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President Trump during his inauguration ceremony on January 20, 2017.
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How reality caught up with the reality TV president

The Trump show has been canceled.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Most people who lose their jobs get to do so privately. But there are a few exceptions. Contestants on The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice got fired on national TV. And so did President Donald Trump, who was able to ride a lifelong preoccupation with image and branding to the White House, but not to a second term.

If a celebrity is “a person who is known for his well-knownness,” then Donald Trump was the equivalent for wealth. He was not the richest person in the world, or even the country; he came in at 339th on Forbes’s most recent US wealth rankings. His businesses are not the most famous or most successful; unlike Jeff Bezos, he does not run the most popular store in the world, and even in the hotels business, the Trump Organization was a much smaller presence than Marriott or Hilton or Hyatt.

But perhaps no wealthy person in America was better at projecting an image of wealth and extravagance than Trump. When rappers from Raekwon to Cam’ron to Mac Miller wanted to brag about their wealth and power, they didn’t reference Bezos or Bill Gates; they referenced Trump. When reality show producer Mark Burnett needed a human embodiment of financial success to helm a new business-themed reality show, he enlisted Trump.

“I bet you when Donald Trump makes a decision, he thinks to himself, ‘What would a cartoon rich person do?’” the comedian John Mulaney joked all the way back in 2008.

The eventual punchline was, of course, “run for president.”

Donald Trump Jr., Donald Trump, and Ivanka Trump during a taping of The Celebrity Apprentice on May 10, 2009.
Bill Tompkins/Getty Images
President Trump meets with Kanye West, American journalist Jonathan Karl, and others in the Oval Office on October 11, 2018.
Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

The White House during Trump’s term often looked more like a TV network trying to get a ratings boost than an administration trying to lead a country. That’s true both literally — Trump harped on TV ratings of his appearances and those of his enemies long after taking office — and metaphorically. Desperate to stay on TV, Trump made a habit of calling in to Fox & Friends many mornings. He turned internal administration conflicts into public, Apprentice-style dramas about whom he’ll fire next. He introduced Poochie-style short-lived surprise characters, like “The Mooch.” Park police tear-gassed protesters to give Trump a nice photo op at a church by the White House.

And most toxically, instead of using his authority as president to actually fix the pandemic, he instead poured his efforts into building a false reality where the pandemic was not a problem, where the country could reopen instantly and safely, where the deaths of more than 230,000 people were minimized rather than mourned.

Behind the scenes, Trump used the trappings of the White House to scam the public. He stayed in his own hotels and resorts on the taxpayers’ dime, and made the Secret Service do so too. His children and son-in-law combine positions of real policy and political influence in Trump’s White House with myriad property holdings and deals that create obvious conflicts of interest.

Trump can fairly be understood as one of the most inept presidents in American history, someone whose inability to control a pandemic cost hundreds of thousands of his citizens their lives, a death toll higher than all American combat deaths in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq combined. Calling it inept is perhaps too forgiving. Trump’s presidency was characterized by a pervasive attitude of indifference and cruelty that shaped real policy, especially where nonwhite Americans were concerned.

The reality of Trump’s record

On January 20, 2017, Trump took office with an inaugural address that consciously rejected the hopeful, sweeping precedent of Lincoln’s “malice toward none” address or Franklin Roosevelt’s admonition that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Instead, he described an America with “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” and “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives” but promised “this American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

Former President George W. Bush, whose own disastrous presidency would come to be eclipsed by Trump’s in the public imagination, turned to Hillary Clinton at the event and remarked, “That was some weird shit.”

Indeed, the years that followed did not feel like a normal presidency. Past Republican administrations had indulged in racist appeals and policies before, but Trump made them more explicit, and brought in advisers on the outskirts of the alt-right, like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, who were united in a conviction that the mainstream right was too indulgent of immigrants, of African American criminals, of Muslims.

This had major, highly visible policy consequences, from the administration’s abhorrent treatment of migrants and especially migrant children to its indulgence of white nationalist figures and movements.

But what has sometimes been obscured by his abnormal behavior as president was that Trump governed in many ways like a typical Republican president.

