On Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence was in Las Vegas honoring the victims of the largest mass shooting in modern American history. Less than 24 hours later, he was in Indiana walking out of the Indianapolis Colts game against the San Francisco 49ers after several of the players failed to stand during the National Anthem.
“I left today’s Colts game because @POTUS and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” Pence wrote on Twitter by way of explanation.
President Donald Trump, never one to cede to the spotlight, quickly took to Twitter to claim credit for Pence’s walk-out. “I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him and @SecondLady Karen,” tweeted Trump. He continued to inject himself into the moment Monday morning, tweeting that Pence received “great praise” for leaving the game.
According to CNN’s Jim Acosta, Trump and Pence spoke before the game about what Pence would do if there was a protest. “They agreed if a protest took place he would leave,” one White House official told Acosta of Pence. The pool reporters covering Pence were told to stay in the media van rather than enter the stadium because “there may be an early departure from the game.”
Pence flew from Las Vegas to Indianapolis to go the game. (He went, according to his office, because longtime Colts great Peyton Manning was being honored.) Pence then jetted back to California.
Add up all that context and it’s clear that Trump knew exactly what he was doing. Remember that Trump’s formative experience before running for president was as a reality show star and producer. He helped start “The Apprentice” in 2004 with Mark Burnett and served as its face for more than a decade. He didn’t just learn the lessons of what makes good reality TV – he mainlined them.
Cliffhangers. Reversals of fortune. And, always, drama, drama, drama.
That’s exactly the approach Trump has taken to the White House. He feuds! He fights! He tweets! And, always, he makes you watch.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who has openly battled with Trump, told The New York Times that the President’s approach in the White House is similar to a “reality show,” adding that it’s “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something.”
The Pence protest is a perfect example of Trump as the puppet master of a giant reality show he’s producing. Trump knew that Pence was headed to the Colts game. (The vice president’s office said the trip had long been scheduled.) He believes strongly that the fight he picked with NFL players over whether or not to stand during the National Anthem is a good one for him – and his political base. And so he directed Pence to stage the walkout and make sure everyone knew about it.
And, because Trump really does know how to create watchable TV, Pence’s walkout became the story on Sunday. Every NFL post-game show talked about it and showed the picture of Pence (and his wife) standing during the anthem.
It was, without question, a victory for Trump TV.
Of course, being president or vice president is not the same thing as running or starring in a reality television show. Pence flew to Indianapolis on the taxpayer’s dime to attend an event he was virtually certain he would be leaving in short order. Trump orchestrated it all – even while also spending time in a Twitter spat with Corker and claiming that he wasn’t getting enough credit for all his good work helping the people of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
Is Trump aware that, unlike the fake consequences of reality TV, what he says and does – and what he directs his vice president to say and do – has very real impacts on the country? Maybe. Will that change his behavior? Almost certainly not.
Trump’s entire life – even before he found a medium like reality TV – was about making sure every eye is on him. That people are talking about him – no matter what they’re saying – amounts to a victory in Trump’s eyes. In that way, he is the perfect president for our famous-for-being-famous celebrity culture. He is the political version of the Kardashians, always mindful of where the camera is, how to ramp up the drama and how to keep people watching – even if they say they hate everyone involved.
The Kardashians may well make for great TV. But, would you want one of them to be president? Or for the president to think like them?