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The Cancer in the Camera Lens

Far from shining a curative light on the Trump administration, the media has become engulfed by his empire of stupidity.

Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

In close up, on television, at a glance, with the volume down, Donald Trump can from time to time look like a president. That effect becomes less convincing the more you pay attention, though. Even under professional lighting, Trump reliably looks like a photographic negative of himself; on his worse and wetter days, he has the tone and texture of those lacquered roast ducks that hang from hooks in Chinatown restaurant windows. The passing presidentiality of the man dissipates utterly in longer shots, where Trump can be seen standing tipped oddly forward like a jowly ski jumper in midair, or mincing forward to bum-rush an expert’s inconvenient answer with an incoherent one of his own, or just making faces intended to signal that he is listening very strongly to what someone else is saying. (These slapdash performances of executive seriousness tend to have the effect, as the comedian Stewart Lee once said of James Corden, of making Trump look like “a dog listening to classical music.”) Seen from this long-shot vantage, the man at the podium is unmistakably Donald Trump—uncanny, unknowing, upset about various things that he can’t quite understand or express.

Of course, it all gets much worse with the sound on; very few things about Trump have ever improved—have not instantly unraveled into a tangle of fragrant grifty waste—upon closer examination. Still, the combination of those familiar close shots, the years of inherited cultural reflex and unconscious media conditioning can make the illusion work for fleeting moments. Since Trump himself has both measured and lived his singularly episodic life in just those kinds of moments, it’s a deal he’s been happy to make. Trump knows what people see when they encounter an older white man standing behind a podium with a certain seal emblazoned upon it, which is the President of the United States of America. He imagined that he might be that man, and now he is. This is all a guess, insofar as anything about What Trump Really Thinks is invariably and inherently a guess, but if there was anything about the job that truly appealed to him when he set out to win the presidency as his own, this sure feels like it. As a lifelong acolyte and addict of television, he could imagine himself in those shots, in that space, doing … whatever a president does.

It seems much less likely that Trump imagined the part where he brutally duffs the response to a pandemic that is now killing thousands of Americans every day and exposing the fragility of the gilded and precarious economy on which he staked his political future and personal legacy. That’s not the sort of thing Trump contemplates, and after years of his presidency happening more or less as someone as vain and lazy as him might dream it—spend all day watching TV and chasing feuds, watch the big numbers go up and up, bask in the adoration of devoted fans who roar with laughter at every garbled punchline—he has proven himself wholly unprepared for the realities of this very difficult job. He only really has so many moves, and because there’s no room within him to learn or care or adapt, he can only hit his mark and expect it all to work this time.

Being there is the point. And being there, in those contextually flattering close shots but also those other ones where he appears to be falling asleep while hanging from an invisible parachute, is why Donald Trump has continued to fight off attempts by the various cynics and masochists to manage him in order to continue claiming the few hours of free daily television exposure that those briefings afford him. So Trump goes up there and does his weird fey bullying thing in response to questions he can’t answer, introduces the CEOs of various companies and accepts their thanks, and breaks in to deliver luxurious adjectival filigrees and wheedling requests for credit and weird obvious lies as promotional addenda to the answers given by the handful of experts also on hand to acknowledge the raging, destructive course of the present crisis. Periodically, Trump veers from his usual riffy emcee-in-chief tone to note how tragic it is that more than 60,000 Americans (as of yesterday) have died in the pandemic he’s so persistently chosen not to manage. But it’s never long before he returns to what matters to him—his numbers, his grievances, himself. “I’m seeing it,” Trump said Wednesday of his belief that an economic recovery will be swift. “I feel it. I’ve felt a lot of things over the years, including, ‘Gee, I think I can win for president.’ You know?”

This performance has long been deeply discordant, especially with Trump’s little whammy-bar runs of gloating and grievance now playing over the daily drumbeat of mass death and economic devastation. It has finally begun to feel as dangerous as it is.

Trump’s internal polling has shown that getting up there every day and acting like this isn’t helping him. That, indeed, is why his campaign people have tried to get him to stop—everything he has done in response to this pandemic has made it worse, and everything he says makes clear that he is never going to do any better. Trump’s people tell him what those polls say, because it’s their job to do that—but also because it’s the only thing he’ll listen to. Trump then yells at them about his flagging poll numbers, because that is what he thinks it means to be someone’s boss. CNN recently reported that Trump reamed out campaign manager Brad Parscale in this mode on a phone call and then threatened to sue him. (On Wednesday night, Trump dispatched a Tweet denying that he’d ever shouted at Parscale, adding, “have no intention to do so.”) That was last week, the day after Trump appeared to direct government scientists to look into injecting disinfectant—and, more confusingly, sunlight—“into the lungs” to fight Covid-19 and two days after his political team advised a more focused and less combative approach to his daily briefings. “Aides are unsure whether the new approach will stick,” wrote CNN’s Jeremy Diamond.