President Trump meets with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (second from right) during a Cabinet meeting on January 10, 2018.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Trump is joined by the congressional leadership and his family before formally signing his Cabinet nominations into law on January 20, 2017.
J. Scott Applewhite/AFP/Getty Images
President Trump presents fast food to be served to the Clemson Tigers football team to celebrate their championship at the White House on January 14, 2019.
Chris Kleponis/Getty Images

His administration pursued deregulation across the board, especially on the environment and climate change; among other moves, he moved to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. His abandonment of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, leading to some 5,000 deaths, echoed Bush’s disastrous response to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Trump’s first legislative initiative was an effort to fulfill longstanding Republican ambitions to repeal and replace Obamacare, only to find himself foiled by a last-minute defection by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Trump and his allies succeeded, though, in slashing the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent, and more mildly cutting income taxes (especially for top earners), in December 2017. The promised effects on business investment did not come to fruition.

And — perhaps of greatest interest to conservatives — Trump validated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan to keep Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat in Republican hands by appointing Neil Gorsuch in 2017, and turned the Court rightward again by replacing the retiring Anthony Kennedy with the more conservative Brett Kavanaugh. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, like Trump’s final nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, were conventional picks that any Republican president would have made.

Foreign affairs were a more complicated story. Trump was less hawkish than some of his advisers, like former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who left the administration frustrated that Trump would not engage in military strikes against North Korea and Iran. But Trump was no dove either, engaging in limited strikes against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for chemical weapons attacks, assassinating Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and dramatically increasing civilian deaths from American raids and airstrikes in Afghanistan and in the drone war (especially in Somalia).

Trump’s highly public entreaties to North Korea, including the first American presidential visit to the country, resulted in no progress toward denuclearization or normal relations. His decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was followed by Iran rapidly increasing its stocks of enriched uranium.

The reality of Trump’s corruption

Much of Trump’s presidency was dominated by questions about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The conclusion of former FBI director Robert Mueller, who was eventually brought in as special counsel to investigate the matter, was “that the Russian government tried to help Trump win, that the Trump campaign was eager to benefit from hackings targeting Democrats, that Trump’s campaign advisers had a host of ties to Russia, and that President Trump tried again and again to try to impede the Russia investigation,” as Vox’s Andrew Prokop has summarized. But Mueller stopped short of recommending Trump be impeached for obstruction of justice.

When Trump eventually was impeached in December 2019, it was not for actions regarding Russia. It was for actions regarding Ukraine, specifically his attempts to get a Ukrainian prosecutor to pursue Hunter Biden, the son of his eventual general election opponent. That was easily enough to get House Democrats to impeach him, but the Senate, controlled by his allies, predictably voted to acquit.

The US House of Representatives votes 229-198 to impeach President Donald Trump for obstruction of Congress on December 18, 2019.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
President Trump holds a copy of the Washington Post one day after the Senate acquitted him on two articles of impeachment, on February 6, 2020.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But the impeachment and Russia dramas only scratched the surface of the Trump administration’s culture of corruption, which was so pervasive it invited frequent comparisons to the Harding administration, the previous high watermark of blatant White House graft.

Trump’s failure to divest from his hotel business has made them a lucrative cash cow. Trump has directed at least $2.5 million to his properties through his and his children’s travel, which entails bringing Secret Service agents along and having them pay for rooms. That’s pocket change compared to what domestic allies and lobbyists and foreign governments have paid Trump, through his businesses, to get a seat at the table.

Along the way, he’s repeatedly demanded that the Justice Department prosecute his political enemies, purged inspectors general investigating his administration, and launched an investigation into the investigation of his ties to Russia, a meta-investigation so blatantly politicized that Trump’s attorney general demanded results in time for the election.

Throughout it all, Trump maintained a constant commitment to posting on Twitter. When Barack Obama tweeted, it was to send out anodyne best wishes and carefully massaged statements. When Trump tweeted, it was unpredictable, at odd intervals, and often to amplify his most bigoted supporters or to assail enemies from the Federal Reserve to Jeff Bezos to the NFL. The president’s… unorthodox communications style helped feed the constant feeling of political crisis throughout his presidency, even when the actual policy stakes were normal for a president.

