If we can’t be governed, we may as well be entertained. That’s become the ethos behind the Donald Trump presidency. The national debt might continue to bulge, our military might remain pointlessly overextended, our healthcare system might stay ablaze, but at least politics has become funny in a nothing-matters, Rick and Morty kind of way. Americans upvoted a man who’d spent hours on the Howard Stern show boasting about his sexual prowess, and we expect to be amused, dammit.
So why has the news lately been so dreadfully boring? The fault certainly doesn’t lie with Trump. The man has been carrying our federal soap opera — call it The Donald Trump Show — on his back for four years now; how much more can we really ask of him? And what a thrilling run it’s been. Who could forget the cast of zany rivals that Trump co-opted and turned into allies, from Lindsey Graham to Lyin’ Ted? Who could un-see the spooked and ashen look on his face the night he was elected, which ingeniously made us question whether he even wanted to be president in the first place? Who could have missed the penultimate episode of season three, ‘Shithole Countries’, wherein Trump, victorious after signing tax reform into law, promptly unloaded on his own foot by trashing Haiti in a meeting?
No, The Donald Trump Show’s recent slump can hardly be blamed on its title character. The problem lies with the writers, who have shifted the focus away from Trump himself and onto the Democrats. They’ve done this by dividing the latest season into a pair of plot threads, the impeachment hearings and the Democratic primary, and the two seem to be competing over which can be less interesting. After so many years of excellence, it’s been a hard loss to take, akin to the letdown of the last season of Game of Thrones and the last five seasons of House of Cards.
The impeachment narrative seemed promising at first. As Trump declared victory over the Russian collusion probe, as liberals ruefully took down the Robert Mueller stained-glass windows they’d ordered off Etsy, you just knew another season was due. And sure enough: a phone call! A Ukrainian imbroglio! A possible quid pro quo! Bribery! Suddenly the most gripping Democratic characters on the show, the Squad, were back in control, as Nancy Pelosi screeched a U-turn and declared in favor of impeachment. Just when you thought Trump had been exculpated, there he was, plunging into his hottest waters yet.
The problem was that the details of his impeachment have proven grindingly, excruciatingly tedious. Bill Clinton’s almost-deposal featured revelations of presidential penis shape and allegations of cat murder; Trump’s has seen an array of gray-faced civil servants parsing down to the consonant a phone call that the rest of us drew our conclusions about weeks ago. To their credit, the writers did try to spice things up by sending a gaggle of Republican congressmen to storm the hearing room. But even this would-be coup d’état lacked the pizzazz of previous episodic climaxes.
Worse is that we already know how this contrived drama will end, since the Senate doesn’t have nearly enough Democrats to convict Trump. The show has attempted to create some mystery with a wavering Mitt Romney, but he’s the most unconvincing all-CGI character since Jar Jar Binks. And any chance that John Bolton might play regicide has been thrown away, as we’re forced to wait, probably for another 12 seasons, for his stupid book to come out.
The Democratic primary plot thread has been marginally better. In retrospect, the show should have taken it in one of two directions: either the Democrats nominate their own Trump-like candidate as a metacommentary on politics as entertainment or they go with a statesman to give the president a true foil. Instead, we have neither. Bernie is too spent to be a circus act and Biden is too incoherent. The other candidates have also failed to captivate. Pete Buttigieg was briefly interesting as a Cinderella story but the actor playing him just isn’t feeling out the role enough. Now even the writers seem to have acknowledged that Kamala Harris is less a character than a delivery mechanism for bad one-liners.
The question now is where the series goes from here. In that vein, I should note that something I said earlier wasn’t quite true: there is more to Trump than just entertainment; he has several serious accomplishments to his name, starting with his two scrappy additions to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. And maybe it’s there that The Donald Trump Show can get its mojo back. Instead of obsessing over the emoluments clause and how Elizabeth Warren will pay for her free-popsicles-for-all health plan, the writers should go big. Kick an abortion case up to the Supreme Court. Bring to bear the battle that pro-lifers have long awaited. The potential for drama is limitless: will Kavanaugh flinch in an attempt to appease his legions of feminist critics? Just how rallying will the speech be that Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivers while on dialysis?
Nobody watches television for proceduralism and fiscal probity; it’s culture war they want, fights that raise their gullets to their mouths and their fists above their heads. That’s why Roe v. Wade II could prove The Donald Trump Show’s most authentic narrative arc yet. Because unlike so much of what the program deals with, abortion is deeply important (some of us would say deeply wicked), worthy of the big political fights it inspires. If the writers can apply the Trump Show treatment to something so fundamental as abortion, it will be a triumph of political story telling. It may also wreck the country.
This article is in The Spectator’s January 2020 US edition.