My Awful, Profitable 18 Months as a Trump-Obsessed Journalist
Has Donald Trump becoming president been bad for the world but good for my career?
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz from images via Getty
This article originally appeared on VICE US
Wolf Blitzer was still trying to suggest that Hillary Clinton could win Florida when I closed my laptop and lay down to try and catch a few hours sleep. It was the middle of the night in the north of England and the snow was beginning to fall. My girlfriend lay sleeping beside me. My stomach churned.
I’d been covering Trump all year, and always thought he could win. While that thought—located in my stomach—hadn’t exactly gone away, in the days immediately before the election I had allowed myself to listen to the data crunchers who were insisting that the victory would belong to Clinton. Trump would go back from whence he came, leaving me free to pursue other topics. America had a different idea.
At 7:30 AM I woke up and looked at my phone, the news alerts telling me what I already knew: Trump had been elected president. The snow had settled on the fields outside, giving them a silvery hue. “Nate Silver lawn,” my girlfriend cracked, taking a picture for Instagram.
I got up, wrote two articles about what had happened, then drove back to London to spend the next three days working ceaselessly on a documentary my colleagues and I thought we might not ever make, a documentary about President Donald Trump. I was afraid and worried for the future but—and I’m not proud of this—I was also excited. My long-held belief that Trump could win wasn’t crazy after all and now I had work to do. I had a purpose.
Back then I was already a veteran of three hour-long documentaries about Trump, was in the middle of a fourth, and had been writing articles on top of that. I’ve now worked on seven TV programs, all broadcast on the British station Channel 4. I’m sure I’m not alone in consuming an unhealthy amount of information about Trump, but I’ve also spent the last 18 months paying my rent and even treating myself to some of life’s good things (food, mainly) with money made off the back of him. How did it come to this?
I’d written about him once before the campaign, back in 2012 when I saw the Apprentice star rattle through some clichés in front of a few thousand would-be entrepreneurs in a cavernous corporate center in London’s docklands. It was an absurd but melancholy experience and while part of me was laughing at the suckers paying to listen to him, the rest of me was sad that this is what it had come to. That sadness felt like anger defeated.
I had no specialist knowledge of Trump, though. I was just a freelance journalist who needed a job and a subject. In January 2016, the production company ITN called me up and asked me if I wanted to work on a documentary about the incendiary businessman turned outrageous—possibly dangerous—Republican candidate. I said yes, partly because it sounded interesting, partly because I needed the work.
Trump had kept me working through Easter and all summer, so while I hadn’t been able to take time off, I did have all this Trump money with which to go places. So just before Election Day, we made the 300-mile trip north from London to the Lake District, famous for sheep, hills, mountains, Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, and, of course, lakes. Halfway through our holiday, Trump won and back we went to London. I spent the next 70 hours in or around edit suites working on the new Trump documentary, and my girlfriend spent the rest of her hard-earned holiday time in the city we had desperately wanted to escape for a little bit.
When we went to Sicily a few months later, we ended up re-arranging things in order to spend time in Taormina, a hilltop town that was hosting the G7 summit. They’d built a special helipad just for the president. We met a man who had created an ice cream that looked like the Trump. We bought red caps and got “Donald” embroidered on them. Wearing one of these caps, I joined a group of street musicians and tried to sing Italian songs in a Trumpian accent. We took photos and I began to think about what kind of story I could turn it into. When I ended up not writing it, I felt like I was missing out.
Living so much in this world, I became desensitized to Trump. I dreamed about him. I began to impersonate him all the time. The people I worked with called me TJ, short for Trump Junior. I started doing his hand gestures—the one where he makes an "O" with his thumb and index finger and the one where he does a sign with his thumb and index finger—when I was just having normal conversations with people, as myself.
While these symptoms may have been particularly pathetic, I’m not alone when it comes to making a living orbiting the Donald. By the time he won the election, I’d already spent close to a year in the Trump ecosystem, a laborer in the Trump industry, that group of people—from comedians to politicians, journalists to cartoonists—whose work is linked to the real estate mogul turned reality TV star turned president. There have been quickie biographies, Halloween costumes, “survival guides,” podcasts upon podcasts, too many documentaries to count. SNL as we know it would not exist without Trump. Entire media careers now rest on being vehemently pro-Trump or resolutely anti-Trump. To get your mind around this industry, imagine the orange-skinned president as some yuge creature trampling wildly forward, and thousands upon thousands of smaller creatures attached to its every orifice, grooming it and biting it, sucking its blood and burrowing into its tangled whips of blondish fur.
Whether it likes it or not, the Trump industry fuels the Trump person. Biographer Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire, told me that Trump “has a very shrewd eye for the market of the media itself, and what it needs and what it wants to hear. He has kept our eye on him. Like it or not, for better or worse, he certainly gets an A+ for that.”
The Trump industry is made up of a group of people who, even if they hate him, earn their livings and reputations interpreting Trump in one way or another. Those of us in this tribe may fairly ask ourselves: Has Donald Trump becoming president been bad for the world but good for my career?
