Vintage sitcom producer Paul Henning’s name probably means nothing to you, but once upon a time, he was almost as big a deal as Mark Burnett. As you presumably do know, Burnett is the TV producer who went from creating Survivor to turning Donald J. Trump into a reality-TV star—and presidential timber, not that anyone would have guessed it at the time. Odds are that Hillary Clinton never even watched The Apprentice, but she probably wasn’t into Henning’s The Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres back in the 1960s either.
As 2017 finally starts to go tuck itself into everybody’s rear-view mirror, old-time Henning fans can hear his ghost chortling all the way to that big bunco game in the sky. Half a century ago, even then juvenile boomers who loved his CBS farces took it for granted they were moronic. But Henning’s most durable sitcoms innovatively played off the friction between two mutually uncomprehending, annoyed Americas with nothing in common except proximity. Nowadays, they look like documentaries, and pretty darned staid ones at that.
Despised by critics but catnip to the big audience, The Beverly Hillbillies invented a clan of backwoods bumpkins who struck it rich and horrifed upscale Beverly Hills by moving into their own swank mansion there. Green Acres, which was by far the nuttier of the two, inverted the formula by stranding a pair of posh Manhattanites in a hamlet packed with oddball rubes. The first is how at least half the country sees the Trump family’s hostile takeover of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; the second is how Donald and Melania see themselves.
At one level, Trump’s surreal (or surreality-TV) presidency is Burnett’s ultimate gift to posterity. But it’s also the greatest, most ruthlessly satiric culture-clash sitcom Henning’s ghost ever created. That’s partly because the key to his formula was that the ridicule always cut both ways. Henning’s yokels were the butt of the joke whenever their ignorance was on display, but their cosmopolitan counterparts were portrayed just as often as fatuous weenies, easily bamboozled by the “real” America’s ornery and stubborn allergy to their hifalutin’ ways.
Up to now, incarnating a popular fantasy lurking in America’s id has been a job for performers, not presidents. Times have changed.
This is more or less how Trump’s core supporters view their relationship to the libtard, multicultural elites who scorn them for being deplorables, so it’s no wonder their hero’s crassness doesn’t look unseemly to them. From his pissing-match tweetstorms to his showy contempt for presidential decorum on his trips abroad, it looks like revenge.
Blue-state sophisticates are still confounded that Trump’s personality, which leaves civilized people like themselves aghast, is the main attraction. They’ll never understand the aspirational nature of his ugly appeal. Back when country music still expressed recognizably regional, hardscrabble values and wasn’t just white America’s shlocky answer to hip-hop, its fans were never put off by the seeming contradiction that the genre’s biggest stars ostentatiously wore fancy costumes, drove ultra-swank cars, inhabited extravagant mansions and led famously disorderly personal lives. Vicariously, they could identify: “That’s just how I’d live if I were rich and famous.” To Trump’s true believers, his preening and bullying amount to the geopolitical version of the same fantasy: “That’s exactly how I’d behave if I were president of the United States.”
Up to now, incarnating a popular fantasy lurking in America’s id has been a job for performers, not presidents. Times have changed, though. By any conventional standard, Trump is a terrible politician, especially when it comes to negotiating deals, the skill he used to vaunt as his specialty. But that doesn’t matter, because his base’s loyalty is to the obscene thrill of Trump as white-nationalist America’s gouty, orange-maned, 71-year-old answer to Jim Morrison. No wonder he’s spent his time in the White House pandering exclusively to MAGA-land’s resentments and bully-pulpit delusions of grandeur without even pretending he’s got an obligation to consider the needs of America’s de facto majority. Trying to broaden his constituency would be as pointless as the Eagles of Death Metal trying to win over Kelly Clarkson’s market share.
By now, the idea that Trump will eventually “pivot” to a more presidential mindset is deader than Matt Lauer’s career. Even so, the staffers who still daydream of at least housebreaking his Twitter feed don’t realize something their boss has known all along. Taming his brand would alienate his core audience.
His misbehavior and affronts to decency are what keep everyone riveted, and being the constant center of attention isn’t only an existential need for him. To his fans, it’s gratifying proof that he’s doing the job they elected him to do: starting ruckuses, attacking uppity minorities and foreigners, sticking it to the snobs. It says a lot about our current situation that defending democratic norms now counts as snobbery.
No matter how bewildering his magnetism is to people who think he’s a mean-spirited, megalomaniacal oaf, recognizing that Trump has never stopped behaving like a charismatic pop star deploying the ultimate in flashy stage gimmicks—the Oval Office—goes a long way toward explaining the nature of his flock’s devotion. They’re as unconcerned by Russiagate or the Constitution’s emoluments clause as Michael Jackson’s fans were by his battiness and scandals, because pop idols aren’t subject to the same rules as other public figures. Especially when they’re as polarizingly provocative as Trump, their job isn’t to respect boundaries or formulate thoughtful solutions to problems. It’s to voice unruly feelings, act out forbidden attitudes and validate hysterias that turn their audience’s individual and private emotions into public and communal ones.
