The Made-for-TV President

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S1: The following recording may contain explicit language I can’t get more explicit than May.

S2: SAY IT MAY It’s Tuesday September 10th 2019. From slate it’s the gist I’m Mike Pesca.

S3: John Bolton never seemed to be a great match with the sensibilities of our President Donald Trump except for two factors. One Bolton angered liberals and two he was on FOX a lot. What am I saying. That’s the only qualification for a high profile job in this administration.

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S4: Alas that job has come to an end and the successor to H.R. McMaster who is the successor to Michael Flynn is now available for comment on the Judge Jeanine show once more. There are a few things about Bolton that clearly irked Trump. One Bolton is actually quite smart too. He knew how to expertly navigate a bureaucracy. 3 He really is pro-war not just into belligerent talk as Trump is not just into the fiery furious verbiage of war. Bolton really does want to bomb the shit out of them and not just rhetorically. Four months ago The New Yorker and a profile of Bolton quoted a Western diplomat as saying the trouble for Bolton is Trump does not want war. He does not want to launch military operations to get the job. Bolton had to cut his balls off and put them on Trump’s desk. I’ve seen Trump’s desk didn’t notice any balls for the fourth most irksome thing about Bolton in the eyes of Trump is that Bolton obviously wasn’t obsequious and didn’t kowtow to every single Trump utterance.

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S1: New York Magazine’s Olivia Ngozi quoted Trump as saying I argue with everyone except Pompeo and then he added he’s also never quarreled with Mike Pence. Guess what. The safest jobs of everyone not named Trump or Kushner are the jobs currently occupied by the vice president and the secretary of state. The fifth irksome thing about Bolton in the eyes of Trump was clearly the mustache the sloppiness of the mustache. I am not kidding. Trump really wants his top brass to look the part here he was.

S5: Hours after his inauguration but we have so many of our Cabinet members here. I see my generals those generals are going to keep us so safe.

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S6: They’re going to have a lot of problems here. They say they’re going to look at.

S5: They’re going to look at a couple of them. These are central casting of I’m doing the movie. I pick you generals.

S1: Well Bolton unlike Flynn and McMaster were not generals and he was certainly not from central casting except maybe if you’re casting a cranky rancher in a western here.

S7: Yes.

S4: Rebar Gabby Hayes there Gabby Hayes by the way is credited and having appeared in 188 different movies and what Wikipedia calls a partial filmography. Bolton really just ever played one role relentless hawk and that role wore out its welcome on the show today I spiel about a solution that assesses the problem of mentally unstable people wielding slightly modified weapons of war a solution that just might be crazy enough to be totally crazy. And I’d also like to mention that we have a live comedy show coming up in six days Monday at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Three comics will be there. Hari Kondabolu Marina Franklin co-lead Rahman. Only one will leave. Actually we let them all leave. But what we do is we aggressively question them about their comic choices and their comic phrasing. It’ll be like they are defending their doctoral theses. It will be exquisitely insightful and quite uncomfortable if everything goes right.

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S1: And should I mention this I will mention this a special guest will be there. A relative of mine he will show up as well. It will be special a special time. Join the fun at Slate dot com slash live. For tickets now. James Poniewozik is the New York Times television critic and writer and as such he’s been charting the progress of a very big television character who’s only gotten bigger bigger than Nathan Fillion bigger than Steve Harvey gets bigger than Harvey it’s Trump it’s Donald J Trump.

S8: Audience of one Donald Trump television and the Fracturing of America it’s all around us. And also here on the just next.

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S9: So when James Poniewozik was on RELIABLE SOURCES Brian Stelter praised the New York Times critic and said I’ve liked his work since Time magazine. I’m going to go beyond that have been a huge fan of James Pounder was ok since he wrote for Salon. And you know you know the cost that it takes for me to praise salon. He’s out with a new book. His first book and he waited for just the right subject to audience of one Donald Trump television and the Fracturing of America. Hello James welcome.

S10: Hey my thank you. Glad glad to know you’ve been a fan since I was playing small indeed.

