Along with the comedian Norm Macdonald and the singer Kiiara, Donald J. Trump appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on Sept. 15, a lifetime ago. That was the night that, in a gesture that for some viewers said more about the host than the guest, Fallon rumpled Trump’s hair.
It was the obviously arranged climax of a softball interview in which then-presidential candidate Trump, facing an audience that had not come to chant his name or “Build the wall” or “Lock her up,” was able to paint himself as a simple New York billionaire who had sacrificed his own comfort for the good of the country; his positivity was met with cheers, and the tousling seemed made to say, “If the hair is genuine, the rest of him might be too.” What might have been serious questions — How will you create jobs? How will you build the wall? — were burned off in a comedy routine with Fallon as Trump addressing his reflection (played by Trump himself) in the mirror.
It made Fallon seem insubstantial and out of touch, but it’s useful to remember that in September the money was on a different electoral outcome.
It’s not hard to to argue that Trump is president because of television, which turned him from a self-promoting real estate developer on the edges of pop culture into a much more valuable commodity, a TV star. Unlike that other screen president, Ronald Reagan — who had been a union president, governor of California and a figure in Republican politics for 15 years before reaching the White House — Trump is all brand, a name to slap on a building, a school, a steak, a country. Even if you didn’t like Reagan’s policies, there was nothing existentially bizarre about his occupying the Oval Office. Trump is historically unaccountable.
While Trump is a big character, he’s also unusually open to interpretation. Depending on where you stand, he’s a simpleton or deceptively clever; crazy or crazy like a fox. Highly sensitive to criticism yet impervious to counsel, changeable yet ever himself, with an incapacity for self-reflection that some simply see as self-assurance, he’s a mogul who played a more successful one on television. At times too, he comes across like a real-world — or real-ish world — cousin of fictional television reactionary blowhards like Archie Bunker and Al Bundy, cherished by some for the very qualities for which they’re meant to be mocked.
Now comes the work of reconciling or refusing to reconcile that TV character with the person who will be the actual president of the United States. Some will find this no trouble; others will reckon the distance between “reality” and reality difficult, if not impossible to bridge. And some will just be treading water in the middle, looking for something solid to grasp.
If you feel that none of this is quite real, it may because it isn’t, quite. You can blame television for some of that.
If reality TV, which gave us Trump, is a highly manipulated form we are supposed to regard as authentic, even as we know better, much the same can be said of television news, especially around-the-clock cable news, whose worth the election, not for the first time, called into question.
To fill time and draw viewers, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — each in its own, not perfectly equivalent way — engineer situations of maximum conflict and controversy; molehills are made into mountains and idle speculation fanned into a three-alarm dumpster fire. It doesn’t help that many of us seem unable to distinguish “fake news” from the verified sort; but even the most media-literate among us is not immune to a clickbait headline or a whiff of scandal. At the same time, whether out of “balance” or delicacy or fear of criticism — or reporters simply not knowing the material well enough — some serious questions are barely raised or quickly tabled.
Decisions about what to cover and how to cover it are not merely journalistic — sometimes they are not journalistic at all. Recall CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves’ much reported remark, back when the media were taking Trump neither seriously nor literally, that the electoral circus of the Republican primaries “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. … It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Trump letting Fallon muss his hair is not what got him elected. (That was the peculiarities of the electoral college, to be precise.) Still, it was steeped in that spirit of “normalization” against which his opponents warn, the mass hypnotism, or self-hypnotism, or attrition of attention that has already begun to cloud the memory of an often ugly campaign, the barely coded racist appeals, the casual encouragements to violence, the sexual impropriety, the conspiracy theories, the unreleased tax returns, the payouts to settle lawsuits, the conflicts of interest, the demonstrably baseless claims and ad hominem attacks.
And so the fog rolls in, behind and before us. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Trump Zone.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd