When Americans gathered at the Thanksgiving dinner table this year, there was one person who was almost on everyone’s mind — President Donald Trump. Some families dove deep into debates about our President, while others depended on strict rules against any mention of politics.
None of this is surprising given that President Trump is everywhere. We are constantly talking about him, constantly thinking about him, constantly watching his every move. His Twitter feed has become a national obsession. Without any question, America has been “Trumped.”
Unlike almost any other president in recent history, Trump has consumed the nation’s attention in a way that is more fitting of a notorious Hollywood celebrity than an elected official. He is the star of the ultimate reality show, one that is playing out in the Oval Office in real time, offering the most unpredictable and dramatic storyline that have seen in decades. We are collectively waiting to see who gets voted off the island next and what craziness the next episode will bring.
What is it about President Trump that makes it so difficult to stop watching? The irony, of course, is that the President has experienced the worst approval ratings in recent presidential history. So, the secret to his success is certainly not that he is loved.
Several elements explain why President Trump commands our attention incessantly, even when many people wish that they could turn away.
His willingness to be outrageous is essential to getting our attention. Trump regularly uses language that is unfit for a president and lashes out against people who shouldn’t really be the target of presidential fire.
Calling LaVar Ball — the father of a college basketball player — an “Ungrateful fool!” is a recent example of this. He also says things that are simply not true, as we saw on Friday night when he tweeted that he “took a pass” on being Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”
Trump just doesn’t care about decorum or boundaries. He uses childish nicknames to describe political opponents and foreign leaders. Despite all the flak that he has taken about how often he spends his weekends at Trump resorts, enjoying free advertising while creating a perceived conflict-of-interest problem, he ignores the critics.
He made jokes about the media to reporters’ children who came trick-or-treating, and he used his Thanksgiving message to the troops to boast about himself. And his seeming lack of moral compass enables him to support Roy Moore, despite multiple allegations of sexual assault against Moore. Moore denies all the allegations.
Besides the outrageous rhetoric, there is the outrage that is evident in his policies and the populism that it incites. It is difficult to stop watching — many look on horrified and in disbelief — as he seems intent on unraveling the fabric of diversity in America.
Trump moved to end DACA — undocumented Mexican immigrants make up nearly 80% of the program’s current enrollees — imposed travel bans on refugees coming from Muslim countries, proposed a military ban on transgender troops and moved to end temporary protected status for Haitians. He has dangerously employed a brand of conservative populism that taps directly into racial and ethnic animosities that run deep in the body politic — though some support what he is doing.
We can’t stop watching President Trump because he is watching us. Trump is a president who keyed into the national media and into popular culture in a way that we have not seen before. He seems to always have the television on.
In addition to watching, he responds and inserts himself — instantly becoming part of the story. This is how the protest by African-American football players against racism in policing turned into a story about President Trump. He picked the perfect time and place — a Republican Senate candidate’s rally in Alabama — at which to place a story into the 24-hour news cycle. His timing with inciting rage seems to conveniently happen when he is surrounded by his base.
The President has also surrounded himself with characters who present television-like plot twists. Michael Flynn worked for a consulting firm that was paid to represent Turkey’s interest while he was working for Trump’s campaign and the transition team. In March, Flynn’s attorney said that Flynn was the victim of “unfounded allegations, outrageous claims of treason, and vicious innuendo directed against him.”
Paul Manafort was lobbying for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine before he headed the Trump campaign. He was later indicted for conspiracy against the United States, money laundering and other charges, stemming from Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election. Manafort pleaded not guilty.
The elevated roles of family members who have zero government experience, like Donald Trump Jr. or Jared Kushner, have created a level of intrigue about this administration that would be absent if Trump were surrounded primarily by seasoned professionals. Colorful and unconventional figures like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, who are as comfortable as the President is with stirring the pot, were brought in. Reality show stars literally found their way into his inner circle. Trump appointed Omarosa Manigault, a former “Apprentice” contestant, as director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison. He has jettisoned any insistence of filling the room with the most seasoned professionals in politics.
Most importantly, we can’t stop watching because this is not a reality show. With every tweet, speech and executive order, the nation is reminded of what is at stake as a result of the Trump chaos — whether it’s the possibility of a nuclear war, our elections being subverted by foreign governments, or the possibility of stripping millions of Americans of their health care.
We watch not just because of intrigue but because of fear. Some parts of the public are watching Trump because they feel that they need to be prepared to react when necessary, as occurred when supporters of Affordable Care Act disrupted town hall meetings, when judges blocked the enforcement of the transgender military ban and travel ban, and with the outcome of local elections this November.
The show won’t stop anytime soon. Donald Trump is obsessed with television ratings as the best measure of success, so he will make sure that the ratings don’t go down. Whatever failures he has faced on Capitol Hill and whatever the approval ratings say, one thing is for sure — the audiences are huge and the nation is mesmerized. For President Trump, this is all that matters. If nothing else happens under his watch between now and the end of his term, he’ll still claim victory.