Do You Have Trump Withdrawal Syndrome?

Say what you want about Donald J. Trump, but the man is a showman. The Apprentice, produced and hosted by Trump, ranked 7th among all network programs in its first season, with over 20 million viewers per episode. Like most reality programming, viewership fell season to season. Still, Trump’s lifelong goal and greatest success was realized: He created the illusion that his TV character was his real-life self, and he became a household ‘brand’ name in the process.

Sure, he was always a real estate developer off-screen, but the image of great success and power that his Apprentice character projected came not from his actual accomplishments in business but from clever character-building techniques employed by the writers and producers of the show, along with Trump’s knack for showmanship. In fact, the show did such a good job convincing viewers of Trump’s successes that the American public elected him President of the United States. Now that is acting!

If you consider it, acting is a con of sorts, and Trump is the master con. So why not consider him a great actor? Who else could convince 74 million people that he is in reality the man he pretends to be on screen? Further, those same people believe anything and everything that Trump says. He could tell everyone that he is Batman, and half of the country would believe him! That is something that Michael Keaton, Val Kilmor and Christian Bale could never accomplish in their wildest Oscar aspiring dreams.

Donald Trump, already a con artist long before The Apprentice, perfected his on-screen hustle by learning his acting chops and mastering successful industry secrets during his reality TV journey. By season 6 The Apprentice had fallen to 75th in TV rankings, so season 7 debuted The Celebrity Apprentice, which brought the series back up to 48, with 11 million viewers per episode. Trump also perfected his onscreen appearance — facial expressions, posture, wardrobe and dialogue — and learned how to sucker a weekly audience back for the next episode with cliffhangers, character conflict and other classic story telling tropes.

He truly got good at his craft. After all, unbeknownst to America, Donald Trump’s character on The Apprentice was the prototype for what would be the role of a lifetime — the most powerful man in the world. I never saw it coming. In fact, I was hardly aware that The Apprentice existed, having only viewed one episode, by accident. It was not dramatic enough for me. If I wasted my time on reality TV, I wanted the prospect of fist fights, love affairs, betrayal and drunken debauchery — I tuned into The Jersey Shore.

But Donald Trump’s presidency made The Jersey Shore seem like reality TV amateur hour. Instead of being confronted with the possibility of “The Situation” sleeping with “Sammi Sweetheart” behind Ronnie’s back, series 45 of the White House — a four-year project unlike anything anyone has dreamed of trying on TV — brought us the possibility of economic collapse, nuclear holocaust and civil war, all on a daily basis.

Just when America thought that reality TV was dead, CNN, Fox News, Twitter and Facebook came to the rescue to give us 24-hour coverage of this spectacle, a monsterous combination of farcical dark comedy and true American tragedy. Every second I was left thinking, “Is this funny or horrible or both? Am I laughing to keep from crying, or have I become a product of TV culture to the degree that I can no longer distinguish reality from simulation?”

Donald Trump had captivated me! And I was not the only one. News stations, writers, comedians and political satirists were enamored with this situational political tromedy (tragedy + comedy), starring a real-life, caricature president with orange skin and a sparkling veneer smile. We were showered with print-worthy fodder on a daily basis, easily manufactured into witty banter and laughable parody without so much as an effort. If we were uninspired, we signed into Facebook and posted a rant or argued with complete strangers. Donald Trump was what we did.

Americans were information junkies long before Donald Trump. A decade ago, I took my coffee with an early morning news program, an IV drip of ticker-tape sports scores running across the bottom of the screen, and a suppository of weather, email, text and countless other iPhone applications, simultaneously. It has only gotten worse from there.

We need to be stimulated. Kurt Cobain expressed this desire aptly when he said, simply, “Here we are now, entertain us,” though he never could have imagined how far it would go. Americans are now entertained, not only by consumer culture, Hollywood and sports, but by information itself, even if some people don’t even care for the factual variety. No matter. Trump had you covered there as well. Want to live in fantasy land? Trump was your guy, and the White House was your show.

And then, “poof!” Air Force One lifted off from Bolling Air Force Base with a cancelled, presidential reality TV star holding his limp Twitter in one hand and his remote control in the other. It would be the last time he could watch himself as President on TV, while being President watching himself on TV — the show, inside of a show, inside of a show. Since then, there has been nothing more than typical news coverage of an ex-president.

I turn to CNN now by muscle memory, only to find a boring-ass Corona Virus task force meeting, with all its seriousness, stability and confidence-inspiring competency to find myself disappointed. I have started clicking over to the reality TV that I watched obsessively before Trump, the wide world of sports, but it’s not the same.

My obsession with Trump is something more akin to a drug addiction than it is a way to pass time and enjoy myself. What thrill can I gain from betting on the Lakers outside of losing some cash? I, like a sick junky, want to gamble with my life. I want a straight shot of that good stuff — Donald J. Trump television.

But it is gone, and I am in withdrawal. It is so bad that I decided to work on the night of the Super Bowl this year. I don’t care as much about it this season, and that is very strange for me. If the players kneel, there is not going to be a racist villain behind the scenes scorning and cursing their actions as anti-American. I need that villain, to hang from the noose of my sentences, the Monday after the game, when I write my critique. Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes may be the heroes, but the bad guy is missing in action, and therefore the world is not as exciting.

If you or someone you know needs help recovering from TWS, please reach out in the comments below.

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