By In Stuff

Donald Trump and the Fourth Wall

There is something about Donald Trump that I have noticed lately — and I hope this doesn’t come off as political because, as you well know, I try to avoid overtly talking politics here. And I don’t want to talk politics this time.

No, here’s what I noticed: Donald Trump constantly breaks the fourth wall. And that, I’m thinking, is a bizarrely effective strategy.

Politicians, in general, are actors on a grand stage, right? They memorize their lines. They will ad-lib but only to a point. They try to present themselves as, well, whatever: Presidential, competent, intelligent, angry, compassionate, friendly, determined. They try to stay on message and, as such, they are, in a sense, playing some version of themselves. 

This isn’t just true of politicians. It’s true of all people who do things in public. Phil Mickelson doesn’t go around smiling and waving to people when he’s shopping at Costco. I speak at a lot of events (for some reason) and when I’m speaking, I try to be funny, positive, even inspirational if I can get there. I’m not exactly acting — I hope that, in my better moments, I am those things. But, of course, I’m not like that all the time. Just today, after dealing with yet another hassle with my car rental company (reminder to self: switch car rental companies) I was certainly not funny, positive or inspirational in the least. But if I had a speaking engagement minutes after that, I would have, of course, have reached for my own better angels.

Politicians, especially those running for President, must be their public selves more of less every minute of every day. This is acting. If they are foul-mouthed and scatter-tongued behind closed doors, they still must try to be graceful and to speak in complete sentences in public. If they are angry because some aide forgot to do something important or they are running behind schedule or whatever else, they still must seem authoritative and in control of their passions when they speak. They must repeat many of the same words every single day, and no that’s not a shot at Marco Rubio — ALL of them give more or less the same speech hundreds and hundreds of times in so many cities that, like Bruce Springsteen the other day (when he called Cleveland “Pittsburgh) they don’t really know where they are.

Debates are the very essence of this acting principle. We often like to talk about who won or who lost a debate, but what does that even mean? We know where these guys stand; how do you win or lose? Of course, it means: Who came across the best? Who landed the best shots? Who spoke their prepared lines most convincingly? The candidates know, more or less, what questions are coming. They know, more or less, what issues they want to get across. The overriding theme at Thursday night’s debate was pretty simple and it had nothing to do with immigration, North Korea, taxes or the Supreme Court. Donald Trump is winning. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz wanted to cut into his popularity. John Kasich wanted to remind everyone of his campaign. Ben Carson just wanted to speak.

And they all went about their goals, dutifully playing their parts. Rubio attacked with a smile. Cruz attacked with a sneer. Kasich talked about how a real president would have locked Apple executives in a room until things were settled. Ben Carson begged someone to attack him so he could speak.

But not Donald Trump. It isn’t that he was ABOVE the fray; it’s like he was in a different play. To break the fourth wall, of course, means to push through the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience. It is Eddie Murphy looking at the camera after the Dukes explain to him what “bacon” is. It’s Ferris Bueller talking about his parents buying his faux illness. It is Deadpool fully realizing that he’s a comic book character. It is Mel Brooks saying, “It’s good to be the king.” And so on.

Donald Trump breaks the fourth wall so effortlessly, so easily, that it’s easy to miss. He constantly and happily refers to poll numbers, for instance. Any time a positive new poll comes along, he tells people about it. But he more than tells people — he luxuriates in his poll numbers. “The new polls came out and they’re very, very good for us,” he says over and over in every possible setting. Think about it: When was the last time you heard anyone running for president talk so lovingly about poll numbers? You’ve never heard it before because to talk polls is basically to get out of character, to admit that the speech you are giving, the positions you are stating, the line you are drawing in the sand is not authentic but instead part of a big game. It’s the opposite of method acting. This is like Marlon Brando, in the middle of the orange scene, turning to the camera and saying, “I’m getting great reviews for this, great reviews, I’m thinking Oscar.”

Trump does this sort of thing again and again. And it makes him stand out. Cruz and Rubio smashed away at Trump during the debate, hitting all the political topics and potential scandals and all that. Maybe these hits landed. Maybe they didn’t. That’s politics. What I’m saying is that it seems to me, Trump didn’t counterpunch the way you might expect a presidential candidate would. Instead, he basically looked into the camera and, speaking directly to the audience, said: “Aren’t these guys jerks? I mean, really, they’re jerks, am I right?”

