There is a reality-television program called American Pickers, and what happens on it is this: A junkman drives around in a van and offers to buy other people’s junk, sometimes haggling over the price. The supporting characters are assistant junkmen and sundry onlookers. It is as though someone decided to remake Sanford and Son without actors, Redd Foxx’s humor, or a plot.
(Or that nifty theme music.)
Its popularity is as inexplicable as it is undeniable.
Because nothing actually happens on American Pickers, the show relies on the illusion of action, which is created through camerawork and editing. Junkman offers $x for a quantity of junk; Junk-Haver produces a look of concentration. The camera cuts quickly back and forth among the faces of Junkman, Deputy Junkman, Assistant Deputy Junkman, Junk-Haver, and Sundry Junk-Having Onlookers. And then there is a commercial for erection pills.
The application to the first 100 days of the Trump administration is of course obvious.
President Donald J. Trump is a creature of reality television. He may not be very good at running hotels or casinos, but he is a gifted performer, a master of creating the illusion of action. As he marks his first 100 days in office (one day of a Trump presidency would have been incredible enough), what has President Trump actually done?
There is the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. For that, the church bells should be rung. The Gorsuch confirmation represents a genuine and genuinely important political victory. That victory belongs to Mitch McConnell, the wily Republican leader in the Senate who understood that Barack Obama was an even lamer duck than he seemed and took the opportunity to hand an abusive and overreaching administration a political defeat of a kind never before dealt to an American president. Well done, Senator McConnell. And well done, whoever had the job of explaining to Donald Trump what a Gorsuch is and keeping the president’s batty sister off the nation’s highest court.
What else you got?
Trump made a “solemn vow” that on his first day in office, he would label China a currency manipulator and slap sanctions on Beijing. A few weeks later, he reversed course, because — we have the president’s own word on this — somebody explained the issue to him. Solemn vows are not Donald Trump’s thing.
Trump repeatedly promised that the woefully misnamed Affordable Care Act would be repealed, and that this would be among his first actions in office. A few weeks later, he reversed course, because — we have the president’s own word on this — somebody explained the issue to him. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated!” he said. As with many things Trump says, that is not quite true. It is not the case that nobody knew health care is complicated. Pretty much everybody who has given two seconds’ thought to the issue, read a copy of the Wall Street Journal (Hello, Mrs. Clinton!), or stood within 25 feet of Avik Roy knows that health care is complicated. Pretty much everybody but the reality-television host who was duly elected president of these United States knew that.
President Trump is not a details guy.
There was going to be a wall paid for by Mexico. What there will be is some additional border fencing that Trump promises “eventually, at a later date, in some way” will be paid for by Mexico. We do not have the president’s word on this, but it seems likely that somebody explained that issue to him, too, things like how rivers work and what private property is, not to mention the niggling fact that most illegals do not enter the United States by wading across the Rio Grande or enter illegally at all.
Trump’s promised schedule was always absurd. And presidential candidates often make absurd promises about their first 100 days, forgetting about such minor details as Congress and the Constitution and democracy and all that. But Trump was, he assured us, a different kind of politician, a builder and a doer, a winner, a hard-charging negotiator. Which is to say, he convinced the electorate that he was in reality the character he plays on television. Many of his talk-radio and cable-news partisans are still trying to convince us that is the case, but it is not entirely clear that these reality-show performers are able to tell the difference between the political theater and the theater, between action and acting.
Instead of hard choices and committed action, what Trump has produced is a flurry of shallow gestures that create the illusion that he is doing something meaningful. But those executive orders range from the shoddy and unusable to the symbolic. He produced a “Buy American” executive order without quite seeming to understand that the Buy American Act already is law and has been since the administration of Herbert Hoover. Trump’s “Buy American” guidance is essentially a memo to federal agency heads asking them to think really hard about it before issuing one of the Buy American Act waivers that they routinely hand down in order to get around the fact that the Buy American Act rules are deeply stupid and entirely unpractical. He met with some business leaders and announced that he had saved jobs by preventing a great deal of outsourcing that never was actually scheduled to happen. He made a lot of noise about saving the coal industry without taking into account that what is killing it is the natural-gas industry.
Trump’s executive orders range from the shoddy and unusable to the symbolic.
He installed a bunch of amateurs in the White House, including family members, none of whom has any particular experience or talent related to the portfolios given them. He abominated Goldman Sachs and then hired half of its old-timers league.
He has produced a vague and half-baked tax plan that many of his fellow Republicans have said they cannot support. He can’t hire people or figure out what he thinks about China, Syria, or the Russians whose shenanigans are plaguing some of the associates he would dearly like to forget. He threatened to pull out of NAFTA, which he does not have the legal power to do on his own, and then announced that he’d be renegotiating the trade accord without ever having said which of its provisions he objects to — or, indeed, ever publicly describing any of its provisions or the trade rules that it created.
Trump’s first 100 days are a bust. For the next 100, Republicans should try something else: Having Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell send him useful and responsible pieces of legislation to sign. These need not be dramatic and far-reaching: In fact, it would be better if they were not. Send him a bill reforming corporate taxes instead of a tax-reform omnibus. Create stronger federal penalties for employing illegal immigrants and see to it that federal law-enforcement agencies get serious about enforcing them. Figure out what you think about health care, if you can. Republicans will get reform the same way Johnny Cash got his Cadillac: one piece at a time.
Conservatives had better start facing the fact that the president is a man overmatched by his job. All of President Trump’s reality-television posturing, all of his hooting and hollering and fussing and foolishness and tweeting and preening is sound and fury signifying squat. The Trump administration is a show about nothing.
— Kevin Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.