“What can I do?”
That plaintive cry for guidance continues to echo throughout Liberal America. There is no perfect course of action. Many will protest on the streets, starting with next week’s inauguration. Online petitions will pile up. Congressional offices may find their phones ringing off the hook. Some citizen-activists will take bigger leaps, campaigning for their favored candidates in the midterm elections, or even running for office themselves.
All are fine ways to participate in our democracy. But there is one other tactic that is guaranteed to rattle Donald Trump the most with the least amount of effort: Don’t watch him.
That inauguration next week? Don’t watch. State of the Union? You’re better off with an early night’s sleep. Oval Office addresses? Speeches? Rallies? Press conferences? “Exclusive” TV interviews? Pick up that book you’ve been meaning to get to instead.
What will that do? A mass refusal to watch Trump on TV will deprive him of big ratings, which he routinely uses to create a false impression of widespread popularity.
From the beginning of the Republican primary, he treated the record-setting Nielsen ratings of the debates as proof of his appeal. “Who do you think they were watching, Jeb Bush?” Trump crowed. After his convention, he tweeted:
In fact, John McCain’s 2008 convention had a bigger audience.
Trump cares so much about ratings that he’s still focused on the ratings for Celebrity Apprentice, gleefully sharing the news that his successor as host, John Kasich-supporter Arnold Schwarzenegger, debuted with a smaller number than he did.
Of course, watching Trump is not the same as supporting Trump. Plenty of people hate-watch Trump like they would any other bad reality TV show. But Trump, like a small child who can’t distinguish between good attention and bad attention, will take your viewership, add it to his total, and brag about the size of his audience. Unless you are a journalist on the Trump beat, you have no obligation to puff up his numbers.
As you virtually turn your back on Trump, you need not unplug from democracy itself. He is still the president. Ignoring his words is the same as ceding the debate. By all means, read the transcripts. Scrub his words for falsehoods, flip-flops, and feints. Challenge him at every turn.
But Trump will not be satisfied with merely being read. This is a man uniquely obsessed with being seen, especially on television. NBC’s Chuck Todd recently revealed on a Politico podcast that after Trump finishes an interview, he is so “attentive … to visuals” that “he wants to see what it all looked like.” So Trump routinely would remain in the NBC studio and play back “the whole thing on mute.” Todd also relayed an anecdote from Trump’s advertising consultant who shared that the president-elect was the “first candidate who didn’t care about the script as much he cared about the visuals.”
Trump intuitively grasps the change in our politics sparked by the invention of television: We tend to judge politicians based on personality more than policies. Political science professor Peter Woll, in his 1974 book Public Policy, observed, “The wide use of television in political campaigns emphasizes the need to project favorable images to voters, rather than appeal to them on a basis of a rational consideration of the issues. … It encourages politicians to become actors, their performance being based on what pleases the audience.” That was six years before America elected an actual movie actor to be president, and 42 years before an Electoral College majority picked a reality television show host.
What better way to combat a performer-politician than by diminishing his stage? The lower Trump’s ratings, the less inclined television producers will be to give him the free airtime that was the lifeblood of his presidential campaign. A presidential megaphone can never be totally silenced. But we can do our part to restrict his ability to blanket the airwaves for the next four years and become larger than life.
Shrinking him to the size of a “normal” politician has other benefits. The Italian-born economics professor Luigi Zingales has long compared Trump to the bombastic former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who ran circles around his critics for years. In a post-election New York Times op-ed, he counseled Trump’s opponents to resist falling into similar traps: “[The opposition] was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. … Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi. … Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character.”
Focusing on the printed word instead of images does not fully guarantee our politics will stick to substance. Case in point, Trump’s Twitter feed. Woll acknowledged this, but noted, “Appealing to voters through printed media at least requires, from time to time, issues be stated, for the projection of personal images in this way is far more difficult than it is through television.” This also holds true for Trump’s tweets. Amidst all the punching down are utterances related to issues, such as Obamacare and nuclear proliferation. That is the turf where the battle should be waged.
If you’re a political nerd like me, the prospect of looking away as history unfolds is unsettling. Even during presidencies I did not support, I felt a civic obligation to watch touchstone events like inaugural and State of the Union addresses. At some level, I still enjoyed it. But today, I know that every time I give Trump a ratings point, a YouTube view, or even an unrecorded gaze, I am doing what he wants, what he needs, to thrive.
Asked in 1990 by Playboy why he surrounds himself with “the yacht, the bronze tower, the casinos,” he responded, “Props for the show. … The show is ‘Trump.’ And it is sold-out performances everywhere.” Trump wants the White House to be another prop. It’s up to us to make sure his presidency is not another act in the show. The first step: Walk out of the theater.