It’s a pretty amazing act to pull off, if you think about it. I can’t think of another political candidate who seemed to have one big inside joke going with the America. You’ve seen the show “Chopped,” right? They will be showing someone struggling to find a way to make an edible dish out of gefilte fish, Trix cereal and Robitussin cough syrup. Then, suddenly, they will show that person in an interview setting saying something like, “When the ice cream maker didn’t work, I began to panic.” Trump is constantly doing that middle-of-the-contest interview, only he does it live, even while the game goes on around him.

I don’t believe any of this is planned out, by the way. I think that’s just Trump. He is playing a part too, of course he is, but he’s in a different play from everyone else, a play that allows the actors to interrupt the narrative at any time and go wherever the actor wants. Again, I’m not talking politics here — I  try not to talk politics publicly. I do enough of that with friends and family to annoy. But I will say that when I was interviewing Trump for The Secret of Golf, we were both playing our part, author and subject, but every now and again he would just blurt out, “Joe, this is going to be a great book, Joe, a great book. We’re going to sell a lot of books together, Joe, a lot of books.” I appreciated him for that and have not quite forgiven him for deciding to run for president rather than working tirelessly to sell my book to the world.

60 Responses to Donald Trump and the Fourth Wall

  1. Thank you. I’ve been trying to decide if Trump was making it up as he goes along, or deviously playing out a string which would leave him like Redford at the end of The Candidate. You’ve made it all clear to me, and while I still despise the human he portrays, I feel a little less bad about Trump.

  2. Nick says:

    If you think about it, the purpose of the debate is to actually BREAK the 4th wall. Every politician on the stage is striving to make that personal connection with the voting public. Unfortunately it seems that they are trying to make the connection by being a cartoon character punching the other guy than speaking thoughtfully and learnedly about the actual issues. The way it is going, the elections will become something like the hunger games where all the contenders are put in an arena, told to fight each other, and the last one standing will be the winner. Actually looking back, that is not only the way it is going, but pretty much the way it has been.

    • SDG says:

      The purpose of running for office is to try to package yourself as an appealing fictional character. A dash of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a scoop of John Wayne, a sprinkling of Walter Cronkite, but young and hip. Not in a desperate way, in an effortless way. They all try to project the image of an ordinary working Joe, who’d be much more at home with his farmer buddies at a diner in Iowa, but somehow they found themselves running for President, and golly, they’re so humble and can’t believe they’ve been called for this. And most people think it’s a massive joke. Trump is at least SAYING it’s a massive joke.

      One of the things I liked about “The Soul of Baseball” was how Joe showed that Buck O’Neil was playing a part when he was in public, that he consciously presented a persona. Not out of malice or anything, not because behind closed doors he kicked puppies, but because that’s what everyone does when they’re in public.

  3. chlsmith says:

    We all put on a different persona in different audiences. I sure can’t belch, curse, and stuff my face with Cheetos at a church picnic. Maybe the Cheetos part….

  4. dja says:

    Rolling Stone published almost these exact sentiments recently. You may be interested:

  5. chlsmith says:

    Oh, and you forgot the most famous 4th wall break ever…..”Bluto” Blutarsky shifting his eyebrows at the camera when he was peeking into the sorority house.

  6. Marco says:

    I recently switched after years of “meh, they’re OK” with Hertz.

    I went to National on the recommendation of a colleague, and it’s light years better. (And they matched my status when I switched)

  7. Mark Daniel says:

    This quote: “Aren’t these guys jerks? I mean, really, they’re jerks, am I right?” sounds like something Trump actually said. I don’t think you meant this as a direct quote, but it isn’t very far off. And, more importantly, if he had said these exact words, I don’t think anyone would disagree.

    • Dan says:

      I’m reminded of the SNL debate where Dukakis/Lovitz turns to the camera and says “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”

  8. DjangoZ says:

    Great insight about Trump breaking the 4th wall.

    I lived in Minnesota when Jesse Ventura was elected and I lived in California when Arnold was elected and, of course, I’m living in America when it looks like Trump will get the GOP nomination.

    One thing all 3 of those people did well is they made politics entertaining. Debates and policy discussion are often really boring and dull. They made it fun.

    I’m not so sure Trump will actually win, though it’s possible, but he makes what would otherwise be a boring PBS special into a funny, outrageous show on E!. I think half of the people voting for him just don’t want that show to end.