“Trump has been good for me, period. That’s a straight-up answer,” said the comedian and truly excellent Trump impersonator John Di Domenico. For years, he was an actor whose bread and butter was doing corporate work impersonating characters like Austin Powers, Dr. Phil, and Jay Leno. In 2004, he added a new look and voice to his repertoire: business blowhard Donald Trump.
This time, Di Domenico was impersonating someone he’d met. The comedian had performed as Austin Powers at Trump’s 55th birthday in Atlantic City in 2001. The negotiating process had been typically Trumpy, with Di Domenico getting asked again and again if he really wasn’t prepared to do the gig “gratis” for “Mr Trump.” Di Domenico was told this negotiating tactic “came from the top,” but once a fee was agreed, the impersonator, in character as Austin Powers, met Trump in the green room at Trump Castle.
“I felt the presence of Trump before he arrived,” Di Domenico recalled. “I’d been told again and again not to shake his hand but when he came into the room, he saw me sitting on the sofa and I was a cartoon character in front of him. He came over, thrust his hand in my face and said, ‘I’m Donald Trump.’ Everybody leaned in and said, ‘Shake it, shake it, shake it!”
Things exploded for Di Domenico after Trump decided to run for president. At the peak of the 2016 campaign, he was earning up to $40,000 per month as Trump. He appears regularly on a slew of shows. Last year, he was in one of documentaries I worked on. I remember him telling Channel 4’s Matt Frei that Trump would win in a landslide. (When Election Day came, Di Domenico told me, he was in Canada and didn’t vote.)
“In the short term, Trump is very good for our profession... In the long term, he might be helping to kill the fourth estate.”
Trump has become more or less a full-time job. “He’s like an abusive dad, in a way. I’m forced to understand him,” said Di Domenico, who had a “shitty” relationship with his own father, a steelworker who shared a good deal of the president’s reactionary anger.
“A lot of times, I have to divorce myself from the political part of Trump,” Di Domenico said. “As an actor, it was part of my training that you have to like the character you’re playing, that you identify and empathize.” Like me, he dreams of Trump, though he dreams “about him as me in character as him. It’s like Inception.”
Right now, he’s working on a special he hopes will be sold to Amazon or Netflix. John has done four feature films as Trump and is about to start recording calls between him and Transparent’s Jill Soloway.
“I’d love to say it’s because of how talented I am,” Di Domenico said of reaching this new level in his career, “but it really comes down to the fact that I have talent but the conduit to getting to this place has been Trump. I wouldn’t have gotten there otherwise, so it is kind of a conflicted relationship. Sometimes I read posts on Facebook that say I’m just another loser making a living off Trump, and I think, ‘I’ve been doing this a long time, but you’re also kind of right.’”
At the Royal Television Society awards earlier this year, Matt Frei, who was the reporter or presenter on every single one of the documentaries I worked on, picked up the gong for Television Journalist of the Year. In his speech, Frei joked that really he owed it all to Donald Trump, that one of his defining subjects had reinvigorated news. When I got in touch with him for this article, Frei’s response was less full of the spirit of the awards ceremony: “In the short term, Trump is very good for our profession,” he wrote. “In the long term, he might be helping to kill the fourth estate.”
In the last four weeks, according to an internal press archive, 3,000 stories solely about Trump—not counting stories in which he is simply mentioned—have appeared in print in British newspapers. At the time of writing, there are 44 million Google News results for Donald Trump, the top one being that, on his trip to Japan, the president dumped a box of fish food into a pond of koi carp, rather than sprinkling it.
In this case, Trump actually seems to have been following the lead of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but no matter. The media cannot help itself. It needs cheaply produced, clickable content, and Trump is always on hand to provide it. In the end, even the most forensic dismantling of his policy platform or the most eloquent exposition of his white supremacy can end up getting lost in the sheer weight of nonsense produced by us, the Trump industry workers.
Trump’s political opponents can’t help it either. Some polls have indicated that Democrats would to better if they focused on issues like healthcare and tax cuts for the rich, but the anti-Trump message is hard to resist.
“I would say the entire nation has spent a considerable amount of its time thinking about Donald Trump. I don’t think to that extent that I’m very different to everyone else,” biographer Gwenda Blair told me. Having worked on her major book on the Trumps in the 90s (it was published in 2000 and has since been updated), she says she feels a “kind of vindication” now that everyone realizes what she knew then, that Trump was a force who needed to be examined.
I like to think that I’m doing good work in the Trump industry. I imagine I’m enlightening the people with the sacred flame of journalism. That's my excuse, anyway. I’m not such an industrious member of the industry these days, truth be told. I don’t know if that’s because the offers of work have dried up or because I’ve got bored with Trump, decided that he can be a distraction from other issues, and remembered that I’ve got my own country to think about.
And yet, it’s the middle of the night as I write these words and I can’t help but think back to the middle of that night one year ago, when Wolf Blitzer was trying to come to terms with the unraveling of his certainties as my girlfriend slept beside me and the snow came down on the northern fields outside. There was magic in that night for me, but there was also great darkness, a darkness that had always been there, a darkness that had been growing and was now enveloping, returned to claim its terrible prize.
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