What possible tape could finally oust Donald Trump from the Oval Office? In October 2016, the Washington Post published a 2005 video of Trump casually boasting to former Access Hollywood host Billy Bush about committing sexual assault. A month after “grab them by the pussy” entered the national vernacular, he was elected to the highest office in the land. Since then, rumors of other tapes—of Trump using the N-word on The Apprentice set or directing prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room to urinate on a bed Barack and Michelle Obama had slept in—have waxed and waned. But it’s unlikely that many MAGA partisans would change their minds about their guy’s decency, let alone en masse, since any damning footage would be viewed as immediately suspect. For many in Trump’s base, his indecency is a feature, not a bug.
The extreme tribalism of the current political situation makes Tom Arnold’s The Hunt for the Trump Tapes (Viceland) yet another expression of the liberal fantasy that conservatives could be convinced of their wrongness if only they were informed enough. Debuting with a two-part premiere on Tuesday, the half-hour reality series finds Arnold searching for a multitude of recordings: Howard Stern’s hidden archive of past Trump interviews in the first episode, The Apprentice outtakes in the second, Michael Cohen’s audio files in later installments—and of course, the pee tape. Unsurprisingly, Arnold frames his pursuit of these videos as something between civic responsibility and hail-Mary heroism. With journalists overwhelmed by the deluge of outrage, corruption, incompetence, and malfeasance coming out of the White House every day, it’s up to ordinary citizens, argues Arnold, to “step up” and help take down Trump.
But Arnold’s attempt to fight narcissism with narcissism, and spectacle with spectacle, seems most effective in widening the range for #TheResistance. Here’s an “old-school dumbass,” as Arnold describes both himself and Trump, who’s brash and obnoxious and expects to be liked for those qualities. Like the bro-tastic Jimmy Kimmel, Arnold’s a better ambassador for anti-Trump sentiment than the likes of the smug Seth Meyers and the professorial Elizabeth Warren for the kinds of people who are attracted to volume and chest-thumping confidence. Arnold’s can’t-stop-getting-into-political-arguments-with-strangers-on-Facebook energy goes a long way in The Hunt for the Trump Tapes, particularly when he injects some self-aware humor about his status as a has-been. When he ambushes Arnold Schwarzenegger at the former governor’s favorite restaurant, Michael Moore–style, it’s clear this isn’t a prelude to some eye-popping exposé but it’s weirdly fun watching the two actors settle into their vastly disparate places in the Hollywood hierarchy anyway.
When it comes to the purported point of the show, though, Arnold fails to deliver, at least on opening night. It’s not that he comes up empty-handed: He turns up Stern’s old tracks, as well as anonymous statements from The Apprentice crew. But nothing in those two episodes hits as hard as the already available information—and certainly nothing has the real-life impact of the White House’s policies and appointments. Arnold is plenty appalled at Trump’s objectification of women, for instance, particularly his behavior as the previous owner of the Miss Universe pageant and all the attendant privileges that come with that position. But there’s no mention of the fact that Trump also allegedly ogled underage girls by barging into the changing rooms at Miss Teen USA. Not that repeating these allegations would make a whit of a difference, but what’s the point of telling the cleaned-up version of the story when the raw one’s already out there?
And yet The Hunt for the Trump Tapes provides a valuable reminder that’s applicable not only to Trump, but to many bad men in power. The fact that Arnold has to go on his quests in the first place suggests a wide network protecting the president, from formidable forces in entertainment (e.g., Stern and Apprentice producer Mark Burnett, with whom Arnold got into a brawl on Sunday) to Cohen and beyond. While his ex-wife, Roseanne Barr, is tilting at windmills identified by the QAnon conspiracy theory, Arnold points to the vast web of venality right in front of us: of institutions shielding the powerful and dangerous from transparency and justice.