The 47-Minute Presidency
The Reign of King Toot
By Tom Engelhardt
Recently, I did something rare in my life. Over a long weekend, I took a few days away and almost uniquely -- I might even say miraculously -- never saw Donald Trump's face, since I didn't watch TV and barely checked the news. They were admittedly terrible days in which 50 people were slaughtered in New Zealand. Meanwhile, the president indulged in another mad round of tweeting, managing in my absence to lash out at everything and everyone in sight (or even beyond the grave) from John McCain, Saturday Night Live, and the Mueller "witch hunt" to assorted Democrats and even Fox News for suspending host Jeanine Pirro's show. In his version of the ultimate insult, he compared Fox to CNN. And I was blissfully ignorant of it all, which left me time to finally give a little thought to... Donald Trump.
And when I returned, on an impulse, I conjured up the initial Trumpian moment of our recent lives. I'm aware, of course, that The Donald first considered running for president in the Neolithic age of 1987. He tried to register and trademark "Make America Great Again," a version of an old Reagan campaign slogan, only days after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election to a charismatic, young, black senator. He then rode that new president's "birth certificate" into the post-Apprentice public spotlight amid a growing wave of racism in a country founded on slavery that has never truly grappled with that fact.
Still, the 47 minutes and eight seconds that I was thinking about took place more recently. On June 16, 2015, Donald and Melania Trump stepped onto a Trump Tower escalator and rode it down to the pounding beat of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" (a song the singer would soon demand, without success, that the presidential hopeful not use). A minute and a half later, they arrived in the Trump Tower lobby. There, a clapping Ivanka greeted her father with a kiss on each cheek -- the first signal of the corporatist, family-style presidency to come. Then, The Donald stepped to the microphone and promptly launched his run into fake-news history.
Sometimes, the only way to go forward, or at least know where you are in the present, is to go back. Yes, Donald Trump garnered much news with his announcement that day and was already visibly having the time of his life, but no one in or out of the media then thought he had a shot at being president. Even he was only burnishing his brand. As Michael Wolff reported in his book Fire and Fury, even on election night 2016, almost a year and a half later, with the possible exception of Steve Bannon, no one in the Trump camp, including The Donald, had the slightest expectation of his winning the presidency. All of them were just burnishing their future brands.
And yet, in the spring of 2019, those largely forgotten 47 minutes are worth another look because, in retrospect, they provide such a vivid window into what was to come, what's still coming. They offer the future president not naked at last, but naked at first, and so represent an episode of revelatory wonder (and, had anyone then believed that he might actually win the presidency, of revelatory dread as well).
The Candidate Naked as a Jaybird
Having taken another look at that first speech, I now think of the Trump era so far as the 47-minute presidency. It's nothing short of wondrous just how strikingly that de-escalatory ride and the Trumpian verbal strip tease that followed before a cheering crowd revealed, point by point, the essence of his presidency to come. And by the way, it was certainly indicative of that future presidency that the audience (reporters aside) listening to him in the lobby of Trump Tower seems largely to have been made up of out-of-work actors being paid $50 a pop to cheer him on. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the email sent out by Extra Mile Casting to recruit those extras read in part: "We are looking to cast people for the event to wear t-shirts and carry signs and help cheer him in support of his announcement. We understand this is not a traditional 'background job,' but we believe acting comes in all forms and this is inclusive of that school of thought."
And given what would happen, never has an audience been bought more cheaply or effectively.
It's hardly news today that Donald Trump would prove a unique candidate in American presidential history. On that first day, the most uniquely unique aspect of his speech (and, in the age of Trump, I offer no apologies for such an over-the-top superlative) was the utter, even brutal, honesty with which he presented -- or perhaps the better word would be displayed -- himself to the American people. To paint an even more honest picture, the one thing he might have done was ride that escalator up, not down, to his announcement. After all, his would be an escalation presidency of the first order. In crisis -- and when is The Donald not in crisis? -- it's in his nature to escalate.
So bear with me here as I take us back almost four years to look once again at how it all began, at the way in which, after those 47 minutes, you could have turned off your TV, blocked out all those cable news talking heads, and never looked at the man again. After all, by then you knew everything you truly needed to know (except one thing that I'll return to below) in order to grasp the Trumpian moment to come. In that sense, I think it's fair to say, without a hint of Trump Tower-style exaggeration, that The Donald was the most honest presidential candidate we've ever had.
Honesty may be an odd label to slap on such a man. After all, he lies incessantly. He misstates regularly. He creates false facts anytime he needs them and then sticks with them forever -- and he did just that, with alacrity and aplomb, on his very first day. In some sense, almost everything he says might be considered a lie of sorts, but the lying, misstating, absurd claims, and over-the-top pronouncements are done so nakedly, are so easy to debunk (or, if you prefer, like much of his base, to accept as reality), that they might almost be considered another form of honesty. They are, at least, a form of Trumpian revelation and so nakedness.
The general rule of politics is, of course, that the one thing you don't do is offer yourself exactly as you are, warts and all (or even all warts) and naked as a jaybird for everyone to see. But Donald Trump did just that. In those first 47 minutes and eight seconds, he undressed in front of America. And nearly four years later, it's worth looking back to grasp just how clearly his future presidency could be viewed in that first naked moment of moments.
In a sense, all you needed to know was this. In that announcement speech, it took him barely two minutes to make it to the Mexican border, where he remains today. Nor should it have taken long for any viewer to grasp a few other things about him: he wasn't a man for scripts, but was a man for insults; the Trump brand was far more crucial to him than the American one; he wouldn't just interrupt you or anyone else, but also himself; he was ready to use blunt, everyday language never before associated with presidential candidates, no less presidents, in public ("They talked about environmental, they talked about all sorts of crap that had nothing to do with it"); there were no claims too big (or false) for him to make, especially when it came to himself and his effect on the world; he had already perfected his own unique version of incoherence, or stream-of-consciousness speaking, into a vibrant art form (that, in another sense, couldn't have been more coherent); and he had an ego, invariably on display, as big as... well, not just the Ritz but perhaps his then-still-under-construction Trump International Hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House -- and all of that was obvious even before he mentioned that "great, great wall" of his.