Donald Trump’s Pop-Culture Presidency Enters Its Thriller Phase (Opinion)

Donald Trump

Ever since Donald Trump appeared on the horizon of presidential politics, he has mirrored the pop culture of the past. That’s because Trump, in one way or another, has always been an actor — a man whose image precedes his reality. For 35 years, he has been a genius at one thing: stroking and manipulating the image machine of modern media. Trump went on the campaign trail as an insult-comedian/talk-radio-host/pompadoured-Elvis/reality-TV-mogul/badass-in-chief, and whenever I read now about how Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush blew it, I always think: None of those mere mortals ever stood a chance. They were fighting a superhero of populist sleaze who didn’t need facts and figures — he just needed the best lines. Trump remains one of the only people you could name who is not primarily in the entertainment business yet created himself as a character, a figment of larger-than-life fantasy. That’s what autocrats do: They don’t sell reality, they sell mythology.

Pop culture is the metaphysical realm in which Trump operates. To most Washington insiders, his signature phrase of “You’re fired!” on “The Apprentice” was just a catchy piece of kitsch. What they missed is how Trump’s use of that phrase, for all its comic braggadocio, was profoundly nostalgic, because it returned you to an earlier America, one in which you could be fired. (Yes, you can still be fired, but now, for the most part, you’re downsized — phased out of the workforce, replaced by a robot or a worker in Guangdong Province.) Trump was never an old-fashioned patriarch-executive who had the backs of his employees, but he played one — brilliantly — on TV.

Now, he plays the president on TV. But, of course, he isn’t just playing.


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With Trump, the reason the pop metaphors keep coming is that they’re often the only things that explain what’s going on. The rise of a monomaniacal entertainer-in-chief like Trump was prophesied by “A Face in the Crowd,” the still-startling 1957 Hollywood drama in which Andy Griffith played a folksy demagogue with a sixth sense for how to harness the power of television. It was prophesied, as well, by “Network,” where Peter Finch’s Howard Beale becomes a cult of personality riding the waves of his viewers’ rage (“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”), though how telling — and Trumpian — it is that Beale turned out to be a tool of corporate forces. When Ned Beatty makes his big speech near the end of “Network” about how the whole world is one giant corporation, he might be the representative of Big Oil or the Russian government, explaining to Trump what will be required if he wants their continued support.

Early on in Trump’s presidency, when he was making his bumbling phone calls to Taiwan or the leader of Australia, he became, briefly, a Sacha Baron Cohen character: the tyrant-buffoon of “The Dictator.” And now, just this week, he has become a figure out of “Dr. Strangelove”: a version of Gen. Jack. D. Ripper, lashing out at North Korea with the threat of nuclear attack. At the end of last year, I said that “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” had become a powerful (if inadvertent) metaphor for the coming Trump presidency, because of its dramatization of the force of the Death Star through the imagery of nuclear detonation. Many readers responded by saying that no, the Rebel Forces were the Trump insurgents — those who would now “drain the swamp” and “deconstruct the administrative state.” (One wants to ask Steve Bannon: How’s that working out for you?)

Yet for some of us who greeted Trump’s presidency, from day one, with fear and loathing, the issue of nuclear weapons has always been at the center of our trepidation. Now, here he is, threatening to rain “fire and fury” down on North Korea in a way that echoes Harry S. Truman’s ominous warning to the Japanese, and then — when challenged — doubling down on the threat. Anyone who thinks that this is just a way of diverting attention from the Mueller investigation is guilty of diverting their own attention. Earth to people with heads in the sand: This is terrifying! And it’s real.

To say, however, that the Trump presidency has entered its countdown-to-zero Hollywood thriller phase is not to trivialize what’s going on. It’s to understand that Trump is suddenly acting like an unhinged president out of a movie because he has unleashed this egregiously reckless threat through the lens of his pop-culture-fed imagination. He’s a leader who has begun to feel cornered: not just by the provocations of North Korea, but by a presidency that isn’t going his way and by a Russia investigation that’s heading directly his way. And so he’s lashing out, asserting his nuclear manhood. It’s policy by toxic tantrum. He’s tweeting his way to Armageddon.

