“None of you — not a single one of you — can look away,” Donald Trump wrote in 2015, as he campaigned for the Republican nomination.
He was talking about just how absorbed we were becoming in the drama of an orange-tinted reality TV celebrity running for President.
“Admit it,” he wrote. “You people want to see just how far this goes, don’t you?”
OK, full disclosure: he didn’t write that.
The Onion did.
But in the years since it was published, that fake op-ed in a fake newspaper has earned a kind of pop cultural cache for its prescience, the headline a shorthand for our collective fascination.
Yes, we did want to see how far it went. As with any zeitgeisty TV drama, we were glued to our screens right to the bloody end.
Now, as Trump prepares to re-enter the spotlight this week after a period of relative quiet, how should Australians think about our relationship to the high drama of American politics?
Will we miss the endless controversy, the lawsuits, the incendiary tweets, the palace intrigue? And if so, what does that say about us?
‘The last remaining thing we all have in common’
In the weeks before November 3, Trump had a warning: politics will be boring without me.
That was a recognition of his hold on the media, an institution he abhors but whose attention he craves.
“[Donald Trump] was more of a cultural figure than he was a legislative or policymaking figure,” said Matt Bevan, host of the ABC podcast America, If You’re Listening.
“I look forward to boring,” Terry Smith, a professor of political science at Columbia College, said recently.
In a piece called Boring Is Better, The Atlantic’s John Dickerson wrote:
“A presidency based on ratings or the trill of the news alert … is as distinct from the vital requirements of the job as The Apprentice was from the habits of effective corporate governance, or The Bachelor is from nurturing relationships.”
The Trump era was like a throwback to a pre-internet time when everyone had common reference points, said The Chaser’s Chas Licciardello.
“When I first started making TV 20 years ago, at any given moment there were probably 10 TV shows that everyone watched,” he said.
“And there were 20 musicians who everyone knew. And there were two or three news stories every single day that every single person was across. And so it was really easy to come up with jokes because the reference points were common.”
With multiple screens, a million online communities, and even distinct realities, that is no longer the case — until a figure as ubiquitous as Donald Trump comes along.
“Donald Trump stories were a source of commonality in a world where there wasn’t much,” said Licciardello, a co-host of Planet America.
“It’s not how wild and unpredictable he was, although that certainly was [part of it].
“I think he is the last remaining thing we all have in common. And I think people will miss that.”
Taking stock of our addiction to Trump storylines
The true crime genre has also become a cultural touchpoint in the past few years. Serial, Cold Case Files, Tiger King — this was lurid, captivating content that we gathered round and picked apart en masse.
But alongside that popularity has been the criticism that the genre takes serious events with real-world consequences and commodifies them, ringing out the humanity in the process of making entertainment.
As someone who wrote about the Trump Administration like it was a TV series, I’m primed to see the similarities.
Did our intense interest in Donald Trump — the endless tweets and news alerts, the alleged Russian plots, the paedophilia conspiracies — become a kind of entertainment that stripped the news of its realness?
“It is like a soapie when awful things happen — and when funny things happen and good things happen,” said Licciardello, who thinks Australians did become addicted to all things Trump.
He attributes that addiction to his theory of searching for commonality. But he also knows Australians have long looked at American culture with puzzlement — and with the comfort of not really feeling the consequences.
“I think that is part of the reason why both Donald Trump and American politics, in general, is so intoxicating to Australians. Because we understand it just as well as Americans do — because we are damn close to Americans ourselves — but it’s not affecting us,” he said.
“That is that is part of the toxic brew. I don’t think we are ever going to feel guilty about it because that’s the way we approach American politics all the time. And that’s not going to change.”
Damien Cave, the Australia bureau chief for The New York Times, said he thought Australians’ interest in Trump had intensified since he moved here in 2017.
“I was having conversations with Uber drivers who were well-versed in the Electoral College,” he said.
In some ways it was a foreign story, he said, but in other ways it wasn’t, given the “enormous stakes for the whole world”.
While some of us may now harbour a feeling of over-indulgence — Cave likens it to eating too much ice-cream in one sitting — the mix of emotions is ultimately complex.
“I think there are a lot of Australians who are kind of heartbroken by what is happening in the United States,” he said.
Bevan doesn’t think we should feel guilty about our intense interest.
“I think the way that it ended sort of justified everybody’s extra interest in it,” he said, pointing to the January 6 violence and the concerted attempt to overturn the election results.
“It was a serious thing that had bizarre and strange and ironic and occasionally funny moments, but I always thought it was an extremely serious thing.
“And not equivalent to Tiger King, simply because there were consequences for real people.”
What the ‘Trump bump’ achieved
Much was made in the period after the 2016 election about the “Trump bump”, the surge in traffic and new subscribers that was giving an ailing media business fresh hope.
But in a wide-ranging review in October, the media writers Jon Allsop and Pete Vernon called out news outlets for letting the chaos overshadow important coverage.
While acknowledging the period resulted in some “brilliant investigative scoops”, they criticised “an industry whose basic practices and rhythms have conspired, time and again, to downplay demagoguery, let Trump and his defenders off the hook, and drain resources and attention from crucial longer-term storylines”.
Just weeks into the Biden presidency, there seems to be, in the words of New York Times White House correspondent Katie Rogers at least, a “rewiring” taking place.
Meanwhile, Fintech Zoom, Fox News and MSNBC have all seen significant ratings declines, though partly that’s due to record high viewership in the days around the Capitol riot.
Boston Globe reporters expressed surprise last month at getting an email response from the White House — a “massive departure” from the Trump era — while raising a deeper question.
Cave said “miss” was probably the wrong word but suspected many media organisations would now need to “recalibrate” their coverage.
Bevan said while White House reporters might quietly yearn for the constant leaks of the Trump days, the confluence of a pandemic, a recession, racial injustice and climate change meant there was more than enough to cover.
“I don’t know that you’re going to get a situation where we snap back into the world of 2015, where everything is sort of fairly normal and chugging along fairly cleanly.”
Where our Trump ‘obsession’ goes now
Both Bevan and Licciardello are surprised at how quiet Trump has been. Aside from a statement about his movie appearances, he has largely left his minimal public engagement to his lawyers.
But neither expect him to stay quiet for long. Not having a Twitter account won’t be an impediment.
“And he could do that again, if he wanted to. I think he possibly will.”
There will likely be investigations into him, and potentially future political campaigns.
Those will test how much the obsession with Trump the character was augmented by the office he held.
“If you remove the nuclear weapons from him, is he still interesting to people?” Bevan said.
“I don’t know. We’ll see.”