the national circus

Trump Only Knows Chaos

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the meaning of Trump’s latest foreign policy moves, the Sinclair Broadcast Group backlash, and what to make of the Roseanne reboot.

The president has spent the past week goading China into a potential trade war, threatening to withdraw from Syria, and purporting to be punitive to Russia. Is his focus on foreign affairs an attempt to distract from crises at home?

It is a mistake to assume there is any method whatsoever to Donald Trump’s current madness. I don’t think his chaotic serial upheavals in the arena of foreign policy constitute a strategy to distract from, say, the Scott Pruitt scandals or the Mueller investigation or Stormy Daniels. Sometimes chaos is just chaos. What we are seeing now, as many have noted, is Trump unleashed — liberated at last to be a full-time rabid animal barking morning, noon, and night now that all the White House adults who were supposed to curb him have fled. Or all except John Kelly, now sidelined and castrated, and James Mattis, whose powers as a Trump minder may have been as oversold by the press as those of Kelly, Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, and H.R. McMaster were before him.

In practice this means Trump is listening to no one except the morning hosts of Fox & Friends and any other Fox News talking heads, phone cronies, or Mar-a-Lago dining companions he recognizes as tribunes of his base. It doesn’t matter if illegal border crossings have been at their lowest since 1971; he’s going to send in the Marines (or whomever) because Fox is hyperventilating about a caravan of mainly women and children escaping from Honduras to Mexico and because Ann Coulter sat for a Times video threatening electoral vengeance if Trump doesn’t build his wall. Nor does it matter that DACA is inapplicable to any immigrant who might illegally cross the border today; Trump is going to redundantly kill the program a second time and blame the Democrats. Similarly, he flip-flopped on his threat to withdraw immediately from Syria only after Fox & Friends told him to. If he really does tamp down his trade war with China, it will be because he is instructed by Rupert Murdoch or Sean Hannity.

Anyone who expects this behavior to stop or even decelerate is delusional. Unchecked by the Vichy Republicans in Congress and fed by a steady diet of junk food, Trump’s rabidity is going to get worse unless and until the Democrats take the House and/or Senate in November. Even if Trump gives away the nuclear codes to Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un in his proposed summits, it’s hard to picture Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan doing anything more than hiding under their desks.

Recent attacks on the free press, from Trump’s outbursts against the Washington Post (via Amazon) to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s spooky scripting of local news, have also met a backlash. What do you think Trump and Sinclair will take from this episode?

Both Trump and Sinclair will double down on their efforts to destroy a fact-based press and replace it with state-approved propaganda. There’s no incentive for them to do otherwise: their respective fans and viewers are one-hundred percent for it.

It’s worth restating for the umpteenth time that those of us who believe in, consume, and in some cases work in “real” news can throw as many temper tantrums about this as we want and there will still be a third of the country that believes journalistic institutions like the Post and CNN are frauds. And they love, just love, to hear us squeal about it. That loyal Trump claque probably believes as well that Jeff Bezos (where did he emigrate from, anyway?) edits the Post and that Amazon is ripping off the Postal Service, among other false “facts” repeatedly pounded in by the president.

If nothing else, Trump’s nonstop effort to undermine or silence a free press is consistent with his efforts to undermine every other institution of democracy, from the judiciary to Congress to law enforcement and virtually every federal agency. Even the military is not exempt from this vandalism; it’s being forced to squander morale, money, and manpower staging a Pennsylvania Avenue parade for its dear leader, not to mention a pogrom against trans Americans in its ranks. The Department of Veterans Affairs is about to be turned over to Trump’s White House physician, the one doctor who may have even less managerial experience than the hapless Ben Carson.

Roseanne has returned to television after more than 20 years, finding mixed reviews but stellar ratings. How does the show match the Trump era?

I guess I am as much of a liberal as Roseanne’s sister Jackie, but nonetheless I wasn’t offended politically by a single moment in the ABC reboot of Roseanne. Roseanne Barr’s own politics notwithstanding, the show is safely within the Hollywood norm. It’s not as if any of the characters are attacking the teenage anti-gun activists of Parkland as, say, Laura Ingraham did on Fox News or Barr herself did in a quickly deleted tweet. Indeed, the show’s first two episodes culminate with the fictional Roseanne proving a softie and making nice to her possibly trans grandson — a happy ending for all. To compare this sitcom protagonist to Archie Bunker is an insult to the uncompromising bravery of Norman Lear in bringing working-class political incorrectness to prime-time television long before it was cool.

What is offensive about the new Roseanne is how lazily written and acted it is. I’ve always been a fan of Barr as a performer. Here she is embalmed in the impeccable coif and makeup of a Hollywood superstar, then rolled into the middle of the set to deliver or receive a predictable zinger in faux bad taste, punctuated by sweetened audience laughter. It’s an exaggeration to call these mini-sketches scenes. Those brilliant actors John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf seem to be phoning it in, and you can’t blame them.

Some liberal critics of the new Roseanne, like Roxane Gay, who say they find the show “funny” even as they vow to spurn it, are grading it on a curve both as comedy and as a political provocation. Many on the right are doing exactly the same. Would that the show were as daring as both its detractors and champions claim it is. For some, the pro forma name-checking of “Deplorable” and “Nasty Woman” is apparently titillating enough.

And some of those cheering or booing Roseanne don’t seem actually to have watched it; they’re just rooting for their side. Certainly Trump said nothing that indicated he watched before calling up Barr to congratulate her. (Nor is there anyone around now to brief the president on the fact that the opening-night viewership for Roseanne, 18 million viewers, didn’t match the 22 million viewers who turned up for Stormy Daniels’s debut on 60 Minutes — a popular-vote disparity of about 4 million, one might say.) What might have caught Trump’s eye, besides the ratings, is one of those risible self-promotional stories in which ABC claims to have had the genius idea to revive Roseanne as a morning-after response to Trump’s election. This allows him to take credit for its success too. In any case, what’s certain is that Roseanne is no more likely to prompt a revolution in television programming trends than the successful revival of its cultural mirror image, Will & Grace. Nostalgia still sells in broadcast-network prime time, particularly when you can write a big enough check to suit up the stellar original cast.

Frank Rich: Trump Only Knows Chaos