From the country that gave the world Hollywood movies, Broadway musicals, and TV soaps, sitcoms and talk shows such as Dallas, Friends and Oprah comes more sensational mass entertainment: real-time political farce. The Donald J Trump Show, a tragicomedy-cum-courtroom drama, opened in Manhattan last week. This one will run and run.
Trump plays himself: sulky, entitled, vindictive. Other cast members include Stormy Daniels, his leading lady, a former porn star who teasingly refers to her breasts as Thunder and Lightning; an ex-Playboy model; a doorman in the know; a publisher rejoicing in the name of Pecker; and a shady, turncoat lawyer.
The plot is gripping too, though unoriginal. The villain, as scripted by Trump, is Alvin Bragg, prosecutor and demonic tormentor. Bragg is secretly egged on from the wings by President Joe Biden and liberal co-conspirators bent on preventing the much-traduced hero winning re-election. You couldn’t make it up – except “stable genius” Trump did.
While Americans may cringe or fume, the first instalment of the Trump Show, which saw him indicted on 34 charges of fraud, left international audiences open-mouthed. Some laughed, some sneered, some calculated. Once again, the US has proved its exceptionalism, but not in a good way. Amid the vitriol and hoopla, friends and foes are asking questions.
Has the trial inadvertently provided a potent platform for Trump’s staged comeback? Is the once-exemplary American republic, that beacon of democracy and justice, that shining city upon a hill, imploding under the weight of internal rancour, self-loathing and division? Should the US still be taken seriously by the world at large?
Collateral damage is already mounting. The presidency, constitution and democratic governance risk permanent reputational harm. US global influence and moral authority may not survive sustained mockery. Enemies look on with glee. It boosts their storyline of inexorable American decline. For them, it’s the end of empire show.
Take Russia and its paranoid, delusional, Trump-like president, Vladimir Putin. His Ukraine invasion is a total bust, yet hermetically-sealed Putin may be the last person to realise, insiders say. He got more, not less Nato last week when Finland joined the alliance. His thinking, like his army, is stuck in Donbas mud.
For Xi Jinping, Trump’s return to the limelight is a gift from the geopolitical and theatrical gods
Yet Trump’s shenanigans offer Putin a lifeline. The Russian simply has to stick it out until, as he hopes, his American admirer beats the rap and he, or someone very like him, ousts Biden next year. As in 2016, Putin will do all he can to help with disinformation, cyber-attacks and dirty tricks. Meanwhile, he takes a US reporter hostage to make Biden look weak.
“Putin’s narrative of international politics has three broad themes: democratic decay in the west, the failures of western foreign policy, and the decline of the liberal international order,” analysts Erin Baggott Carter, Brett Carter and Larry Diamond noted recently. The demeaning Trump spectacle reinforces all three of these supposed trends.
Xi Jinping, China’s leader, will be keen, too, to exploit any Trump revival to advance his plans for global hegemony and an authoritarian new world order. Beijing’s propaganda feeds off US domestic dysfunction, Washington gridlock, corruption, racial tensions and gun crime – to which Trump and his Maga minions contribute hugely.
Internationally, Trump’s antics give Xi a window to derail a distracted Biden’s democracy agenda and out-manoeuvre the US. “Trump’s foreign policy was shortsighted, transactional, mercurial, untrustworthy, boorish, personalist, and profoundly illiberal,” analyst Jonathan Kirshner wrote after Biden’s victory in 2020.
As Xi might say, what’s not to like? He would heartily applaud a repeat performance. For the Chinese Communist party, Trump’s return to the limelight is a gift from the geopolitical and theatrical gods.
Xi’s not alone. Israel’s failed coup leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudis’ Biden-baiting crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and nuke-coveting, misogynistic Iranian mullahs are all avid Trump fans. Who knows? Perhaps North Korea’s lonesome dictator, Kim Jong-un, will start getting love letters again, sealed with a slobbery kiss.
It’s just about plausible to view Trump’s belated indictment as evidence of American democracy’s enduring strength, demonstrating that no one is above the law. Biden will cling to that thought as he contemplates a re-election battle with an opponent whose position as Republican frontrunner and record fundraiser appears greatly boosted by his Perry Mason tribute act.
Biden was totally overshadowed last week – not a good look for a sitting president. Although he doubtless hopes its impact will fade, the ratings-grabbing Trump Show could make it much harder “to command the national conversation,” as political commentator Peter Baker puts it.
Trump will surely be a constant distraction, and his showboating an incentive for House Republicans to turn what’s left of Biden’s term into a legislative wasteland. The president’s inaugural pledge to heal national divisions now sounds like a gag. Among its friends, Ukraine has most to lose if the US sinks deeper into introspective strife. Yet the legal machinery is in motion. The show must go on.
Biden’s best course may be to play anti-chaos candidate, to cry “steady as she goes!” from the bridge even as Trump fires off torpedoes and radios coordinates to the enemy. And yet, amid this strutting and fretting, all who love democracy have one powerful reason to believe truth and justice, not brazen lies and bullying, will prevail in the final act.
Last week’s melodrama made it plainer than ever that Trump does not understand America – what made it, what it is now, what it stands for around the globe. He just doesn’t get it. His mental and emotional landscape is painfully limited, walled in, barren, scared, and perpetually angry. His whole world is himself alone. Fake patriot Trump is a man without a country. It’s a fair bet the country will ultimately decide it can do without Trump.
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