Tis the season of swearing in.
President Trump is facing impeachment, but the nation, in all its cable news hyperbole, is wrestling with graver questions about itself. You can hear it in every oath, see it in every hand raised before a Congressional committee, including those of legal scholars who this week weighed in on whether the president betrayed his office.
This is where we are on the brink of a new year: A White House veering between bombast and tatter; Trump ridiculed by European leaders; Rudolph Giuliani making mischief in the wings; Fox News rallying the troops; Nancy Pelosi edging toward the inevitable; winter storms; another few shootings; top 10 lists turned into top 20 and 50 lists; Kamala out; Mayor Pete on the rise; Bernie, Joe and Elizabeth pumping fists; and Billie Eilish awaiting the Grammys while fearing the apocalypse of climate change.
Silent night, holy night. “Frozen 2” is a hit. “The Irishman” is picking up awards. Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood” is in the running. The streaming wars have begun between Netflix, Disney, Apple TV+ and others. Paris Hilton — lest we forget — is back with some advice on marketing and brand, which carries an odd symmetry as we end one year and anticipate another, papering over our transgressions in a burst of resolutions.
How wonderfully American.
There’s so much to disappear into: Music. Film. TV. Books. Twitter. TikTok. Amazon. Facebook. We have a new “Star Wars” trailer; Kanye is channeling Jesus. “Watchmen” is ablaze.
But nothing trumps Trump. He is our voracious, inescapable character, like someone out of Saul Bellow or Paddy Chayefsky, a looming, blustery presence who has turned “Saturday Night Live” into a rollicking, national passion play. But, as in all things Trump, fiction isn’t as riveting as reality, satire not as sharp as Trump being himself.
Whether you love him or despise him, Trump is our man in full, our seared-in, un-swipeable screenshot.
His ability to astonish makes him must-watch TV. At a NATO conference in London this week, the president, his stature in freefall among European allies, was mocked and derided. An open mike — Trump knows all about those, given the comments he made on that “Access Hollywood” tape about groping women — caught the exasperated and disbelieving faces of his fellow leaders.
“He was late because he takes a 40-minute news conference at the top,” an incredulous Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and others. Trudeau later commented on Trump’s demeanor and behavior: “You just watch his team’s jaws drop to the floor.”
The video went viral. Trump called Trudeau “two-faced” and, as ever, turned to Twitter to fire back: “The Fake News Media is doing everything possible to belittle my VERY successful trip to London for NATO. I got along great with the NATO leaders.”
There are few precedents to Trump, but there are presidents, who for their times, defied the conventions of the office.
In his 1960 landmark essay “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Norman Mailer wrote that John Kennedy “was unlike any politician who had ever run for President in the history of the land, and if elected he would come to power in a year when America was in danger of drifting into a profound decline .... The Democrats were going to nominate a man who, no matter how serious his political dedication might be, was indisputably and willy-nilly going to be seen as a great box-office actor, and the consequences of that were staggering and not at all easy to calculate.”
Change a few names and scramble the politics and those words rang eerily true when Trump was elected in 2016. They still do. There are vast differences between Kennedy, a skillful politician, and Trump, who is not. But the TV-savvy scion of Boston wealth and the reality TV star both captured the imagination of a public that was seeking momentous change. TV was young when Kennedy rose to power; the internet was a dream in a bottle. Trump masters both. He may not have matinee idol looks, but he fits the caricature and technology of our times.
The nation and the world watch. It is “The Apprentice” on steroids. So many scurrying characters and deceptions have come and gone that its hard to keep track. But we try.
The latest Trump show is either headed into its final episodes or will be picked up for another season. But no matter, neither the Academy Awards, the Grammys, nor all the accolades the entertainment industry floods on itself, can compete with the swift thumbs and unrelenting boasts of a man who knows better than a roomful of studio executives what grabs an audience.