When The Thick Of It first premiered in 2005, it felt like something different. Going against the grain of slick political dramas like The West Wing and the UK’s House of Cards, it satirised British politics as being low-budget, dour, and out of control; incompetency abetting incompetency. Shot documentary-style, each episode lifted the veil on British politics, showing how haphazard the functions of government can be underneath the authority and pomp. That revelation forever changed how its audience saw the British government, making them believe that every public-facing performance is likely disguising a shitshow.
Yesterday (3 August), a video interview was published by HBO of Donald Trump speaking to Axios journalist Jonathan Swan – a reporter considered in the US political world to be incredibly well-connected to the White House. In the 40-minute interview, Swan speaks to the president about the different stages of the coronavirus pandemic and the way Trump has handled it at each juncture. One particular moment clipped for social media came over, bluntly, like a car crash, in which Donald Trump appears to misunderstand basic charts about death rates and the US’s ranking in the world for deaths (first).
.@jonathanvswan: “Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases. I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the US is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc.”@realdonaldtrump: “You can’t do that.”
Swan: “Why can’t I do that?” pic.twitter.com/MStySfkV39
— Axios (@axios) August 4, 2020
As the UK woke up to the clip on Twitter this morning, The Thick Of It almost immediately began to trend. Jokes about missing this episode, or the interview being an American version of the show, appeared thousands of times, calling the interaction “cataclysmic” and “a bollocking”. Over the past four years, since Trump became a serious contender for the presidency (and then the president), this type of joke has circulated fairly regularly. Every perceived “gaffe” is labelled as beyond satire and Brits cackle at US politics becoming “beyond parody”. And as in this case, a slew of British people will declare that, finally, this will be the episode where Trump inspires his own undoing.
This reading of events is fundamentally flawed and has strong links to a particular type of British sneering towards the United States and its electorate. “Those stupid Americans, with their guns and circus of a government – maybe they’ll finally see what a buffoon they’ve elected as president!” This analysis relies on two assumptions: one, that this is a change from regular programming under Trump and two, that some Americans will see it that way. But with Trump, unlike TTOI, there is nothing more to unveil. And to most Americans this interview will seem completely ordinary.
Trump arguably pioneered the political tactic of lying blatantly about your successes – whether about his career as a businessman, his approval ratings, or stats relating to support for certain policies in his presidency. But in the past few months his contortions have surpassed an already high level. What Brits don’t see is how often his staff, his children, and even Trump himself have appeared in front of the media to brag about his administration’s successes in this pandemic. Trump has appeared on Fox News programmes regularly since March, telling viewers that the US is handling this pandemic better than anywhere else in the world. His press secretary Kayleigh McEnany parrots statistics about testing when asked about the astronomical death rates that are plaguing nearly every corner of the country. Months after Trump suggested in April that people might be able to inject themselves with bleach to kill the virus, conspiracy theory videos about hydroxychloroquine are still going viral. Trump lying about, misunderstanding or simply ignoring the facts about coronavirus in the US isn’t just common, it’s the whole strategy.
The Thick Of It convinced an entire generation that politics isn’t as high-brow or sophisticated as they previously might have considered it to be. It showed that political policy and action was poorly thought through and often run by narcissists; the shock and humour was in the contrast between that preconception and the satirised reality. While Trump’s Axios interview is entertaining, I’d ask: where is the contrast? This simplification, and infantilisation, of American politics misunderstands how little impact an interview as bad as that one has. Trump’s supporters, and even swing voters, will find little difference in that interview and the countless others that have come in the months and years before it. It’s more likely that the Axios interview will be painted as a smarmy media hack job. It’s hard to see it as a vote-moving catastrophe.
Trump is down in pretty much every poll predicting the 2020 election result (it’s worth saying here that this was also the case in the last presidential election). His fate may already be decided, and as his fatal mishandling of this pandemic stretches on, it seems the appetite for a second term will gradually wane. But interviews like this – as funny, entertaining, and shocking as they may be – will not be part of the story. The British public can continue to sneer at Donald Trump, and by proxy the country that put him in the Oval Office. However, their interpretation of the effect these interviews might have reveals they know less than they’d like to think about how American politics works. Interviews like this may have value and continue to be worthwhile, but they reveal nothing this president’s core audience haven’t already seen.