S9: Yeah. So this guy this Trump guy you interviewed him once. What was that like.

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S11: No I did not at the time think that you know I was interviewing a future president obviously. This was just for the Apprentice came out swinging at Time magazine he’s doing a lot of press and you know he his manner at that point was like a celebrity who want to impress people wanted people to like him. But there was that sort of element of you know it was kind of tough to keep him on a topic he wants to make an impression on you. He has in his office this stack of off prints and I think it was like a Crain’s New York business circle about the Trump Organization. He puts what he has you see you see James I’m by far the largest developer in New York. You know I don’t have to be doing this. You know I think there was like meant to be the takeaway of the interview you know I do not need to be doing just so you know.

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S9: And also he was literally misquoting the crane’s article that he had put in your hand. Yeah well he’s not the largest developer he’s like maybe the largest priest says he’s the largest private developer.

S10: Yeah it was it was very it was a very Trump claim.

S9: The thing about that you had by this point probably done a hundred similar or not it wasn’t a press junket but interviews you go to someone’s apart. Yeah. You interview them you go to someone’s house. And he didn’t seem so different from many of the other reality show wannabe charlatans people who are famous for being famous or famous for the fact that they very much want to be famous right. Yeah.

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S10: No I mean he was he was sort of a glad hander you know I remember kind of you know it was difficult to keep him on a topic that’s that’s not so unusual. I you know I’d love to say that there is some kernel where I saw the future but you know it was yeah. He was he was a celebrity glad hander you know pushing his show.

S9: But my point in raising how mundane he was even you know as marked against the world of the people that he was trying to be a part of is that I think we make the mistake and you don’t. But I think we make the mistake of thinking about Trump as singular or only Trump could have done it. And I see that there are thousands of people with his particular predilections and afflictions and quest for fame. But there were one or two lucky things about Trump that actually made him president. It wasn’t the narcissism it wasn’t the fact that he really understands TV. It was all that plus the fact that he married it to this political point of view that the vast majority of other people in that position wouldn’t have been drawn to it.

S10: It’s the sort of thing that like a lot of history you look at in retrospect it seems that way. Oh course it’s obvious that it happened this way how could it not have.

S11: But I think there was a sense of you know one thing falling into place as another you know in his media career that I talk about you know things sort of built on the previous thing. You you become a new York tabloid star and that makes you a TV presence and that gets you the big celeb book deal and that makes you you know this ubiquitous figure you know appearing with Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2 and then eventually you know when Mark Burnett is that the Survivor finale and sees your name on the Central Park skating rink he thinks oh that guy who used to be Donald Trump would be perfect for it. You know it’s a lot of things sort of fell in place. So he had this intuition you know that or this instinct early on that the celebrity was the path to success in a media culture and that it’s more important to like seem like a thing than to actually be the thing. And you know but you know I think it it’s true to say that you know it’s not as if he’s the only famous person who has intuited that a lot of things fell the right way and then you know when you talk about his political career it’s also a matter of you know he wanted to do it which is sort of a rare thing for a celebrity. You know people talk about you know how Oprah Winfrey could be a version of Donald Trump. Yeah. Oprah Winfrey has got other things she was doing you know and he wanted to do it.

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S12: I think plausibly not to become president but for a somewhat logical reasons of brand extension and an Oprah Winfrey or other people who have all those traits understanding celebrity and being the symbol of the thing more than the thing most of those other people wouldn’t be in the position to say Aha. And a presidential run advance is logically does advance this ambition.

S10: I don’t know that I haven’t analyzed down to the point of you know whether his thought process was oh I’m just going to do this and you know The Apprentice is ratings will go up but you know I’ve I’ve I’ve I’ve heard you know that sort of theory. But I do think it is you know sir his business was always his brand. Yes. And you know being a human brand it’s like you know you’re a shark. You always have to be advancing or you die. You know the brand has to be doing something new. You know certainly whether it was to you know advance himself just as a political figure or a potential you know cable news network owner or whatnot it was the next thing that would get that camera eye on him. And it just it succeeded beyond anybody’s imagining.

