Must the show go on?
We are in Week 2 of the president of the United States and his communications director of six days feuding on Twitter and cable TV.
The Trump-Scaramucci smackdown has, at times, distracted from the Trump-Denmark fight, which has been eclipsed, in its turn, by the Trump-Omar/Tlaib battle that has morphed into a clash between Donald Trump and Jews who vote for Democrats.
This is only a schematic account of the past few days that leaves out minor, supplemental controversies over Trump retweeting a supporter calling him “the King of Israel” and Trump insulting his Federal Reserve chairman, among much else.
Trump makes the hyperactive, voluble Teddy Roosevelt, whom H.G. Wells called “a big noise,” seem retiring by comparison. He makes the wrathful Andrew Jackson, who nearly blew up his administration over a tiff among the wives of his Cabinet members, look like a paragon of caution.
Trump reportedly told aides before taking office that they should consider each day an episode in a TV show. As it happens, Trump acts like he needs to produce enough programming to fill a 24-hour news network, with outrages, internal melodrama, legal fights and endless plot twists that are, indisputably, ratings gold.
Obviously, the fundamentals will be most determinative of Trump’s fate in 2020. Is the economy still growing? Are we at peace? But the backdrop to all this will be the level of public tolerance for, or exhaustion with, Trump’s antics and provocations.
In other words, can Americans bear for the show to go on? The threat to Trump isn’t Trump Derangement Syndrome, an affliction of opponents who can’t really touch him. The threat is Trump Fatigue, a condition that could spread more broadly and make swing voters harder to reach.
Never before has the late Andrew Breitbart’s axiom that “politics is downstream of culture” seemed more apt. The culture of celebrity, reality television, cable-TV food fights and Twitter now defines national politics at its highest level.
The latest spats are characteristic of the Trump era. The fight with Anthony Scaramucci has the performative aspect you’d expect of two showmen. One is the master, a former reality TV show host who cashed in his notoriety for the presidency. The other is an up-and-comer, who made the most of notoriety gained by brief proximity to the master, including an appearance on a reality TV show himself.
The Greenland flap is classic, too. It’s amusing, like a storyline from a political spoof. Trump’s enemies don’t understand how entertaining his fans find this kind of thing. Then, somehow, it becomes a real diplomatic incident, with a presidential trip to Denmark canceled (for now).
Finally, the fight over Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s trip to Israel implicates the cluster of real issues that Trump’s presidency has brought to the fore — including national identity — but in a highly symbolic manner. It wouldn’t have mattered much substantively whether Omar or Tlaib had gone on the trip or not.
What all these controversies have in common is that they fill the hours while nothing much really happens. Is Anthony Scaramucci actually going to organize a primary challenge against Trump? No. Is Denmark going to fall off as a U.S. ally? No. Is Israel’s fate going to rise or fall on the travels of a couple of left-wing congresswomen? No.
What’s the political balance for Trump? I believe the constant Trump static is a negative for him, but sometimes I wonder. What Franklin Roosevelt was to the age of radio and Ronald Reagan to the age of network TV, Trump is to the age of the screen, when we crave constant distraction, adrenaline rushes and entertainment. The problem with the return to normality promised by Joe Biden is that what’s normal might well have unalterably changed.
Even if Trump is hurting himself with his sensory-overload presidency, the Democrats nominate someone dull at their own risk.