Trump and the Stagecraft of Policy

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
Meanjin /
September 20, 2019 /

Click here to view original /

Chronicling Donald Trump’s many flaws—as a man, as a husband/father/politician/businessman/actor/pizza hawker—has kept many of us (un)happily distracted for the past eight hundred or so days.

As bountiful as that flaws list is, credit where credit is due: the man is an exceptional media manipulator. I draw no pleasure in complimenting him, but watching Trump lie and misdirect and conjure evermore distractions to whiplash media attention from one calamity to the next is something he’s disproportionately gifted at. Americans were pitched a showman, they voted in a showman, and surprise surprise, a showman now binges on cable news in the Oval Office.

The cornerstone of the Trump roadshow—also aptly termed the Trump shit show, the Trump horror show, and more spectacularly, the Trump dumpster fire—is optics. From the golden escalator ride campaign announcement, to the early magic orb fondling, through every bit of his carnival barker hyperbole, like it or loathe it, we’re living the very Gilded Toilet Presidency we were always promised.

The razzle dazzle can be criticized as shallow, hollow, deceitful. Descriptors, I’d argue, with high-level precision. Less discussed though is how his penchant for performance has come to shape policy. The aesthetics of leadership has become the Trump Doctrine. A doctrine theatrically signed off on with his elaborate and oversized cardiogram flourish.

Last week, in retaliation over Iran’s recalcitrance, the US was poised to counterstrike. And then, at the very last moment, Trump abruptly called the whole thing off.

Whether or not a military assault on Iran would have been the right response is so much less interesting than the theatre of his ‘decision’. This is a story of stagecraft and artistry, complete with a white hat hero who Trump seemingly envisaged we’d be cheering for at home whilst gnawing on our popcorn.

The US War Powers Act allows a president to engage in armed conflict without permission from Congress. This meant that a response to Iran never got a public hearing, instead, Trump—and as he takes great pains in reminding us, Trump alone—simply decided autonomously on how to proceed.

While Trump might have a well-documented aversion to reading, to listening, to history, what he lacks in policy acumen he makes up for with comprehensive knowledge of entertainment media. From his passion for cable news to his appreciation for action cinema, if there’s expertise he brings to the resolute desk it’s understanding bread and circuses. More so than any other president, Trump’s intimate knowledge of every aspect of stagecraft—from camera angles to storytelling to ratings—is where his true prowess lies.

There is no shortage of fictional representations of American presidents, and undoubtedly Trump has watched the lion’s share of them. And assuredly he’s got a few favourite war room scenes where a ruggedly handsome fictional leader is called upon to make a decision of great gravitas with scant time and massive pressure. Better than most, Trump knows these tropes and has convinced himself that ‘looking presidential’ centres on channeling his inner President James Marshall and pantomiming his way through a crisis. Even if that crisis is one of his own making.

To hear Trump tell the story of the Iran backdown, the US was ‘cocked and loaded’ and it was only then when he paused—with mere seconds to spare—to ask about casualties. ‘150 people, Sir,’ he was told by, presumably, central casting’s cool, calculating (and suitably deferential) general. To hear Trump tell it, such a death toll was unconscionable so he pulled the plug with scores of lives on the line. Just in the nick of time.

This isn’t the first time Trump has dressed up to play Commander in Chief and generously shared the screenplay. April 2017. Trump was hosting President Xi at Mar-A-Lago. Over the ‘most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen’ he ordered a strike against Syria. Because in that scene he was playing the high-flying leader who, when the moment demands it, can—with a wave of his hand—casually launch 59 missiles between mouthfuls of dessert. ‘It was in lieu of after-dinner entertainment,’ Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross told us at the time. Because in that movie, Trump was playing the cavalier, controlled Commander.

It is completely inconceivable that prior to becoming all ‘cocked and loaded’ that Trump wasn’t presented with a projected Iranian death toll. Planning for such a strike isn’t something cooked-up on the afternoon that a retaliation is mooted. Such plans sit on a computer ready to go until the nod is given; casualty projections are an integral part of all such planning. Trump electing to listen only when the scene has become a cinematic race against the clock might make for nail-biting action but it’s embarrassingly implausible.

In yet another example of him setting a fire and wanting praise for pissing on it, Trump instigated the military response, pitted his handpicked dove advisors against the hawks, and then—with the seconds hand trembling—disrupted the plot and flaunted uncharacteristic compassion for 150 brown lives. He stepped in and saved the day. He with the level head and the oh so tender heart.

Trump of course, is a man of many faces. Two-faced. Janus-faced. A bare-faced and bold-faced liar. And another character he’s brings out when the whim takes him is the madman. The eccentric. The leader who wryly tells us—tongue grazing his inner cheek—that he wouldn’t need an exit strategy with Iran. Implying subtly, that if they went to war, given half a chance he’d nuke them off the face of the planet. Not a new character. He played this game with North Korea and was dubbed a dotard. He’s playing the game with Iran this week and has been diagnosed as suffering mental retardation. But he’s channeling his inner madman king and apparently interpreting such a screen archetype as some kind of secret policy savant. Rather than the transparently undisciplined, chaotic, manic despot that the rest of us see.

Electing a reality TV show host with no experience in public service, governance or successful management was always going to pose problems. Today that problem is a showman picking the course of action with the most theatre and tensest soundtrack—albeit replete with gaping plot holes and inconsistencies—instead of the most reasoned public policy.

© Lauren Rosewarne 2019