S9: So what about television you talk about Neil Postman and trout and all the context of no context all the great texts of media criticism but what about the way that TV began to be shaped at the time that he was running for president. What about that confluence enabled him to rise.

S10: Well you know one funny thing you talk about like postman and trowel and one thing I was struck by you know sort of doing the reading for this book and going back to them is that a lot of these you know sort of classic media theories they were writing like right around the time that Donald Trump was starting to emerge as an early 80s you know early 80s you know. And this is sort of the era when postman was very prescient. You know you could say prediction a lot of things about our current time you know one thing that he didn’t write about because it didn’t really exist at the time was cable television. He was talking about television as a monolith which it used to be ABC NBC CBS massive audiences. It wasn’t a medium that fragmented people or split them into bubbles it was a media that sort of enforced a monoculture on America.

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S9: And you know part of my broadcasting and the idea is that I’m not a fan that’s actually very important in broadcasting a broad likeability to most people mostly defined as not being unlikable.

S10: Yeah what they say is that you know the least objectionable program you don’t put on something that doesn’t give people a reason to change the channel. And you know one of my guiding lights as a TV critic is that you know very often the the business determines the content. So when I sort of set out in this book to say you know a How did Trump evolve as a media figure and b kind of how did we get where we are well you know for me if television is a big piece of that where did television you know come from and go to and part of that is that from that sort of precise moment when he’s launching himself going on the Today show talking to Rona Barrett you know around 1980. Is right then it’s like the apex of broadcasting you know giant giant monolithic television network in front of their eyes the earth and then Fox come you know maybe in the late 80s and then it’s for for a while.

S9: Right yeah.

S10: And the sort of breaking apart of that monolith into you know a zillion cable channels the Internet you know this whole this whole story that we know cultural bubbles that ends up facilitating a lot of the things through which Donald Trump becomes a you know a political figure and president you wouldn’t really have reality TV as you know the mass phenomenon it was if you were still airing the you know television of you know the 50s and 60s you know you wouldn’t have the rise of charismatic TV antiheroes on HBO who’s sort of you know they really kind of introduced this idea into the culture of rooting for the bad guy. He may not be nice but he gets the job done right. All these sort of things developed out of that fragmentation of the media which is part of the story that I’m telling and they converged basically in the form of this man made out of television.

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S9: OK. Couple of things one don’t. The compelling TV antiheroes have a lot more depth and a code in fact to them. I mean I think a lot more I think Omar Tony Soprano and Walter White have much more ethical direction than Donald Trump does it much more substance there actually. You know if we take them as real people they’re more meaningful and interesting and the second thing is the antihero was popular in movies Easy Rider Raging Bull board are you saying. Because it wasn’t ubiquitous in the home it wasn’t as important.

S10: Yeah I think that you know that this is part of my bias as a television critic but I think that if movies popularize ideas or archetypes in the culture television really popularize them and once that gets established in television it metastasizes so that you know there are elements of that concept in more sort of pulpy network entertainments like 24 and you know it becomes a theme of you know again reality TV you know what is Simon Cowell Simon Cowell is you know the guy you may not like him but he tells it like it is it’s all right. So a that creates this you know sort of broader template for this kind of abrasive figure unapologetic figure and then that is multiplied or you know it’s further enabled by other things that come out of the fragmentation in the media. For instance the development of a conservative media empire the existence of Fox News totally import I want to get to that in a second but it just hit me.

S12: The other thing about the antihero and the antihero being compelling obviously the shows I mentioned great writing many elements that make the draw the viewer in but I’ll get lecherous at Walter White Omar and Tony Soprano they resonate because they’re operating against a system that is corrupt that they think is corrupt and that the viewer actually agrees with it. The drug trade in Baltimore is a shambles so for Omar to take advantage of it that’s fine. Tony Soprano what he’s talking about you know family Walter White talking about the drug trade. So the reason that maybe Trump works as an antihero if you were that character during the good times of the Clinton years it doesn’t resonate as much as it does at a time when a lot of people are looking at the American political system as really corrupt and needing an antihero to bring it down you know kind of comes after Lehman Brothers after Enron.

