The real world consequences of Trump’s reality show diplomacy

While watching reality TV may not be terrible for you, having it as our government is.

June 9, 2018 21:49
4 minute read.
The real world consequences of Trump’s reality show diplomacy

US President Donald Trump announces his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, US, May 8, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)


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Since taking office, President Donald Trump has trampled over long held consensuses on how the United States should interact with the world, shunning diplomatic norms surrounding consistency and clarity for a tune-innext- time-to-see approach.

A former reality show host, Trump has embraced a formula television executives have long understood: to keep people engaged, keep them guessing about what’s coming next. And if keeping himself in the news is his real goal, Trump’s style appears to be working. Each day brings a deluge of coverage on the various foreign policy dramas his administration has ignited, from the saga of the North Korea summit to the fate of the Iran nuclear deal to newly enacted tariffs on steel and aluminum. It’s hard to deny – Trump’s real time foreign policy style is just as addictive as the testosterone-infused party scenes of Jersey Shore. It’s also just as vacuous. But as hard as it is to watch, tuning out would be a mistake.

Like any reality TV director worth his salt, the president understands how to capture an audience’s attention. To do so, he relies on critical elements of any hit show – tropes that appeal to our baser emotions and reel us in for the next episode. There’s his penchant for on-again, off-again affairs, like the roller coaster relationships he’s pursuing with countries like China and North Korea, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who’s caught a season of the Real World. His chest-beating tweets mirror angry confessionals on Survivor or The Amazing Race. The revolving door of advisers and sycophants who compete for his adoration only to meet an embarrassing end when they fall from his good graces recalls some sadder, slimier version of The Bachelor. And any good reality show must, of course, have a strong bromance; Trump just chooses to have them with dictators and crooks like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak rather than the husband next door on The Real Housewives of Orange County.

As with all things Trump, debate remains over why the president chooses to act the way he does on the international stage. Some observers have floated the idea that his haphazard, just wait- and-see-what’s-coming style is a clever ruse to distract from the controversies swirling around him at home.

Others, like Rep. Lindsey Graham, have argued that the president’s unorthodox approach has garnered real results with issues like North Korea, despite the fact that all Trump has achieved so far is granting the Kim regime the prestige that comes with a face-to-face meeting with a superpower. But the truth of the matter is far simpler – he does it for the attention. After all, you can take the man off The Apprentice and throw him in the Oval Office, but that won’t make him presidential.

This certainly doesn’t equate to any kind of coherent diplomacy. In the span of one week, the Trump administration very publicly canceled the North Korea summit, conducted a flurry of hastily arranged meetings to salvage it, and finally announced that the sit-down will, in fact, take place. For now. During the same time, we learned that the White House levied punishing steel and aluminum tariffs against some of our closest allies. Canada, Mexico and the European Union have already pledged to retaliate, ramping up the possibility that Washington could soon be in embroiled in a multiple-front trade war of its own making. It’s still unclear how Trump will respond, but you can be sure he will make a production of it. And that’s just it. For Trump, catching the limelight is far more important than producing results.

While watching reality TV may not be terrible for you, having it as our government is. Virtually everyone who follows shows like Vanderpump Rules describes the hobby as a guilty pleasure, an hour away from the stress of daily life. But what could rightfully be called “Keeping Up With The Donald” has real consequences for all Americans, from the job losses that could accompany a trade war to the frightening prospect of war with Iran. Trump may have succeeded in his goal of tanking his predecessor’s major foreign policy initiatives, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, and US participation in the Paris climate agreement, but his short-sighted actions have dealt severe damage to American prestige and long-term strategic interests.

Given the constant coverage devoted to Trump’s actions, it’s tempting to simply change the channel. With each early morning Twitter barrage comes a creeping desire to ignore the president’s ham-handed attempts at foreign policy and the steady corrosion of US standing in the world. But we must fight the urge to tune out, because doing so risks normalizing the bellicosity and sloppiness at the heart of the Trump doctrine. More than that, it would go against one of the founding tenets of reality TV – when someone can’t cut it, vote them (and in this case, the lawmakers who enable them) off the program. Remember – it may be Trump’s show, but we’re all living in it.

The writer is a recent graduate of the University of Texas’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, where he focused on US national security and foreign policy. His work has been featured in publications including The Jerusalem Post, the Dallas Morning News and Task & Purpose. Follow him @dannyleffler57.

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