Trump Television: Life in the Daytime Talk Show Presidency
Nick Bryant on Making America TV Again
In a bastardized version of Ronald Reagan’s role of a lifetime, Donald Trump embarked on a performative presidency in which playing the part seemed just as important as executing his practical duties. “Twitter Trump” inevitably generated the early headlines, but it was the televisual possibilities of the presidency that seemed to animate him most. He conceived of his presidency as a television event, and of himself as a content provider as well as head of government. Not long after taking the oath of office, he instructed aides to treat every day as if it were an episode of a television show in which, as The New York Times reported, “he vanquishes rivals.”
The medium fixated him. Trump described his victory in 2016 as “the biggest night in television history.” “Welcome to the studio,” he said from his high-back leather chair at the beginning of a Cabinet meeting of 2018. In the first television interview of the presidency, he took David Muir of ABC News on a tour of the White House, treating it like a giant new set. “I can be the most presidential person ever, other than the great Abe Lincoln,” he said. The essence of presidential leadership, he seemed to think, was to adopt a presidential persona, just as Ronald Reagan had done; this was as much a role-playing exercise as a practical, philosophical or moral undertaking.
Even as he assumed the most onerous job in the world, the metrics of television consumed him. That first decree-like statement from Sean Spicer, in which he sounded more like a propagandist than a press secretary, was about television ratings, false though they were. Attending his first national prayer breakfast little over a week later, Trump mocked Arnold Schwarzenegger for his poor ratings as the new host of The Apprentice (even as president, Trump remained an executive producer on the show). When he taunted hostile news channels, such as CNN, he frequently made fun of their “terrible ratings!”, one of the few areas in which he displayed a granular knowledge.
Major announcements, such as his choices as Supreme Court nominees, were teased on Twitter with tune-in-for-the-next-installment expectancy. First with Judge Neil Gorsuch, then again with Brett Kavanaugh, the suspense came to an end in primetime specials broadcast from the East Room and compèred by the president. “So, was that a surprise?” asked Trump, as Gorsuch and his wife approached the podium, treating them like contestants on a game show who had just won a Caribbean cruise.
Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had announced their picks in less showy daytime roll-outs. Reagan had nominated Justice Anthony Kennedy in the evening. After Kennedy’s replacement, Brett Kavanaugh, scraped through a nomination battle overshadowed by historic allegations of sexual assault and heavy drinking, Trump threw a primetime pep rally. Even the conservative Supreme Court justices in attendance looked distinctly uncomfortable about the politicization of this White House tableau.
Trump’s first State of the Union address replicated the Reagan made-for-television model. The centerpiece was his Gipper-like salute to human heroes in the balcony, among them the widow of a Navy SEAL killed in Yemen. In his 2020 State of the Union address, Trump gave the genre a personal twist, with a surprise reunion of a military wife with her warrior husband and the Oprah-style awarding of a scholarship to a beaming African-American schoolgirl. At any moment, one half-expected him to point towards one of his Cabinet secretaries and to utter his famous catchphrase “You’re fired!”, or to announce that every lawmaker would return home with the keys to a new Pontiac.
Trump’s campaign-style rallies were an attempt to bypass the media by producing his own programming. Fox News regularly carried these speeches in their entirety. CNN and all the other networks broadcast the highlights.
While reporters justifiably complained about the cancellation of daily White House press briefings, Trump appeared before the cameras to take questions far more than his predecessors. Oval Office sprays, when Trump fielded reporters’ questions, commonly with an international leader left wordless at his side, were often so long they cut into the time allotted for face-to-face diplomacy. His question-and-answer sessions on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding Marine One were so rambling you wondered whether the helicopter might run out of fuel.
Television cameras often became flies on the wall, a documentary-like style he actively encouraged. A favorite moment of his presidency came after the Parkland school shooting in Florida, where 17 teenagers were massacred, when cameras were allowed into the Roosevelt Room to film his 64-minute meeting with Republican and Democratic leaders on gun control that was broadcast in its entirety on cable news. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, it had the feel of the boardroom scene from The Apprentice.
