In the summer of 1976, the television producer Chuck Barris brought to NBC his most successful idea: “The Gong Show,” which today is probably remembered more for its name than its content. The idea was to let distinctly odd performers compete before a panel of B-list celebrities. If an act was atrocious (for instance, the Worms, three men in tights who jumped around before wriggling on the floor), a panel member would hit the gong, a signal to stop. The show was a ratings hit, and critics, naturally, hated it; John J. O’Connor, of the Times, for instance, thought that it came “very close to cruelty,” and fell “between the treacherous television stools of cupidity and cynicism.” But what do critics know? The mischievous Barris, who died this month at the age of eighty-seven, once told Salon that “a really bad review means the show will be on for years”; a Times obituary noted that some of Barris’s more notorious inventions, such as “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” stuck around for decades. In all this, one can see the roots of modern reality television, and of fare like “Celebrity Apprentice,” which was originally hosted by the real-estate brander Donald J. Trump, who since January 20th has been the President of the United States.
It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how aspects of the Trump Administration have come to mirror “The Gong Show.” Last week, as the remnants of what was once the Republican Party were unable to repeal the seven-year-old Affordable Care Act, the gong sounded most loudly for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who has led the fight but hasn’t yet left the stage. Ryan’s idée fixe is that taxes may be cut without consequences, and that giving tax credits to Americans who don’t earn enough to benefit from them is a path to better health care rather than a cruel, and incomprehensible, attempt to obliterate it.
Trump fills the role that was played by Chuck Barris, as ringmaster and tormenter. While lacking Barris’s sense of the ridiculous, Trump, in a very short time, has introduced the nation to a string of gong-worthy individuals. One was Paul Manafort, a Trump campaign adviser for about five months, who, the Times and others have reported, is being asked about payments he’s received from, in no particular order, a former President of Ukraine, a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, and a Russian billionaire who appears to have wanted to promote the interests of Vladimir Putin. Trump’s first national-security adviser, General Michael Flynn, heard the gong after twenty-four days on the job—a record for brevity—as investigators pursued suspicions of Russian interference in the Presidential election; it came out that Flynn hadn’t been forthright with Vice-President Mike Pence, among others, about the nature of his discussions with a Russian diplomat. Nor, apparently, did Flynn—who has since registered his consulting company as a foreign agent—let on that he’d been consulting for the Turks (his firm getting more than a half million dollars) when he was being hired by Trump, or that he was promoting what could have been an illegal extradition of a Turkish Muslim cleric. Andrew Puzder, the C.E.O. of the fast-food chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. and Trump’s first choice for Labor Secretary, was hurried offstage after an amateurish performance that had nothing to do with Russia. It was, though, a little jarring for a potential Labor Secretary to be opposing significant increases in the minimum wage while employing men and women at very low wages. Puzder also faced allegations of spousal abuse (some repeated on Oprah Winfrey’s television program) and questions about the immigration status of a household employee, either of which may have triggered the gong.
If Manafort, Flynn, and Puzder were perfect contestants for a Washington gong show, it’s harder to judge the performance of Rex Tillerson, Trump’s Secretary of State and the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, who arrived in Foggy Bottom with his self-respect and independence reasonably intact. He now seems at risk of losing both. During his first trip to Asia, he tried to ban press coverage, but there was no hiding from reality: he abbreviated, or cancelled, meetings, and meals, in Seoul, South Korea, either because of “fatigue” or poor scheduling. In either case, this suggests that there was far too much improvisation for a major diplomatic journey. Tillerson has also taken up the Trumpian line of “extreme vetting” for those entering the United States, which most recently has meant ordering many consular offices to make it even more difficult for visitors to get a visa—yet another “No Trespassing” sign that will discourage the sort of people who, for generations, saw this country as an optimistic, welcoming land, and who often brought greatness to America in areas such as science, art, and innovation. Does this represent the real outlook of a successful international businessman like Tillerson?
Chuck Barris created a mythical version of himself in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” a book, published in 1984, in which he claimed to have been an undercover assassin for the C.I.A., which he probably wasn’t. Donald Trump, too, likes to portray himself as someone he probably isn’t: a maker of great, beautiful deals, who is smarter than just about anyone. He has often said so, once telling Mika Brzezinski, the co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” that he, Trump, gets great advice from Trump: “I’m speaking with myself, No. 1, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. . . . I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are. But I speak to a lot of people. My primary consultant is myself, and I have, you know, I have a good instinct for this stuff.” A little more of this and one can almost hear anxious voices rising from the Washington swamp, asking for whom, exactly, the gong clangs.