One of the current controversies-of-the-moment is over a rebooted sitcom starring Roseanne Barr. The show attempts to whitewash the unsavory aspects of the Trump movement by casting it as the economic anxiety of simple folk who want jobs and have strong opinions about Hillary Clinton, rather than the movement of self-enforced ignorance and conspiracy peddling on which Barr bases her real-world Trump support. It is too bad; far better would be a show in which the fictional Roseanne spouts conspiracy theories only to learn from other characters that those things were inventions, or a show in which the fictional Roseanne is confronted over her theory that Clinton was too much a “liar” for the White House while plugging her ears as the current resident lies about everything, all the time, for fun. Now that could be an intriguing, insightful look at the current American era, though we seem to have of late abandoned the notion that insightful and sitcom could go together.
But in the actual White House, in the meantime, the opposite move is happening in what we stubbornly insist on calling real life. Donald Trump appears to take most of his direction from his television set. He collects advisers and would-be lawyers from the ranks of people he has seen on TV. And the reverse appears even more true; if an adviser is not on television, he tends to dismiss his advice in favor of someone who has been.
The man seems to live inside the idiot box. Things are only real if someone on television says so; things can be declared fake if someone on television says so. That he is inviting a much-favored television personality, the arch-right Fox Business host Lou Dobbs, to sit in on White House meetings and act as an informal member of his cabinet could only be considered a logical move for someone who seems not to know himself whether he is living outside or inside the idiot box.
What sets Dobbs apart is the degree to which the president views him as a political and populism godfather, the #MAGA Socrates to Trump’s Plato.
As such, Dobbs doesn’t get to just interview and socialize with the president; he is involved in some of the administration’s more sensitive discussions. During the first year of the Trump era, the president has patched in Dobbs via speakerphone to multiple meetings in the Oval Office so that he could offer his two cents, according to three sources familiar with these conversations. Trump will ask Dobbs for his opinion before and after his senior aides or Cabinet members have spoken. Occasionally, he will cut off an official so the Fox Business host can jump in.
Dobbs has weighed in—presumably when he is off-air, since if Dobbs was wedging his second job as Secretary of What Televisionland Thinks into commercial breaks one would imagine that would have itself been noted—on tax and trade policies in particular. It seems likely that he may have had a hand in immigration discussions himself, as Dobbs has refashioned himself as something very, very close to a white nationalist since arriving at Fox, and has peppered his shows with anti-immigrant invective long before Trump began campaigning on the same notions.
To be clear: This is odd. It is not odd for a television-obsessed man to want to associate himself with the figures he sees on his screen; it is considerably more odd for a president to invite the figures he sees on his television screen to White House policy meetings. And it is part of a pattern that, for Trump, seems to reduce every life interaction to a television version of itself. It is not clear whether he has made a new friend or confidant in the last decade who was not someone he first saw on videotape; he seems to crave friendships with, and in some cases sex with, individuals based on their television personalities.
This blurred line between television and reality keeps blurring inside the White House. It is not even close to this president’s worst feature—his constant lying, his malignant narcissism, his open corruption, and his cover-up of campaign collaboration with Russian agents all rank far higher—but it speaks to the man’s shallowness. The man is not far removed from ordering new cabinet secretaries from one of the home shopping channels and bragging afterward on what a deal he got.