Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Television President

It's fair to say that Donald Trump owes his political career to the medium of television. It was television that successfully sold Trump to the nation as the personification of American business success—from his frequent appearances on talk shows and newsmagazines in the 1980s and 1990s to his prime-time network reality show that lasted from 2004 until he began running for office in 2015. When Trump turned his attention to conservative politics during the Obama years, Fox News Channel offered him a weekly platform to promote his views. And when Trump threw his hat in the presidential ring, he received far more television coverage than any other candidate. Other politicians, from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, have often been recognized for their mastery of television, but only Trump harnessed modern media to leap directly into the White House without working his way up the traditional ladder of subordinate political offices, after-dinner speeches at state party fundraisers, and long days of hand-shaking and small talk at state fairs, train stations, and barbershops.

But public discussions of the relationship between television and Trump have perceptibly reversed course in recent weeks. Rather than emphasize Trump's reliance on television as a tool to reach his supporters, political observers have become preoccupied with television's influence on Trump.

The New York Times reported in December that Trump watches between four and eight hours of TV per day, while Axios revealed this week that the daily presidential schedule tends to be liberally sprinkled with periods of "executive time" during which the executive in question is often alone with his remote control. Trump has defensively denied these and similar claims, but the evidence is clear enough—the various subjects addressed by the presidential Twitter account frequently exhibit a close real-time correlation to the programming of cable news outlets, especially Fox News Channel. When combined with Trump's aversion to reading long memos or sitting through extended oral briefings—Michael Wolff has claimed in his new Trump exposé that White House aides view their boss as "semi-literate" and far too impatient to spend much time in meetings discussing substantive issues—as well as an apparent lack of Internet savvy beyond his beloved Twitter platform, we are left with a portrait of a president who absorbs nearly all his information through the tube.

Naturally, this behavior is treated by his critics as demonstrating Trump's profound personal unfitness for the office he now holds. But such conclusions also reflect the remarkably widespread acceptance of the belief that consuming hours upon hours of television news programming, day after day, still leaves viewers dangerously uninformed about current political events, the functioning of the government, and the state of international affairs—an assumption tacitly acknowledged by Trump's own furious denials of habitual couch potato-dom. If it's indeed true that relying on TV to educate oneself about the world is indeed a formula for perpetual ignorance, surely Trump cannot be the only one who is damningly indicted by this fact.

Television is on the whole pretty bad at covering politics, for reasons that extend from the limitations inherent in the medium to the financial calculations guiding the programming choices of television executives. Above all, television demands eye-catching visual footage—which directs its attention to individuals over institutions, to conflict over cooperation, and to activities that occur in public over those happening out of the camera's view. Compared to print media, television coverage tends to dwell on a small number of "top" stories over the course of a typical day, and its temporal frame of reference is nearly always instantaneous; small tidbits of "breaking" news win out over much more important long-term developments. Analysts and reporters are chosen for their ability to speak extemporaneously in real time—and for their more general polish and camera-friendliness—as much as for their substantive insights, and the perpetual desire to build as wide an audience as possible limits any focus on topics not deemed interesting to the average viewer.

These characteristics produce a fairly consistent set of distortions. Above all, television offers a view of the political world utterly dominated by the day-to-day behavior of the president; any other government official normally attracts a similar volume of coverage only upon the advent of a particularly juicy scandal. The internal operation of Congress is commonly treated as an impenetrable mystery or ignored altogether; judicial and bureaucratic politics seldom merit much attention. Events beyond the borders of the United States similarly receive extensive coverage principally on the occasion of American military action or acts of terrorist violence.

Given the consistently president-centric nature of television's political programming, it's surely understandable that Trump the TV addict has struggled for the entire length of his administration to reconcile the differences between the job he thought he was getting and the one he actually has. Trump has repeatedly chafed against the limitations of the presidency's formal powers, complaining repeatedly that members of Congress, federal judges, Cabinet departments, and even the media themselves don't automatically submit to his personal will. He appears much more engaged in those presidential duties that occur in public view—giving speeches, signing laws and executive orders, joint appearances with foreign leaders—than those relegated to the world off camera (such as substantive meetings and briefings, or the negotiations of legislative provisions). The Times report that Trump "told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals" surely rings true to most observers of his presidency—especially to nervous fellow Republicans who wouldn't mind it too much if the controversial and unpopular chief executive ceded the spotlight every once in a while.

This week, Trump reacted angrily to Wolff's portrayal of him as an emotionally unbalanced ignoramus by proclaiming on Twitter that he was, in fact, a "very stable genius" and "like, really smart." In order to substantiate these assertions, Trump unexpectedly allowed televised access to Tuesday's bipartisan congressional meeting on immigration over which he was presiding. Members of both parties came away from the experience without, shall we say, necessarily reporting more confidence in the president's intellectual acumen or command of policy on his signature issue—but it's a safe bet that Trump has not read the political scientist Richard Neustadt's classic work Presidential Power, which argues that presidential success requires maintaining a positive presidential reputation among other elite actors in the political system.

Instead, Trump claimed today that his appearance before the cameras was a triumphant personal success, based in part on his own consumption of the resulting attention on television: "It was reported as incredibly good [and] got great reviews by everybody . . . phenomenal [coverage] for about two hours . . . a lot of [news] anchors sent us letters saying that was one of the greatest meetings they ever witnessed. . . . I'm sure their ratings were fantastic; they always are." In other words, a very special episode.