Donald Trump: The Boomer TV president

Shortly after he was reelected president in 2012, Barack Obama had a small group of Democratic operatives in to the Roosevelt Room to thank us. We had provided some counsel and had appeared regularly on cable TV news to boost his campaign. After he expressed his appreciation, he admitted that he didn’t watch that much of the “talking head” shows and might not be seeing us on TV in the future. I replied: “Not unless we are on ESPN,” which drew a laugh from the president, who was known to check in on sports reports at the end of a long day.

What a change to Donald Trump. With him, it is all about TV.

By all accounts since the start of his presidency Trump has spent most of his mornings watching TV news and later into the evening. This, according to the New York Times, is especially true during the pandemic. Trump awakes early and watches cable news (usually a heavy dose of FOX) until coming down to work around noon. Previous reports from The Hill and other sources indicate Trump consumes up to eight hours of TV a day, and his leaked schedules show that 60 percent of his time is devoted to “executive time” — read: no meetings or briefings or scheduled calls.

Even Trump’s former Press Secretary Sarah Sanders responded that Trump “has a different leadership style than his predecessors.” That is putting it mildly. Of course, many of his tweets are blasted out during his “executive time,” responding to what he has seen on television. As many have said, that seems to be his governing style.

Most presidents read briefing memos, read intelligence reports, read history, heck, even read books. But Donald Trump likes his TV time. There is little indication that he reads much at all and certainly doesn’t seem to take a daily briefing book of the next day’s activities home to the executive mansion at night after work as most modern presidents have done.

I have had a theory for some time that baby boomers, as the first generation to grow up with television in the ‘50s and ‘60s, have a peculiar approach to politics. We consumed a rather large amount of traditional half-hour and some hour-long shows. No cable. No internet. No social media. Just ABC, CBS and NBC.

What we saw when we watched Lassie, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, Bonanza etc., was a very simple formula: The main characters were introduced in the first 5-10 minutes, the problem/dilemma was laid out, and the main characters set out to solve the problem and tidy everything up before the hour or half hour was done. Actually, with advertising, it took 24 minutes, or 48 minutes for an hour-long program, to make everything right.

The effect of this early period of television on most of us growing up in post-World War II America was to convince us that problems were easy to solve, that our lives were pretty simple, and that life really was Ozzie and Harriet.

Politicians began to fit in to that television modus operandi and make promises that emphasized how they could easily and simply solve our problems. Pass some laws, and the problem of civil rights would be solved; take on the Communists in Vietnam, and the dominoes would not fall in Southeast Asia; declare a War on Poverty, and it would end.

Donald Trump seems to buy into the simplicity of what he sees on television, just as he probably did growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He is now an addict to the cable news shows and their short sound bites — and he refuses to consider nuance and complexity and fact-based analysis. Why else would he suggest magic cures like hydroxychloroquine, injecting or ingesting disinfectant or that Covid-19 would just miraculously go away? Why would he say after one meeting that he had fallen in love with Kim Jung Un? Why would he agree with Vladimir Putin that Russia didn’t interfere in our elections when his entire intelligence community said otherwise?

For Donald Trump it has always been about television — from his days as a New York celebrity to his 14 seasons on The Apprentice to the daily briefings on the coronavirus and the attack game he plays with the press. It is all about the cameras and the rallies and the insatiable appetite he has for being a TV personality. He learned it as a boomer consumer of television growing up, and sadly, it is all he knows.

Many of us who hardly watched an episode of The Apprentice over all those years didn’t comprehend the impact of television on Trump’s rise. Our mistake. Now many realize that what was a big part of his political persona is coming back to haunt him.

At the end of the day, the emperor has no clothes. P. T. Barnum has nothing to sell.

It is not all about TV. It is about substance. It is about governing. It is about empathy for others. It is about more than manufactured enemies and casting blame and baseless attacks. At the end of the day, it is about choosing a leader who truly leads rather than just playing one on TV.

Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.