When a cameraman was allowed to linger at an early Cabinet meeting, it provided a stream of footage that resembled state television, the Pyongyang on the Potomac moment when Cabinet officials took turns to lavish praise on their boss. Mike Pence, who early on perfected the devoted gaze of the prototypical political wife, was the most sycophantic. The then Defense Secretary, James Mattis, was the only person at the table not to bend the knee.
Always the visuals of his presidency obsessed him. Sean Spicer was instructed to wear better suits. Trump hated his National Security Advisor John Bolton’s bushy mustache. An early star performer was his first UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, whom Trump commended for bringing “glamour” to the Security Council’s horseshoe table. Richard Grenell, his ambassador to Germany, became a Trump favorite not only because he publicly berated Washington’s European allies but also for his angular, telegenic good looks. “If you’re not on TV, you don’t really exist as far as Trump is concerned,” an associate of his second press secretary, Sarah Sanders, told The New Yorker.
Foreign policy regularly took the form of made-for-television show diplomacy. In Saudi Arabia he happily participated in a bizarre ceremony where he placed his hands on a glowing orb that looked like a cross between a mystical, occult ritual and the draw to decide on the group tables ahead of the FIFA World Cup. When he visited NATO headquarters a few days later, he barged his way to the front of the family photo, strong-arming the Prime Minister of Montenegro out of the way, not only to assert US dominance but also to make sure he was center-frame.
Some of the more cinematic moments of his presidency, such as when he met the plane carrying three Korean-American prisoners released by Pyongyang, were packaged into what looked like movie trailers, this one with footage in slow motion married with the stirring soundtrack of the Harrison Ford film Air Force One. After a trip to Iraq, his first to a combat zone, he told rally-goers, “And I said, ‘Bring the cameras. I’m going to make a movie. This is the most incredible thing.’” Following a visit to the Pentagon, he observed the generals were “like from a movie, better-looking than Tom Cruise.”
The artificiality of television helped create the pretense of continual achievement. This was true of his first summit with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in Singapore, which was intricately choreographed so that the two leaders shook hands in front of a tableau of alternating US and North Korean flags. The imagery was arresting. The pictures appeared on front pages around the world. Tensions were reduced, but not much substantively was achieved in terms of denuclearization.
“Little Rocket Man,” whom Trump had threatened with “fire and fury,” now co-starred in a buddy movie. Kim, in one of his flowery letters to the president, likened their first meeting to a “fantasy film.” Or was it a rom-com? After their summit, Trump told supporters in West Virginia he “fell in love” with the diminutive North Korean. Thereafter, he treated him like an on-air spouse. No matter that the dictator has been accused, among other brutalities, of carrying out executions with anti-aircraft guns and of detaining up to 130,000 of his compatriots in gulags.The artificiality of television helped create the pretense of continual achievement.
Even when events went completely off the rails, he did not seem to mind, so long as they produced good television. Trump made no attempt to shut down Kanye West’s wacky, profanity-laden soliloquy when the two men met in the autumn of 2018, surely the first time in broadcast history that the word “motherfucker” was caught on camera in the Oval Office. Trump liked what he was hearing. Kanye, who turned up wearing a Make America Great Again cap, said his headgear made him “feel like Superman.”
As for the revolving-door turnover of his administration, it constantly introduced new characters into the mix. The only problem was when new cast members eclipsed the lead. It helped explain why Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci lasted such a short time as the White House communications director, those ten glorious profanity-filled days in July 2017. Even The Mooch’s protestations in an infamous New Yorker interview that he did not have a ticket on himself —“I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock”—failed to save him.
Mark Burnett, the producer of The Apprentice, was not much of a fan of the term “reality show” to describe his genre of programming. Instead, he preferred the word “dramality.” This neologism applied also to the Trump presidency.