    Course he says a ton of things that are offensive and nasty and vile…but so do all the best villains on TV.

    • invitro says:

      If a candidate says offensive things that you agree with, it’s a positive. What Trump says pales compared to the nastiness of Bernie talking about rich people. But not many people like the rich, so it doesn’t seem offensive.

      I don’t think it’s necessarily bad if people choose a president for entertainment value. I don’t think the president makes a whole lot of difference in most people’s everyday lives. I think the only sizable difference Obama made in my life is by taxing me an extra $2,000 for Obamacare, and maybe by destroying the coal industry in Appalachia where I live. I guess those are pretty sizable things, though.

      I can’t stand Trump as a person, but I may decide to vote for him in the primary. Part of the reason is his stated policies… I don’t know if his border wall has any chance of happening, but I do know it’s something the US should’ve done a long time ago. And I know I’ll vote for him against Hillary if he’s the candidate.

      Trump pisses off a lot of people, but the people he pisses off the most are the people that really need pissing off, like the morons at, for instance.

      • MikeN says:

        When George Bush was President, Vicente Fox would come here and complain about the US policies that are not treating Mexican illegals well.

        Now the other day, he made a statement about how Mexico would not pay for the wall, let Trump pay for the wall’ he said.

        Notice how Trump has moved the other side’s position.

      • The border wall has been tried in many areas. There are some very rugged areas where a wall is almost impossible to build and would be very expensive to build. Where walls have been built, the smugglers have become very adept at sophisticated tunneling. And then there’s the fact that 40% of illegal immigration is Visa overstays. You have to look at that and what you’re trying to accomplish. Walls, where they exist, have maybe slightly slowed smuggling efforts. But walls do nothing about Visa overstays. So wouldn’t it be logical to say that the “Trump wall” would have little to no impact on illegal immigration…. while costing upwards of $10B?

        If I was running a project to reduce illegal immigration, I’d focus on Visa overstays and how to prevent that. I’d also look at the reasons (root causes) why illegals come, i.e. jobs, or maybe to have a legal citizen baby, and look for ways to address those issues.

        To me, the wall at best, is a metaphor for reducing illegal immigration. People think the wall will eliminate illegal immigration. At best, it will slow it down a little.

        • MikeN says:

          While I agree with you, the wall has already been passed as a matter of law. So not building it says you are not serious about enforcing immigration laws and sends a message that itself encourages the visa overstayers.

  9. oilcan23 says:

    Years ago, I visited a friend who worked for a U.S. Senator. As I walked down the hall of a Senate office building, I saw a familiar face, and I struggled to remember who it was. I’m staring at the man, trying to figure it out. As he walked past, he gave me a HUGE friendly “Hi! How are ya!” Now I felt even worse. That guy knows me! And I can’t even remember his name! I hope that wasn’t a friend of my dad’s or something! And 10 minutes later, I realized it was Senator Phil Gramm. I thought it was interesting, because if I *had* ever met him, and I was some constituent from Texas, I would have been thoroughly convinced he remembered me.

  10. Tom Pareti says:

    Joe, since you mentioned Springsteen – where is that review you promised us of the D.C show?

  11. ebhaynz says:

    I guess since there’s nothing decent on TV and there’s only a handful of interesting stories to write about all the media is doing is making this political season as entertaining as possible. Trump is only happy to appease said media and the rest of U.S.

    Politics to me is still boring. I left the country 20 years and just recently came back: The country is ruined.

    • invitro says:

      The country is ruined? Please explain. If you know anything about history, and anything about facts, it’s pretty hard to deny that life in the US is the best life on average that humans have had in any country at any time.

      I don’t think this would continue to be the case if a “progressive” like Bernie was the next president, but he won’t be, and Hillary seems way too moderate to do much damage, unless she hikes taxes like Obama did with Obamacare, or starts letting violent criminals out of prison. And I laugh at the notion that Trump can do much damage, either.

      • KHAZAD says:

        I let the first one go, but the affordable care act has not changed tax rates AT ALL! Perhaps it cost you money if you were going without health insurance before and letting the rest of us pay for it, but that is by no means a tax hike, it is just personal responsibility.

        I am not sure whether you are purposefully lying about the tax hike, or if it is just out of ignorance. I would give you the benefit of the doubt, but I am really not sure which is worse.