What the Trump presidency could now be turning into, for the first time, is a nightmare-suspense drama in which the people around the president — regardless of their political affiliation — come to realize that the man in the Oval Office has decided to play a game of nuclear chicken in which he threatens the survival of the planet, and that something has to be done. Kind of like “Air Force One,” only with the president as the man who must be stopped. We could all sit around and cast that movie. But the point is that we don’t have to, because it’s already a movie (at least, in parts of Donald Trump’s brain). Its key dramatic question may come down to this: Who will be the hero? Who will step in to save the day?

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  1. Still looking to conjure some excuse for why the person you didn’t want to be President, is?

    • Jim Gayton says:

      We don’t have to conjure. There is an unqualified clown running the White House. Don’t believe me? Ask the rest of the world.

      • Skip Press says:

        There’s a monkey on your Facebook profile, so I suppose that makes you a qualified clown? It’s fun getting a few laughs from QCs like yourself, but it’s like staring at a train wreck.

  2. Martin says:

    From the headline I thought was entering his Michael Jackson phase. If only.

  3. Wow! Thank you for writing this.
    This is the best (and also the most terrifying) essay I can ever remember reading.
    The way out of this nightmare is for Republican enablers to WAKE UP!

  4. Mike says:

    Obama’s was the pop culture presidency. Almost every media account was eerily similar to every positive review of Girls. Mostly trying to explain why it was “great” and “ground breaking” while never able to cite a single instance that demonstrated the descriptions. Trump is kicking over the furniture and greeting us with smiling lies. I’ll take that until he becomes at least as dangerous and harmful as previous administrations.

  5. Lisa Gordon says:

    Bravado is not courage; bullies do not possess courage, they possess only the capacity to terrorize others. And bravado leads to conflict far more often than restrained, common sense diplomacy does, whether it’s before a bar fight, in the school yard, or in international politics. Would you be applauding the shouted insults and threats of two bullies in a bar? No, your common sense would tell you that those kinds of threats lead to poor decision making and thrown punches.

    We don’t need a bully as president. Bullies cannot moderate their behavior, and defending one in the white house when you wouldn’t defend one on the playground is hypocrisy and/or lack of maturity in its most blatant form. In addition, Trump’s comments (and conservative;s defense of those comments) reveal a profound and dangerous ignorance of Asian culture, in which public shame is viewed as more powerful an incentive than physical harm. Have any of you defending the president’s statements considered the fact that hari kari and kamikasi pilots are Asian phenomena? Have any of you considered the import of their existence in regard to how far Trump’s attempt to publicly shame an Asian man–and his country–could inadvertently take us? No, guess not.

    Courage is an act of restraint, not the blusterings of a threatened ego. “Speak softly, and carry a big stick” used to be the American motto for how to proceed in international negotiation. With a clinically diagnosable narcissist as president, I guess we’re left with “Push ’em around till they pop.” And when they do, the world will witness a nuclear conflagration–instigated by our own president’s ignorance about his foe–“the likes of which you’ve never seen.”

    God help us from this dangerously foolish president and his supporters. God help us all.

  6. sheldon says:

    Trump is just trying to do whats best for the USA and doing a good job of it .. Tell us about all the good things he is doing instead of only digging up dirt .. ALL PRESIDENTS HAVE DONE THINGS THAT PEOPLE DON’T LIKE.. I suppose you’d rather wait till NK drops a NUKE somewhere then you could say. .. trump is bad because he wasnt proactive and stop it .. THANKYOU

  7. willie wont says:

    America’s Future
    1. Trump welcomes Putin to White House for first-ever “state slumber party.”
    2. New press secretary Ivanka Trump refers to President’s foreign policy as “sophisticated and refined, much like this lace-trimmed crepe blouse from my Spring Collection, available now at Lord & Taylor.”
    3. Donald Trump shoots man in the middle of Fifth Avenue.
    4. Man turns out to be Sean Hannity.
    5. Trump defends controversial practice of putting out tip jar when meeting with world leaders.
    6. In a stirring State of the Union speech, Trump brings Republicans to their feet by pointing out that, under his leadership, 38 of 50 states remain largely unaffected by nuclear fallout.
    7. After Trump replaces the Department of Education with for-profit TrumpSkoolz, Fox News responds with a tough investigative report: The Energy Crisis of 1973 – What Hillary Knew and When.
    8. Ninety per cent of all Americans now working in the coal industry.
    9. Number seems low but remember – almost every member of Trump’s hardcore base would have been away from their phones for the official opening of possum hunting season.
    10. Special counsel Robert Mueller formally accuses Trump of obstruction of justice, tax fraud, mail fraud, wire fraud, racketeering, treason, grand theft auto and, “like, a whole bunch of murders.” Republican senators say they are “concerned.”
    11. Trump abruptly cancels appearances at all presidential debates, citing “bone spurs.”
    12. Trump wins 17 per cent of the popular vote in the 2020 general election—and a second term as president. The final tally:
    Donald Trump: 17 per cent
    Mark Zuckerberg: 15
    Hillary Clinton: 12
    Vladimir Putin: 10
    Some YouTube star who won’t be famous until 2019: 9
    Bill Clinton in a fake moustache and calling himself “Chet H. Chapman”: 7
    Chelsea Clinton: 6
    A sentient Google algorithm named “Steve”: 5
    George Clinton: 4
    George Clooney: 4
    Some guy who ran solely on the platform of “not being Michael Moore”: 4
    Michael Moore: 3
    Jill Stein because of course she would: 3
    Eric Trump: 1 (accidentally put self on ballot when he filled out forms wrong for his father)