The style of his presidency found a parallel in those trashy daytime talk shows where the aim was to stoke controversy, engineer confrontations, conjure up dramatic surprises and appeal to the basest elements of a screaming audience baying for sensation and sometimes even blood. Fist fights always got the best ratings. Trump cast himself not as the on-screen referee, the arbiter of these disputes, but rather as the central combatant: the thrower of the punches, the deliverer of the most insults and the perpetual victim.
Watching television was almost as central to his presidency as appearing on it. TV was so often the motor for his rage, his Twitter tirades, his abrupt changes in policy, his foreign policy. Trump, who described the digital video recorder TiVo as “one of the greatest inventions of all time,” was thought to consume at least five hours of television each day, starting each morning at about 5:30 with his favorite show, Fox and Friends, and other cable shows less to his liking, such as MSNBC’s breakfast offering Morning Joe—“Morning Joke,” he called it.
As a candidate, he admitted TV was a primary source of information. “Well, I watch the shows,” he told Chuck Todd of Meet the Press, who asked from whom he got military advice. As president, it became clear his tweets came in real-time response to segments on Fox News and other cable channels. In a six-month period between the summer of 2018 and the following spring, Media Matters chronicled more than 200 instances where Trump passed on information gleaned from Fox News to his followers on Twitter. “There is no strategy to Trump’s Twitter feed,” wrote the journalist Matthew Gertz, who chronicled his tweets. “He is not trying to distract the media. He is being distracted.”
Foreign diplomats quickly grasped that booking themselves on his favorite shows was the most effective way of putting a word in his ear. The then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson adopted this “audience of one” strategy in a last-ditch attempt to persuade Trump against pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, appearing on Fox and Friends and also, as a back-up, Morning Joe. In one interview, Johnson suggested Trump should be a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize for his nuclear diplomacy on the Korean peninsula, an attempt to massage his ego if he couldn’t physically shake his hand.
Trump’s response to some of the landmark moments of his presidency, such as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, was often as a viewer. After mocking Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, at one of his rallies in Mississippi, he told reporters he found her televised testimony “very compelling and she looks like a very fine woman.” Her performance on television had seemingly impressed him. When US Special Forces hunted down Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State, Trump described the video feed he watched near the Situation Room as “something really amazing to see,” and likened it to “watching a movie.”
To highlight the primacy of television is not to diminish the importance to the Trump presidency of Twitter. It was through the combination of television and Twitter that Donald Trump achieved his omnipresence. It enabled him to replicate the kind of total media saturation he achieved during the campaign. Twitter gave him a platform to bypass and attack the media, needle Democrats, shame corporations, taunt foreign enemies and allies, disparage dissident Republicans and even sack members of his own administration. Rather than saying “You’re fired!” in person, Trump did it digitally. Rex Tillerson found out he had been dismissed while he was on the toilet.
Ceaselessly we were witnesses to this presidential psychodrama, and the round-the-clock availability of Twitter meant that it played out almost every waking hour of almost every day. “It’s morning again in America” took on a new connotation: rolling over in bed, picking up a smartphone and seeing who Trump had decided to vilify or smear in his latest pre-dawn attack.
It was commonplace to say that Twitter was to Trump what television was to JFK and radio to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But it was his means of expression more than just his use of a new medium that was so norm-shattering. Back in the early ’60s, televised press conferences showcased Kennedy’s wit, élan and self-deprecation. Roosevelt’s fireside chats soothed a nation traumatized by the Great Depression. Trump’s Twitter tirades, by contrast, created a sense of perpetual crisis and anxiety, and showed how the White House was hostage to the whims and temper of its occupant. To many of his supporters, however, it offered ALL CAPS proof that he was carrying out the job they hired him to do.
Excerpted from When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present. Used with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2021 by Nick Bryant.