I thought I was planning to watch Donald Trump speak last night, but then my older kid forgot to do his homework till the last minute before bedtime, and I started to get mad, and I paused and figured out I was really mad because I didn’t want to have to watch Donald Trump speak.
By the time I finally got the kids to bed, the speech had already started, and I thought, What if I just skip it? Just thinking about doing that felt great, so I tried it. I went away and read a book and very infrequently glanced at Twitter till the speech was over. It felt fantastic.
The Nielsen numbers, as of late afternoon, say that about 46.8 million people watched the speech. Of those, 10.8 million were watching Fox News, so they probably did want to see Trump. The others—if you’re one of the others, just don’t watch Donald Trump, next time.
Watching Donald Trump speak is infuriating and exhausting, and by 9 p.m. I was already infuriated and exhausted. That day’s news cycle had included Trump blaming the military for his own decision to launch a botched and fatal raid in Yemen, and Trump suggesting the ongoing wave of anti-Semitic threats and vandalism was possibly the work of his enemies trying to make him look bad. His education secretary was trying to recover from praising historically black colleges, born of necessity under segregation, as models of the power of school choice. His attorney general had dismissed the Justice Department’s investigative reports into abusive law enforcement in Ferguson and Chicago, while admitting he hadn’t bothered to read those reports.
What did I miss? The president gave an acronym—VOICE, for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement—to his previously announced office that will spread anti-immigrant propaganda to promote race panic. He celebrated the death of the Navy SEAL slain in the raid that he had hours earlier disavowed responsibility for. Overall, it seems he said mostly the same things he’d already said, many of which are dumb and vicious things, but he said them with less snarling and while wearing a less tacky necktie than usual.
The dim bulbs on television and in the other components of the instant-reaction establishment punditry cycle declared this “presidential.” This was morally bankrupt, of course, and profoundly vacuous—a reaction not to the person exercising supreme executive political power but to the image of such a figure, or to the idea of what the public may have perceived such an image to be.
Less benumbed observers rightly said that this was not political analysis but television criticism. This is true in the sense that everyone was just pointing the eyeballs in their talking heads at the moving dots of light on the screen, yet it was also true in a deeper, anthropological sense. It is rude to say this in our new Golden Age of Respectable TV Programming, but television critics have always been prisoners of television. They are forced to accept the premise that a program deserves to be given a viewing, even if only for the sake of telling other people they would be better off viewing something else.
This how Donald Trump held the media and the public hostage all through the campaign and beyond. Trump is pure television—loud and ridiculous, hammering away at the amygdala in the hopes that the cortex won’t notice there’s nothing going on. The entire Trump campaign and presidency have felt, above all, like an out-of-control hit TV show, which everyone has to keep talking about because everyone else won’t stop talking about it, even though hardly anyone really likes it or cares about it that much, personally.
Trump knows this. It might be the only thing he does know. His brain is empty of facts and knowledge but it has been wired for action and reaction by a lifetime of watching television and participating in television. One day, Regis is doing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire five nights a week, prime time. Next, it’s jockeying for space in syndication. When you fall off, you fall all the way off. This is why the crowd numbers and ratings terrify him. You don’t have to watch.
The TV analysts can’t tell anyone this, because they do have to watch. They don’t exist outside the television feedback loop. Normal people do. I tried it—I saw on Twitter that the speech was over and I went to bed—and you can, too.
I woke up no less aware that we live in a world with a dangerous and incompetent president who is doing real things that cause real damage. His excuse for doing those things is that people want him to do them. He knows what people want because he is popular. He is popular because he is on television. The television has an off button.