You can leave reality TV. But reality TV never leaves you.
That’s the lesson – or at least one of the lessons – the first 13-plus months of Donald Trump’s presidency has taught us. Again and again, Trump’s White House has looked for all the world like one giant reality show – with the same strong personalities, rivalries, back-biting and surprise plot twists that have made watching other people live their lives one of our culture’s favorite pastimes.
Tuesday, for example, would make one hell of an episode.
It began with Trump insisting that all of the chatter about chaos overrunning his White House was overblown. He tweeted:
“The new Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House. Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection). There is no Chaos, only great Energy!”
Like a good reality TV producer, even in that assurance that everything was totally cool was the sign – for knowing viewers – that everything is not totally cool.
What else explains this line: “I still have some people that I want to change?” If you want the media to stop focusing on your staff turnover as indicative of a broader chaos at work in your White House, why hint at even more staff turnover?
Trump’s hint came to fruition late Tuesday afternoon when word leaked out that Gary Cohn, the top White House economic adviser, was leaving after losing a no-holds-barred internal fight over whether or not Trump should put tariffs on steel and aluminum. (Spoiler alert: He did!)
What’s most amazing about Cohn’s departure is not the theatrical way it played out but that just a few weeks ago people were talking about Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive, as a leading candidate to replace John Kelly as White House chief of staff.
Is there anything more reality TV than rapidly rising and then collapsing fortunes? The man or woman who you think is for sure going to win “Survivor” or get the final rose (do they still do that?) on “The Bachelor” suddenly falls into disfavor and is out before you blink.
You never see it coming! The reversal of expectations suggests anyone is vulnerable. Anyone can go at any time. It makes the show – or, in this case, the White House – that much more difficult to tear yourself away from, since you really can’t predict what will happen next.
(Sidebar: That reversal of expectations is what made the execution of Ned Stark in Season 1 of “Game of Thrones” the linchpin to the future success of the show. It proved that the conventions of normal TV were out the window – making “GOT” must-watch.)
Speaking of Kelly, the chief of staff is also a classic reality TV archetype: The good guy/bad guy. No one can get a read on what, exactly, Kelly’s motives are and whether he is benign or malignant. And most importantly, whether the head honcho on the show – I mean, in the White House – likes him or hates him.
Consider these two stories about Kelly in the past week.
First, via The New York Times, was this amazing paragraph about Trump daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner:
“Yet aides also noted that Mr. Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles, even as he has privately asked Mr. Kelly for his help in moving them out.”
Trump is back-channeling to Kelly that he wants Javanka out, even as he tells the couple he wants them to stick around! Amazing. What a plot twist!
Then there’s this, via CNN Tuesday night:
“The President has emboldened Anthony Scaramucci, the boisterous former communications director who was fired after just 10 days, to continue attacking White House chief of staff John Kelly during his cable news appearances, a source familiar with the situation told CNN.”
Trump is using Scaramucci – a reality TV show hero/villain right out of central casting – to savage Kelly who, according to some reports, he wants gone. Mooch has done his duty brilliantly, savaging Kelly in a series of TV appearances – noting that morale in the White House is low, chaos is high and laying it all at the feet of General Kelly.
Is Kelly on the way out? Or is he actually more essential than ever before given his role as the bad cop to Javanka? What if it’s both – Kelly pushes Javanka out and then falls on his own sword (or is pushed onto it)?
The truth is that even Mark Burnett couldn’t create such a high-profile reality show with this much drama, this many personalities and this high of stakes. This is a project only Donald Trump could make happen.
The medium and long-term impact of running a White House and, therefore, a country, on the principles of reality TV remain to be seen. People can’t tear their eyes from the spectacle, sure, but lots and lots of them say they don’t like what they see.
Trump is betting that in a few years enough people will vote to renew the show, captivated by what possibly could come around the corner next – whether they can admit to themselves how much they like the show.