Dr. Phil's staged interview with Donald Trump is a sign of the grim political theater to come

Trump’s interview with Dr. Phil is a distillation of how the mainstream news media is lost in MAGA surrealism

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 21, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Dr. Phil McGraw, Donald Trump and Melania Trump attend the David Foster Dinner at Bon Appetit Supper Club and Cafe on October 29, 2008 in New York City. (Jemal Countess/WireImage for Bon Appetit Magazine/Getty Images)
Dr. Phil McGraw, Donald Trump and Melania Trump attend the David Foster Dinner at Bon Appetit Supper Club and Cafe on October 29, 2008 in New York City. (Jemal Countess/WireImage for Bon Appetit Magazine/Getty Images)

Each day, the Age of Trump provides more evidence in support of the argument by scientists and philosophers that what we believe to be reality may actually be an elaborate simulation. I envision the entity running this simulation is having a great time finding new ways to torment the American people and the world.

Donald Trump is the first former president and now leading candidate for a major political party to be a convicted felon. Instead of being forced out of public life – and for his many other gross offenses such as attempting a coup on Jan. 6 and being a sexual assaulter as confirmed by a court of law, and more generally for his horrible behavior and “leadership” – his MAGA people and other Republican and right-wing followers and many millions of other Americans continue to cling to him.

Donald Trump is channeling Adolf Hitler, one of the worst mass murderers and evildoers in human history, as he escalates his threats of massive violence (including imprisonment and executions) against the human “vermin” who are polluting the “blood” of his country. The mainstream media, and the more American people as a whole, mostly continue along as though this is somehow normal.

As detailed in Plan 47 and Agenda 2025, Donald Trump and his agents are publicly planning to end democracy and to impose an authoritarian regime on the American people when/if he takes power in 2025. Again, this existential threat has been largely normalized by the mainstream news media and a large percentage of the American public who are either indifferent, exhausted, in denial, or outright support aspiring dictator Donald Trump.

Donald Trump continues to behave in a manner that suggests he is mentally and emotionally unwell. His memory lapses are becoming too numerous and obvious for his handlers to hide. At his rallies and in interviews Trump rants about his hatred and fear of sharks, hostility towards electric vehicles, fascination with the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter, and is increasingly nonsensical and full of gobbledygook as he loses the ability to speak cogently and instead makes strange noises and invents words and phrases.

In one of the most surreal and bizarre moments in what is an already amazingly bizarre and surreal era in American life, Donald Trump recently participated in an “interview” with TV personality and therapist “Dr. Phil.”

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During this “interview”, Dr. Phil validated Donald Trump’s lies, soothed and validated his egomania and narcissism, and encouraged the corrupt ex-president and now convicted felon’s persecution complex. If a therapist is supposed to help a person better integrate their emotions so that they can be a healthier person, Dr. Phil failed on all accounts. In a particularly disturbing moment, Trump plainly told Dr. Phil about his unrepentant desires and plans for revenge.

Of course, Dr. Phil’s agenda and role was not that of truth-teller, but to be Donald Trump’s enabler and partner in an elaborate act of political theater.

In all, Donald Trump’s staged interview with Dr. Phil (there was little push-back or substantive disagreement) is a distillation of how the mainstream news media and the country’s political class continue to not fully understand the fundamental nature of the Age of Trump and the larger democracy crisis and the role of emotions and storytelling in it.

“Donald Trump” does not exist. He is a character and a symbol who is viewed as being more than a mere mortal by his MAGA cultists. In that role, Trump is permission for revenge, craven power, and permission for them to engage in the worst human behavior. Trump imagines himself in those terms: he is a professional wrestling heel, a “fighter”, a type of god and messiah, a “billionaire” and titan of business, a genius who is never wrong and has amazing genes, an action hero movie star, a virile and potent conqueror and seducer of women and an idol for men, a reality TV star, and now a warlord and aspiring dictator who is the only person who can “save” America.

In an excellent essay at the New York Times, Ramin Setoodeh explains how Donald Trump views American politics and his role as a type of TV program where he is the star, casting agent, and producer:

A traditional vice-presidential search happens discreetly, with possible picks lobbying behind the scenes and through proxies while publicly downplaying their interest. Mr. Trump’s search is playing out more like a cattle call audition.

But Mr. Trump is always governing for the cameras — his favorite constituency. Viewed through that lens, his veepstakes make much more sense. The process is playing out in public, with unvarnished careerism on view, in the familiar form of a reality show. Mr. Trump was America’s first reality-TV president, and now he’s reviving the hits: He’s turned the veepstakes into a reboot of “The Apprentice.”

It’s a mentality I came to understand intimately while interviewing him, starting in 2021 after he’d left the White House, for a book on “The Apprentice.” Mr. Trump gave me hours of his time, often extending our scheduled meetings at Trump Tower as we watched clips of the show together. I discerned that, in many ways, Mr. Trump sees his runs for president and his time in the White House as extensions of his reality show. In our conversations, he seemed engrossed by his image and the minutiae of his TV career, far more than by anything he achieved as leader of the free world.

“Dr. Phil” (Phil McGraw) is a character as well, a product of the mediated reality that is television and other forms of mass media. He rose to popularity because of his appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" where he offered a “commonsense” and “masculine” “tough love” approach to therapy.

