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14 October 2020

BBC One’s The Trump Show brilliantly reveals the US president’s egotism

We all know that Trump is in a world of "me" - but these films show the vanishingly small extent of this realm. 

By Rachel Cooke

Omarosa Manigault Newman first met the US president when she was a contestant on The Apprentice, and thanks to this, I was at first a bit sniffy when she popped up in The Trump Show (15 October, 9pm). Tell me something I don’t know, I thought, as she revealed that even once he was installed in the White House, Trump “was always selling”. But then, like so many others who appear in this utterly surreal new series, she delivered her killer fact. After his election, Newman briefly worked as an aide to the president. She claims that shortly before his inauguration he told her that he was thinking of swearing his oath of office not on the Bible, but on his tawdry 1987 bestseller, The Art of the Deal.

We all know that Trump is in a world of “me”. What these films brilliantly reveal, however, is the vanishingly small extent of this realm. His horizons really do extend only to the brocade on the corner of the nearest sofa. It was Michael Wolff, the journalist who unaccountably managed to get access to the West Wing during Trump’s first year, who put it best in episode one, when he urged us to consider the president’s life before Washington. His home in the Trump Tower, New York, where he had lived since 1984, was, Wolff said, a veritable time capsule. All the “gold stuff” with which he’d filled it: barely a thing had changed for 30 years. Hardly surprising, then, that on arrival at the White House, he required a lock for his bedroom door; that he told staff he would change his own sheets, thanks. Put your own amazement at his election to one side, Wolff said. No one was more freaked out by the upset than Trump.

John Bolton, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci: the producers have bagged everyone, and though these types often struggle to describe their experiences – they’re hardly poets – there’s something unbridled about them here; their trauma, even when ostentatiously draped with bravado, is palpable. When, in 2017, Scaramucci was fired as White House director of communications after ten days, it was, he said, as if he had been “rolled in broken glass and then salted”. Wolff spoke of advisers who parroted the party line, but whose facial gestures – their eyes, one imagines, rolling wildly, like marbles in a particularly high stakes game of Kerplunk – told a vastly more terrifying story.

During his first year in office, infantile chaos reigned. “Get the map!” Trump would shout, whenever his mind wandered during a briefing (the map showed the state-by-state extent of his wondrous victory over Hillary Clinton, and he liked to stare at it, lovingly). But still, you wonder at his capacity for shamelessness. When his generals called him to the Pentagon in a last-ditch attempt to get him to understand postwar American diplomacy, he wasn’t chastened, nor even vaguely impressed. It was, as the former White House strategist Steve Bannon put it, a case of “full systems meltdown”: another tantrum, basically. A former French ambassador to the US explained that, “as good French intellectuals”, he and his colleagues in Paris wanted to work out what was “behind” Trump. But… tant pis! There was nothing save, perhaps, for a KFC bargain bucket. On a state visit to France, he made only two things plain to his hosts. First, that President Macron was not, unlike Merkel and May, “a loser” (Macron demurred, naturellement). Second, that he appreciated the fact that the military parade staged to welcome him featured horses. He liked horses! He wanted more horses! Why couldn’t there be horses wherever he went?

No wonder none of the talking heads in these films appears any longer to be under the illusion that Trump is competent – not even Steve Bannon, I suspect. Looking more like Tim “Wetherspoon” Martin than ever (any minute now, you think, he’ll start boasting about the pub chain’s all-day brunch), he could only titter at the loopy presidential tweets the producers asked him to read. It wasn’t an indulgent laugh. The puppet, we understood, had long since gone awol, and the puppeteer was only relieved somehow to have disentangled himself from its strings. 

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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?

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