In the opening months of Donald Trump’s presidency, much has been made of his obsession with television. According to the Washington Post, he “consumes a steady diet of cable news,” structuring his day around a series of programs on networks he both likes and dislikes. On Twitter, this is obvious. When Trump is not openly promoting shows on Fox News, he is typing diatribes that are direct responses to particularly critical segments on rival networks — in the last week, he has insulted MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, calling her “dumb as a rock,” and tweeted a GIF implying physical harm against CNN. Many of his ideas about policy are allegedly shaped by the opinions of television pundits, and his language often sounds more like a network executive than a politician, consumed by “ratings” and who is “tuning in” to the show of which he is the star.
This is not surprising. The former host of The Apprentice made a name for himself early in his career through a strategic manipulation of the tabloid press. By turning his life into something that could be reported as gossip, he helped create a world of attention in which he remained at the center. As that world continued to grow, the line between what was real and what was an illusion blurred — the actor became inseparable from the character. While the result is confounding, and oftentimes maddening, it’s not exactly a new development in the world of US politics. Trump is merely the latest iteration of a model developed almost 40 years prior by Ronald Reagan.
Like Trump, Reagan was a bad actor who, through a confusion of the myths he perpetuated on screen, thought of the presidency as a continuation of his most famous roles. This much is clear from The Reagan Show, a phenomenal documentary directed by Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill about his years in the White House. Consisting entirely of footage culled from both in-house staff and outside news outlets during his eight years in office — more footage than was generate by the previous five presidents combined — the film is a portrait of an increasingly disengaged man preoccupied with public relations, who thought a perfectly staged photo opportunity and a catchy tagline were more important than policy. The film most closely follows Reagan through the two most definitive periods of his time in office — the dawn of the nuclear arms race and the Iran–Contra affair — both of which forced the president into uncomfortable situations where the role he insisted on playing began to break down. “Did you learn anything as an actor that has been useful to you as President?” the news anchor David Brinkley asks Reagan in an interview toward the beginning of the film. “I’m tempted to say something here — I’m going to say it,” Reagan stammers. “There have been times in this office when I’ve wondered how you could do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.”
The most fascinating moments of The Reagan Show are when the line between politics and public relations is shattered. Reagan is best when he has learned his lines, although his delivery is still mannered, with a B-movie actor’s overemphasis on certain words. The stoic walk of the lumbering leading man has turned stiff, almost robotic, and when he doesn’t have marks to hit he seems lost. When somebody goes off script, you can see the energy drain out of his face — he has no improvisational skills. This is evident in his meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev over their nuclear disarmament treaty. In the run-ups to their various meetings, Reagan was fond of uttering the Russian proverb “doveryai, no proveryai,” which means “trust, but verify.” He thought it added levity to the proceedings, and used it in interviews over and over again. At the eventual signing of the treaty in 1987, Reagan, standing beside Gorbachev, reached for the line one more time, feeling the dramatic weight of its use would be the ideal punctuation to this historic moment. But after he delivered the line, Gorbachev chimed in with some dialogue of his own. “You repeat that at every meeting,” he said with a smirk, bringing the audience to laughter. Reagan, completely clueless about how to respond, had been upstaged by the supporting actor. The only thing he could say, defeated, was: “I like it.”
Reagan had no lines ready for what proves to be the most tense moment in the film, his famous press conference regarding the Iran-Contra affair. By then the narrative has shifted, and the hero has turned heel. Standing at the podium and fielding questions from angry reporters, Reagan is at his most vulnerable. He is not prepared to be attacked. Without a pre-written line of dialogue, he often has nothing to say, stumbling over his answers or remaining silent. After he leaves, the White House has to issue clarifications on many of his statements because they didn’t make sense.
By the end of his presidency, Reagan was being criticized by conservatives over his dealings with Gorbachev. But his lasting legacy has seeped into the American consciousness, and changed how politics are presented. “No presidency before this one was so often judged as if it were a performing art,” Dan Rather says during a broadcast shown toward the end of the film. “I shudder when it’s suggested that politicians that come after him are going to have to succeed first on television.” This prophecy has become truth. Reagan is now propped up by conservatives as a hero.
As the film ends, Reagan stands on stage at the 1988 Republican National Convention, swaying side by side with his wife Nancy like two cyborgs, while schmaltz-country crooner Lee Greenwood sings “God Bless the USA.” His successor, George H.W. Bush, would soon become president but never attained the same stature. Donald Trump — Reagan’s clearest successor — watched the performance and learned. He even cribbed a line directly from Reagan: “Make America great again.”