The show—loosely defined as the circus-like environment Trump thrives in and tries to manufacture with unrepentant, outrageous conduct—was critical to his success in the Republican primary and general election, both winner-take-all contests where the ability to command attention is invaluable. Intentionally or not, his Twitter antics, campaign rallies, and TV interviews were so transgressive, so defiant of categorization, that they tilted the traditional playing field. A standard opposition—rooted in debate over ideas, fitness, likability—could not gain foothold on those terms. The political media, drawn to what’s new and compelling, was ill equipped to convey the stakes of the election, or at least erect guardrails for Trump to operate within.
After defeating Hillary Clinton, the Donald Trump Show moved from the whistle-stops of the campaign to what is supposed to be immersive preparation for the presidency, but spectacle continued to crowd the public interest out to the margin. While President-elect Trump was commingling his business interests and official duties, the Donald Trump Show was broadcasting an alternative, largely fictional storyline about how Trump (through will power and Twitter power) was saving manufacturing jobs across the country. We knew more about his meetings with celebrity admirers than with foreign dignitaries, or about why Ivanka Trump was in those meetings.
Those of us on the outside of the Donald Trump Show’s bizarro world were left to wonder how the business of the country would be conducted if Trump could use Barnumesque tricks to escape scrutiny for his conduct and policies. We worried that Trump and his GOP partners in Congress would, despite their minoritarian electoral victory, be able to advance a wildly regressive agenda, and rob the country blind, while reporters chased Trump’s tweets into dead ends.
Sixty-one days into his presidency, Trump has already done a great deal of self-enriching, epitomized by his routine weekend trips to Trump-operated businesses. “The stars have all aligned,” Trump’s son Eric told the New York Times earlier this month. “I think our brand is the hottest it has ever been.”
Trump may yet sign inhumane legislation like the GOP’s Obamacare alternative, as well. His presidency is paying many of the dividends he and conservatives in Congress sought. The catch—where we were wrong—is that Trump is getting away with murder not because of the Donald Trump Show, but in spite of it.
In the jousting-like confines of a political campaign, Trump’s erratic behavior and other eccentricities were powerful weapons. In the presidency, where he’s surrounded by many opponents, most of whom can’t be vanquished once and for all at the polls, Trump is finding that thrashing about has its limits.
The short-circuited debate over the American Health Care Act–or Trumpcare–exposes those limits most clearly. If Republicans on Capitol Hill are able to send Trump legislation that repeals Obamacare, the precise route it took won’t matter, but it won’t be because the Donald Trump Show was able to draw eyes away from the horrifying details of that bill.
To the contrary, Trump’s cynical health care lies, his near-daily Twitter controversies, his weekly trips to his private club in Florida, his continued political rallies—none of them were able to overwhelm the Congressional Budget Office’s finding that Trumpcare would cause 24 million people to lose insurance, or that the plan would extract its largest toll on the elderly, rural Obamacare beneficiaries who comprise Trump’s base. Health industry stakeholders haven’t been intimidated out of opposition to the bill, nor have consumer groups, like AARP, been fooled by Trump’s propaganda or distracted by his other shenanigans.
Trump may ultimately sign the AHCA, but it will be thanks to the unscrupulous and gangster-like tactics Republican leaders (including Trump) are using to hustle it through Congress amid overwhelming popular opposition.
Trump likewise tried to use his official, presidential Twitter account this week to counter-program a House Intelligence Committee hearing about his campaign’s possible links to Russian meddling in last year’s election. Trump (or his aides in the White House communications shop) tweeted diversionary and deceptively edited video clips of the hearing testimony in the apparent hope that he could steal headlines from FBI Director James Comey, who announced that Trump’s campaign is under criminal investigation and that there was no evidence to support Trump’s explosive allegation (also made on Twitter) that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower.
This effort not only failed, but spectacularly so. His real-time misrepresentations of the committee’s proceedings were fact-checked in the hearing itself, as Comey disputed Trump’s claims for a second time.
Similarly, lashing out at judges has not allowed Trump to bully lawless policy into effect. His disdain for the law has instead become a liability for him in court, where judges now cite his public vows to wield the sword of the state at Muslims as evidence of intent to violate the establishment clause. When the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals preserved a nationwide injunction against Trump’s first Muslim ban, the conservative judge, Jay Bybee, used his dissent to say, in essence, that the Donald Trump Show has no place in the judiciary. “The personal attacks on the distinguished district judge and our colleagues were out of all bounds of civic and persuasive discourse—particularly when they came from the parties,” Bybee wrote.
It does no credit to the arguments of the parties to impugn the motives or the competence of the members of this court; ad hominem attacks are not a substitute for effective advocacy. Such personal attacks treat the court as though it were merely a political forum in which bargaining, compromise, and even intimidation are acceptable principles. The courts of law must be more than that, or we are not governed by law at all.
Even judges who agree with Trump are exasperated with him. Trump isn’t getting away with more because of his unconventional ways; he’s getting away with less. His daily assault on the notion of shared truths is endlessly frustrating for journalists, but it is in a more literal sense frustrating Trump himself. Obama warned him about this. “Regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office, this office has a way of waking you up,” Obama said after Trump’s victory in November. “And those aspects of his positions or predispositions that don’t match up with reality—he will find shaken up pretty quick, because reality has a way of asserting itself.”
Reality has asserted itself, and quickly indeed. The Donald Trump Show will go on, but it can no longer obscure the showrunner’s manifest unfitness for office, and, more and more, people are tuning in to other programming.