So long as he delivers those goods, MAGA-land’s fealty is guaranteed. It is, of course, only inflamed by the haters’ opprobrium, which may sound pretty chic in Manhattan’s or Los Angeles’s Oz but simply proves he’s doing something right if you happen to be a Kansas lifer. His fans will only desert him if he begins to bore them, which doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon. After all, even though they’re played the same material for decades, people still turn out in droves to see the Rolling Stones, who are, funnily enough, Trump’s contemporaries.
Right-wingers aren’t even the only ones who’ve gotten hooked on his act, although Rachel Maddow’s fans (not to mention Maddow) don’t much like owning up to it. Here in libtard-land, we might as well face it: We’re addicted to Trump.
If he treats the presidency as a gigantic charade, it’s because that’s his natural element. Trump has really never known any other world.
He doesn’t just monopolize the political lobe of our brains. He keeps chewing into the privileged areas we usually reserve for conversations about everything else that interests us, from sports to celebrity gossip to the latest artsy humdinger on Netflix. Whether we’re yakking frantically about POTUS’s latest rhetorical atrocity or the latest twist in Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, the rush is undeniable. Maybe we’re yearning for him to be evicted from office—and the sooner the better, too —but whatever comes after him is bound to seem tepid.
That’s why Playboy is naming Trump our Entertainer of The Year. What choice do we have, really? Compared to him, Taylor Swift is an amateur at spite, and Kanye, her nemesis, is a man afflicted by paralyzingly low self-esteem. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and poor old dithering Charlie Rose put together can’t outdo Trump in monstrosity. The entire Marvelverse is no match for him when it comes to turning apocalyptic scenarios routine.
If there’s a single constant structuring his otherwise incoherent world-view, it’s his belief that everybody’s in showbiz. And that means everybody, from James Comey and Colin Kaepernick on down to Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan. The idea that anyone who’s got a quarrel with his intolerant agenda might be motivated by genuine principle—or, in the Khans’ case, genuine indignation and grief—is a kind of gibberish Trump’s brain is unable to process.
Instead, he assumes it’s mere posturing, no less phony than his own. Remember, Trump once acknowledged that “Build the Wall” became his main campaign pledge simply because it was the line he could always count on to make the crowds at his rallies go nuts whenever he sensed their attention was flagging. Even now, his splenetic and rambling monologues at the campaign-style events he still dotes on make a lot more sense if you understand that they’re only policy pronouncements by accident. At heart, they’re a basically humorless man’s idea of a brilliant stand-up comedy routine.
To Trump, his critics and political opponents are simply rival celebs—or worse, wannabe celebs—vying for the spotlight. Even more blatantly, whether he’s alienating Theresa May or more dangerously mocking “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un, he views his dealings with foreign leaders simply as celebrity feuds in which he’s got to come out on top. The lone exception is Vladimir Putin, whom Trump apparently sees as the wizardly and stylish Frank Sinatra to his bloated Elvis.
If he treats the presidency as a gigantic, blustering charade, it’s because that’s his natural element. He’s really never known any other world and educating himself about the world the rest of us live in is anathema to his temperament. Whether we like it or not, we’ve got to take our noisome Entertainer-in-Chief seriously, thanks to niggling things like access to nuclear weapons, inciting violence against Muslims and the Constitution heading straight to the shredder. But his profiteering, nihilistic family and their White House satraps do a lot to keep us helplessly perceiving the whole thing as an astounding sick joke.
From eerily oily Jared and eerily robotic Ivanka to Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the spectacle of this pack of seedy hobgoblins roving the nation’s most hallowed address without any understanding of or use for the traditions it represents is a sensational work of art. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect supporting cast in the sitcom to end all sitcoms. Because he’s got a knack for crudity, Trump can often masquerade as a man with the common touch, but the kids? Not so much. They’re more like alien life forms who’ve never learned how to mimic a single recognizably human emotion, patriotism included. Did heartland bigots really think of the Obamas as exotically un-American? Compared to the Trumps, they’re a Norman Rockwell painting.
Starting with Trump himself, we’ve never seen anything like them, and with any luck, we never will again. But they’re never boring, and that’s why we can’t wean ourselves off gaping at the whole, star-spangled demolition derby as if we’re purely spectators versus the citizens we actually are. Once Trump leaves office, prematurely or otherwise, those of us who’ve grown accustomed to reveling in our loathing of him could end up echoing one Watergate-era Democrat’s wonderfully mordant remark after the similarly despised Richard Nixon finally resigned: “Now I know how all those kids felt when the Beatles broke up.”