There’s no soap opera like it, or even a reality TV show that can compete with the sheer breadth of what’s going on in the Donald Trump administration. And there’s no setting better than the White House, Capitol Hill, or rallies of thousands who largely support his rhetoric.
Whether we are inclined to agree to disagree with him, the presence of Trump in the political universe has transformed Washington, democracy and the media, both social and traditional. And if we were honest we should admit that it has transformed us. He is the subject of conversation in every coffee shop or where citizens gather and dialogue. It’s an addiction and if we’re at all inclined to overcome it the first step on the road to recovery is to admit our dependency.
This is something the media is likely disinclined to do, for understandable reasons. Ratings are important and Trump’s presidency might very well revive components of the media industry. A Harvard University study revealed that media coverage of Donald Trump’s first 100 days was three times greater than any of his predecessors. That’s significant and explains much of why we, too, are fascinated by all of it. It’s theatre and we can’t get enough of it. Centrists watch CNN. Right-wingers take to Fox News. Even CBC and CTV provide large doses of the Washington shuffle. And even for those millions who fall into neither category, they still watch because it’s the most salacious thing out there – kind of like Game of Thrones, but in real time and with real players. Every day provides another OMG revelation, followed by hours of commentary – little of it edifying.
We know all of this, naturally, and curse ourselves for returning to the screen every hour or so to catch up on the latest scandal. Behind all the action we understand that all this drama likely isn’t good for us, but, well, what else can compare?
It’s always a timely thing to ask what something like this means to democracy itself and the citizens who are its lifeblood. With some merit, belief in both the media and government has dropped to all time lows, especially in America. We say we are searching for better but then help to drive viewer ratings even higher. If Trump were boring, we likely wouldn’t be watching. And if we weren’t watching, democracy wouldn’t be newsworthy – a vicious cycle supported largely by those very citizen-voters who say they had hoped for better.
When Dwight Eisenhower met with John Kennedy the day prior to the young Democrat’s inauguration he reminded his successor that there was no such thing as a 12-hour day at the White House. “The desk is never cleared,” he noted, in a reminder that presidential politics is little more than organized chaos. He then reminded Kennedy that the greatest resource he had wasn’t the best organization but the “respect and trust of the American people.”
This is something Donald Trump doesn’t possess – a reality that makes all the unbridled chaos swirling around the Executive Mansion at the moment deeply unsettling to a country that is already deeply divided.
Behind all the action we understand that all this drama likely isn’t good for us, but, well, what else can compare?
“I’ll be damned if I am not getting tired of this. It seems to be the profession of a President simply to hear other people talk,” noted former President, William Howard Taft. Donald Trump has now successfully turned that on its head. He is the one doing the communicating, often unchecked and frequently unsettling, and we are proving to be the avid listeners. Moreover, like most of us, he too is an addict – hooked on power, his own view of the world, money and a limited view of democracy and its hard-won strengths.
History will no doubt comment on this time in democracy’s history, when average citizens, confronted with ominous challenges like climate change, terrorism, regional conflicts, stubborn poverty and political dysfunction, opted to choose politics as something to be watched instead of rescued through shared responsibility for governance between citizens and their representatives. Democracy is to be characterized by activism, not addiction. The Trump drama is remarkable viewing but is hardly fulsome politics or sound policy. Citizens everywhere will soon enough have to make a choice between the two.
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