  8. Ruth Deutsch says:

    Sounds like a school assignment – Compare Trump to mythology and Hollywood. Too bad it seems true! Will someone please change the script to a happy ever after (for us viewers)???

  9. The Truth says:

    To those who contend that Glieberman is unqualified to opine on Trumpian politics because he’s a film critic, how about some sauce for the gander? Dickhead Donald is a professional shyster, reality television blowhard, and world class brand whore. Why should anyone consider his views as President to be in any way qualified?

    • jeff says:

      I never said Donald was qualified to be President. I just commented on this dumb article and it’s ridiculous author Owen Gleiberman. I mean I NEVER EVER post comments about about online articles like this. I usually keep my mouth shut. I am in the entertainment business and I read every singe headline emailed to me by Variety and decide which ones I want to click on based on how they inform me about my WORK. When this one came through i was like what?? huh?? this doesn’t fit in with what I would expect to see in Variety and man, this headline is total nonsense blather. I mean, the headline alone shows what a dumbo article it will be and I thought, man the editors at Variety have gone too far this time letting this one through. I lost even more respect for them. I come here for entertainment info and I hate it when Variety gets political. I mean I really do have good sources in politics and I don’t need a stupid Hollywood film critic bloviating poetic about politics. Argh!!!!

    • Skip Press says:

      Thanks for demonstrating the virulent, nasty, and cowardly heart of Hollywood, anonymous fool.

  10. jeff says:

    I am not a Trump fan but Variety is the LAST place I would go to to get valuable information on what is going on here with Trump and N. Korea. Even the headline here, that the presidency has entered it’s “Thriller Phase” shows the author of the article to be limited to his heady, overly intellectual, biased critical, entertainment oriented view of the world. He is way to artistic and simplistic to intelligently comment on this complex issue. C’mon guys, Owen Gleiberman is a film critic. Owen, stick to judging fiction. That is what you are paid for.

  11. Skip Press says:

    You’re a film critic, you idiot. This is not a movie; it’s real life. Not that you or anyone at Variety would have a clue about that. Disgusting.

    • Jesse says:

      THIS is disgusting? A man using his platform to speak out his opinion? I guess it’s not hateful enough for you? What’s disgusting is allowing the vile man in the white house continue in his role. THAT’S disgusting, “Skip Press.”

  12. Spike says:

    God, what planet do you people live on? You guys are as out of touch with reality as the Democratic Party. If you don’t get real, your business will tank.

  13. See Me - Feel Me says:

    One day he tweets he ordered the upgrade of our nuclear arsenal on day one, which is total BS and the next he wants to “de-nuke” the world all the while threatening the use of the weapons he wants to eliminate. He thanks Putin for cutting the government payroll by “letting go” of over 700 embassy employees, as if Putin had the authority to fire American workers, who will continue to be paid their full salaries whether or not they are in Russia. He is lost in his own world of lies and pretense and he’s incapable of getting himself out of it. His body language when he was warning NK about “fire and fury” says a lot. His arms were so tightly wrapped around his stomach that he looked in pain.

  14. Janey says:

    “He’s a leader who has begun to feel cornered: not just by the provocations of North Korea, but by a presidency that isn’t going his way and by a Russia investigation that’s heading directly his way. And so he’s lashing out, asserting his nuclear manhood. It’s policy by toxic tantrum. He’s tweeting his way to Armageddon.”
    This is what scares the bejeezus out of me! I think you’ve nailed it, Owen.

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