The Narrative on Trump Is Changing as He Gets the Loser Edit (Opinion)

Donald Trump

Part of the reason many people didn’t think Donald Trump would be elected president was because his narrative was terrible.

Not just terrible in terms of its morality, but the overall story the candidate told was chaotic and badly constructed. He changed his mind all the time (and still does). It’s hard, at times, to understand what he’s talking about; his grasp on structure and syntax, on Twitter and in real life, is shaky.

But more than that, everything about the candidate and his candidacy was too on-the-nose. His bid for the most powerful office in the world was a blunt-force instrument wielded by an overgrown toddler. Everything about his public persona was simplistic, puffed-up and cliched. Television — which permeates our lives more than ever and helped make Trump a celebrity — has taught most of us to want more.


Donald Trump

White House: Trump Considered Firing James Comey Since Election Day

Sure, we’ve all seen our share of junky TV; craven time-killers and iffy programming are not hard to find. But in the main, we have been raised by professionals who are really, really good at their jobs. Whether they’re creating hourlong dramas, crowd-pleasing sitcoms or just a regular episode or “Love It or List It,” the storytellers who create content for the small screen have trained us to accept competence as the bare minimum. Whatever our tastes — even if they veer toward the dystopian or unsubtle — we’re used to being able to choose from any array of excellent options from those who build narratives for us.

That’s why, for a long time, Trump’s candidacy struck many in both parties as a non-starter. He latched on to crudely constructed villains (when he wasn’t emulating one). His solutions seemed comically superficial. His speeches were the equivalent of a derivative serial-killer show: They were designed to gin up fear, exclusion and paranoia, and expressly traded on stereotypes, biases and prurient strands of hate-driven excitement. It was all just too obvious and gross. Everything about Trump and his candidacy demanded a rewrite.

He may be getting one.

The problem was obvious in Wednesday’s White House press briefing. Spokesman Sean Spicer has been widely mocked, most notably via Melissa McCarthy’s brilliant portrayal of him on “Saturday Night Live.” Some speculated that McCarthy’s May 13 appearance as “SNL” host caused the White House press office to send out a sub on Wednesday, in order to save Spicer yet another weekend of embarrassment. Whatever the reason, it was a bad idea to put an unprepared understudy on stage.

If, up until now, the Trump White House resembled bad reality TV, the performance of Sarah Huckabee Sanders was terrible dinner theater in a one-horse town. But that description still doesn’t capture how inept it was.

When not laughing, minimizing, condescending, or trying, in a more serious mode, to sell the kind of clumsy, inconsistent spin that clearly frustrated most of the reporters in the room, Sanders said that ousted FBI director James Comey committed “atrocities.” Many of her remarks — like the varying explanations that have leaked out over the past 24 hours — were obvious nonsense, and reporters found many ways to say so, on social media and in their on-air reports.

Sanders looked like a day player who had wandered in from an unfinished “Parks and Recreation” scene, but hadn’t learned her lines. She was out of her depth, and she yet treated the press corps like unruly kindergartners. In an administration where someone as inept as Spicer — a man who spent part of Tuesday night hiding in the bushes near the White House — was the A team, the performance of Sanders, the untested B team, was laughable.

And maybe that is what will turn the tide: The way the Trumpian story has devolved into farce.

Not that the first hundred-plus days weren’t mostly scary. Not that there haven’t been other moments of surreal comedy scattered throughout the attempts to turn America into the home of an incompetent authoritarian regime. But what’s occurring today is different. The administration is becoming a laughingstock — certainly in the eyes of many who have been covering it for months.

Anderson Cooper, who’d clearly reached his limit with Kellyanne Conway on Tuesday night, is far from alone in his eye-rolls; sighs were even more common on cable TV Tuesday and Wednesday. Asked how the plan to roll out the Comey announcement went, an Axios reporter on MSNBC replied, “There was no real plan.” Then Jonathan Swan sighed, and unleashed a compact indictment of incompetence.