The reality of Covid-19

It was an eventful presidency, but one that, heading into 2020, presided over a thriving economy (overseen by Trump’s excellent, loose-money Fed chair pick, Jerome “Jay” Powell, whom Trump pushed to be even looser) and no catastrophes on the scale of the Iraq War costing hundreds of thousands of lives.

As recently as February 2020, unemployment was at a mere 3.5 percent, its lowest point in over 50 years. Wage growth was strong, especially for the lowest-income workers. In normal times, with a normal president, that could be a recipe for an easy reelection. This being Trump, he was nonetheless struggling in public polling; leading economic indicators were already starting to slow through 2019, further complicating his path.

Then the situation got much worse for him in March, as the Covid-19 pandemic reached the United States.

President Trump holds a press conference on what he called the administration’s “whole of government” response to the coronavirus pandemic on February 26.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
A White House reception for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett became a superspreader event resulting in over 20 attendees testing positive for the coronavirus, including the president and first lady.
Alex Brandon/AP
President Trump takes off his face mask after arriving at the White House upon his return from Walter Reed Medical Center, where he underwent treatment for Covid-19, on October 5.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Trump failed to coordinate a national policy to respond to the pandemic. He announced restrictions on entry to the US from China that were, in practice, extremely porous (thousands of people still entered) and beside the point, as community spread in the US had already started. As the country faced a shortfall of personal protective equipment, his administration inexplicably did not use the means at its disposal to address the problem — even refusing a firm’s offer of 1.7 million masks per week back in January because it thought it unnecessary. Trump’s overall attitude was indifferent and pollyannaish, declaring the virus “very much under control” in late February, as its spread had only just begun.

Trump did one big thing right, signing a massive stimulus package in March to address the economic crisis that lockdowns throughout the country had precipitated. But even that was not an unqualified triumph — he let the stimulus expire at the end of July, and did not push for more until it was too late. More important, his administration failed to contain the virus in the intervening time, all but guaranteeing its resurgence even as millions continued to be devastated by the economic crisis. That the country now heads into a lame-duck season with the pandemic raging as fiercely as ever — with little hope of passing new stimulus for struggling Americans — is a devastating failure of governance.

Throughout the crisis, Trump was always more interested in projecting an image of a thriving economy rather than actually making the hard choices to deal with the pandemic that was strangling the economy. From the beginning, he was obsessed with “reopening” the economy and tried to rush through lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and other necessary measures for controlling the disease. Barely a month into the crisis, he decried Michigan and Virginia for pursuing responsible lockdown measures, whipping his fans into an anti-isolation, anti-mask frenzy.

As a result, the US had among the worst outbreaks in terms of deaths of any developed nation. It has faced not just a single wave of the pandemic, but three waves to date: the first in February/March, a second wave in June/July (where new daily cases were nearly double the first wave), and the surge we are currently in.

Trump responded to the most recent coronavirus surge by leaning into his alternate reality, painting an optimistic picture with packed rallies and recurring declarations that the country was “rounding the turn.” Indeed, at times he took actions highly likely to cause cases to spike, most notably holding large, in-person rallies in swing states, which were sometimes followed by an increase in Covid-19 cases.

In spite of the president’s wishful thinking, and because of his actions, the virus persisted. And Americans noticed. The public has overwhelmingly viewed Trump’s response as a failure. As of October 28, polls showed that 57.4 percent of Americans disapproved of his handling of the crisis, and only 39.8 percent approved.

So when the disease finally made its way to the White House, and to the president, in the fall, it was less of a surprise and more of a reckoning. There was a certain poetry to it: The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which offered the Trump administration a historic and rare opportunity to shift the Court to the right, led them to throw themselves a big party resulting in two dozen-odd Covid-19 cases in the White House and White House press corps — including the president himself. RBG had failed to retire under a Democrat and protect her legacy. But she managed to haunt Trump all the same.

You might expect a brush with the virus he failed to conquer would change Trump’s mentality — but of course, it didn’t. If anything, the reverse happened, with Trump telling voters, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.”

The catch, of course, was that Covid-19 does dominate our lives. We are afraid of it, and for very good reason. It has killed more than 230,000 people. And all the marketing and spin and PR magic in the world couldn’t paper over that.


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