Donald Trump -- Drama King

There seem to be as many explanations for the remarkable rise of Donald Trump as there are political pundits. He’s a populist, a Euro-populist, a dealmaker, star phenomenon, brilliant strategist, sly cur, faux conservative, cryto-liberal, celebrity chameleon, and so on. But one obvious personality trait that explains much is quite simple -- he is (adjusting for sex here) a drama king. The pejorative term “drama queen” commonly applied to women that regularly draw attention to themselves and their various ideas, fixes and crises, is fairly well understood, and as a personality trait certainly not limited to the fairer sex. Nor is it necessarily an unmanly trait. It cuts against stoic virtue, but that is not the only kind of manly virtue. There have been -- and are -- plenty of tough guy drama kings. The real question is whether such a dominant personality trait is suitable for the presidency. While I can think of and will name a number of famous and accomplished drama kings, I cannot think of one who has ever become president, and that is a good thing. 

What are Trump’s bona fides as a drama king? Just about everything he does -- it is all about him and his personality, whether in private life, business or politics. Now this may be in large part the work of a brilliant businessman who knows the value of branding. But it is the rare businessman whose branding always about himself, rather than a product or system -- which is not to say Trump is unique, but unusual. 

Trump personally touts his so called “art of the deal” but his accomplishments in that regard are a mixed bag. Staked to a huge real estate fortune by his father, he’s managed to expand it, which is unremarkable. How he grew that empire though is more worthy of attention -- by branding the Trump name and his larger-than-life personality to go along with it.  

The personal business achievement that Trump can more or less truly call his own (that is divorced from his father) is as a reality television personality and producer. As much as anything in modern life, reality television represents the triumph of the drama queen -- in fact that is all these shows are essentially about, including “The Apprentice.” My wife loves that show, and its appeal is not the silly business ventures that Trump oversees with various wannabe television celebrities on the one hand, and washed-up ones on the other, but the drama of Trump calling in the candidates one-by-one and announcing “You’re fired!” And at least on his television show, Trump is all seriousness, not a hint of humor or recognition that the whole affair is just nonsense. When once in a while a candidate appears who just cannot take the thing seriously, e.g., Gilbert Godfried, they are quickly and summarily sent packing, lest the drama devolve into comedy. 

Trump’s contretemps with Megyn Kelly fits this pattern perfectly. In fact, it is simply reality television remade into modern politics. During the first debate Trump is (or feigns) shock and hurt at Kelly’s provocative (and arguably unfair) questioning. He escalates the confrontation into a more public and personal spat, and then continues to escalate it. We might as well be watching an edition of Real Housewives of somewhere, and the fact that Kelly is beautiful and glamourous only heightens the televised drama. I suspect that in the end, as with most reality television, there will be some emotional reconciliation, when and if Trump sees it will advantage him. 

All this may be brilliant politicking, but what disturbs is that for Trump it is also seemingly effortless. Other politicians can’t do what he does because they are not innate drama kings. For Trump, drawing drama and attention to himself is as natural as breathing. He comes along at a time when doing so is not seen as a personality defect, but is actually now viewed as a virtue, when everyone from schoolkids to working stiffs to bourgeois householders want to get noticed and liked on social media. 

And Trump’s enthusiastic followers, including many readers here at AT, are willingly part of Trump’s great dramaturgical exercise. A Trump article generates loads of social media commentary, much of it over-the-top, dramatic, in-your-face stuff, that makes Trump supporters feel involved and part of the spectacle he is so good at generating. That Trump has found his audience on the right is probably less a matter of his own beliefs than his instinct for generating excitement and theater and going where he sees opportunity. In the past half-century, the left has managed to divide and compartmentalize the American experience, giving pride, place and drama at various times to blacks, women, Latinos, gays -- groups that still vie for media attention, and struggle to attract melodrama. The Black Lives Matter movement—with the exaggerated insistence that only black lives matter -- is but the best of recent examples. Trump is now directing the drama not only at himself, but at his supporters as well -- the long ignored and taken-for-granted conservative white middle class, and many love him for it.

History has seen other drama kings rise, and plenty have been tough guys -- like Alexander the Great. But there is a problem with these men as well. Caesar was a great and brilliant man and a drama king, who overthrew the Roman republic, but could not govern it, and got himself killed. His nephew Octavian (Augustus) was largely his opposite in temperament, succeeded Caesar, and effectively governed, beginning the pax Romana. Patton was America’s most aggressive and talented general in Europe during World War II, and also a drama king. His tendency towards attracting theatrical attention to himself sidelined his career. Eisenhower, a much less talented military man, was Patton’s temperamental opposite, succeeded in managing the war, and went on to become a successful president -- something Patton never could have done (nor would he have wanted to.)

America in general has sensibly rejected drama kings as political leaders -- a trait it shares with its parent nation (Britain) but which many other nations are incapable of doing, e.g., Germany. American presidents actually tend to be sober and dull -- and at least in this regard Barack Obama is part of a long and sensible American tradition. 

Yet, the natural urge for drama among a sometimes bored, ignored, or otherwise disconnected populace is strong, enhanced today by social media's eroding of virtues (like stoicism) that would moderate these tendencies. Giving a drama king like Trump the reigns of the world’s most powerful nation and asking him then to restrain his temperament is dangerous in the extreme. Donald Trump as president will be the same man he is today, always seeking to heighten the drama, and be the constant center of attention. And that is a likely recipe for economic instability, domestic unrest, and foreign war, because that is where the best presidential drama is found.