President Trump knows you like to watch.
He doesn’t care if his viewers are true believers or those who curse and seethe through his daily coronavirus news briefings, which are neither newsworthy nor brief. Viewers are viewers, and television ratings are agnostic. That’s what matters to the president.
Trump is a “ratings hit,” The New York Times wrote in a not-complimentary recent story, comparing his audience size to the season finale of “The Bachelor.” No doubt, the former reality show host loved that juxtaposition. Now his wildly unscripted briefings are the ultimate reality show, and even those hate-watching his daily lies, scorn, and gaslighting are giving him exactly what he craves.
Hate-watching is an exercise in futility. Most people, I imagine, don’t hate-eat. If you dislike Brussels sprouts, you wouldn’t consume them just so you can complain about how awful they are. Yet this is the bizarre luxury Trump has been afforded, most detrimentally at a time when facts and truth are the thin line between life and death.
This is especially devastating because these briefings start between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., often bumping local, and sometimes national, newscasts off the air. It’s intentional. They blot out dire statistics about deaths or confirmed cases in our own communities. They silence sound bites from desperate mayors and governors irate with the White House’s slapdash response. They overshadow anything contradicting Trump’s false narrative of an administration hard at work against the pandemic.
Like any budding authoritarian, Trump wants his voice, by virtue of airtime, to be the most prominent one on the coronavirus, even if what he says is mostly irredeemable rubbish.
On Monday, two of the top three trending topics on Twitter pertained to Trump’s briefing. “My Pillow” referred to that creepy pillow infomercial huckster who used his Rose Garden close-up to proselytize and to praise Trump or, maybe, God — with white evangelicals, it’s so hard to tell the difference. The other hot subject needs no explanation: #StopAiringTrump. These briefings are now social media events, a communal hit for mainlining outrage.
Last week, an NPR affiliate in Washington state, the nation’s first coronavirus hot spot, finally had enough. It stopped airing the briefings “due to a pattern of false or misleading information provided that cannot be fact-checked in real time.”
Now networks are cutting away early from Trump. It’s not enough. Clearly, TV news executives still don’t fully recognize the perils of giving unfettered time to a raging liar. After the coronavirus canceled Trump’s ego-massaging rallies, he found a new hustle. His briefings are a rally remix with a much smaller live crowd but with a vast audience watching at home.
It’s a greatest hits medley. Trump excoriates the media, especially when they lasso him with his own words. He lies about the availability of coronavirus tests. He undermines rigorous science with hollow hunches. He accuses doctors and nurses, who are giving more to this nation than Trump has contributed in his entire life, of hoarding medical supplies, or “worse.” He insults governors focused on saving the lives of their constituents instead of on coddling his insatiable ego.
A normal narcissist might mention to confidantes how pleased he is that people are tuning in. A pathological narcissist like Trump gloats and tweets about it, as though a rising body count, due in part to his own ineptitude and mendacity, is just collateral damage in his lifelong pursuit of boffo TV.
And every day millions, including many who dislike him, watch. Perhaps there’s catharsis in jeering Trump like he’s a professional wrestling villain or the nasty character everyone loves to hate. It’s Must Scream TV — except he’s the president, and it’s not funny or entertaining. It’s dangerous.
For decades, Trump understood that attention, whether positive or negative, is still attention. Now he’s getting all he ever wanted.
Networks should stop airing Trump’s briefings live. Only a version that’s been thoroughly fact-checked serves the public good. In the meantime, viewers who should know better can do what TV stations won’t — stop. Hate-watching is still watching, and it only benefits Trump.
To quote a popular anti-Trump adage, “Elect a clown, expect a circus.” While true, it doesn’t mean we should be a rapt audience for the self-serving stunts of the Lyin’ King in the White House.