For years, struggling with how to think about this crazy presidency, people have compared the Donald Trump administration to reality TV. The tropes showed up daily: the shameless overstatement, the manufactured conflict, the need for a winner and loser at the end of every news cycle. Trump was already a reality TV star, which meant he knew the tricks. And of course, this all was actually real life.
It’s true that the Trump show has been a lot like television. But as an overall arc, these past five years were less like a reality show than a different genre entirely: a prestige cable drama, the kind built around a powerful antihero.
The antihero show—of which HBO’s The Sopranos remains the shining example—has become its own kind of cliché over the past two decades. It revolves around a central figure, a singular agent of chaos: usually male, surprisingly charismatic, emotionally inaccessible, simmering with rage that sometimes bubbles to the surface, and all-too-willing to cross ethical boundaries. Think Walter White in AMC’s Breaking Bad, Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men. (The list keeps growing: Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession, Bobby Axelrod in Showtime’s Billions, Marty Byrde in Netflix’s Ozark.) The antihero embodies some blunt truths about humanity. He creates his own convenient code of ethics. He finds fissures in the system and sucks supporting characters into his maelstrom. He holds up a mirror to our frailties, while making us feel superior for being less venal than that.
This was the real-life Trump who occupied the Oval Office. The lifelong political players who entered his orbit, with barely an exception, were marked and remade into Trumpians in the end. The Washington he blustered into wasn’t some utopia he sullied, but a flawed enterprise that he exposed for its many weaknesses.
And watching him was, for many, an obsession. Over the past five years, Trump’s fiercest hate-watchers and biggest fans followed his moves and tweets the way addicted viewers do: incapable of looking away, driven to rehash and recount every sordid moment. The Trump drama played out over a few distinct seasons. Season One was a come-from-behind campaign story that ended with unlikely victory. Season Two showcased an accidental administration, with supporting roles for Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon and Anthony Scaramucci. Season Three centered on the Mueller Investigation. (Mid-series plots always tread water for a bit as the writers bide time ‘til the finale.) Season Four upped the dramatic ante with an election and a global pandemic.
The comparisons are so eerily accurate that it’s tempting to look to TV for predictions about how this all ends. If you’ve followed the epic dramas on cable, you’ve been trained to expect a certain kind of finale, and in many ways, the past two weeks have fit the pattern well. The January 6 riot felt like a penultimate episode, when the peak of the action takes place. Trump took a final stand to stay in power, fulfilling every ugly prophecy from his tweets as his loyalists betrayed him, one by one—even Mike Pence, in the end.
And on TV, the explosive final showdown is usually followed by comeuppance.
There’s a twisted satisfaction in watching a television antihero succeed—a caught fish slipping again and again from the hands of fate—but we also understand that the sinning should carry a karmic price. Some shows choose to end with closure, one final negative blow. (Warning: Spoilers follow.) When the screen cut to black in the 2007 finale of The Sopranos, it’s fair to believe that mobster Tony Soprano was shot in a New Jersey diner. In the 2013 Breaking Bad finale, meth kingpin Walter White, having fully transformed from schlub to archvillain, likely perished in the lab where he had plotted so much turmoil. Many Trump haters are yearning for that kind of unambiguous end: not death, but a major dark consequence. Prosecution via the Manhattan district attorney’s office. An implosion of his businesses. A future in a jail cell or, maybe just as bad, a two-story row house on Staten Island.
But there’s another model for an antihero’s end that feels even more likely for Trump: the pyrrhic victory in which the antihero avoids the worst fate he fears, but still manages to lose. The undercover Russian spies in FX’s The Americans escaped the FBI, but lost contact with their children. Don Draper in Mad Men found inner peace—and maybe created a Coca-Cola commercial—but was wholly rejected by his family. But the most morally fitting ending of all these antihero dramas may have been the one in The Shield, a dark FX show from the aughts about corrupt police in Los Angeles.
The Shield’s central character was a detective named Vic Mackey. Bald, stout and brimming with confidence, he led a team of dirty cops that racked up high-profile gang arrests, but got sucked progressively deeper into theft and murder—becoming as dangerous as the criminals they were supposed to be putting away. Throughout seven seasons, Vic managed to stay one step ahead of gang leaders, his bosses and his skeptical family, though the trick got harder and harder to pull off. In the final season, he was juggling about nine flaming balls in the air, trying to avoid a life in prison. And he succeeded, tricking the feds into giving him immunity for all of his many past crimes.
But the cost was grim and almost comically fitting. The condition of his immunity was a desk job at federal office building, requiring him to wear a suit and tie and clock eight hours a day in a cubicle farm, like every schlub in a Dilbert cartoon. His gun was locked in a safe; his badge was gone. He thought he’d beaten the system, but in fact, the system prevailed, chopping the flawed hero down into a bureaucratic also-ran. (In the very last scene, at the end of an office day, he took his gun from the safe and stalked out, perhaps heading for some act of self-sabotage.)
For a while, it looked like Trump unequivocally chose the “going down in flames” ending. He exhorted his followers to physically descend on the U.S. Capitol, watched from a tent while they breached the walls, did nothing to stop the destruction of the system he’d been chosen to lead for the past four years.
But the system held, barely. Congress returned to session and summarily declared Joe Biden the winner, and Trump the loser. He was kicked off Twitter, his favorite social-media platform, as well as YouTube and Facebook, which had helped to fuel his ego. He was quickly impeached a second time, an embarrassing mark for the history books.
Now he finds himself staring, maybe not at a lifetime in a desk job, but a future as a sideshow entertainer, as opposed to the guy in center stage. Trump is unlikely to lose his base of true supporters. His family will stand by him. His history of bouncing back from failures suggests he’ll likely find a way to keep his fancy living quarters. He might—might—avoid any serious legal consequences, or try to get away with pardoning himself before he leaves office. Maybe there will even be a spinoff: a Succession-style drama involving one of his ambitious progeny, or an Empire-style effort in which he tries to build a right-wing media enterprise.
But once Trump leaves office for good, the prizes that have fed his appetite and driven his presidency—adulation, importance, obsessive attention—will be gone. History will cement him as a one-term president who entered the political world in a dramatic escalator ride, and exited clinging to the tablecloth as the chinaware went crashing to the floor. An impeachment conviction in the Senate could prevent him from holding office again, defanging his political machine. His celebrity friends will have scurried from his brand. The major networks will have labeled him toxic. No one of consequence will call anymore.
You can imagine the coda: Trump living out his days, comfortable but grumpy, in a gilded prison on a golf course. He golfs, he dines, he broadcasts his version of the world on what amounts to an oversized ham radio. He scrapes up money to fund his defense from a long string of court dates from entities he’d never feared before—New York district court, various corners of the Justice Department. Maybe he has a Newsmax show, or a brisk ongoing business in MAGA hats, or he sells tickets to rallies to make money.
There’s no guarantee of any ending at this point; Trump is a master of rewriting his own script, even re-inventing the medium. But there are limits to how far his image rehabilitation can go. In his TV life, the ratings-hungry Apprentice franchise once rejected Trump’s most incendiary idea, a season pitting Black contestants against white ones. In real life, even some Republicans in Congress voted to impeach him, and all indications are that his final act did permanent damage to his brand. It’s hard to imagine a PGA tour on a Trump-branded golf course for a very long time. At this point, he wouldn’t even make it onto Dancing With The Stars. To a media-chaser, an attention-seeker, an egotist like Donald Trump, there’s nothing more painful than irrelevance. Roll the credits and change the channel.
Joanna Weiss, a POLITICO Magazine contributing editor, is editor of Experience magazine, published by Northeastern University.