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