Most people in the administration learned what was happening by looking at TVs or “looking down at their phones,” Swan said. “There was basically a two-hour vacuum where they were running around like headless chickens.”

A day and night spent watching CNN and MSNBC reveals that, if they didn’t before, many people covering the administration, or talking about it, now view it as a very substandard imitation of “Veep.” (If only.) A change had come over the TV coverage: The frequently maddening tendency toward false equivalence — i.e., “got to hear both sides” — was often thrown over in favor of what a reality-TV addict would call a “loser edit.

And that is a very serious problem —  not for democracy, but for a man who wants to come off like the dominant tough guy in every situation. An administration’s legitimacy is partly determined by the media, and on Wednesday, large sections of the commentariat weren’t buying what Trump and his mouthpieces were selling. There’s nothing like that moment when a critical mass of observers — even in the midst of a crisis — realize it’s OK to sigh, shake their heads and even laugh at the schoolyard bully (and that’s the kind of coverage that no doubt fed into the inevitable rage-tweeting from Trump, a voracious consumer of cable news). 

Trump is obsessed with his image, and to be pitied is bad. To be laughed at — to be in charge of an administration that prompts reporters to deploy sarcasm, sigh and roll their eyes — is probably an even bigger fear. He’s not the swaggering, conquering TV anti-hero he clearly wants to be in his mind. In his rage-tweets, the most hated thing to be is “weak.”

Trump has always understood that perception matters. (It’s scary that his obvious assumption that perception matters more than reality could be true, but that’s a column for another day.) The president is said to have picked cabinet members in part based on how they looked, as if he were casting his cabinet like a Hollywood movie. His career and businesses have been built on flash, and on smoke and mirrors. His speeches may be full of bile and hate, but he knows how to draw in a crowd and keep them hanging on his every word.

But this image-obsessed man has lost the plot, if he ever had control of it.

On MSNBC Wednesday, John Dean told Brian Williams that the administration had a “stylistic” problem: It had gone about the firing of Comey all wrong. It looked bad. Talking heads from all over the political spectrum regarded with disdain the firing of Comey — who, seeing his own political demise on TV screens at an FBI event in Los Angeles, thought he had been pranked.

The Trump of “The Apprentice” would have staged it better than that. But he’s without competent editors now. The shapers of this story aren’t up to the job. He’s now starring in a badly constructed reality show, or a garish sitcom, in which he himself is the running joke.

Judging by the masterfully deployed contempt that was evident in everyone from John Dean to Rachel Maddow to Pete Williams, Trump — and by extension, the rickety administration constructed around him — has become a familiar TV type. He’s not the star of the narrative, he’s the supporting player who has no choice but to endure the scorn, derision and mockery of other characters. Trump’s not a fearsome villain, and he may be turning into the punchline.

And as any D-lister could tell the president, it’s hard to come back from being a joke.

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  1. Davis Kent says:

    I had to stop reading this article after the first childish paragraph. Really, Variety, now you’re going to pile on with another poorly written hit piece. Yawn.

  2. eddie willers says:

    “A day and night spent watching CNN and MSNBC”..

    That explains a lot….you need to get out more, Mo.

    I voted for him to drain the swamp. He just took out one of the biggest alligators in the swamp and I couldn’t be happier. I hope you remain continuously frazzled.

    • Reyn says:

      Which alligator would that be? The career Republican FBI director? Oh that’s rich. While he brought in a dozen billionaires to help fill the swamp deeper? Grow up.

  3. Laurie says:

    Impeach this clown. He’s not funny he’s terrifying. What is wrong with the U.S. press that you’d rather be entertained by him than get rid of a tyrant?

  4. Ruth Tanner says:

    The problem is that HE has His Finger, small it may be, on the NUKE button… So if He gets picked on too much… He may start WWIII – he is looking forward to revving up our poor young people to die in Afghanistan…. So what’s to stop this Dangerous Fool from killing us all?!?!? Impeach NOW before it’s too late! God Bless America… Americans Please Stop Trump!!

