Politics

When an Idiot Calls You a Loser

Understanding Trump’s “Fake News Awards.”

An illustration of Donald Trump wearing a bow tie and reading an award from an envelope.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images and Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

Earlier this month, the president of the United States announced he would be making his own contribution to awards season.

While Trump surely meant he would coronate the slimiest members of the lyin’ press, his syntax appeared to know something he didn’t. In suggesting that the awards themselves were dishonest and corrupt, Trump ended up encapsulating an “I’m rubber, you’re glue” White House in which each insult betrays the executive branch’s own woes.

But the MDCMAY had bigger problems. Explaining that “the interest in, and importance of, these awards is far greater than anyone could have anticipated,” Trump soon announced he’d have to postpone the (presumably online) ceremony from Jan. 8 until Jan. 17. (Update, Jan. 16, 5 p.m.: On Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Fake News Awards were now merely a “potential event.”) A more leisurely run-up gave comedians, including Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Jimmy Kimmel, time to campaign for “fakies” by taking out newspaper ads and renting billboards in Times Square. The New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists, meanwhile, feted Trump for “Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom,” citing his coziness with oppressive regimes and hostility to government programs that promote free speech worldwide. Chef José Andrés also promised free lunches at any of his establishments to recipients of the journalistic honor.

Trump’s attempt to take the spit out of reporters felt impotent even before the rollout of this tasting menu of mockery. A president grousing about unfair press coverage and name-calling like a schoolyard bully makes for a pathetic spectacle. And the gambit seemed reflexive, a transparent maneuver to soothe Trump’s own fears. In the perpetual White House horse race between menace and stupidity, idiocy has been surging into the lead over the past few months—and Trump knows it. The president is beset by rumors about his unfitness to serve; he recently declared himself, risibly, a “stable genius.” There’s only one cure for the self-doubt that now preys upon our chief executive. He needs a literal incarnation of other people’s esteem. He needs an award.

Trump has long been obsessed with external validation. According to Michael Wolff’s tell-all Fire and Fury, he unironically bragged that Melania Trump was “a trophy wife.” His attunement to poll numbers and television ratings and crowd sizes is legendary. As Jacob Brogan observed in 2016, Trump’s “phony empiricism” sustains a “fantasy that sits at the foundations of his self-image.” His ordinal fetish—consider that he built a campaign around the slogan “America First”—conflates worth with winning, substance with show. Only profoundly insecure people, those who feel their inner lives to be in constant, agonizing retreat, fixate on rankings the way Trump does. The problem here is that the president already possesses an award—the biggest, brightest one—and it has somehow failed to prop him up. If a desk in the Oval Office cannot guarantee Trump inexhaustible plaudits, he needs a different strategy, one that brings his enemies down to his own miserable level.

The ritual of picking losers rather than winners is a characteristically Trumpian one. Episodes of The Apprentice built to the moment in which the worst contestant was identified, humiliated, and sent packing. Trump’s Fake News Awards, then, don’t simply reveal his mania for superlatives. They also reflect a performer’s instinct to gamify his grudges, to express anger in the language of reality television.

Like a victor on Survivor or Top Chef, Trump won the presidency by process of elimination. He was the last man standing in a crowded primary field, so clearly the candidate of last resort that his opponents within the Republican Party branded themselves “Never Trumpers.” The Fake News Awards suggest a fantasy—a subconscious attempt to re-enact, on the political stage, the scene in which the big boss points out the duds and they disappear forever. In office, Trump has already exiled, one by one, those he considers liabilities or threats: James Comey, Reince Priebus, Michael Flynn, Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon. “His most recent dismissals are slick with desperation,” I wrote in August, “as if he could save the gangrenous White House by lopping off the correct limb, as if he himself weren’t the source of the rot.”

But Trump’s most loathed targets in the media won’t vanish like ousted reality TV contestants or shrubbery-encased press secretaries. Rather, they are sure to earn credibility, fame, goodwill, and free meals at the nation’s fine dining establishments. They will also, it must be said, likely be subjected to a buffet of harassment and abuse at the hands of the president’s Twitter defenders. While Trump may not have acquired the constitutional right to fire everyone, he’s proved adept at transforming American political life into a tawdry drama of victims and heels.

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Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.