        • MikeN says:

          Well the Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate was a tax. Also there is a tax on medical devices. A tax on generous health care benefits(Cadillac tax) that unions don’t like. A tax on health insurance plans. There might be more I’m not remembering.

        • invitro says:

          If the government requires you to spend money, that is a tax.

          • But obviously if you have health care, there is no tax. So, unless you purposely remained without health care, your taxes didn’t go up. Also, the vast majority of companies adjusted their plans so as not to be subject to the Cadillac Tax. But even if they decided to keep the plans and pay the tax, your taxes didn’t go up. It just shaved off some Corporations (very few from what I know) bottom line. I’ll grant the medical device tax is apparently an issue for that industry, and I won’t debate whether it’s a good or bad idea, but again, your individual taxes were not impacted at all.

            I think you can debate whether the ACA is a good law and come up with plenty of problems with it. But raised taxes on individuals is a pretty thin argument.

          • MikeN says:

            So they pass a tax and it causes your health benefits to get worse, but that means you were not taxed so stop complaining about taxes in ObamaCare.

        • Brad says:

          Actually there was a tax increase piggybacked onto the Obamacare bill. It increased the tax rate on capital gains and there was an Obamacare surcharge tax added on, so Invitro is correct on that issue.

      • Hamster Huey says:

        OK invitro, of the many non-anti-Trump posts you’ve made, I’ll engage here. Based on my observations as a long-time reader of this blog and sometimes-lurker on its generally remarkably civil (and usually apolitical) message board, you seem like by far the most rational person I’ve literally ever encountered in any area of life who is not repelled by the idea of a President Trump. (Sorry if that comes across as faint praise.)

        Anyway, because you seem by and large sensible, I wanted to engage you on your “laughter” at the thought of the damage a President Trump could do. Leaving Godwin aside, as a more recent European example of what can happen when a Trump-like figure is granted power, please read about the Berlusconi years in Italy. Berlusconi was an apolitical, crass, misogynistic narcissist of a businessman with no political experience who appealed to voters through an open airing of long-held misgivings for segments of the population. Nobody took his candidacy seriously, people openly laughed at the thought of him being elected, and then suddenly it happened. And the consequences for Italy were disastrous. Sure, America is not Italy, and Trump would have no traction to pass his “policies” (to be generous with the term), but the damage a demagogue can do is not to be underestimated just because of a perceived sense of American exceptionalism. We’ve never considered electing anyone remotely close to Trump to the presidency.

        OK, enough. I promised a friend from Italy that I wouldn’t just shake my head and chuckle at Trump’s candidacy, so this counts as one attempt to engage. Generally, I think I’m the wrong person (and logic is the wrong approach) to persuade anyone who supports Trump to reconsider, but I figured it was worth a shot in this forum. (I get that you’re not a supporter, but still, he deserves all the opposition that can be mustered – this has gone past the point where reasonable people should offer just dismissive laughter.)

        • invitro says:

          I know a little about Berlusconi, and sure, Trump is also “an apolitical, crass, misogynistic narcissist of a businessman.” But I don’t think it’s that big of a deal if the president in 2017 has those properties. I’m more bothered by a president who’s extremely politically correct and “progressive.” And I don’t think it’s realistic that Trump could have the impact on the US that Berlusconi had on Italy.

        • wjones58 says:

          Well, he didn’t come close to being elected, but George Wallace actually carried a few states (very rare for a third party candidate) in 1968, then was in play for the Democratic nomination in 1972 when he was shot. And Trump’s candidacy compares the closest to Wallace as any I have seen in my lifetime. And it’s beyond the obvious answer (racism). They both are reaching out to a sector, or several sectors, that believe they aren’t represented, that are afraid of the way the country is changing. It will be interesting to see how this will play out. No, I am not supporting Trump.

      • Marc Schneider says:


        Do we really need to hear your right-wing bullshit on here?

  12. Joe, when you switch rental car companies just be sure to really switch. Hertz owns Dollar and Thrifty, Avis owns Budget and Payless, and Enterprise owns National and Alamo.

  13. PJS says:

    “Oh, and you forgot the most famous 4th wall break ever…..”Bluto” Blutarsky shifting his eyebrows at the camera when he was peeking into the sorority house.”

    Not even close. Groucho Marx did it in several films, but I’d argue the two most famous instances are Woody Allen in Annie Hall after Marshall McLuhan put the blowhard in his place, and Ray Liotta in the courtroom at the end of Goodfellas.

