So that’s over then. No more Donald Trump. On January 20 (or maybe sooner if Democrats have their way), the most divisive US president in history will have to leave the White House. But that, of course, isn’t the end of the story. Kicked to the curb of the dark web and likely living out the rest of his days from a fortress in Florida, the orange tyrant will still be a powerful force in American politics – not least for the 74 million people who voted for him.
But there’s another threat to be reckoned with as Trump leaves office – his own legend. If ever there was a story made for the movies, it’s this one. Raised by a millionaire property tycoon, he bought his way into a career as a celebrity businessman before trying books, TV, WWE promotion and then (why not?) the presidency.
And that’s not even getting started on his big-screen persona – ignoring advisors to say and do whatever the hell he wants to about women, African Americans, Mexicans, and what direction an angry mob should march in. More than any president since Ronald Reagan, Trump seemed like he was created in a Hollywood machine: part Simpsons parody, part ’80s B-movie throwback, all luminous fake tan. Whatever you think of him, Trump’s story is ripe for adaptation and there must be a dozen scripts on studio desks right now pitching films about his life.
Maybe Oliver Stone wants to do a big meaty biopic like he did with JFK (1991), Nixon (1995) and W. (2008)? Alec Baldwin might be mulling over a feature length comedy based on his Saturday Night Live parody (even if he did recently say Trump should be “buried in a Nazi graveyard” on Twitter)? Or maybe Jesse Armstrong is prepping a Succession style HBO miniseries about the Trumps, casting around for Ivanas, Ivankas and Barrons?
Midway through Trump’s term, American news anchor Dan Rather suggested that Martin Scorsese should direct a biopic (probably because he’s got a good track record with films about toxic masculinity, violent gangsters and rich douchebags). But what would a Trump movie look like if Scorsese, or Stone, Coppola or one of the other big old auteurs, made it? As with most other biopics, much of the weight would rest on the person playing the main role – and how convincingly they managed to avoid slipping into parody.
It’s hard to remember a time before we took Trump’s face, voice and body language for granted, but it’s also impossible to imagine anyone playing him without making him look completely ridiculous. If you were casting the role of a fictional president 10 years ago it would have seemed absurd to have dressed an obese 70-year-old in a fluorescent blonde combover wig and douse him in bright orange makeup, asking him to baby talk his way through speeches and excessively wave his arms around. Throw in the tragic trophy wife and even half of the very real things he’s actually said, and any serious Trump biopic would look, at best, like a surreal horror movie.
Give it time and a Trump biopic might work. Stone waited 28 years before turning John F. Kennedy’s life story into a film. Steven Spielberg waited 147 years for Lincoln (2012). No doubt another few decades of American politics will kick up all kinds of other madness in the meantime, and Trump might not even seem that bad/weird/crazy to future generations looking to see where it all started.
But what about playing it for laughs instead? Give Trump’s story a Succession-style edge and you’d probably get something closer to Adam McKay’s Vice (2018). Nudge it a bit further and you’d get Anchorman (2004) or, closer still, Idiocracy (2006) – the cult comedy that scarily seems to have predicted Trump in the first place. The problem here, of course, is that Trump’s legacy can’t really be laughed at yet. Leaving aside his well-aired views on far right groups like the Proud Boys, his mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic and the indirect damage he’s done to society as a whole will be felt for even longer. Who knows what the next four years will bring, but the divisions that Trump helped to foster will be difficult to mend – with millions now treating politics like another battle in the culture war. Put Alec Baldwin back in a funny wig and half the audience will probably laugh for 90 minutes, but the other half will only get pushed further towards extreme politics.
The best way of telling the real story, of course, might be through documentary. Trump’s biggest enemies over the last few years have been facts – waging a war against “fake news” and using conspiracy theories to let his agenda spread itself far away from all the annoying restrictions of media law. Turn Trump into fiction and Hollywood risks feeding the myth, but tell his tenure through a solid bit of investigative reporting and the best he can do is try and discredit it. Imagine, for example, what a great documentary filmmaker like Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act Of Killing), Asif Kapadia (Amy) or, better still, Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) could do with a subject like Trump?
But do we even need to see anything at all? The world has become so deeply divided over the last few years that a savage art-house documentary is only going to make things worse – uniting Trump’s fans behind another cause to discredit him and making the rest of us realise the things we already know.
Wouldn’t it be better to just ignore him? When Twitter kicked Trump offline at the start of January it dealt him a far bigger blow than any pithy biopic ever could – removing his mainstream platform and marooning him on the same Parler island as anti-maskers, incels and Katie Hopkins.
After next week, Trump may not have the nuclear launch codes in his pocket but his huge following means he’s not going anywhere soon. The best way Hollywood can help us move on is by making sure we never have to talk about him again.