For years, we've been living inside a story defined by Donald Trump's reality-TV worldview. America has finally changed the channel
By James Poniewozik
Published: Nov 20, 2020
Fireworks spell out President Donald Trump's name over the Washington Monument at the close of the Republican National Convention on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Aug. 27, 2020. For years, we’ve been living inside a story defined by Donald Trump’s reality-TV worldview. America finally changed the channel Image: Doug Mills/The New York Times
Many incumbent presidents have gone on the campaign trail to make their cases for a second term. Donald Trump was the first to campaign for a second season.
At a 2019 campaign rally in Minnesota, he described his victory in 2016 as “one of the greatest nights in the history of television.” And he often seemed to cast his reelection argument less in terms of policies than as a TV producer’s pitch to keep the show going.
Only with him, he argued, would you get the zing, the pizazz, the drama that kept you on the edge of your seat. A vote for President-elect Joe Biden, he told a rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 20, would be a vote for “boredom.”
“Look at all those cameras,” he said, gesturing at the press pen. “If you had Sleepy Joe, nobody’s going to be interested in politics anymore.”
On Nov. 3, a majority of the electorate answered, “You promise?”
If Donald Trump’s loss still seems somehow unreal, and not just to the president’s lawyers, it may be the aftereffect of having spent years trapped in his personal Truman Show. It’s distorted our sense of what’s normal. Was it ever not like this? Was there a time when each day didn’t rattle us awake to the blaring alarm clock of his Fox News livetweets?
American life, since Trump’s escalator ride on June 16, 2015, had been like a Willy Wonka ironic punishment: You like TV, do you? Then you shall live inside TV — forever!
And then, one day, the show was canceled.
The reboot that wasn’t
The former “Apprentice” host and lifelong media hound dominated the 2016 campaign by knowing what TV wanted. Before he ran for office, Trump flourished in reality TV, cable news and even pro wrestling, genres that thrive on the same thing he does: conflict.
He was a perfect fit for the “You’re fired” ethos of Mark Burnett’s pseudo-business competition because he, like “The Apprentice,” saw competition and fighting as the most productive state of existence.
This made his presidency an eyeball magnet, for cheerleaders and hate-watchers alike. He was the show’s biggest superfan, consuming hours of TV news, a magic mirror reflecting him, every day.
He trumpeted his Nielsen ratings as if they were jobs reports. He told advisers to think of every day of his administration as an episode of a reality show.
Trump has often said, not without justification, that the news networks were addicted to him as much as he was to them: “Without me, their ratings are going down the tubes.”
But the Trump presidency proved something else as well. People may like to watch exciting TV shows. They do not necessarily want to live inside one.
And for four years, that’s what we did. We were redshirt extras inside a potboiler driven by, and customized for, the adrenaline urges of a conflict junkie. The unceasing tension. The ever-ratcheting drama. The tweets that became news that generated more tweets. What was the latest story line? What was the president mad about today? What did you get mad about today?
The TV-addict president assumed that everyone else found constant battle as invigorating as he did, that they, like him, would rather be relentlessly upset than momentarily bored. He tweeted out links to his choleric TV interviews with a hearty “Enjoy!” There was no apparent irony. Why wouldn’t people enjoy all this? Everything was so exciting!
People forget this now, but the first and highest-rated season of “The Apprentice” had relatively little Trump in it. The host showed up in the beginning, fired someone in the end and mostly vanished in the middle.
From Season 2 on, though, Trump’s boss-from-hell persona, like a breakout character on a sitcom, became bigger, louder and more ubiquitous. The show spotlighted him with longer, nastier boardroom sessions, sometimes with multiple firings. NBC scheduled the show twice a year, following a fundamental TV dictum — if something’s a hit, give it to people twice as much, twice as hard — all the way down the ratings charts.
So too with Trump’s 2020 campaign, which often seemed like a grittier reboot of the 2016 version. In the White House as on NBC, the solution to any problem had to be more of him. The pro-wrestling heel turns — barking his way through the first debate, brazenly undermining the voting process — were louder and less subtle.
Each big twist had to outdo last season’s. The monster rallies came back, this time with the apocalyptic frisson of defying, or denying, the prospect of death in a pandemic. When he himself got COVID, as the season’s writers had been foreshadowing all along, he timed his flights to and from the hospital for the network evening news.
The president’s media omnipresence may have made some difference; he increased his turnout in the end, however many votes it also motivated against him. As Election Day neared, he openly tried to cast his constant schedule of rallies and gaggles and events as proof of his strength. But it often felt like a test of ours.
One-man show vs. ensemble drama
In the closing days of the campaign, Trump often said that he couldn’t imagine losing to the likes of Biden. That is, he couldn’t fathom people choosing the political equivalent of PBS — a Trump adviser likened Biden to Fred Rogers, apparently considering that an insult — when they got so much razzmatazz from the president.
I’ll admit, as somebody who writes about TV and politics, that I was skeptical, too. In the television era, candidates who make themselves the protagonists of their elections — Reagan, Obama, Bill Clinton — usually win. To beat President TV, I assumed, you had to counterprogram him, not just offer to turn the set off.
Biden’s campaign happened to come when the country was experiencing a tremendous loss from the ongoing pandemic, which it still has not entirely processed, under a president who has shown no interest in empathy or catharsis. In all those soulful addresses to the camera, sharing his own history of family loss, Biden was filling a role of the presidency that had essentially been vacant for four years.
But it wasn’t entirely about him. In fact, much of the point of his campaign was that it was not all about him. It was an ensemble drama, not a star vehicle.
Maybe the corrective to the Trump drama wasn’t a copycat show built around another operatic camera hog. As much as anything, Biden was offering America a chance to reclaim its breath from a celebrity-in-chief who had sucked up all the cultural oxygen.
The show goes on hiatus
Like many canceled programs, this administration still has a few more episodes to burn off, even if its stunts feel increasingly like shtick and self-parody, like Rudy Giuliani’s raging against the dying of the light in a Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot.
But the noise of the Trump era will outlast the president, in some form, because it preceded him. It had existed on Fox News and conservative talk radio, whose dialect he mimicked after spending four years as a weekly regular on “Fox & Friends.”
Maybe another politician will learn its language. Maybe another Trumpist — say, Don Jr., who speaks in Twitter-troll memes and hosts an online show called “Triggered” — will be its next interpreter.
Maybe Trump will become, as some have speculated, a right-wing-TV host, or maybe a right-wing-TV host will become the next Trump. If this presidency has accomplished anything, it was to obliterate the line between the two job descriptions.
It’s easier to vote out a president than to repeal a media ethos. And as it plays out in our media now, politics seems to be as much a battle between aesthetics as a battle between ideologies. The inclusive, return-to-normal tone of the Biden campaign — this is us. And the high-octane, finger-in-your-eye style of Trumpism — this is us, too.
But while the circus goes on, it will pitch its tent farther away from the White House for a while, maybe long enough for our ears to stop ringing.