Donald Trump was a businessman and reality show host before he became president, which means the man knows how to put on a show. And that’s how Slate’s Katy Waldman has been covering the presidency recently—applying theater criticism to the “show” that Trump has been putting on from the White House.
In this Slate Extra podcast—which is exclusive to Slate Plus members—Chau Tu talks with Waldman about changing her reporting focus from books and language to political figures, the performances being put on by Trump and associates like Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway, and the literary elegance of the new podcast S-Town.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: Your writing on Slate has kind of changed in the past few months. How would you describe your beat, now that Trump has come into office?
Katy Waldman: I’m sort of the theater critic of the Trump administration, is one way that I’m sort of conceptualizing it, which is just to say that he is such a theatrical, image-obsessed man and he is constantly spinning. His allies and his enemies and the press are constantly spinning stories about him. I’m basically trying to interpret what they’re putting out there for us and see if there’s something interesting to say about, for instance a particular phrase that he might keep using or a particular image that’s gone viral.
How is that different from covering books and language, like you used to for Slate?
It’s actually not that different. In some ways, it’s totally different because one is fictional and one I wish were fictional, but is all too real and feels very urgent and important. But [it’s] the same sort of tool set. That critical lens, I think, sort of applies to both beats because if you’re interpreting a line of poetry or writing a book review, you’re kind of asking, “What is the person trying to get across? And what does this mean?”
I think Trump is a lot of things. One of those things is a rich text. Every speech he gives is a rich text, so I’ve found that there’s actually some continuity, which is pretty cool.
In terms of theater-speak, is Donald Trump a good actor, or how would you describe his performances in the White House?
I’m actually not much of an expert on theater, in terms of what makes a good actor, but I do think he’s an amazing reality TV show producer in that he stages scenes, he creates drama, he creates chaos in ways that we can’t tear ourselves away from. I guess that’s always the open question with him is whether he’s doing any of this on purpose or whether he just has this diabolical instinct that he’s acting on. I do think it’s effective from the perspective of the show, the “show.” I’m not sure if it’s effective from the perspective of governing a powerful country.
Have there been any difficulties in covering Trump, following his speeches, all that kind of stuff?
I think it’s hard because so much comes out about him. It’s such a breakneck news cycle. It’s really hard to figure out how to prioritize coverage. I guess for me too, a lot of my colleagues are writing about these very important developments in the Department of Justice and sometimes I feel like, “Wait, should I really be making fun of his signature or some of the stuff that I do?” I also think that we offer such a balance of hard-hitting and important work and then more light stuff that it’s fun for me to get a chance to do that.
And Trump’s not the only one preforming in this administration, right?
No. Actually some of the most fun that I’ve had recently has been doing character studies of some of the other main players here, so Kellyanne Conway. What’s her deal? Jared Kushner, what’s his deal? Pretty man, what’s going on? I think it’s not just Trump. It’s his entire team. This must be true in every administration, but they have such interesting personalities and personas. It’s cool to delve into that.
Yeah, you just had a piece come out about Jared Kushner and how he’s the perfect right hand man for Trump, right?
Yeah. I think the argument there was that he, unlike Bannon who was positioned as his equal and opposite force, he’s not ideological at all. He is bound by notions of loyalty and especially family loyalty. For Trump, who also seems a little bit elusive when it comes to actual values or beliefs, Trump is also very steadfast in his fealty to his daughter, his people. I think they are actually a match made … somewhere.
Match made in family.
What about Kellyanne Conway? What about her performances?
Well, she’s interesting because she’s been receding a little bit, right? I used to think that she would be one of the main power players and she would sort of be the voice and image of the administration. People seem to love her, but she seems to have lost a lot of that glamour. I think she made some missteps, but it’s also just this administration cycles through people so quickly. It’s like they have to do so much, we’ve exhausted them in some way. I don’t know.
Actually, now that you bring that up though, it’s kind of interesting to think that those two pieces were more similar than I even realized because I think she also is someone who is willing to jump ship ideologically in order to follow people that she’s invested in. I don’t think she’s the loyal person that Kushner has proven to be or seems to be, but she’s definitely an opportunistic person, it seems.
Besides Trump, you also recently reviewed another kind of reality-based drama, the new podcast S-Town. How would you describe this podcast for people who haven’t listened to it yet?
Oh man. I would first say, listen to it, which is not what you asked, but listen to it. It’s so good. It’s put on by the same group of people that created Serial. It seems to be, at first glance, at first listen, a true crime investigation of a murder that may have happened in a small town in Alabama. The news of this crime comes to producer Brian Reed via a very eccentric, florid, profane, fascinating dude named John B. McLemore. Brian goes down to the county in Alabama that John has named Shit Town because he has total contempt for it and he starts to investigate.
As the series proceeds, it definitely reveals itself to be something more than true crime and not actually even interested in murder and the tropes of that genre, but I don’t want to spoil exactly what happens. It becomes something really beautiful. I think what distinguishes it even from the very well produced and carefully crafted This American Life episodes that we’ve seen before, it’s like this is such a kind of literary take on an aural story. There are motifs. There are images. There’s a kind of intimacy and also an abstraction. It’s very invested in questions of time and place and human nature. I guess you could say that about a lot of This American Life nonfiction, but the way that this is presented just feels literary for some reason.
There’s also been some criticism lately that the narrator Brian Reed, he reveals things that maybe John McLemore might not have wanted to be aired. How do you feel about that? Do you have any opinions about that?
Yeah. I’m sympathetic to any argument that says he could not have given consent to some of these things and indeed gave the opposite of consent in one particular case. That’s really sticky and hard, but I guess I kind of fall on the side of if you listen to it, you really do get that this is a man who invited Brian Reed into his life and so badly wanted to be seen and heard. This is a belief that’s mediated through the podcast, so who knows, but I feel like he would have wanted his story told.
Elizabeth Bishop said, “Art is not worth that much. There are certain things that it’s just not worth it to create something beautiful.” But I think when the art doesn’t just create something beautiful, but creates something really warm and empathetic and enlightening, it’s doing real good in the world I think. I like to think that John McLemore, who comes across in this podcast, would appreciate that and want to do the kind of good that the podcast is doing.
That’s how I justify my own pleasure in the podcast to myself. I don’t know if it works.
I was also just thought it was hilarious that it’s actually called Shit Town and it’s just like ...
Yes. Oh my God. Every single opening credits, where he’d be like, “This is Shit Town,” I would just crack up.