  5. This piece is brilliant! Through expert deployment of the concepts, narrative strategies, and business/entertainment models of reality TV, it exposes the inadequacy of conventional political analysis in the age of Trump. If the “American people” (as politicians love to invoke this fiction) are essentially the “TV audience,” if the “voice of the people” is expressed by “ratings,” if government officials perform their duties less as statesmen than as sitcom actors scripted by central casting, then it follows that trade publications like Variety are uniquely positioned to provide compelling insight into the current convergence of politics, entertainment, farce, and bad taste. Trump’s first 100 days indeed looks like a loser’s edit, not only for the Orange Clown but for Democracy itself.

  6. Rickie says:

    Yes you are the only person in the world that really counts. Just like your mom told you.

  7. Red lorze says:

    The cracked YouTube channel has a great skit they do occasionally that treats this administration like a must watch tv show a la GOT. It’s funny but when I was still in a state of near nihilist levels of depression and fear in the early months of this election it made me feel SO much better pretend, even for a few minutes, it was just a tv show and not reality.

    Now, I feel the 90s movie “MY FELLOW AMERICANS” should be required viewing. The end scene where the bad guys says “it was all a big facade” and pronounces it fa-kayd is now our political everyday.

  8. Frank says:

    You’re like the nasty mother gossip at the supermarket spreading only hate about your neighbors, the ones that take care of your dogs when your on vacation. Really scum.

  9. K L Clark says:

    The problem here is that everybody is so used to seeing polish politicians that have been groomed for 30 years to say the proper thing the proper way at the proper time. They’re not used to seeing the equivalent of Joe six-pack on TV and running the country. On top of that his opponents are in a to z because they either love the Republican establishment or loved the loopy Utopia that was being constructed around us. When are your a never Trumper or a loony Lefty you better hold on there’s going to be a long 8 years. And if you wonder why Trump got elected just look at the way the left is acting. They thought they were entitled to everything. And real people got sick of it.

  10. John Taylor says:

    Trump was always considered an untalented clown and an unfunny joke in New York. No one took him seriously in the 25 years I lived there. The rest of the country is finally catching on. When the American people start laughing in the face of our magnificent president, Mr. Trump will meltdown and act even crazier than usual.

    • Davis Kent says:

      That’s a lie. I’ve been in Manhattan for 29 years. Trump was always celebrity in NYC. Untalented? If being successful in the cutthroat real estate business is not impressive to you then you are just being dishonest. Typical snowflake.

  11. Marco says:

    Your article confirms to me that the mainstream media is the real opposition party, and as a Trump supporter, the more you hate him, the more validated it makes me feel. In fact, this has become a good barometer of the moves the President makes: if the media is crying about it, it must have been a good move, but if there is grumbling approval, then probably some sort of compromise happened where not everyone got what they wanted.

    But even then remember that for the most part: *we* the voters, got what *we* wanted.

    • Craig says:

      I’m sure you’ll just ignore what I say marco but let’s try some facts for a moment. The fact is there were GOP senators who disagreed with the way he handled Comey’s firing. The fact is that the President himself today said he was going to fire Comey regardless of the DOJ letter which means the VP, Sarah Huckabee and Kellyann Conway all either lied or were misled by their boss. The fact is that Trump has an approval rating around 36%. He got about 42% of the popular vote. Which means he’s losing support even among his voters. And you want to just eliminate California from the vote? May as well eliminate 1/12 of the US economy while you’re at it b/c that’s what California contributes. Its the taxes paid by the “liberal” big states that pay for all the stuff you have in whatever red state you happen to live in. You can just dismiss a large percentage of the US population and say well if not for that we would have won the popular vote. Its a dumb argument. But naturally you are one of those who believes everything Trump says and will never question the man Good luck.

