Every now and then, the laughable and terrifying aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency sync up like Pink Floyd and The Wizard of Oz. Yesterday, for instance, his administration rolled out an Obamacare replacement bill, whose merits press secretary Sean Spicer cited by pointing to the slimmer of two stacks of paper. You know, because the smaller of two items is always superior? Aside from providing a nervous workday chuckle, though, this moment also highlighted the president’s TV-honed reverence for visual aids, and prove it to be threadbare.
Trump, more than perhaps any other modern political figure, is obsessed with optics. He cares deeply about the way things look, to the point where aesthetics allegedly influenced his hiring decisions. He knows that at some base level, looks inform perception, and people do judge books by covers, so image is a key component of his philosophy. The slogan, Make America Great Again, is memorable on its own, but when paired with his ubiquitous hat it becomes unforgettable and emblematic. Trump’s faith in the power of visuals translated to a frequent use of props on the campaign trail. But now that he’s the Commander in Chief, these same demonstrations are turning him into the Carrot Top of presidents.
The props Trump used as a candidate varied from paper to metal to flesh. He thrived on spectacle, flying into airports on his enormous private jet while the Air Force One theme blasted from speakers. What could be more presidential, the crowd could only infer, than a man who owned an airplane? He loved bringing charts to these rallies, to showcase unflattering statistics between himself and his opponent, Hillary Clinton. In lieu of tossing a Clinton effigy in the turbine of his jet, however, Trump saved the sight gags for his other opponent, the press.
Unfriendly media figures covering the Trump campaign were cordoned off in a press pen, where the candidate would instruct the crowd to direct their jeers. Occasionally, he would even single out reporters like Katy Tur by name, more or less requesting the audience harass them. Long before Trump adopted the phrase ‘fake news,’ he was already at war with the press by making them an object of animosity.
One of the moments that made Trump most resemble shockingly jacked prop comic Carrot Top was his first post-election press conference. Aside from openly antagonizing the media–a feature, not a bug, of the presidency to come–Trump memorably tried to explain how he would be extracting himself from his businesses as president. In doing so, he brought along dozens of folders full of paper, displayed in stacks on a table near his podium. How could Trump still be tied to the global businesses bearing his name, which presented a clear conflict of interest, if he had access to this many folders? It was sheer spectacle to accompany a lawyer’s dry reading of why these papers proved he was in the clear. Of course, reporters were not permitted to actually look at these papers. They were merely props.
If anyone thought this side of Donald Trump would burn off like so much oven-crud after he became president, they were quickly proven wrong: on the day after his inauguration.
Enraged by widely circulating photos that showed his inauguration crowd dwarfed by Obama’s, Trump sent Sean Spicer out to his first press briefing with a mission. Spicer proceeded to screamingly explain that Donald Trump’s was the most widely viewed inauguration in history, period. Rather than illustrate his point with numbers from crowd scientists, which would have proved his lie was a lie, Spicer merely used the Trump tactic of props, displaying photos from a different angle than those spread online, which made the crowd look bigger. Perception is reality.
In order to hammer the point home even further, Trump himself raised the issue during his first visit to the CIA the next day. Instead of striking a conciliatory tone after recently referring to the intelligence community as Nazis, Trump emphasized the supposedly historic size of his inauguration crowd. He didn’t do so alone, however. Trump reportedly brought along a cheering section to laugh at his jokes and applaud his points, so that everyone at home would know he was killing. There could be no greater preview of the reality TV presidency to come than having Trump travel with his own laugh track.
Ultimately, the worst thing about the president acting like Carrot Top, is that it means he thinks of Americans as an audience to a prop comedy show. It’s an insult to think that the sight of dead-eyed Sean Spicer pointing at disparate piles of paper is supposed to convince us of anything other than Spicer’s access to office supplies. Obviously, we are not the audience at a Carrot Top show, though. Those people can choose to walk out.