The Best Way to Screw Trump

The Next Four Years

The Best Way to Screw Trump

It starts with the matter dearest to his heart: his ratings.
November 14, 2016 5:00 am
Trump has conflated ratings with real admiration.
Credit: From Bloomberg/Getty Images.

I saw an old man sobbing in the street on Wednesday. I watched catatonic parents at the playground on Thursday, their children swinging back-and-forth, thankfully and innocently oblivious. By Friday, my phone dinged and buzzed with text messages from friends and phone calls from family asking how I was “holding up”—not too dissimilar from the caring epistles I received after my mother died.

Like all of us, I’ve laid in bed every single night since Tuesday consumed by my terrified imagination of the next four years—a pit of worry in my stomach, an anvil lodged in my throat, I’ve become an insomniac. When I look at my one-and-a-half-year-old son, and then at my wife and her expanding belly, which grows each day with our second child, I—like millions of people who call this country home—feel utterly rudderless, unsure what I’m supposed to do to protect my family from a terrifying, uncertain future and an unpredictable leader. Then I contemplate how much more scared others must be: Muslim parents, or Mexican children, anyone who isn’t white. A sense of dread creeps inside of me.

I’ve never once experienced the sort of despair that I feel with President-elect Donald Trump (just typing those words is insuperable) at the helm of this country. There is no denying that things are going to change over the next four years, and if you’re liberal, or even moderate, they won’t be changing for the better. Most of the Trump Presidential Transition Team Executive Committee is made up of climate-change deniers, people who are staunchly opposed to reproductive rights, and same-sex marriage antagonists. Based on the track record of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who has signed into law one bill that forbids abortion on the basis of fetal chromosomal abnormalities and another that allow guns in school parking lots, we appear to be rolling America back into a previous century.

You’re probably feeling that despair again reading this. But take a deep breath. It may be naive, but I do think there is something we can all do to ensure the next four years aren’t a complete travesty.

To understand what, we have to go back to the afternoon of June 17th, 1994. It was a typically warm day in Los Angeles, but a spectacle was unfurling along the Santa Ana Freeway that would (believe it or not) help propel Donald Trump into the White House. As the clock struck 5:56 p.m., dozens of California Highway Patrol police cars, their cherries whirling red, began pursuing O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco along the freeway. For those of us that can remember that far back, there was no such thing as Twitter, smartphones, or even reality TV. In fact, that moment on the Santa Ana Freeway, which was being broadcast live to 95 million TV viewers across the country, arguably spawned an entirely new culture—the opening of a orifice that has since given us Kim Kardashian and an alternate universe in which people are famous for being famous. It was a world, of course, that would facilitate the rise of a formerly bankrupt, multi-divorced, casino operator and resort mogul, first as a reality host, then an alt-right demogogue, and now, inexplicably, the president of the United States.

But while the origin of our current reality may be terrifying, it also suggests a possible antidote. As someone who has covered Silicon Valley for nearly two decades, I’ve observed a number of people transcend from being impecunious to being billionaires in mere moments. Each and every time that I’ve seen this phenomenon occur, there has been a consistent truism: these people don’t change with that wealth. Instead, it simply magnifies who they were originally. The jerks are bigger jerks. The nice people are nicer.

The same is true for people with power. So what do we know about Trump? First, on the hierarchy of things that drive him, ego is very clearly at the top of that triangle. As The New York Times illustrated through tapes of Trump exploring his personal motivations, his biggest fear isn’t being poor, or perceived as a charlatan; it’s a fear of losing status. As far back as a child, Trump “loved” seeing his name in print and he talked about how important it was to magnetize people. This has been the thing that has driven Trump his entire life.

Trump, it seems, has conflated love with something less ephemeral: ratings. Just look at his Twitter feed, where he’s bragged incessantly for years about his great numbers—about how he boosted NBC’s ratings; and the ratings for the Miss Universe pageant; and those for Letterman and Saturday Night Live. Every time he went on a show, he talked about his own popularity, and he did so hundreds of times. (A version of this talking point, based on his poll numbers, featured largely in his defeat of the Republican primary field, too, much to the chagrin of poor Jeb Bush.) “Almost every TV show is asking me to go on,” he wrote in mid-2012. “It’s simple—I get the ratings!”

This was a man, after all, who was so obsessed with how many people watched him—no matter what channel, what show, what event—that he checked the ratings the moment they came out. He was so haunted by the number that he would do bizarre things like tout the number of viewers during minuscule synapses in coverage, as he did during a short interview on CNBC. He waited for reporters to write articles about his ratings, then tweeted those, too. As The Washington Post noted, Trump has a shrine in his office boasting a collection of allthe magazine covers that his orange-inflected face has adorned— Time, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone, among them. Mark Leibovich, who reported at least one of those cover articles, paused in his own Times story to wonder aloud if Americans wanted such a hubristic leader in charge of their destiny.

“As I surveyed the magazine covers on the wall and endured his running boasts, I wondered aloud whether Americans might not prefer a more humble brand of chief executive, feigned or otherwise. ‘Nope,’ he sneered. ‘They want success. They wanted humility in the past. They wanted a nice person’ (for the record, he added, ‘I am a nice person’). But what they really want is someone who can win, as Trump always does. ‘We’re going to have so many victories, you will be bored of winning.’”

So if you look through the conservatively congested smog of shit that the future appears to look like, you may see a silver lining on all of this, and it starts with the Simpsonian, ratings-based origins of Trump’s fame. Machiavelli once asked whether it was better to lead the people by being loved or being feared. “It might be answered that we should wish to be both,” Machiavelli wrote, “but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”

A lot of leaders have done just that—Putin, Hitler, Zedong, Pinochet, to name a few—but Trump, for all his faults, appears to prefer to be loved. That means, there’s a chance he will treat his presidency like he treated his reality TV shows: obsessed with the ratings.

He will, at the end of all of this, want to be loved by the masses. Perhaps even the Democratic masses. (Which wouldn’t be so weird, after all, since he used to be one.) Sure, Trump will likely fly off the handle and say deranged things on Twitter. He will, simply based on the team of people around him and his judicial appointees, bring America as far right as it has been in decades. He will try to overturn laws, and enact other, scarier laws, but as long as we are all as vociferous as we can be about him—on social media, in the streets, in the mainstream media, and alt media, and in the courts—we will be able to determine how he sees his ratings for The Donald Trump Presidential reality TV show. And if we can do that, we might be able to influence how much he fucks this country up. In turn, there’s a chance that we might be able to make the next four years a little more palatable, no matter how scary they may seem.

America Protests Donald Trump

Nick Bilton Nick Bilton is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair.

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