Washington's political reality show is becoming more like Dynasty and less like The West Wing. Both were popular American television shows in the age before digital technology and Donald Trump became dominant forces.
But in the struggle to explain the unconventional nature of current American presidential politics, journalists domestic and foreign are reaching for metaphors from popular culture, past and present. A major American newspaper has a columnist detailed to write about The Trump Show just as one would an entertainment product. Week by week, she considers the story line, especially in periods of high drama, assesses why an episode has run long, comments on the overall plot and main protagonist (Donald Trump), the show's supporting characters, its structure and narrative sophistication. Comparisons are made with House of Cards and Scandal in terms of dramatic twists and cliffhangers.
Another well-regarded, right-leaning columnist for another major US newspaper sees parallels between America's politics and the fascination with Game of Thrones. Both allow a momentary escape from the flat dreariness of liberalism, he suggests, because most people like the glamour of monarchy.
The sense of the White House metamorphosing into a television set was recently captured by Barack Obama’s former communications director Jennifer Palmieri. She said that the James S Brady Press Briefing Room is no longer what its name suggests but “a television set, with a ‘White House’ plaque behind Scaramucci as an attractive prop”.
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The reference to Anthony Scaramucci, who was hired last week by Mr Trump as communications chief, is apt. Mr Scaramucci is not a communications professional but a wealthy, scrappy financier with gelled hair, sharp suits and theatrical turns of phrase. His induction heightens the prime time qualities being projected by the Trump administration. America’s first family – the patriarch, his favourite daughter and her husband, his older sons and preternaturally composed third wife – might be seen as Brechtian actors for the audience is always aware it is watching a performance.
In fact, American politics is anything but entertaining right now. It is dead serious. Serious questions face the country, including healthcare, crumbling infrastructure, job-skilling to anticipate the transformative forces of automation, a ballooning deficit, social disharmony, and the rise of China and other second-tier countries on the world stage.
These are urgent issues and they allow for no rehearsals, improvisation or hamming. The stakes are too high and success won't be measured in terms of ratings but in America's global influence and domestic felicity. Even before The Trump Show properly began, some of America's most astute thinkers were pondering their country's direction of travel and what it might portend. Six months into the Trump presidency, they are predicting a histrionic change in the world order. Well-known historian Alfred McCoy's forthcoming book Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power sets out the main players who will tread the boards in the next couple of decades. China, says Prof McCoy, is set to surpass US influence militarily and economically by 2030. For the majority of Americans, he writes, the 2020s will likely be remembered as a demoralising decade of rising prices, stagnant wages and fading international competitiveness. After years of swelling deficits fed by incessant warfare in distant lands, in 2030 the US dollar eventually loses its special status as the world's dominant reserve currency…Faced with a fading superpower incapable of paying its bills, China, India, Iran, Russia, and other powers provocatively challenge US dominion over the oceans, space, and cyberspace.
As for The Trump Show, Prof McCoy sees it as a byproduct of the erosion of US global dominance, but not its root cause. That said, he believes Mr Trump may accelerate the decline of the US empire, more decisively, more systematically, and yes, more spectacularly, than otherwise.
It’s worth noting that academic predictions are a kind of theatre too. It works with cues and needs curtain-calls. There is always a death role – someone has to die – and dramatic tension must be sustained through to the end.
But perhaps this is not really melodrama and more of a reality show? By some estimates, the so-called American century has already run longer than 100 years. Its starting point might properly be considered 1898, when the US assumed control of Spanish territories – Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines. It grew in consequence and influence throughout the industrialised 20th century and the Cold War. It is faltering in a 21st century made uncertain by cyberwar, emerging superpowers and now, a fateful predilection for a soap opera that mixes politics and the business of statecraft with issues of blood, birth and breeding.
Dynasty, the 1980s' TV show, is in the process of being rebooted into a new series later this year. We'll have to see how fiction stands up against fact.