HILLSBORO, Ohio – When Omarosa Manigault Newman joined the White House staff in January 2017, it was only a matter of time until she reestablished herself in the role that made her famous early in her career on “The Apprentice” – America’s top drama queen.
Chances are, President Donald Trump knew that, but the president embraces drama, too. He understands better than anyone before him that the presidency is performance art. He also knows that most Americans prefer schlock to Shakespeare.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, small Hollywood studios such as American International Pictures made a killing churning out low-budget horror, science fiction, beach-party and sexploitation films. Critics thumbed their noses at such fare, but audiences, especially in the Midwest, flocked to small-town movie houses and the drive-ins where such gems typically played.
They were drawn by lurid movie posters utilizing what AIP mogul Samuel Arkoff called the “Sees,” as in “Invasion of the Saucer-men,” which promised, “SEE! Teenagers versus the Saucer-men! SEE! Disembodied hand that crawls!” or “Goliath and the Vampires,” enticing customers to “SEE! The torture chamber of the blue men! SEE! The virgin-harem of the vampire god!” and so on. Of course, audiences knew this wasn’t high art; they were looking for a night of fun, entertainment and surprise – and got what they came for.Similarly, the Trump Show – with free promotion from the media – titillates us with, “SEE! Porn star’s lurid tale of tryst with president! SEE! Showdown with Little Rocket Man! SEE! Russian attack on democracy! SEE! Omarosa reveals her private tapes!” Far from turning middle Americans off, the Trump Show reels them in, regardless of whether its star is cast as hero or villain.
Until Trump, old-guard Washington was performing the equivalent of a long-running Broadway show featuring the same tired performances – everyone donning their fraying stage costumes, repeating their lines by rote, both the left and the right falling predictably into character. The recitations had grown flat from lack of sincerity or passion, and the news media, as critics, wrote the same reviews ad nauseam. “Fake news” rings somewhat true when what’s being covered is so formulaic and contrived.
With Trump, we get the cheesy, the shocking and sometimes the uncomfortable – just like a good drive-in movie. Trump never seems to study the script or know his part, at least as defined by those previously cast as the “President of the United States.” His riffing and ad-libbing are endless sources of dismay from Democrats, the media and, quite often, Republicans. But drive-in movies never depended on good scripts.
Naturally, the reviews from those who studied under the masters have been scathing. Trump breaks protocol. Trump flubs his lines. Trump insults his castmates. Why, he does not even look the part – who does his hair and makeup, anyway?
But Trump appeals to Americans who were never invited onto the red carpet, a snub that was due in part to their lack of formal training in political theater. His fans are particularly offensive to highbrow critics. It’s as though the Helen Hayes Theatre was suddenly filled nightly by yokels fresh off the bus from Topeka, hiding their Milk Duds and Raisinets in their pockets – the kind of crowd former FBI agent Peter Strzok could “SMELL,” as he texted about the Trump supporters he stumbled onto in a southern Virginia Walmart.
More and more, establishment Washington’s performances seemed designed for the edification of the players; the audience was taken for granted or ignored outright. But even today, the old guard’s faithful ushers prowl the aisles, shaking Trump supporters by the shoulders and insisting they “wake up” and enjoy the tired old revue. But invitation-only black-tie premieres are out; Friday nights at the drive-in are in.
Even as AIP’s output was considered garish and voyeuristic, theater owners and drive-in operators were obviously doing something right. They cleaned up on the films, while countless “prestige” offerings from major studios bombed or barely broke even. Likewise, while Trump’s critics are focused on his unsavory tweets and boorish behavior, his results with the economy, the stock market, North Korea, the Islamic State and more are vastly underappreciated. Former president Barack Obama remains the critical favorite based on style, but Trump yields better returns.
In his autobiography, “Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants,” AIP’s Arkoff recalled that after years of being a show business outcast, he and his studio were eventually feted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York 25 years after the studio’s founding. Establishment tastes had finally aligned with Main Street America. The tribute featured five weeks of AIP screenings and retrospectives. Arkoff told the opening-night audience, “I guess if you hang around long enough, anyone can become respectable.”
Trump is not yet respectable to the old order, but his time will come. In the meantime, Omarosa is the latest supporting player to get a big moment in the Trump Show, but her shock value is already waning as we order another bag of popcorn and eagerly await the coming attractions.
Gary Abernathy, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, is a freelance writer and former newspaper editor based in Hillsboro, Ohio.