. Strangelove”: a version of
Gen. Jack. D. Ripper, lashing out at North Korea with the threat
of nuclear attack. At the end of last year, I said that
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” had become a
powerful (if inadvertent) metaphor for the coming Trump
presidency, because of its dramatization of the force of the
Death Star through the imagery of nuclear detonation. Many
readers responded by saying that no, the Rebel Forces were the
Trump insurgents — those who would now “drain the swamp” and
“deconstruct the administrative state.” (One wants to ask Steve
Bannon: How’s that working out for you?)

Yet for some of us who greeted Trump’s presidency, from day
one, with fear and loathing, the issue of nuclear weapons has
always been at the center of our trepidation. Now,
here he is, threatening to rain “fire and fury” down on North
Korea in a way that echoes Harry S. Truman’s ominous warning to
the Japanese, and then — when challenged — doubling down on the
threat. Anyone who thinks that this is just a way of diverting
attention from the Mueller investigation is guilty of diverting
their own attention. Earth to people with heads in the sand:
This is terrifying! And it’s real.

To say, however, that the Trump presidency has entered its
countdown-to-zero Hollywood thriller phase is not to trivialize
what’s going on. It’s to understand that Trump is suddenly
acting like an unhinged president out of a movie because he has
unleashed this egregiously reckless threat through the lens
of his pop-culture-fed imagination
. He’s a leader who has
begun to feel cornered: not just by the provocations of
North Korea, but by a presidency that isn’t going his way and
by a Russia investigation that’s heading directly his way. And
so he’s lashing out, asserting his nuclear manhood. It’s policy
by toxic tantrum. He’s tweeting his way to Armageddon.

What the Trump presidency could now be turning into, for the
first time, is a nightmare-suspense drama in which the people
around the president — regardless of their political
affiliation — come to realize that the man in the Oval Office
has decided to play a game of nuclear chicken in which he
threatens the survival of the planet, and that something has to
be done. Kind of like “Air Force One,” only with the president
as the man who must be stopped. We could all sit
around and cast that movie. But the point is that we don’t have
to, because it’s already a movie (at least, in parts of Donald
Trump’s brain). Its key dramatic question may come down to
this: Who will be the hero? Who will step in to save the day?

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