As, a former journalist and media critic, I’ll bust a gut if I don’t write about the fascinating and bloodless but significant cultural television phenomenon emerging from the coronavirus tragedy.
This post is not about whether President Trump is a good President or a bad one, it’s about the way two reality shows so different from one another are both airing every day and revealing so much about our politics, culture and maybe our future.
It’s not just a question of two different press conferences, it’s really about two different ways of looking at the world.
These two regular daily television conferences about the coronavirus – one starring the President, the other Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York – could help determine who is President in the Fall, and how we as a nation respond to this staggering crisis and the next ones to come.
Part of our President’s genius is that he sees himself – once and forever – as the star of his own long-running, TV centered reality show.
The White House lawn and press room is his daily stage and this idea of being a Tweeting TV Reality Show President blew away a score of gifted competitors. They all saw the Presidency quite differently.
Trump’s vision of being President has upended conventional politics, fusing them with the lessons of mass-market television. He turned out to be the wisest of them all. And many people love him very much.
Donald Trump is the master of the genre.
If you take a couple of hours to watch the best reality TV shows from Dr. Phil to The Real World to Million Dollar Listing and the Bachelor, even Trump’s own Apprentice, you will see his vision played out on the White House lawn or press room every day.
He’s turned the entire Washington political spectrum into actors and wannabees on his own show, the Apprentice, all over again.
Trump is always the story on his show, always on stage from his bluster to his hair to his fancy suits and ungracious responses. He can say or do whatever he wants, his outrageousness and offensiveness is the point, not a side effect.
I have no idea what he’s really like, but his TV persona is shocking and unwavering. His followers wanted a Disrupter, and that’s is what they got. He didn’t run to govern, he ran to destroy our conventional ideas about governing.
The President may or may not understand how a virus spreads, but he understands his television. He knows that on every successful reality show, arrogance, cruelty, boorishness, fighting, over-the-top polarizing, and paranoia, even bigotry as a political philosophy, are considered admirable, not offensive.
In this world, lying and exaggerating, scapegoating and bragging are not bad things, but good things.
You win by flaunting and taunting the conventions of the “elites” and the unknown.
As a former TV producer, I know good TV when I see it, and Trump is perhaps the best I have ever seen at keeping himself in front of the camera, no matter what he says or does while performing.
It is a fascinating fusion of popular culture and politics.
President Trump is a master of the form, he is the star of every room he’s ever in, and everyone must bow before him. In TV, I learned early that fiction soon becomes reality, and many people no longer care about the difference.
Suddenly a new challenge for the President, a spawn of the coronavirus hosted by a different personality, and this show is also red-hot, riveting, watched across the nation and suddenly very influential.
It is transformative, also shaping our society and our understanding of the coronavirus, and of ourselves.
In an indirect but obvious way, it is also challenging the ethos and popularity of President Trump, and his prospects for re-election.
Without ever hardly mentioning him, this new broadcast is creating a devastating portrait of a leader struggling painfully to lead a diverse nation – half of whom he has deliberately and contemptuously alienated – at a critical time.
A lethal Pandemic isn’t really the stuff of good reality TV. It’s too heavy, too real and too frightening. So far, President Trump doesn’t seem to have found another speed.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York seems to understand something that no other politician or political candidate up against President Trump has yet grasped. You can’t fight a Reality TV Presidency with an argument, you have to fight it with another reality show, a newer and better one.
And you have to fight it by showing a better way, not just promising it or arguing about it.
In essence, you undercut Trump by being the very opposite of him on television every single day when so many people are paying attention. You do not do this by attacking him or quarreling with him. It’s entertainment, stupid, fighting and offending is his specialty, it is most people’s weakness. You try to show what government, at its best, can do.
Governor Cuomo seems to have figured this out. If he’s loud you’re soft, if he is vicious, you are gentle, if he is lying or stretching the truth, you are being painfully honest, if he can’t really show empathy, you are empathizing all the time, even in tears at times.
Cuomo, a blood enemy of most Republican politicians, is not your usual progressive or wooly headed prophet of the left. He is notorious as a tough, take-no-prisoners governor. He has ticked off liberals and conservatives alike.