It’s hard to believe there’s been any figure in American history who has so dominated the day-to-day American consciousness as Donald Trump. It’s been almost three years since the fateful moment he descended that golden escalator in Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign, and there’s been scarcely a day since when he hasn’t commanded our attention.
Trump can rightfully claim the title that Howard Stern once conferred on himself: The King of All Media. In doing so he has been aided and abetted by the media themselves. It’s no small irony that the same people who purport to loathe him are the very ones giving him all the airtime and ink. (Or as Michelle Wolf framed it at the White House Correspondents Dinner: “He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.”)
I work in an open space office and the wall-mounted televisions give me a good idea about how dependent TV news is on Trump’s antics to keep the viewers enthralled. How I long for the days when they would merely exploit a murdered teen or celebrity melt-down to keep the eyeballs tuned in! Now it’s all Trump all the time.
Dick Cavett recently admitted that Watergate was one of the greatest times of his life because it was a thrilling day-to-day drama that resulted in the ejection of a president he despised. We’re in the same mindset now. All those who live in non-stop outrage, either pro- or anti-Trump, claim they’re fighting for the good of the country but they seem addicted to the same adrenaline rush that afflicts gamblers, thrill-seekers and bungee jumpers.
I have a Trump-voting friend who dreads coming home from work because his wife will inevitably meet him at the door outraged over Trump’s latest malfeasance. She knows these non-stop rants aren’t good for their marriage but just can’t stop watching CNN while doing the laundry or checking Twitter in bed. If that’s not addiction, I don’t know what is.
It‘s now a commonplace to say that Trump has turned the presidency into a reality TV show, but in truth the presidency has been a reality show for decades. I just listened to John Dickerson’s “Whistlestop” podcast on Slate.com about the increasing role that presidents play as symbolic participants in our national drama. For example, in 1955, President Eisenhower could go on vacation, completely off the grid while a series of hurricanes slammed the Southeast. And no one thought it was strange that the President was playing golf while millions of Americans suffered.
That all changed in 1965 when President Johnson decided to take advantage of the TV coverage of Hurricane Betsy to show he was a strong leader in charge of the federal response. Alas, hurricanes aren’t always a president’s friend. We all remember that President George W. Bush’s inadequate display of empathy during Hurricane Katrina seriously derailed his presidency.
But high-visibility hurricane response is only a tiny sliver of the vast portfolio of emotional responsibilities the president is expected to master. He (and eventually she) is supposed to be the mourner-in-chief, America’s dad or grandpa, the exerciser-in-chief, the sports-fan-in-chief, the main arbiter of American cultural taste (at the Kennedy Center), the comedian-in-chief (at the White House Correspondence Dinner) and the overall embodiment of the American nation.
The State of the Union, for example, long ago devolved into a very special episode for the presidential reality show, with one side of the aisle cheering wildly at the president’s every utterance and everyone across the aisle one working hard to frown or jeer whenever they think they might be on TV. It’s now “Wrestlemania” in suits and ties.
The point is that a lot of the president’s job has very little to do with his actual Constitutional responsibility, which is to manage the executive branch of the federal government. But it’s the extra-Constitutional responsibilities that we’re most addicted to. Who cares about housing policy when there’s Twitter? The presidential behavior that most outrages the Trump addicts is the most inconsequential – the tweets, off the cuff remarks, and verbal flights of fancy at his rallies. Not coincidentally, these are also the behaviors that draw the most opprobrium on TV and the highest ratings.
Is it possible to break the Trump addiction? Lord knows I’m trying but there are so many enablers who keep pulling me back. I’ve “hidden” my most fanatical Facebook friends and unfollowed most political and cultural reporters on Twitter. I walk right past the TV if a cable news channel is on and I’ve stopped watching all the late night TV shows.
None of this is really helping. Trump is still everywhere. In a Wall Street Journal essay a few weeks ago, Joseph Epstein suggested that just as we had meatless Monday’s during World War II, maybe we should now have Trumpless Thursdays. Oh how divine that would be. Let’s get on that.