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The Post-Literate American Presidency

Trump is truly the first TV president and a harbinger of the decline in intelligence to come in U.S. politics.

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is often mocked for spending so much time watching television, an addiction that distinguishes him not only from his predecessor, Barack Obama, but all other presidents. Yet Trump’s relationship with TV—which extends to fannish shout-outs to shows he likes (like Fox and Friends) and mockery of the low ratings of shows that criticize him (like the Emmys)—might explain not just his singular path to the presidency, but his continued hold on his supporters. “He believes that television producers, especially of highly rated shows, understand what the public is interested in—what it fears, what it wants, what it loves,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said in a recent interview. “And so TV programming in some ways is a more accurate reflection of the public mood than polling. That’s his view, he said it to me. And that’s one of the reasons he watches a lot of television.”

Trump is truly the first TV president, in ways that go far deeper than his viewing habits. While earlier presidents, notably John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, benefited from being telegenic, they were still tied to an earlier, pre-television world in ways that Trump isn’t. (If Kennedy was the magazine-star president, Reagan was the film-star president.) He’s a pure product of the age of television, someone whose mental horizon is the screen. And television isn’t just a passive medium for Trump, his main source for understanding how Americans think. As the star of the long-running reality show The Apprentice, where he played the tough, no-nonsense boss who relishes firing people, Trump actively used TV to shape how millions of Americans think of him.

As Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen argued in The Washington Post last year, Trump’s ties to TV made it hard for print journalists to understand his appeal. “The conversations in TV and radio land were barely visible within text-based journalism,” Allen contended. “Some of those conversations involved sustained criticism of the cultural authority of newspapers and universities. That criticism targeted the professional norms of these sectors, which now include a widespread commitment to gender and racial equality as well as to social equality in relation to sexual identity. That TV and radio land conversation also stirs up great attraction for towering figures of that landscape—Trump, for instance.”

It’s not just that Trump is a creature of TV, but that he’s also allergic to text. Tony Schwartz told The New Yorker that in the 18 months he spent with Trump co-writing The Art of the Deal, he never saw a single book in Trump’s office or apartment. In May of 2016, when Megyn Kelly asked him to name the last book he’d read, Trump said, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.” He told the Post two months later that he doesn’t have time to read books: “I never have. I’m always busy doing a lot. Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.” By early this year, The New York Times was stating it as accepted fact: “Mr. Trump, who does not read books, is able to end his evenings with plenty of television.” The president even has trouble digesting briefing books, so his aides now use “big pictures” and “killer graphics” to hold his attention. Trump is truly a malevolent version of Chauncey Gardiner, the TV-addicted naif of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970s novel Being There, who ends up being elected president thanks to his ability to repeat banalities he’s heard on the boob tube and in ordinary conversation. The question is whether he’s an outlier in this regard, or a harbinger of a post-literate American politics.

The rise of television as a mass medium in the 1950s sparked the rise of media studies in general, led by Marshall McLuhan, a literary-theorist turned cultural guru. McLuhan and his followers argue that television is no mere entertainment appliance, but helped initiate a central shift from the age of typographic culture (when print shaped and structured how we saw to world) to our contemporary post-literate world. In books like The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan recast the conventional history of Western Civilization with a technological-determinist bent, tracing the movement from orality to literacy to post-literacy. The implications of these shifts were interrogated by major literary scholars like Neil Postman, Walter Ong, and Hugh Kenner.

The key insight of the McLuhan school is that print culture is deliberative, while television is performative. Typographical fixity preserves, and gives a certain permanence to, written thought. It doesn’t just transmit information; it creates habits of thought, and encourages the cross-examination of ideas. On television, by contrast, everything is in a perpetual present, an endless flux. No wonder Trump, a master of television, has no permanence of thought. He shifts his positions depending on opportunistic ambitions or passing whim, sometimes motivated by nothing more than a desire to echo whom he is talking to. Indeed, sometimes his ideas are little more than echoes of what he sees on Fox.