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S10: I think also another significant thing which I get into someone in the book is that you see I mean the timeline cultural timelines are always a little fuzzy. The Sopranos started in 1999 but this metastasized nation of the anti-hero in popular culture really also takes off after 9/11. You know where you have this notion where you suddenly have people like Dick Cheney saying you know if we want to fight these people who want to kill you and kill your children you know we have to deal with some unsavory elements who have to you have to deal with the dark side you know you can’t just you can’t be a nice guy.

S12: And the person the voter the viewer who sees themselves as the sophisticate excuses that behavior and I think that’s a characteristic of both reality television viewers and World Wrestling Federation enterprise viewers that the viewers are always telling themselves. Well I’m much more sophisticated and savvy than the average viewer. And that’s exactly what’s going on with political voters or especially those who vote for Trump. You’re so naive. Most people are more naive than I am just like most wrestling fans are buying it. I’m smart enough not to buy it but I still believe in. But that’s why I believe in Donald Trump.

S10: Yeah I mean absolutely one thing. Honestly as you know somebody who loves television and I’m a big fan of a lot of reality shows I still watch Survivor. You know I watch a ton of reality. I’ve always been annoyed by the idea that people say oh you know reality TV it’s just this genre for dumb people and they totally buy into reality TV viewers. Nobody believes the idea that reality TV isn’t entirely real then reality TV viewers. It’s part of the appeal of watching you’re looking for the sleight of hand in the editing you’re looking for you know are the people appearing on camera being you know fake or acting out you know what’s what are their motives et cetera et cetera. So you know yeah I think that that creates sort of this culture of Savini. Yes. A faux Savini it’s a little bit and you know I’m a journalist like I am a fan of skepticism I think it’s a good idea for people to have a healthy skepticism toward institutions and so on. What you can do if you have a particular motive is you can push that into cynicism and you can see and there there’s been great writing about like you know how this is operating in Putin’s Russia right. You know where there’s all sorts of this sort of marriage of politics and reality to entertainment where you use it you can use it to like go past that sort of healthy skepticism and say you know everything’s phony. Everybody’s got an angle. You know I suppose just be smart. You’re more clever don’t listen to all the noise just you know stick with your team if you know our guy tells a few lies it’s what everybody does. It’s the game and you’re smart and you know it’s the game.

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S9: Do you think the media gatekeepers meaning mostly the television gatekeepers could have done something differently. It could have been better at their jobs or more strategic in how they handled him to have prevented the rise of Trump.

S10: I mean I would say first you know it’s not the job of a TV network to prevent the rise of anybody.

S12: Well I would argue it maybe it’s a three step process like we enforce accountability we have efficient ways of making sure our viewers understand that lies are being said. Yeah. And we consistently either fact check or hold to account the people who are making these lies. So it’s not you’re right. Yeah but how could they have. How could they have done their job. I mean you know I would say and have gotten into this argument with Folkenflik and other friends of mine. You know he says Zuckerberg shouldn’t have put him on as much as he did. And there are academics who say that not in the general but certainly during the primary. The amount of coverage he got for every speech absolutely gave rise to him. And I counted I can’t disprove that except that I watched all those speeches and I said This guy’s an incredible liar. And I also thought it was newsworthy. The New York Times did so many articles on him probably many more articles and they did on Ted Cruz. But the takeaway for most of those articles is this guy’s a dangerous liar. I don’t fault them for running the articles.

S10: Well you know but that’s where I think there is an argument against you know say running so many of the rallies unfiltered simply devoting all this attention to him because he’s the most outlandish because it’s crazy because who knows what he’ll say next. It’s an effect beyond the simple rational idea of is he telling the truth or not. Is this you know is this claim plausible or not. It’s creating this gestalt where he is the protagonist of the election that has an effect even if the bulk of the coverage is negative even if a lot of that is debunking. If there is not you know a sort of a news judgment and you know are we putting this on because people will learn something on or are we just putting it on because it incites people to put it in the showbiz terms that you know. I think Donald Trump might relate more to it’s just a question of you. Do you believe that there is any such thing as bad publicity. Yeah. And I don’t think there was a frame for him in 2016.

