Donald Trump isn’t a reality television show president. Or I guess I should say, he isn’t only a reality show president. Reality television is an unforgettable part of his rise, climbing to power through Apprentice boardroom meetings with weathered has-beens like Vince Neil, Gary Busey and Meatloaf, not to mention tacky tchotchkes and branded opportunities such as sure-to-haunt-you Trump dolls and Apprentice Snapple bottles. But Trump expertly mines and preys on much more of America’s media-soaked trash culture. Case in point: Trump’s recent stint as a daytime television show host during his State of the Union on Tuesday night.
Proving himself worthy of being named next to Maury Povich, Montel Williams and Jerry Springer, Trump finally lived up to his self-declared “ratings machine” title by nailing just about every trope from daytime television talk shows, from weepy family reunions to monetary giveaways. I was ready for him to start announcing the results of paternity tests (Hunter Biden, you ARE the father!), force Nancy Pelosi to complete a lie detector test (Live on air!), and send Adam Schiff to Bad Girl Bootcamp.
Now, both privately and publicly on Filthy Dreams, I’ve complained about Trump’s apparent inability to fully fulfill his role as the rat king of American greed, celebrity frenzy and con art. Sure, Trump and his Republican cult members have managed to perfect a monstrous form of conservative camp, beating us godless, sordid, libertine degenerates at our own game. But, with his shtick half-stolen from Vince McMahon, I’ve always been disappointed in the relative bore of Trump’s showmanship. He tweets; he acts like an Adderall-addicted psychopathic toddler. But, where’s the pizzazz? The pyrotechnics? The laser lights? The go-go dancers?
But on Tuesday night, he finally did it, hitting the apex of his ghastly amalgamation of trash and camp by masterfully nailing the role of the sleazy talk show host with a near magical ability to award anyone anything at any moment including the Medal of Freedom. And in doing so, he basically, at least in my stunned and horrified opinion, sealed his reelection (though the Democrat’s embarrassing ongoing Iowa debacle hasn’t helped).
Granted, the State of the Union was unsurprisingly exactly as expected: a fear-mongering, xenophobic, pandering, scheming, ridiculous (i.e. Space Force) web of lies and propaganda. I mean, who is going to buy laughable boasts like, “…we are building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society–one where every citizen can join in America’s unparalleled success, and where every community can take part in America’s extraordinary rise”? (Ok, yeah. His base…). It was nightmarish and a blatant indication that despite his victorious brag, “The State of our Union is stronger than ever before,” the state of our union is most definitely fucked.
However, I couldn’t help but be dazzled, dizzied and just a little impressed by the sheer spectacle of the night. Part of it could have been the cocktail of drugs he was on, slurring his way through critiques of our policy with “Huba” (Cuba) and “skankuary cities.” At one point, the Adderall must have kicked in as he maniacally clenched his teeth, maddeningly gnawing out his words until they sounded like one monotone growl. Perhaps because of this mix of medication, I found his usually unwatchable Teleprompter reading, which mirrors the style of a hostage video, somehow bearable.
With a dip in ratings since the other State of the Unions, many people on both sides of the political aisle avoided the State of the Union, but those that did witnessed a performance of conservative camp, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the tear-stained Kavanaugh hearings. This time, though, rather than sobbing outbursts straight out of a Tennessee Williams production, Trump and the Republicans transformed the House of Representatives and the Capitol Building as a whole into a big daytime talk show set. While I’ve previously whined about missing the heyday of tacky and just the right amount of offensive talk shows, I don’t feel that way anymore.
The first indication that Trump set himself up to be a dually benevolent and belligerent talk show host was his sudden scholarship giveaway to Janiyah Davis, a Philadelphian fourth grader who appeared a little hesitant about being used as a prop by a racist fast food-filled garbage bag. Well, don’t you worry, little Janiyah! Trump explained that she was on the waitlist for an Opportunity Scholarship to go to a better school than those dumpy government schools (Thanks, Betsy!). Detailing Janiyah and her single mother Stephanie’s struggle to get her a good education, Trump gave them a surprise: “I can proudly announce tonight that an Opportunity Scholarship has become available, it is going to you, and you will soon be heading to the school of your choice!” I half-expected him to invite Janiyah to also take her turn in the cash grab box.
In an interview about his book Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, Joshua Gamson discusses talk shows’ ability to exist in between the fake and the real. “Fake-real,” he says, “I think that’s some of the appeal. It’s real, but it’s a show; it’s authentic, but it’s also a performance.” And this is reflective in Trump’s scholarship giveaway. Is it even real? Will Janiyah receive the scholarship? Or will it be like every other Trump promise, whether emails from his campaign promising dinner with one lucky supporter or expectations that he will actually pay his employees, and never materialize? But, in the end, it’s both–it’s not real and not fake. It’s the American Dream as sold by Trump, a thinly veiled con to which our society is still collectively attached. (Update: Apparently, it was stranger than it even appeared. The Washington Post reported on February 7 that Janiyah already attends a sought-after charter school, which she entered in September.)
Later in the same interview, Gamson explores the emotional moments on daytime talk shows as the bread and butter of the genre. He observes, “The authentic–or authentic-seeming–emotional moment is gold for the shows, and they set things up to increase the chances those moments will arise, and often they succeed. You can almost see when a switch is flipped for someone, and suddenly they are in the emotional moment–and of course, the camera zooms in.”
