THE WHITE WHALE
Tom Arnold’s ‘The Hunt for the Trump Tapes’ Is an Exercise in Futility
Tom Arnold’s new show on Viceland is just the latest in a series of attempts to bring down the president. Only this one’s supposed to be entertaining.
The nationwide obsession with the so-called Trump tapes—what many believe to be damning footage of the president—has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks.
First, there was the trial of the president’s former “fixer” Michael Cohen, which yielded a few prurient conversations about Trump’s past flings, and resulted in speculation about what other kinds of tapes Cohen was sitting on. Then, of course, there were the allegations of Omarosa Manigault Newman. In addition to her own clandestine recordings, the former White House staffer claims to have heard a tape of Trump saying the N-word during filming of The Apprentice, among other things, an accusation Trump has since denied.
And let us not forget the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape, released on the eve of the 2016 election. While some thought Trump’s misogynistic sneering (in the money quote, he boasts about how his celebrity entitles him to “grab [women] by the pussy”) would effectively curtail his presidential run, voters said otherwise, and now a man who views women as little more than meat is holding the highest office in the land.
That’s where The Hunt for the Trump Tapes, premiering Tuesday on Viceland, comes in. Billed as a zany investigative piece that aims to unearth even more salacious tapes, actor and comedian Tom Arnold leads the quest to uncover the holy grail, a treasure trove of offensive Trump moments captured on tape—the goal being to bring the president’s unsavory character to light.
The problem is, we don’t need tapes to confirm the obvious: Trump is a misogynistic, homophobic, racist piece of work. We know this based on his policies, and hell, even his public statements. And while some tapes would undoubtedly come in handy during the impending battle against Trump and his administration, it’s doubtful they’d have an actual effect on his politics or tenure. Just look at the Access Hollywood aftermath: there was a public outcry, some protests, but in the end, Trump was still elected president. It’s a little reductive to think that a cache of previously unreleased Trump comments would be the silver bullet needed to bring down his presidency.
That doesn’t mean that efforts to uncover some of Trump’s more heinous comments are unnecessary, that we should just roll over and give up. For as our fearless host Tom Arnold says in the introduction, “If we rich Hollywood liberals just throw money at our problems, that’s not gonna solve anything.”
The first episode of The Hunt for the Trump Tapes focuses on Arnold’s efforts to procure approximately 30 hours of raw footage from Howard Stern, who hosted Trump on his show numerous times and, it’s implied, has some pretty vile soundbites from our president. Arnold is a genial, if not exactly effective, “journalist,” and does his best to charm the footage out of Stern. Unfortunately, Stern refuses to give up the footage, and Arnold is left to the mercy of anonymous tipsters, procured through a Viceland tips page.
After a visit from two “transparency activists” who’ve somehow obtained most of the Stern footage, Arnold and his long-suffering assistant Jacob pore through the files, and come to the groundbreaking conclusion that… Trump is a racist! Their efforts to glean a potentially harmful soundbite are well-meaning, but it makes you wonder what, exactly, they’re hoping to find? Something that more intrepid journalists doing the same thing haven’t already discovered? But Arnold et al. decide to take the Stern tapes to renowned D.C. psychoanalyst Justin Frank, who offers his diagnosis: Trump’s despicable view of women is, unsurprisingly, due to some deep-seated mommy issues, and Trump has lots of “very disturbing qualities.” Frank concludes, “[Trump] is a professional liar. And he’s our president.”
The second episode of the series is much of the same. Arnold turns his focus to Trump’s years on The Apprentice, and embarks on a similar quest to unearth the 20,000-plus hours of unedited Trump soundbites he seems convinced former crew members and network officials still have access to. After Arnold unsuccessfully harasses his former True Lies co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger in the parking lot of a Beverly Hills restaurant for some footage—the logic being that Schwarzenegger, who was Trump’s successor as host of The Apprentice, would surely have access to hours of uncut footage—Arnold decides to go straight to the source, and contacts over 100 former crew members of The Apprentice.
Unsurprisingly, especially given Trump’s penchant for gag orders, all crew members signed NDAs, and the few that had agreed to speak with Arnold backed out at the last minute, although their testimony of working conditions while at The Apprentice is still fair game. Inexplicably, Arnold and his producers decide to let staff members and would-be actors of an L.A. restaurant read the testimony. The staff, who seems poised to parlay this ten-minute segment into their big break as actors, read back the footage with the appropriate amount of choreographed horror.
The second episode concludes with an inspiring, but too short, interview with DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist who calls out Trump’s racial biases and urges viewers to take to the streets to demand change.
It’s a pretty feel-good ending for a show whose premise is decidedly less optimistic. The whole point of Arnold’s quest—to unearth more footage of Trump saying horrific, potentially damaging, things—seems a little, well, overdone. Arnold isn’t the only person trying to take down the president and his administration; there’s a whole host of journalists, politicians, and activists attempting the same thing, albeit without a flashy Viceland production behind them.
Arnold and his new show made headlines earlier this week after he got into a tussle with MGM chairman and The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett at a pre-Emmys party on Sunday. The two apparently came to blows because Arnold believes that Burnett is withholding potentially incriminating Apprentice footage of Trump using racist, misogynistic language. Trump, for his part, tends to deny the existence of any such incriminating tapes.
Arnold emphasizes multiple times in the show that his goal isn’t explicitly to force Trump from the White House—he just thinks that potentially incriminating soundbites from the president should be common knowledge, that they should act as a barometer of our president's (already quite apparent) moral character. But if a tape of Trump telling people to grab women by the pussy didn’t stop him from barreling into the White House, it’s doubtful that anything Tom Arnold could uncover would bring him down, either.