The interview between Dr. Phil and Donald Trump was an interaction between two television characters and symbols. There is no authenticity or truth to the interview-therapy session because it is a staged or “pseudo-event”, a form of propaganda, that is designed to manipulate the viewers by emotionally training and conditioning them into accepting Donald Trump and his neofascist MAGA movement’s return to the White House as both inevitable, normal, and good.

On this, David Altheide, who is an expert on media and propaganda and author of the recent book “Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump," explained to me via email:

Propaganda researchers would not be surprised by the long-time TV host Phil McGraw’s (AKA Dr. Phil) commercial—following an interview format— with Donald Trump on the newly launched Main Street Media, owned by Trinity Christian Network. They gushed over one another’s media performances. It was a meme dance of two veteran entertainers performing a media-on-media advertisement for Trump and especially McGraw, who confirmed that Trump has been mistreated, attacked, unfairly prosecuted, and courageously supports the best interests of the United States.

Not once did the pop psychologist disagree with Trump’s rant that the election had been stolen and that drug-crazed, mentally ill criminal migrants were invading the U. S. McGraw agreed with Trump that world leaders respect him; that he created the best U.S. economy in history; that he was the best president for Blacks since Abraham Lincoln; and that he tried to calm down crowds chanting “lock her up” about Hilary Clinton. Instead, he asked how Trump could keep going and why people were so energized against him, since he had done such good things for America? Trump replied that he loved the country, and it was just habit for many people to support Democrats, while others were just evil people.

Altheide continues:

As Trump recited his narcissistic script, an audience may have expected a bit more from a clinical psychologist, posing as an interviewer, even though he had been unlicensed since 2008. Mr. McGraw, anointed by Oprah twenty-two years prior, became Dr. Phil and ministered pop psychology to a generation.  Trump watched his program. So did journalists who would follow-up this propaganda fest. Of course, it was all a ruse. He knew better. After all, Mr. McGraw, playing Dr. Phil, had presented a three-part series on narcissism, and concluded: “You can’t change a narcissist no matter what you do.” And “These are people that just don’t have a good prognosis.” Dr. Phil had also read descriptions of narcissism when asked about Trump on several TV shows seven years earlier. And his earlier persona would hold guests accountable to reexamine their behavior, “how’s that working for you?”. But not this time.  No correction was needed. Trump was basically fine and good, and Phil suggested that the newly minted felon should be forgiving and not be revengeful and not follow the cycle of vengeance and retribution. Similar to an earlier comment made to Sean Hannity, Trump countered that sometimes revenge is necessary. "Revenge does take time. And sometimes revenge can be justified, Phil. I have to be honest. Sometimes it can.”  More politics of fear to follow. Bingo!

This was showtime. The goal of the show was to entertain, get more attention, and promote each other. Another Trump threat of vengeance in the future. The media logic worked. Almost immediately, major news outlets and publications posted commentary about what Trump said about revenge. Dr. Phil appeared in several, stating that he hoped he could help Trump to not be revengeful. Trump and the politics of fear again ruled the news cycle. The commercial would be viewed many times and pundits would reflect on who might be subject to Trump’s revenge. More conflict, drama, and promotion for two memes and the network they rode in on. The mainline news media were willing accomplices. Again.

Beyond being a propaganda pseudo-event and spectacle, Dr. Phil’s interview with Donald Trump is important in at least two other ways as well.

Fascists and other authoritarians and demagogues do not care about the truth. All they care about is amassing and exercising corrupt power. Such figures need people in the news media and other positions of authority and trust to enable and legitimize their rise to power. In his staged interview with Donald Trump, Dr. Phil fulfilled that role.

Authoritarians and autocrats routinely threaten to put their enemies and anyone else who opposes them in mental hospitals or other types of psychiatric institutions. Donald Trump and his agents are already previewing that move with their repeated lies that Special Counsel Jack Smith, Attorney General Merrick Garland, the prosecutors and judges and other law enforcement who are trying to him accountable for his obvious law-breaking are “sick”, “deranged”, “insane”, “mentally ill”, and “the most evil people imaginable”. In addition to threats of execution and imprisonment, Donald Trump and his agents have made similar attacks on President Biden and other leading Democrats.

The mainstream news media and political class, even after eight years of experience with Trumpism and the democracy crisis (specifically as a spectacle and ongoing story) are refusing to effectively grapple with this new era because it exists outside of their frameworks (and hubris-driven assumptions) about how politics is supposed to function in America where “the institutions” and “the American people” in the end almost always get it right because they are “fundamentally decent.”

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Public opinion and other research show that the news media and other governing institutions are increasingly viewed with distrust and disdain by large swaths of the American people – across the political spectrum. Part of that loss of trust is a result of an unwillingness to adapt and change in a way that speaks compellingly to the realities of people’s lives, experiences, the larger society, and reality itself.

I wish that we "the Americans" could just collectively get up and walk away from the horrible experience that is the Age of Trump and all its horrors, those both already here and soon to come when/if he and his forces take power in 2025. Alternatively, if the Age of Trump was a TV show we could just turn it off or change the station. But this is the real world, and no such easy escape exists.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Democracy Crisis Disinformation Donald Trump Dr. Phil Election Fascism News Media Propaganda