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Trump Jumps the Shark

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Jump the shark: referring to a television series or movie that reaches a point at which far-fetched events are included merely for the sake of novelty, indicative of a decline in quality.

Back in 1977, the popular T.V. series, Happy Days, unwittingly added a neologism to the American vernacular when its writers had the character Fonzie (Henry Winkler) jump over a shark while on water skis. Audiences groaned; “the gimmick,” explains Wikipedia, “strayed absurdly outside the original storyline of the sitcom.” Jumping the shark has since come to indicate that a show’s writers, desperate to maintain popularity, “have exhausted their focus, that the show has strayed irretrievably from an older and better formula, or that the series as a whole is declining in quality.”

We all know that the Trump presidency has been a reality T.V. show played out in real time. Trump, who knows a thing or two about television programming from his days as host of the reality show The Apprentice, figured out that what Americans want from a president is, not leadership or inspiration or competence, but entertainment. And he understands the main premise of an entertaining plot: keep raising the stakes. That’s what makes viewers come back for more.

This explains everything about Trump’s political rise, from the birtherism he began to espouse in 2011 to that dramatic ride down the escalator at Trump Tower in 2016 to the thousands and thousands of lies he’s told since then, from the size of his inaugural crowd to the accusations of fraud in the recent campaign. As political theater, it worked brilliantly. It not only appealed to the madness of his fans, it made for must-see T.V. Love Trump or hate him, we all were glued to our radios and televisions and computer screens, driven by the central driving motivation of entertainment: a desire to know what happens next.

As a reality series, then, the Trump presidency has been a huge success. But every successful T.V. series (M.A.S.H., Cheers, Dallas, Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Homeland) must end. The question, for its producers and writers, is when to pull the plug. It can be done gracefully, as in the series I just cited; or they can try to deny the inevitable and keep the thing on life support longer than is creatively warranted. They can, in other words, jump the shark.

The Trump T.V. series ended, or should have ended, with the results of the presidential election. Trump lost; Biden won; in a rational, sane world, that would have been that. The writers and producers would have emptied their desk drawers, taken their coffee mugs and gone home, to work on another script for another series. But the star of the Trump T.V. series didn’t want the show to end quite that abruptly. Donald Trump wished it to continue, for many more years. No one connected to him had the guts to tell him that it was over, that the series was as dead as the Milton Berle Show and nothing could resuscitate it. So Donald Trump, who as I said knows a thing or two about programming, decided to write a few more episodes that were so dramatic, so unlikely, so controversial, that—he hoped—viewers would find it impossible to change the channel. Donald Trump, in other words, jumped the shark.

What he scripted this past week was absurd, pointless drama: waiting until the last minute to sign the COVID relief bill, but with the proviso that it be amended to include $2,000 checks to almost every American. He also vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the military, daring the Congress to give him his first override. As I write, these issues remain very much alive, dominating Washington at a time when the Congress has plenty of other things to worry about.

Why these stunts of Trump are “jumping the shark” is obvious. The Trump T.V. series has been “declining in quality” for some time, and the recent election gave it the coup de grâce. At some point, Trump, the scriptwriter, ran out of steam for new plot devices, and began resorting to the same twists over and over again. His tweeting, so unique and radical at first, became merely predictable. His fulminations about the election—never believable to begin with—became hysterical and neurotic. His anger and resentment, always prominent in his personality, turned ugly and tiresome. Even Republicans grew weary of the series. What Trump should have done was collect his Emmies and retire to Mar-a-Lago. Instead, his narcissism and insecurity forced him to write these last few scripts, which have tarnished his presidency beyond the degree to which it was already tarnished, which was pretty badly.

Technically, the Donald Trump T.V. show will continue for another three weeks. But it’s already Dead Man Walking. Tedious and tendentious, it’s turned into the media equivalent of heroin addiction: users no longer even get high on it, they just need it to continue to exist. The Joe Biden Show begins at noon on January 20, 2021; the Trump show will be shown only as reruns on small local channels. Trump’s final jumping-the-shark episodes will be just another of the horrible, sickening things about 2020 we’ll be glad to be rid of.

  1. Bravo. You’re an incredible articulator. Jumps the Shark, indeed.

  2. This one practically wrote itself! Happy new year, Jo, to you and Jose.

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