Critic's Notebook: Trump's Reality TV Show Presidency Gets Canceled

Donald Trump
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After four tumultuous and often traumatic years, Americans were ready to change the channel.

It's all over.

The presidential election has been called for former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who have received more votes than any presidential ticket in history. As of now, Donald Trump is refusing to accept the results. Instead, he's been attempting to foment insurrection and violence, while the vast majority of influential Republican figures, especially those who have their sights set on retaining the good graces of Trump's still formidable base, have uttered only the meekest of pearl-clutching objections.

Whatever happens, Trump will still be president for more than two months. There's no telling what he'll do, and how the American public will respond. His presidency, which began as a grotesque political version of The Bachelor, seems destined to end closer in tone to Fear Factor.

The reality TV show presidency of Donald Trump was best summed up by George W. Bush, of all people, and that was just minutes after it premiered. The former president, not exactly renowned for his oratorical prowess, commented "That was some weird shit" after listening to Trump's infamous "American Carnage" inauguration speech. Little did Bush know how prescient his observation would turn out to be. Or how understated.

After all, there aren't many presidents who could keep the United Nations General Assembly in stitches, as Trump did in 2018 when he announced, "In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country." The only thing missing was a rimshot. "I didn't expect that reaction, but that's OK," Trump responded as the world leaders all but fell out of their seats with laughter.

Trump has proved his comedic bona fides time and time again. His press conferences will be studied for many years to come. Not just by historians, but also by stand-up comedians, who will marvel at his delivery of such admittedly horrifying gems as suggesting to his health officials that they explore the possibility of injecting COVID-19 sufferers with disinfectant or commending the "fine people on both sides" in Charlottesville. You also have to almost admire his flair for physical comedy, whether walking up the stairs to Air Force One with toilet paper stuck to his shoe, staring at the sun during a solar eclipse or holding up a Bible upside down.

This should be no surprise, since Trump has plenty of show biz experience. He arguably became president as a result of the fame and exposure he accrued on the reality TV series The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice. Both shows burnished his image as a successful, ultra-rich businessman who delighted in tormenting failed contestants by announcing, "You're fired!" Trump managed to parlay that notoriety into a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, which, apparently inspired by Vichy France in World War II, proved all too willing to succumb.

Having endured the last four years, we now know that Trump isn't nearly as rich as he claims to be. And that although he indeed loves firing people, he doesn't have the courage to do it in person, but rather prefers by tweet. And that his reality show presidency was much, much weirder than Bush could ever have imagined. And by weird, I mean nearly ending American democracy as we know it and bringing the country to the brink of a civil war.

On the other hand, you can't say that he didn't look out for people. Like Oprah Winfrey, he delighted in giving surprise gifts to his viewers. Except that she gave away cars, while he threw rolls of paper towels to desperate Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

You certainly can't complain about a lack of memorable supporting characters. You need look no further than his immediate family members, whose emotional dysfunction could provide fodder for entire seasons of Dr. Phil and The Jerry Springer Show. Trump even brought to the White House one of his former reality show stars, Omarosa Manigault, who spent most of her time there secretly taping her co-workers before getting unceremoniously fired and releasing the inevitable tell-all book.

And then there was Anthony Scaramucci, or "The Mooch," who would have fit in perfectly on Jersey Shore but instead spent a total of eleven days as White House Communications Director. His brief tenure ended after he gave an interview in which he suggested that Steve Bannon had mastered the art of auto-fellatio. Since then, Scaramucci has become a fixture on cable news shows as, what else, a pundit.

Trying to select a favorite episode proves an impossible task. The reality series got off to a memorable start with Sean Spicer, looking like an overgrown toddler in his first grown-up suit, lying to the American public about the inauguration crowd size. You practically expected to hear him say, "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" The theme was immortally reprised by Kellyanne Conway, who gave us all a lecture on "alternative facts." The phrase could just as easily describe her marriage to George Conway, a founder of the vehemently anti-Trump Lincoln Project. Their relationship has kept America on the edge of its seat for years.

An essential reality show component is a compelling love interest. In Trump's case, it wasn't his wife Melania, whose blasé attitude was best summed up by her jacket adorned with the cryptic phrase "I Really Don't Care, Do U?" Instead, it was North Korea leader Kim Jong Un. At first the two leaders didn't care for each other very much, exchanging insults such as "dotard" and "Little Rocket Man." But then they met and succumbed to the other's charms, prompting a swooning Trump to declare, "We fell in love." Not since Churchill and Roosevelt has there been an historic romance between two such crazy kids.

Every reality show needs drama, and the administration provided it in spades. From the impeachment to the bitterly contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings to the repulsive separating of migrant children from their parents to the Helsinki summit in which he sided with Vladimir Putin over our intelligence agencies, Trump has delivered one shocking twist after another. Ever the showman, he even teased future developments, such as his Game of Thrones-inspired poster, "Sanctions Are Coming," for which he posed like a black sheep member of the Stark family.

Speaking of that HBO show, it may have had a high body count, but nothing like the tens of thousands of people who died unnecessarily as a result of the administration's thoroughly botched coronavirus response. Trump's supporters would have been safer attending the Red Wedding than his superspreader rallies.

And then, of course, there was Trump contracting the coronavirus himself. Even the writers of Designated Survivor would have thrown up their hands attempting to compete with such a dramatic plot development. Journalists and pundits did their best to maintain a straight face while reporting the whirlwind events that culminated in the president dramatically posing on a White House balcony, gasping for breath as he saluted no one in particular and dramatically ripping off his mask, looking like he was auditioning for a dinner theater production of Evita.

It's going to be hard to adjust to a Biden presidency. It will be like subsisting on a steady diet of PBS after binge-watching Tiger King. But I think most Americans, even Trump supporters, will be relieved by the lack of constant drama. And while it would have been appropriate for Trump to have been removed from office by the constitutional process of impeachment as a result of his high crimes and misdemeanors, there's something more satisfying about his losing the election. You live by the ratings, you die by the ratings.