From the close-up heart-wrenching moment to the authentic-seeming emotion, this daytime talk show staple also occurred during the SOTU courtesy of that gargantuan gargoyle of a man, Rush Limbaugh, who has been a scourge on our country for decades. Naturally aligning himself with a fellow bloviating bovine-esque blowhard brother, Trump invited Limbaugh to his address, plopping him right next to our Xanax-riddled First Lady Melania. Introducing Rush during a harangue about healthcare, Trump noted that Rush’s diagnosis was “not good news.” Touching.
But surprise! Trump used this moment to award Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom right in the middle of his speech “in recognition of all that you have done for our Nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity,” asking Melania to wake-up from her downer-induced stupor to tie the medal around Rush’s neck. Just like Gamson’s description, the camera zoomed in to catch the emotionally overcome, sobbing Limbaugh who looked as if he just saw himself on The Swan. After this, I didn’t think it could get any better until Trump’s final reveal: a surprise visit for a military family from their dad who is on his fourth deployment in the Middle East.
It wasn’t just Trump who played his part perfectly. The Republicans too nailed their roles as the cheering and jeering audience as if they were on Springer. The endless hooting and hollering from the Republicans throughout Trump’s speech, often after each sentence, was so over-the-top that it wasn’t even believable. They reminded me of the ladies whoo-ing their way through my favorite 1980s exercise video Women At Large (And PONY!), and it wasn’t just the Republicans’ booze bloat. Quiet down, Mary!
And this, like Trump’s speech, was pure camp. In Philip Core’s camp analysis, he begins with a litany of camp tenets including: “Camp is a form of historicism viewed histrionically,” “Camp is essential to military discipline,” “Camp is behaving illegally with impunity,” and of course, the best “Camp is a lie which tells the truth,” all of which seem to illustrate the current position of the Trump-era Republican Party. While some are more relevant than others in regards to contemporary Republicans, Core’s description of “the lie which tells the truth” certainly points to the exaggerated Trump fanaticism, which barely shields their hypocrisy, and hidden monetary and power-driven motivations.
Of course, daytime talk shows exist in the intersection of disposable, demeaned and disrespected American trash culture and my beloved camp, both of which have combined, in Trump’s hands, as an unstoppable political force appealing to the heart of the fallacy of the America Dream. As Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner state in their introduction to Vulture Culture: The Politics and Pedagogy of Daytime Television Talk Shows, “Critical writers, like bell hooks, have described the contemporary United States as a ‘hedonistic consumer culture’ that is inscribed by an escalating politics of greed. Within the terrain of media culture, hedonism, greed and social pathology are evident everyday on mainstream television.” Trump, of course, represents all these aspects of mainstream television. But rather than detracting from his popularity, it only serves to augment it, as seen during the State of the Union. I mean, America loves daytime talk shows just like America loves scammers with empty promises of material gain. It’s as American as apple pie or Trump steaks. Vote Trump, and he might just give you a car or a spin on the Wheel of Fortune!
This would be fine if the Left didn’t continually reject these kinds of base American cultural interests. As Julie Manga notes in Talking Trash: The Cultural Politics of Daytime TV Talk Shows, often so-called “lower class” displays that have a heavy dose of the carnivalesque, like daytime talk shows, are subjects of dismissal. She writes, “the dominant (bourgeois) class of the time responded to the form or practice with repugnance, disgust or moral outrage, devaluing it, often regarding it as ‘dangerous’ and making efforts to either contain or eliminate it form the mainstream of society.”
Likewise, Democrats have for years appeared unable to fully comprehend the attraction to the camp spectacle Trump has constructed, satisfied with simply refusing to engage. And this was visible on the grumpy faces of the Democrats on Tuesday night. Looking cranky is all well and good, but it’s also powerless to combat Trump and his sideshow. The former “When they go low, we go high” line from Michelle Obama sounds lovely, but it’s been proven time and time again that it doesn’t work, especially in a democracy that is nearing a failed state. And yet the majority of Democrats still adhere to it, acting as if our government isn’t a circus. Toss your hat in the ring! You’re in this trash talk show too, Dems. Yell back. Pretend it’s Springer and insult his hair. Fight camp with better camp.
Only one Democrat adequately understands this. Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Her expert trolling of the President and unmatched ability to get under his skin has certainly elevated her in my eyes as one of–if not, the most important–figures in the Democratic Party. Yes, I’m with HER. Nancy isn’t afraid to introduce some overly dramatic, excessive camp gestures into her responses to the President. Even before her star turn during the end of the speech, she upstaged Trump’s performance by chewing up the scenery behind him, flipping through the transcript with disdain, rolling her eyes and muttering under her breath. I just wish there was an alternate feed where I could have heard what she was saying. At some point, she seemed to enter into a catatonic state with her soul leaving her body. And who could blame her?
Of course, this paled in comparison to Nancy’s iconic moment in which she ripped the transcript of Trump’s speech in half (And no, it was not, as Republicans have suggested, the Constitution, though at this point, considering our government is in tatters, she may as well have.). When asked about it later, she said, “It was the courteous thing to do, considering the alternative.” And what was that Nancy? Smacking him with it?
Some have criticized Nancy for ripping up the speech, and it’s not just bad faith Republican handwringing over civility (as if civility is a thing anymore). Some on the Left have whined about her rip heard round the world as an empty, performative gesture. Sure, maybe it doesn’t matter in the long run (What does?). And sure, Trump was still acquitted on Wednesday in the Senate. But in my eyes, it was a worthy rebuttal of Trump’s trash television stunt. Nancy responded to this daytime talk show demonstration in kind, with camp. And in doing so, she also managed to dominate the news cycle for at least part of the day yesterday with her fantastically shady act. As Philip Core writes, camp “is the heroism of people not called upon to be heroes.”