  14. Dan says:

    I can’t believe Bruce muffed “Hello Cleveland!”

  15. NevadaMark says:

    Someone please tell me how Donald Trump was to be involved in selling Mr. Posnanski’s book? And what possible “secrets” could Trump know about golf?

    • Mark Daniel says:

      He knows tremendous secrets. He knows secrets even the best golfers don’t know, and he knows all the best golfers, believe me.

  16. RD says:

    Trump is a hateful, vindictive, dishonest, self-absorbed prick who is utterly ignorant on matters of policy and principles of civic governance. What the fact that he is being seriously considered as President of the United States says about our country and our culture is incredibly disappointing and really frightening.

  17. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    As a country, we seem to crave that sort of “honesty” and “authenticity”, the politician who tells it like it is without worrying about handlers and focus groups and the like. Look at some of our more popular political movies of the past 2-3 decades: Dave, Bullworth, The Distinguished Gentleman, The American President…heck, all the way back to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

    The irony, of course, is that Trump’s authenticity is entirely artificial. It has to be. Nobody who talked and acted like that in real life would have any of the business success that Trump has had. You have to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else.

    (Oddly enough, Hillary Clinton is the anti-Trump. Somehow, even her most sincere moments come off as practiced and inauthentic.)

    • invitro says:

      I don’t think Hillary has had a sincere moment in 25 years.

    • invitro says:

      I suppose you put “honesty” in quotes for a reason, but just to be sure… there’s no way more than 1% of people actually care about honesty in a politician. I doubt if that many are intelligent enough to even know if a politician’s being honest, anyway.

    • scott lucas says:

      Trump is not actually that successful. If he had taken the $200,000,000 he inherited and stuck it in an index fund, he’d be much richer than he is now after all his fantastic deals.

    • Somehow Trump has managed to get people to believe that he represents the little people. While everything he’s done in building his empire says the opposite. His uses of eminent domain, bankruptcy and lawsuits has always been to get his way at the expense of the “smaller” people. He also claims that he’s spending only his own money on the campaign. In fact, he’s raised millions of dollars from the outside. Of course, he’s running his campaign more cheaply because he gets so much free air time that he doesn’t need to run hardly any expensive TV ads.

      Bernie Sanders, who I don’t believe should even be an elected representative anywhere in this country (I want to be clear on that), at least is honest and consistent in policy approaches. And he truly isn’t taking any outside money. So, if you just wanted an “honest” candidate, who seems to legitimately care about the “little people”, Sanders would be a better choice than Trump.

      I think it’s fair to believe the rest of them are in the pockets of the special interests.

      • Evan says:

        Even Bernie Sanders’s worst enemy would admit that he has nothing if not integrity. But I wonder why you think he does not deserve to be an elected representative anywhere in this country. I ask this out of sheer curiosity. He has the highest approval rating of any sitting member of congress. Yes, it’s a liberal state, but his popularity extends to the highly conservative Northeast Kingdom. He’s co-sponsored numerous pieces of bipartisan legislation for veterans and was co-chair of the Veterans committee. It seems to me, even if you disagree (or extremely disagree) with his worldview, there should be a place in this democracy for the loyal opposition.

        • MikeN says:

          He honeymooned in the Soviet Union.

          • Evan says:

            Lol. I think you mean his trip to Yaroslavl, which was to open a program for Burlington. It wasn’t a honeymoon.

          • MikeN says:

            Oh, yea Burlington, VT mayor just so needs to head to the Soviet Union as part of his official duties. Not even Sarah Palin could get away with that. He anoints sister cities in Nicaragua to support the Sandanistas, and one in the USSR, albeit as Gorbachev was opening it up.

  18. Kuz says:

    Thanks Joe, I like your style.

  19. Marc Schneider says:

    If people really think that Trump is no worse than Obama, we might as well just push the button and end it all. I understand the point that invitro made, in effect, that one person’s poison is another person’s sugar, but there is a limit. Trump is, by any standards, a racist demagogue. He consciously engenders hatred and prejudice. He presents simple-minded solutions to complex problems so as to make unthinking people believe he actually has ideas. Obviously, you can dislike Obama’s policies, but to compare him to Trump is just too much.

  20. MikeN says:

    In the second part of Don Quixote, the characters read the first part of the book.

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