    • Actually, your comment supports the idea that the more Trump screws up, the more ignorant and stubborn his supporters become. Also, the majority of people voted for Hillary. Trump won by default. Not only are you dense, but pathological. Keep proving how stupid you Trumpsters are.

      • Marco says:

        Nope, sorry. The reason we have an electoral college is *precisely* to make sure that loony states like California don’t pull the whole country down with them. If you remove a single state, CA, then the popular vote goes to Trump by far. And I suspect a large portion of the CA vote were illegal immigrants.

        But please, don’t let this disuade you from dismissing the “flyover” states. By all means please continue calling all Trump supporters ‘deplorable’, please continue pretending that minorities are inherently inferior and the white man is inherently supposed to help them, continue pretending that everyone who disagrees with you is therefore stupid or corrupt -and there are no other possible explanations-. Keep doing all this, and make sure to do it as loudly as you can. I love the Antifa protests. I love articles like this in Variety. All of this helps us get 8 years of Trump. Here’s looking forward to 2020.

      • Red lorze says:

        Tim read my mind. And by the by, I live on fort Bragg, nc and most of the soldiers on my block are either fiercely antitrump or just disgusted by his idiocy. Only the super southern evangelicals (who as would be expected are the definition of white trash) are into him.

  12. Bullies who can’t read are always weak.

  13. Steve Barr says:

    Donald J.Trump . Dead Man Walking .

  14. George Lewis says:

    Thou art boring. Donald is entertaining. Thou art boring. Donald is POTUS. Do you despise Donald because he grabbed your privates? I’ll guess you despise him because he didn’t!

    • K L Clark says:

      Sounds like a threat

    • Brandon White says:

      Wow. Our democracy is tumbling down around us due to the overwhelming ignorance of our electorate, and you are a paramount example of the problem (and not the solution). Yes, this election presented the impossible choice of crook vs. clown. However, irrespective of what partisan side of the debate you belong to, you should re-read your comment and decide whether or not you are a better person than this. If not, then I hope you don’t have a daughter, as you also would likely believe that child molestation and rape are fine as well. So sad.

    • jedi77 says:

      I don’t think anyone can actually despise him. He’s to sad for that.
      I just feel really, really sorry for him and anyone around him.

  15. Bas says:

    WOW this is a Masterpiece!

  16. Sam says:

    PU this article has a stench on it.

  17. M Miller says:

    I was an editor on Celeb Apprentice and was JUST saying this exact thing today to a co-worker. Without reality show producers and editors protecting his image, he is a complete buffoon.

  18. Bill Bevin says:

    Why is this on Variety?

  19. Frank says:

    Writer Ryan the dumbocrat.

    • Frank says:

      She’s never had a real job.
      This article sounds like a 2 yr old wrote it. Whaaaaaaaaa.

      • Centrist Genius says:

        Hey man, take another oxy and keep waiting for your job to come back from Azerbaijan. Yes, I know you never really learned to read, but you were really good at doing that one monkey-level job at the plant. Your 10th-grade education made you the MASTER of pressing that one button in the plant.

        Too bad there’s a 7-year-old in asia who can do it better and cheaper. Brown people are scary!

  20. userid02 says:

    Excellent piece, Ms. Ryan. Thank you.

    • Marco says:

      Wow. Please democrats, PLEASE keep thinking and talking this way by 2020. I want a second term.

      • Steve says:

        Oh, you’re one of those people who think that people will ignore real issues and vote their anti-Hollywood butthurt. LOL.

  21. userid01 says:

    His postural tic of repeatedly lying, often when the truth would sound better, suggests medically concerning compromise of neurological function, compounding the menace of his willfully proffered ignorance.

  22. Ellie says:

    Despite the attempt at relating this piece to TV, I’m still wondering what it’s doing on Variety.

  23. Steve says:

    Trump is a figure of fun.

  24. Rudy Mario says:

    Good article. Right on target even if construed as an opinion piece.

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