If the Trump presidency is a three act play, we are past the Set Up of Act I when the major characters are introduced, the setting and logic of the story are defined, and the nature of the conflict is established. We are probably in the Confrontation of Act II, where subplots are introduced, foreshadowing events occur, the protagonist leaves his comfort zone, there may be a change of direction, and the stakes escalate. The Resolution of Act III lies in the future with the protagonist coming face to face with the antagonist.
From Homer to Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald the concept of the hero’s tragic flaw has filled literature. For Achilles, Macbeth and Jay Gatsby a lack of self awareness, a lack of judgement, or hubris brought down the otherwise heroic central character. Greek playwrights often had the gods intervene. There is also the conventional character arc, in which the protagonist grows and in the end is capable of things that were impossible in the beginning.
For those hoping for a happy ending, the character arc will have to bend pretty significantly, or the gods will have to intervene for Donald Trump. Consider:
– During the decade of Republican ascendancy, the blocking and tackling was led by Reince Priebus, first in Wisconsin and since 2011 as chair of the Republican National Committee. Recruiting candidates, fundraising, organizing databases, supporting phone banks, building state and local party structures for Get Out The Vote. While the Democratic National Committee leaned over backward to help Hillary defeat Bernie Sanders, Priebus played it straight. When Trump triumphed over the party establishment’s preferred candidates, Priebus eschewed the Never Trump movement, and swung all of the power of the party behind Trump’s candidacy. While Trump had the big rallies and energized outsiders, Priebus had the database, the field offices, and the staff to guide the volunteers. When he appointed the party leader as Chief of Staff, Trump seemed to understand Priebus’ value, but he is gone – a victim of Anthony Scaramucci’s 10 day wrecking ball, leaks by self-serving staff members, and his inability to get Congress to pass Healthcare legislation. Exit Stage Right.
– During the decade of Republican ascendancy, for Middle America the media came less and less to mean the New York Times and CBS, and more to mean talk radio and Fox News. Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Mark Levin are still going strong, but in twelve short months Trump has declared war on the mainstream media, and Fox has become a shell of its former self. Anointed star Megyn Kelly, gone. Roger Ailes, gone. Top Ailes assistant Bill Shine, gone. Bill O’Reilly, gone. Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson still offer conservative advocacy, but the rest of the cast is either B Team or trying to truly be “fair and balanced” and there is nowhere to go for the viewer who wants a pro-Trump perspective on why Chuck Schumer and CNN are hyperventilating each day. Meanwhile those looking for clever star power are migrating to Rachel Maddow for their evening entertainment. If there is any evidence that team Trump would like to help their most loyal news partner, it is missing in the daily White House briefing room where most time is spent jousting with reporters from CNN, the New York Times, and others who have written their stories before entering the room. Exit Stage Right.
– Under Trump, FDR’s “fireside chats” – speaking directly to the American people – have become midnight Tweets. Perhaps he is a victim of the technology. In a different era his utterings would have had limited distribution. But the gods gave us Twitter, and Trump gave us stream of consciousness in 140 characters. No Marc Anthony; no Churchill. Not even Mao’s little red book. It is not as if Trump does not have great speech writers to polish his thinking – they have been evident at the inaugural, in the State of the Union address, and in several foreign speeches, but the hubris makes him believe that immediate dissemination of a midnight thought is more important than a reasoned argument. Each time that a day goes by without a tweet hope arises that the protagonist is growing, but it is a faint hope.
– Perhaps because of his “sole proprietor” business background, Trump does not understand the need for a chorus. Six months into his term, he had Senate approval for only 50 department political nominees, about a quarter of the rate for recent presidents. Only 5 of the 15 departments have deputy directors. Some of this is due to Democratic obstructionism; some is due to avoidance of Establishment Republicans; some is due to a lack of appreciation for basic staffing functions.
Hope remains that Trump will grow; that he will come to understand the importance of early supporters like Jeff Sessions; that he will let General Kelly impose much needed discipline on the White House staff; that he will coordinate legislative strategy with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Perhaps the loss on Repeal and Replace will serve as the plot turning point; perhaps the Scaramucci fiasco. He will definitely need to up his game before he meets his ultimate antagonist – whether it be a united Democratic Party in the 2020 election, an out of control Special Prosecutor, or perhaps Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un.