In the United States, everything from a shopping spree to the latest Hollywood film has to have a happy ending. Although reality television as we know it only came to American screens in the 1990s, such “reality” programmes also tried and largely succeeded with the happy ending motif that runs through every part of US media except for the news. But whilst Spiderman continues to save the day on the big screen and whilst and ever expanding Star Wars franchise continues to be an interstellar morality play revolving around the incredibly basic concept of good against evil, the US news media is becoming ever more negative, cynical and darkly sarcastic.
It was once suggested that violent video games have a less harmful effect on children than watching twenty-four hour news channels. Whilst not necessarily a scientific statement, one look at the calculated negativity and downright morose output of CNN, MSNBC and the rest and it would be hard not to agree that the negative impact of American news does not necessarily lend itself towards proper cognitive development in children. By contrast, certain foreign news channels, particularly those in north-east Asia tend to focus uniformly on the positive developments within and around a country. Balance is always the key but the fact remains that the happy ending is further from US news reportage and analysis than ever before.
Barack Obama epitomised the stereotype of America’s “negative news man in chief”. Although he initially campaigned on positive slogans like “hope” and “change”, when in government Obama was cynical, unimaginative, rote and overall was the all too slick PR man for the military-industrial complex. The result of Obama’s cynicism in place of hope was a divided country that produced a 2016 election whose levels of scorn, conspiratorial outbursts and refusals by the losers to concede could shame a post-colonial third world banana republic.
Enter Donald Trump. Trump is a man who likes to divide the world between winners and losers. Trump is likewise a man who brought his penchant for high melodrama to geopolitics. In its first season…that is to say his first year in power, some of the melodrama appeared to be highly frightening, especially when it came to the possibility of war with the DPRK. But now that Trump has become close friends with Kim Jong-un, has put the brakes on a would-be war on Iran, is allowing the US role in Syria and possibly even Afghanistan to wind down and has all but abandoned John Bolton’s would-be coup in Venezuela, it is fair to say that Trump has produced some desirable results in world affairs whilst his domestic record is that of a middle-of-the road moderate (in spite of the fiery rhetoric) who is overseeing an economic revival, modest tax cuts and no great shake up of the social status quo.
Whether it be his style of dramatic and very public brinkmanship in foreign affairs or his ability to turn enemies into friends, there is something counter-intuitively reassuring about Trump’s reality TV style of leadership. The reason for this is that reality TV loves a winner and what’s more is that reality TV loves an underdog winner. In geopolitics, the proverbial underdog is the deal no one imaged, the peace no one thought possible, the age old negative trends reversed and the win-win partnerships forged.
In this sense, the reality TV presidency is also an optimistic presidency and one backed up by increasingly obvious patterns of action steps designed to make the happy ending happen. Of course like any good reality TV show, there is plenty of suspense, crisis and catastrophe but there is ultimately catharsis or to Americanise Aristotle’s phraseology, there is a placid happy ending where equilibrium is achieved or restored.
In this sense, Donald Trump is not the “serious” president that Obama was. He is likewise not the cunning, calculating, cynical middleman in chief presiding over a military-industrial state whose optimism was dying by the day. Like the leading character in any Hollywood style morality play, Donald Trump sometimes appears to be doing the wrong thing, but like in many Hollywood films, such a character is ultimately redeemed even whilst retaining the faults that make him human (all too human).
This is not to say that the actions taken by the White House aren’t as important as they ever were, but it is to say that the outside world ought to view Donald Trump with a calm eye. The film isn’t over and 2020 is merely going to be an intermission before the more interesting second half begins.