“A written sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what what is said,” Postman argued his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. “And when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect.” Further, he notes that “the sequential, propositional character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the ‘analytic management of knowledge.’ To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weight ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another.”

For Postman, the peak of typographic culture in America came with the Abraham Lincoln–Stephen Douglas debates on the eve of the Civil War. The two statesmen, who engaged in lengthy, rigorous deliberation in front of large audiences, “consistently drew upon ... complex rhetorical resources—sarcasm, irony, paradox, elaborated metaphors, fine distinctions and the exposure of contradiction, none of which would have advanced their respective causes unless the audience was fully aware of the means being employed,” Postman wrote. The strength of typographic culture was undermined by subsequent technologies that emphasized immediacy and visuality, starting with the telegraph and photograph and reaching perfection with television. “Together, this ensemble of electronic techniques called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment then vanishes again,” Postman observed. “Television gave the epistemological biases of the telegraph and the photograph their most potent expression, raising the interplay of image and instancy to an exquisite and dangerous perfection.”

Earlier presidents, even seemingly non-intellectual ones like Reagan and George W. Bush, had at least one foot in the world of literacy. Reagan was attentive to the intellectual wing of the Republican Party, being a charter subscriber to National Review and always eager to pay homage to luminaries like William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and Friedrich Hayek. This grounded Reagan at least partly in a coherent ideology, so that when he broke with conservative orthodoxy—as he did in negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev—he at least knew he had to offer reasons why. And Bush was an “avid reader,” according to former advisor Karl Rove. Whether this was true or just Rovian spin, Bush showed few of the mental habits (flightiness and a propensity for contradiction) that mark Trump as a TV president. For better or worse, Bush did defer to Republican policy experts like Paul Wolfowitz.

Being post-print, Trump is also post-ideological. It’s not just that he doesn’t adhere to coherent principles; he doesn’t seem capable of grasping what constitutes coherent thought itself. Trump is truly “post-literate,” and his ascension to the White House speaks to the lingering power of television even in an era when viewership is falling. That decline is steepest among younger viewers—people over 50 are actually watching more TV in recent years—and thus is likely to continue. So Trump could also be the last TV president, but at the same time may be merely a precursor to a post-literate political age. To apply Postman’s analysis to the present: Television was a powerful motor for creating post-literate culture, but is now being supplanted by digital culture at large. Here, too, Trump is a pivotal figure since he is a prolific user of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, which he marshaled to defeat a presidential rival with a much bigger advertising budget.

Working very much in the tradition of McLuhan and Postman, contemporary writers like Nicholas Carr have argued that the rise of the Internet intensifies the move away from print culture with the advent of TV. “The decline in Americans’ newspaper reading began decades ago, when radio and TV began consuming more of peoples’ leisure time, but the Internet has accelerated the trend,” Carr wrote. Many of the problems Carr blames on digital culture—that it makes us more distracted, less focused, and less able to form cohesive linear culture—echo Postman’s account of the impact of television. It’s easy to imagine future presidents who don’t watch anywhere the same amount of television as Trump, but still have his intellectual habits, or worse, because they don’t read books and spend all their time on social media (or other digital distractions that we can’t even imagine today).

The only way to resist post-literacy is through acts of will: to forcefully limit one’s media consumption and immerse oneself in thoughtful, extended text. In last year’s election, nearly 63 million Americans supported a presidential candidate who was proudly post-literate. This is a testimony to the rising right-wing anti-intellectualism in the U.S., where being well read and well educated is not to be admired—or even something to aspire to—but rather bestows the black mark of elitism. The question remains: Is this a passing trend, or just a sign of things to come? The dumbing-down of American life, as traced by McLuhan and his descendants, suggests the latter. Just as Bush seems downright scholarly compared to Trump, we may one day look back at Trump and admire his ability to follow a teleprompter.