Next up on America, it’s the season two premiere of The Donald Trump Show. All your favorite characters are back—or are they? Will The Mooch be able to scheme and scream his way back into the White House? Will Steve Bannon, last seen indulging a quaff from his hip flask as a door embossed with the words ‘Robert Mueller’ closed behind him, continue his vengeance against the man he helped elect? Will the Wooster-and-Jeeves act of Trump and chief of staff John Kelly endure now that the latter was caught undermining his boss’s authority in a meeting? Find out next only (I mean, it could only be) on Fox.
I’ll readily admit that analogizing the Trump administration to a reality show wasn’t my idea: Kevin Williamson of National Review originally thought it up and Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative adapted it into her column last week. I’m shamelessly stealing it only because it perfectly encapsulates the topsy-turvy, camera-laden thunderdome that has been Trump’s executive branch. Now, as we mark the one-year anniversary of the most unlikely of presidential inaugurations, we find ourselves wondering what could possibly top season one. Consider that Trump was recently accused of having an affair with an adult film actress during the first year of his third marriage. That would normally be big news in a country with Puritan forebears, yet because Trump was bogged down with so much other wackiness, congress in session between a president and porn star was relegated to minor subplot at best. Surely such a man can keep us going for at least one more strong season.
Last season’s penultimate episode, titled ‘Shithole Countries,’ was everything it should have been: Trump, seemingly riding high after signing needed tax reform into law, kicked in his own teeth yet again by demeaning third-world nations like Haiti during a meeting. Cut to Trump nemesis Senator Dick Durbin walking down a hallway in slow-motion, smiling wickedly, having just leaked the presidential indelicacy to CNN. It seemed everything was primed to blow, yet the producers surprised with a more quotidian and even nihilistic turn for the season finale: another congressional battle over the expiring federal budget, another government shutdown looming, grandstanding senators from the opposition party, all of which occurred with regularity under Barack Obama. And then the camera shot rose slowly above the Capitol building, sun rays refracted off the Washington Monument, and you realised that, despite Trump and the tweeting and the shouting, almost nothing in D.C. had really changed.
Seriously, even after a year, we are hardly in the spasms of revolution over here. That isn’t to discount Trump’s very real accomplishments, which include a desperately needed slashing of the U.S. corporate tax rate, regulatory reform sought by businesses, Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, and a beefed-up immigration enforcement regime. But with the possible exception of more boots on the border, it’s easy to imagine President Mitt Romney doing all those things. Meanwhile, America’s foreign policy apparatus is still cozying up to Saudi Arabia and antagonising Iran, still gazing at the world through the same antiquated Cold War eyepiece. Its appropriators are still content to ignore our colossal debt and fraying entitlements system in favour of tossing ever more money to the civil service and the military. There is some drama at the downsized State Department and besieged Environmental Protection Agency but nothing outside the usual bounds of GOP governance. K Street still revs its lobbying engine every morning; evenings see overcoat-clad bureaucrats and consultants file into overpriced bars to continue talking shop. Blood doesn’t run on the sidewalks; tumbrils don’t clatter through the streets.
The Donald Trump Show is, after all, just entertainment—corrosive, worrisome, nuclear-tipped entertainment—but entertainment nonetheless, which leaves much of the substance of governing to the usual in-the-know operatives who have been prowling around our federal apparatus for years. Even Trump’s motor mouth isn’t so unprecedented in a White House once inhabited by the inexorably profane Lyndon Johnson and Andrew Jackson who once threatened to hang South Carolina nullifiers from trees. That’s the thing about The Donald Trump Show: it offers up daily shocks mostly to those looking to be shocked, which is to say those in Washington and its suburbs, along with a respectable smattering of viewers in New York who stay plugged into such things. In places like Indiana, they don’t follow the minute-to-minute travails of Kellyanne Conway because they have actual jobs to do that don’t involve politics; content to tune in occasionally, they revel in the general havoc that Trump wreaks or roll their eyes at his latest outburst and then shut off the tube.
Of greater concern to them is that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has seen its best one-year gain since the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration, a modest number of new coal mines have been announced, two thirds of Americans are pleased with the economy, and that same number say 2017 was a good year for them and their families. GDP growth is far from everything, of course, and the moral implications of Trump’s presidency are still deeply concerning. But those of us who do follow Washington intrigue must acknowledge that we’re in a bubble, trapped inside a TV screen perhaps, and that so much of what will determine our national future is taking place beyond the camera’s view.