Standing in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church on H Street across from the White House, President Donald Trump held a Bible in his hand like one of his patented Trump Steaks. The church, which every president since James Madison has attended at least once, suffered minor damage after a fire was set amid protests in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “It’s a Bible,” Trump said as he shifted the book into different positions for the photographers.
The cameras had followed him from the White House, where he’d delivered an address to the American public, promising to send the U.S. military into states that did not deploy “an overwhelming law enforcement presence” to end protests, whether governors asked for troops or not.
In order for Trump to be able to walk to the church ― and to provide a backing track for his menacing speech ― National Guardsmen opened fire with tear gas, flash-bang grenades and pepper pellets on a peaceful demonstration just outside the White House. Protesters were gathered in Lafayette Park to plead for the president and others to stop police brutality and anti-Black racism; instead, they wound up being pushed off the street by military police on horseback and driving back by tear gas well before the city’s 7 p.m. curfew.
All so Trump could get the perfect image to show he’s not hiding in a bunker as America is in crisis.
Staging presentations for television is what the president does. Trump, who played upon his image as a successful businessman on a reality TV show before becoming president, does not see himself as anything but the lead actor in a drama about himself. He does not see the world as anything but a set. World leaders are supporting actors. The rest of us are extras. He gasses us and sets the military against us to color the background of his speeches. Our cries are just off-camera background. The same president boasted about TV ratings of his White House coronavirus briefings as more than 100,000 Americans died of COVID-19, showing that human lives aren’t as important as his image.
He does this because this is who he is ― and only who he is. The only way to explain him, therefore, is through the screen.
Trump’s career as a real estate mogul and cosmopolitan Manhattan playboy launched just as television had conquered American news and with it the American mind in the mid-1970s. The destructive intrusion into the news business by corporate executives is best captured in the brilliant 1976 film “Network,” written by Paddy Chayefsky, in which unscrupulous executives ride the ratings success of their storied newscaster’s mental breakdown until he causes them too much trouble and they have him assassinated by similarly unscrupulous left-wing radicals.
Trump might be “mad as hell,” but he’s is not like Network’s central character, Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” played by Peter Finch, who is seduced by the right-wing utopian corporate ideology of his station’s owner, Arthur Jensen, before being murdered for turning his rants against Saudi investments in Jensen’s businesses.
No, Trump is the amoral, manic and attention deficit disordered network executive Diana Christensen (a peak Faye Dunaway role). Christensen doesn’t care about anything except immediate gratification ― whether it be from the ratings of her shows or in the bedroom. She corrupts left-wing radicals with promises to bring their message to the silver screen. And she takes on Max Schumacher (William Holden), the grizzled veteran reporter and friend of Beale, as a lover. He leaves his wife for her, but he’s just another brief interruption.
Before the film’s climax with Christensen orchestrating the assassination of Beale ― for ratings and to appease corporate higher-ups ― Schumacher breaks up with her. In his devastating break-up speech, he explains what the obsession of television does to the human soul. His monologue also perfectly captures Trump.
“You’re television incarnate,” Max says. “Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy.”
“You’re madness,” Max finishes. “Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you.”
Schumacher’s assault on Christensen ends as he says that it’s a “happy ending.” He’ll return to his wife, “with whom he has established a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell; final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week’s show.”
But reality doesn’t have such a tightly written script.