Okay. It’s a little disrespectful to call President Donald Trump “Donny.” And yes, one needs to be of a certain age, or tuned to TV history, to recognize that in this time of pandemic, when unimaginable suffering has befallen our nation, he is essentially channeling not Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the long-dead Johnny Carson. But it is obvious to me that during this crisis, when more than 45,000 Americans have died of Covid-19. Trump appears to be relying on his showman’s instinct and on what he remembers of the TV star who was once his idol.
When I interviewed Trump as his biographer, he often referenced Carson as a touchstone for his life. In the 1960s, when college classmates were protesting the Vietnam War or engaged in more ordinary coming-of-age experiences, the young Trump’s routine revolved around the study of the real estate business and nights alone capped by “The Tonight Show.” Carson’s cultural influence — he was a must-watch for decades — proved the power of television.
In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump proved his entertainer’s talent as he made his rallies into such a spectacle that TV networks carried them live. The run ended with a surprise twist as a defeat in the popular vote was turned into a victory by the Electoral College. Now, with daily White House briefings featuring himself as the star, Trump has a daily program, broadcast from a comfortable studio — er, White House briefing room. Every afternoon it lets him turn the death and destruction overwhelming the country into a grotesque display — “The Pandemic Show!” — of his insatiable ego.
While the rest of us awaken with feelings of dread about the rising daily death toll and worry about the devastation of mass unemployment,
Trump’s mind is clearly focused on his show. Consider what the President posted on Twitter
early Tuesday morning as more than 1,000 Americans had died in the previous 24 hours: “I’ve had great ‘ratings’ my whole life, there’s nothing unusual about that for me. The White House News Conference ratings are ‘through the roof'(Monday Night Football, Bachelor Finale , @nytimes) but I don’t care about that. I care about going around the Fake News to the PEOPLE!”
Americans are suffering agonizing illness and dying apart from their families in hospitals and nursing homes where frontline medical workers are overwhelmed and yes, suffering and dying too. Do you have the season finale of “The Bachelor” on your mind? How about the success of morning TV talk shows? Well, never fear, the President has it covered: “Watched the first 5 minutes of poorly rated Morning Psycho on MSDNC just to see if he is as ‘nuts’ as people are saying,” the President said
on Twitter at 6:19 AM, presumably referring to the ‘Morning Joe’ show on MSNBC. “He’s worse. Such hatred and contempt! I used to do his show all the time before the 2016 election, then cut him off. Wasn’t worth the effort, his mind is shot!”
If Twitter is a window onto Trump’s soul, the news conference should be seen as a display of his self-concept. As a young man who dreamed of working in theater and television, one of his first investments was in a 1970 Broadway flop. After this failure he embarked on a lifelong project of using the media, including TV programs like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” to turn himself into a character as recognizable as Carson. His star turn as host of “The Apprentice” and the “Celebrity Apprentice” prepared him for his current daily program where the similarities to Tonight are readily observed.
In his day, Carson had an affable toady sidekick named Ed McMahon, who guffawed at all his jokes and affirmed his point of view. Trump has Vice President Mike Pence, who performs a similar function, if with less bonhomie and more oiliness. Like Carson, who had reliable frequent guests like the social science expert Dr. Joyce Brothers, Trump depends on Dr. Deborah Birx and others to join him on stage. Like Dr. Brothers, Birx, along with Dr. Tony Fauci and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, have been permitted to share their expertise by a host who won’t be upstaged. Obviously the experts are not toadies, but rather serious people going along with Trump as much as possible so that they can best serve a nation that needs their help.
On last Saturday’s episode of Heeeeeere’s Donny! Birx obviously made Trump uncomfortable as she tried to discuss China’s pandemic experience. “Excuse me, does anybody really believe this number?” Trump suddenly said, interrupting. Birx impressively kept her composure, saying she wanted to note “how unrealistic this could be.”
Like Johnny, Donny is temperamental, so Birx’s quick adjustment was essential to her survival as a guest on the show. Surgeon General Adams hasn’t fared so well. He recently departed from the President’s script to discuss the extra toll Covid-19 has visited on minority communities — and promptly got pulled from the line-up.
In Carson’s case, his displeasure with certain guests and celebrities became fodder for gossip columns and water cooler conversations but carried no public health or political weight. Trump’s behavior is far more significant. The country needs both the accurate information and reassuring manner that Adams brought to the press room podium. Adams’ banishment is proof that Trump is lost in the TV host role that appears to make him feel better amid reports of declining trust in his leadership.
In fact, as leaders worldwide enjoy the kind of rising support citizens generally offer in times of national crisis, Trump is an exception. These are the “ratings” that the president might want to consider after he busies himself with the real work of helping the country through a catastrophe that as of today, has no visible end.
Right now, the American people need an actual president. Not someone who just plays one on TV.