When NBC announced it had chosen Donald Trump to star in its new reality TV show “The Apprentice,” I wrote a column for the New York Times criticizing the network for giving a conman and serial failure at business a platform on which he could pretend to be a successful CEO. Trump was no fan of the column, calling me the day it was published to scream at me: “Where the f@#k do you get off calling me a failure when you are the one working at a newspaper?” (a pretty good line, admittedly).
That was 2004, and Trump, however much of a fraud he might be as a business leader, proved a bona fide success as a reality TV star. He’s still at it, 16 years on. He’s no longer starring in “The Apprentice,” but in “The MAGA Presidency.” Now in its fourth season, the show has been compelling. It’s like watching your crazy uncle get to be president ; entertaining in good times, horrifying during a global pandemic.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, meanwhile, has been the protagonist of his own reality TV show ever since he proclaimed himself the “legitimate” president of Mexico after losing the 2006 election. He played the role with admirable determination, and because enough Mexicans preferred his drama to reality, AMLO was able to drop the quotation marks around “legitimate” upon winning the presidency in 2018.
Most political leaders are, by definition, a contradictory combination of narcissist and public servant, but reality TV show stars are all narcissism. Trump and AMLO were both slow to react to the imminent threat posed by the virus because they were loath to allow a crisis to interrupt their respective narratives of a triumphant restoration of national greatness.
In this reality TV genre of populist presidential soap opera, an unexpected existential crisis is significant for how it impacts its protagonist, perversely enough, rather than the governed. That is one of the commonalities of the Trump/AMLO discourse – they’d each have you believe their political project is the pandemic’s main intended victim (if mysterious, villainous forces have their way, at least).
Trump has vacillated between getting back to his “everything is awesome” re-election script as quickly as possible and, more recently, adopting the mantle of a unifying “wartime president” (he must envy George W. Bush’s 91% approval ratings two months after 9/11). Authoritarian-minded leaders in countries like Hungary and Philippines are leveraging the emergency to silence opposition and advance their agendas, and the temptation to do so will only grow in this part of the world. Call it the “anillo al dedo” approach to the pandemic.
That’s what AMLO said about the coronavirus and his “4th Transformation” last week. Then yesterday he addressed Mexicans eager to hear about bold new economic measures to confront the pandemic’s toll on working families. Instead they watched a muddled, self-congratulatory “informe” in which AMLO cited the virus as another good reason for unrelated programs he’s launched, sparred with scapegoats from the past, and teased viewers with an unexpected hat tip to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though leaving out any of the type of visionary actions that characterized FDR’s New Deal. All in all, another bizarre performance from Palacio Nacional.
But things could get worse. If the coronavirus strikes Mexico hard in coming weeks, you have to worry (beyond the human tragedy) about the fate of the country’s rule of law. Trump unleashed still faces formidable constitutional and political guardrails, but it’s not hard to envision an AMLO administration in search of scapegoats deciding to nationalize certain companies or entire industries, on the basis of one of its flimsy “consultas populares” (ask Constellation Brands how far-fetched that sounds).
If I could assign homework to AMLO and Trump, I’d urge them to pick up Erik Larson’s fabulous new book, The Splendid and the Vile, an intimate account of Winston Churchill during his first year in office, when he singlehandedly rallied the British people to stand up to Hitler, despite the fall of France, the onslaught of Luftwaffe bombing raids (Larson has said he was drawn to the story of how a leader and his people withstood 57 consecutive 9/11s), and Washington’s stubborn neutrality. It’s an oft-told tale, Britain’s “finest hour,” but one that acquires renewed urgency during another historical moment that calls for inspired leadership to mobilize society.
Churchill was one of history’s greatest orators, so any comparisons are somewhat unfair. But it’s fair to note that while he had a healthy ego, Churchill realized, unlike today’s populist soap opera stars, that he was not the main protagonist of the drama. And that is what gave his soaring rhetoric ballast, and resonance. This was about the fate of the “English speaking-peoples,” and Western civilization. Churchill leveled with the public, treating them as adults in his communications, never sugar-coating bad news, never minimizing the horrors and sacrifice that lay ahead. “Under his leadership,” Larson writes, “Britons began to see themselves as protagonists on a vaster scene and as champions of a high and invincible cause.”
Churchill was able to subsume his ego for the greater cause, as he did in his sustained wooing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the United States. Churchill knew he and his domestic project were not the center of the universe, that he needed the United States at his side, even if it meant he and Britain would need to accept junior status in the partnership. This kind of internationalism is sadly lacking in our current leaders’ playbook, because they do insist on remaining at the center of the universe.
The most poignant aspect of the Churchill wartime drama, of course, is that he lost in the end. Not the war; he won that. But he was voted out of office in a national election held in July of 1945, only two months after the fall of the Third Reich. A personal tragedy, but a testament to democratic norms and the rule of law that should inspire us today. It was never about him.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America.Twitter: @AndresDCmtz