And Trump’s reaction to it all has been typically self-absorbed and, well, uninteresting. It’s one thing to remind people that the economy is great under one’s watch, quite another to remind people that the economy used to be great under one’s watch—a little bit like Icarus running for reelection on having once flown high. It’s one thing to boast of having done a lot of coronavirus testing, quite another to run on whining that there has been too much coronavirus testing.
When the president is outrageous these days, many people can’t even be bothered to muster outrage. On Sunday morning, Trump approvingly retweeted (and then un-retweeted) a video in which a supporter of his shouted “White power!” several times. The clamor was lucky to make the Sunday talk shows, before fading away by midday. Even grotesque offensiveness is old news.
And Trump knows how important it is to entertain. He has admitted that he has tried to create his persona so as to grab attention. At a 2018 rally in Pennsylvania, in fact, he once riffed that the reason he didn’t act more “presidential” was because it would turn away audiences. “You know . . . how easy it is to be ‘presidential’?” he asked. “But you all would be out of here right now. You’d be so bored. . . .If I came [here] like a stiff, you guys wouldn’t be here tonight.”
Indeed, Trump’s instincts about the presidency rely pervasively on the idea that the president should be entertaining. The country, in Trump’s view, needs to be constantly entranced by the president, or at least the president—if he is to be effective—needs to constantly be entrancing the country.
And Trump has long known as well what happens when one becomes boring. As the New York Times television critic James Poniewozik wrote in his book, Audience of One, describing how Trump’s obsession with television made and shaped his presidency:
[Trump] knew what the red light [of the television camera] wanted, because it was just like him. It didn’t care what you had given it before, only what you would give it next. If you didn’t have anything for it, you stopped existing until you did … If he kept the red light sated, it would help him. The red light put you into the unreal estate of TV, the place that was everywhere, that was better than the real world. When it turned off, you died, a little bit.
Yes, the Trump show still has its core fans, and a lot of them don’t seem to notice that Season 4 just doesn’t have the zest and sparkle of the previous seasons. But outside the fandom, a lot of people have stopped watching. And the ratings are down.
David A. Graham: Trump can’t bluff his way out of this
The White House seems to be road testing some efforts to revive the ratings. Most prominently, Trump has zeroed in on debates over the removal of Confederate monuments and other statues of historical figures with racist legacies. He sent out 15 tweets broadcasting efforts by the U.S. Park Police to identify protesters who vandalized a statue of Andrew Jackson that sits near the White House—some of which he then retweeted days later. And he signed an angry executive order on “Protecting American Monuments,” which had little practical effect but lambasted “left-wing extremists” as adherents to Marxism. Announcing how “tough” his administration has been toward protests over statues, he described to Fox News’ Sean Hannity his feeling that “we should let people know we’ve arrested a lot of people.” Meanwhile, Axios reports that the Trump campaign is attempting to tie Biden to these protests by suggesting that the former vice president is too weak to keep statues from being toppled—a somewhat strange argument, given that the statues have come down under Trump’s own watch.