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S8: Audience of one Donald Trump television and the Fracturing of America is the new book by James Poniewozik. It goes there. Thank you James. Thanks a lot.

S1: And now the spiel. The problem mass shootings. The solution. Exploring whether technology including phones and smart watches can be used to detect when mentally ill people are about to turn violent. Yes that is part of a proposed bureau named Harper as proposed by former NBC executive Bob Wright and is being pursued by a Vodka Trump. Harper is the health Advanced Research Projects Agency that is not to be confused with Oprah’s production company Harpo which is Oprah spelled backwards. This plan in getting in between a disturbed person and a gun by focusing on the disturbed person’s moment of agitation that’s merely thinking conducted backwards. So we have an unwell person he or she but overwhelmingly he has an arsenal available when to intercede in this process. I know the moment he snaps and wants to access his arsenal which constitutionally he must be allowed to access because when the thoughts in his head change well I can save no constitutional amendment that addresses that. The genius plan as I said was proposed by Bob Wright the 76 year old former chairman of NBC chairman when the apprentice was riding high in the ratings 0 8 0 8 the harbor alarm is going off. Wah. Someone is thinking of something crazy. Let’s see who this unhinged person is it’s Bob right. Yes it’s former NBC Chairman Bob Wright. The Washington Post reports quote After the recent shootings in El Paso in Dayton Ohio a van could trump as those advocating for a new agency whether it could produce new approaches to stop mass shootings. Advisers to Wright quickly pulled together a three page proposal called Safe Home Safe Home stands for stopping a baronet fatal events by helping overcome mental extremes. BOB WRIGHT By the way was recently awarded the acronym trophy which of course stands for award for the creation of ridiculously objectionable names. Uta man safe homes for mass shootings outside the home. Great. Now Harper it should be noted has also been endorsed by Joe Biden. The idea of Harper I guess if you’re a 76 year old multi-millionaire and you did greenlight the talks since you’re gonna have the ear of the 76 year old Challenger and the 73 year old president this seems like a great doable idea with just absolutely no downside. One last note. The headline of the Washington Post piece that reported on Harper and safe home was this White House weighs controversial plan on mental illness and mass shootings. No it is not controversial. It is asinine It is risible. It is unrealistic. It is batshit cuckoo bananas.

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S4: Controversial means a lot of people have considered it and opinions are fairly split or the reaction is something like huh that’s objectionable or even huh. I like that those some people don’t. The objection cannot start with gales of laughter. That is not something that can be described as controversial rule of thumb. If ninety five percent of the people who hear your idea laugh and if ninety nine point nine percent of the non septuagenarian non a Vung guys laugh we can not call that idea controversial. It’s more like oh what’s the word I used a couple the Washington Post probably wouldn’t resort to in a headline. But how about this one. It’s stupid white house ways stupid plan for mental illness and mass shootings.

S13: And that’s it for today’s show. Daniel Schrader and Daniel Schrader alone produces the gist his favorite Gabby Hayes character was either hash knife Brooks in writers of the desert or Shanghai McHenry and call it the prairie. Now if you’d like to hear your name in the credits right alongside Daniels if that’s a lifelong dream if that’s hashtag a squad goal we are in need of an assistant producer to work to make this crazy dream a reality every day. It is a fun job. Everyone who’s ever had it likes it. We get a producers roundtable as part of our fifth anniversary special. All the producers had fun stories to tell. So be part of the longest running daily news analysis podcast this one or recommend brilliant audio producer you may know go to Slate dot com slash jobs.

S1: The gist we enjoyed Gabby is Jon coffin a.k.a. Peg Leg Sanderson injustice of the range and also as Chuck Wiggins in breach of the border.

S14: Or maybe that was Buck begins in Chuck wagons order. We did make one of those up for dapper du Peru and thanks for listening.

S1: Hey you’re darn tootin. Yes sure we pop.