Playing One on TV Doesn’t Make You a Real President

Alan Zendell, April 22, 2020

That’s what Trump biographer Michael d’Antonio implied in his op-ed today. It sounds like an attempt at dark humor, but the more you think about it the more profound it seems.

Look at the evidence. Tune in to Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings and read his tweets, and compare them, for example, with what we see and hear from our governors. Have you heard a single governor, regardless of his or her politics mention TV ratings? Does Trump make you cringe when he shows more emotion about how many people are watching him than discussing tens of thousands of Americans living on ventilators and dying? Do you wonder if it occurs to him to ask how many of the people tuning in to his briefings are infuriated by them? It makes me think about people lying injured after a car crash counting how many rubberneckers slow down to see the carnage.

Every day, every governor I watch provides information (facts) and offers support and compassion to frightened citizens, eschewing politics. Every Trump briefing comes off like a campaign rally. Governors every day take personal responsibility for their decisions and accept dissent and protest with equanimity. Trump uses every briefing to deflect blame,  explicitly refusing to accept personal responsibility for anything, instead claiming credit for the successes of everyone else and continually throwing personal tantrums at anyone who attempts to hold him accountable.

This week, Trump expanded his campaign of creating chaos to distract Americans from his mismanagement of the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On successive days he tweeted that he was suspending immigration into the United States and ordering naval commanders to fire on and destroy Iranian vessels that harass American ships. That sounds like his promises to destroy NBC News, CBS News, and CNN for harassing him with questions about his own lies and contradictions, in other words, for doing their jobs responsibly – except that the potential consequences are far more serious.

The tweets were attempts to recharge his flagging base, obvious signs of desperation as even our delusional president must accept the implications of his falling approval numbers. A master at using his bully pulpit for his own personal benefit, it never occurs to him to use it to promote the welfare of all Americans. And that’s tragic, because the single thing Donald Trump excels at is rallying an audience. Just imagine if he used that talent the way Franklin Roosevelt did.

D’Antonio, who interviewed Trump extensively for his biography tells us that Trump’s idol early in life was quintessential talk show host, Johnny Carson. Trump wanted, more than anything else to be a television star. As president he can be one just by decreeing it. The COVID-19 pandemic gives him access to hundreds of hours of network television time. He loves the briefings, even when reporters’ questions infuriate him. It’s a classic Trump M. O., setting up enemies and straw men to cast him in the role of a beleaguered victim. When he lashes out, devoid of decency and respect for truth, he’s telling his base of angry people in search of scapegoats – See? I’m just like you, always being victimized by liberals and leftists.

What better scapegoats than immigrants and the Shiite Muslim leaders of Iran? Trump has already convinced his base that immigrants want only to steal their jobs and rape their daughters. And Iranian leadership has frequently advocated death to America and Israel. What wonderful foils for Trump’s hate-mongering and divisiveness. But immigration has nothing to do with Trump’s failed response to the pandemic or the harm he does when he undermines his own medical experts. And no one believes Iran is suddenly so great a threat to our national security that it justifies a shoot and destroy order.

Becoming president enabled Donald Trump to achieve his lifelong dream of being a television star, but even in that he’s cheating. Most television personalities have to earn their ratings through either public acclaim or increasing sales for sponsors. As president, all he has to do is step out of the White House into a crowd of reporters. He understands media frenzy, and it makes no difference whether the noise they make is adulation or criticism.

At the end of a long, stressful day of following lockdown rules, when my wife and I turn on our television, the last thing we want to see is another Trump clown show. We’re thankful to the networks who draw a line between presidential news and campaigning. To quote Michael d’Antonio, “Right now, the American people need an actual president. Not someone who just plays one on TV.”

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