Donald Trump and I don’t seem to have much in common. He takes his steak well-done, I’m a lifelong vegetarian. His father hails from central Queens, mine from northeastern Queens. He is overseeing the dismantling of our democracy, I’m … you know, not. But one habit we share has been gnawing at me: Despite having better things to do, we’re both known to watch an obscene amount of television.
The consequences of my TV watching are — I’d like to think — pretty minimal (maybe a gratuitous “Seinfeld” reference here and there). But his is a different beast altogether. It’s now a defining feature of his presidency and shapes his politics in real, fascinating ways.
What could a medium I love teach me about a president I don’t? In a quest to better understand our enigmatic Commander-in-Chief, I challenged myself to an experiment: a week of watching everything Trump watches on TV and nothing else.
Thanks to some shrewd reporting (and the president’s own tweets), we have a general sense of what Trump’s TV schedule looks like — it’s anywhere from four to eight hours per day, and heavy on morning shows (he watches about three hours of them before beginning his official workday at 11:00 a.m.) and the Sunday political talk shows.
My weekdays began with the 6:00 a.m. hour of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” a show that decided what Americans would most like to watch first thing in the morning is a bunch of Beltway-types gloating about that Red Sox win last night. Guess again, Joe and Mika.
It’s followed by an hour or two of “Fox & Friends,” so notorious for its influence over the president that The New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik called it “the most powerful TV show in America.” When the Martian anthropologists descend on the wreckage of our climate-ravaged planet in 20 years, they should take a look at “Fox & Friends,” a beguiling cultural artifact that’s now the most-watched cable news morning show in America.
It operates so innocuously, with fluttering pop music and chipper hosts, that it’s easy to forget what the show really is: a daily Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of conservative talking points, all served with a preening smile. “Hmm, Steve, seems like immigrants are going to kill us all, doesn’t it? Anyway, next up, Charlotte Pence is here to talk about her new book!” And despite their millions of viewers, the hosts are keenly aware they’re performing for an audience of one; a few times over the course of the week, Trump tweeted out headlines scrolling across the “Fox & Friends” chyron.
To their credit, the “Fox & Friends” gang was very much on top of the week’s biggest news story. No, not the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but that Keira Knightley will not let her daughter watch “Cinderella.”
If Trump’s morning TV is designed to slowly rile him up, his evenings are designed to leave him seething and stewing. It’s a vicious lineup: “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” “Hannity” and “The Ingraham Angle.” Oh, how I long for those naïve days when I thought being subjected to an hour of “Hannity” was the worst thing that could befall me. The one thing worse than an hour of “Hannity,” I learned, is an hour of “Hannity” featuring special guest Rush Limbaugh, who joined us — oh joy — for the full hour Thursday night.
The big story the primetime shows were following this week was a caravan of Central American migrants headed for the southern border. Never mind that the caravan is at least a thousand miles from the U.S., Fox News covered it like CNN covering a hurricane: flustered reporters on the ground, ominous breaking news graphics, alarmist headlines ticking across the screen.
And it worked. On Thursday, with a prideful grin, Tucker Carlson played a clip of a Trump rally in Missoula, Montana. “Remember, it’s going to be an election of the caravan,” Trump said. “You know what I’m talking about.” At the same rally, he presented his slogan for the midterms: “Democrats produce mobs, Republicans produce jobs.” It was a clever line, if a familiar one: Jesse Watters had coined it earlier that afternoon on Fox News’s 5:00 p.m. roundtable show, “The Five.”
A week of pandemonium ended tamely. A rerun of “SNL,” some empty punditry on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” And finally, a low-key “60 Minutes,” which featured segments on genealogy websites, falconry and the shoddy state of the New York City subway system. Ah! Here’s an issue where I’m happy to bash Democratic politicians. President Trump, I’ll even write the tweet for you: “Under Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York (Highest Taxes), the failing NYC subway system (very important) is a disgrace. Totally out of control — BAD deals!”
It was a week that left me angry, stressed and anxious. And it was a reminder that, for all the unifying power of television, it has as much power to leave us miserable and outraged. Trump watches television like Jim Harbaugh might watch old game footage, as a measure of past performance and as a playbook for the next week. It’s good to want to improve, and natural to care about what others think. But it’s unhealthy to spend eight hours a day doing so. It makes Trump a worse person and a worse president. And if he’s going to spend all that time watching television, he might as well watch something good. We’re in the golden age of TV!
One consequence of my television habit? Plenty of unsolicited recommendations at the ready. The President might try NBC’s “The Good Place,” a chronicle of the frustrating human struggle to be better. Or maybe The CW’s “Jane the Virgin,” full of the twisty backstabbing he seems to relish, and with — fittingly — a hotel business in the backdrop. There’s always Netflix’s sumptuous “The Crown,” about the perils of mixing governing and family. If scripted TV is really a no-go? I’d recommend the delightful rebooted “Queer Eye,” which reminds us of the importance of empathy — and proper tailoring.