It is axiomatic, where Trump is concerned, that nothing ever sticks. Things do not stick to the man as a matter of course, but perhaps more to the point, he is playing a different game, one in which the whole idea of sticking is irrelevant. Trump’s people tell him that Americans are scared of losing their livelihoods or dying in a pandemic and need to hear from the people who might prevent that from happening—they tell him, even, that the stock market that he reads as a real-time register of his success responds to those experts and those experts alone—and Trump grouses bitterly that he made those experts “stars” and that “the least [they] could do is give me a little credit.” He hears that people trust The Experts, and so, being Donald Trump, he just calls himself one.

“I like this stuff,” Trump said at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back in early March. He was expansive that day, very much in Winner Mode as the disease spread through communities across the country. “I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors say, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.” Similarly, when Trump appears to suggest that ingesting bleach might help fight the pandemic that keeps ruining his daily TV appearances, he is not signaling support to the (jarringly large) global community of bleach-drinking conspiracy aficionados. He is misunderstanding something he just saw projected on a PowerPoint and then just talking about it because that is what he likes to do and what he believes experts do when he’s not around.

And then, of course, he fields questions about what he just said. The rhythm of every news cycle is more or less the same, just as the shape of every daily presidential press briefing is generally similar to the previous day’s. The variables have changed under the pressure of the pandemic, though, which has had the strange effect of destabilizing what had become a more or less automatic process without changing it in any meaningful way. Some very long shadows are now troubling the corners of those familiar shots, but the cameras still whir into action at the same time each day. That alone guarantees that Trump will keep showing up, because it’s simply not in the man to pass up an opportunity to talk on television. Similarly, when the reporters at these briefings see the president of the United States standing there, swaying oddly and doing accordion things with his hands while putting strange childlike questions to his team of experts, it is simply not in them to focus their attention anywhere else.

And so they ask Trump questions about what he’s saying, and he talks about what he always talks about; he never knows anything useful, cannot tell the truth about the few things he knows, and is pulled by his own preposterous vanity and insecurities back toward the only thing he really cares about, which is himself. This is what the news is made of, now—the things that a vainglorious fraud says, and then the things that other people on television say about how Dangerous and Irresponsible they are, and then what Trump says about that in his amphetamized after-dark Twitter sessions or scrambling tantrum-swept mornings. It’s not that the things Trump says aren’t actually dangerous or irresponsible: They absolutely are. The bigger problem is that the definition by which these things are considered news—basically, because the president says them—is no longer workable.

Or rather, it works only for the wrong parties, in the wrong ways. Trump gets to be on TV, which is all he wants; the news media gets to do popular stories about the president, which is all media executives want. But it is a perfect circle of obfuscatory noise—what Trump says will always be nonsensical and self-serving because his brain is a gilded bowl of rotten nectarines, and any response pegged exclusively and expressly to covering this state of arrested cognition will inherently be similarly nonsensical—and, differently but no more helpfully, equally self-serving. It is true that Trump will never get it right, or tell the truth; he’s not up for the job, and getting it right is just not in him. There is just not very much to say about it.

More important, coverage that focuses on the stupid things Trump says will be limited to responding to those things and so will remain unresponsive to the more urgent and vexing problems of the moment. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has suggested that newsrooms “suspend normal relations” with the White House in an attempt to remedy this—to refuse to air Trump’s briefings live and to focus more on what is actually happening than on what various powerful parties are saying about it. So far, the cable networks that remain the most outsize force in American politics have been unwilling or unable to do this. And so we get what we get. “When the news itself is unstable—when leaders and institutions are crashing and flailing all around us,” Maria Bustillos writes at Columbia Journalism Review, “conventional media is with few exceptions incapable of providing an accurate picture of the facts.”

This is especially troubling because confusing and frightening things really are happening, every day. Thousands of Americans are dying, every day, from a disease that, as a quadruple-bylined survey in Science concluded, “acts like no pathogen humanity has ever seen.” For more than a month, state and federal leaders have edged up to suggesting that this is something the country might just play through, shedding thousands of lives every day in the name of the American Way and various industries’ bottom lines; states are already gearing up for this kamikaze response to an unreasoning virus. Trump is fixated on various numbers that he can watch go up or down and on not losing his reelection campaign; he fights to win the day because it’s all he knows and how he lives, and he’ll govern that way until he isn’t governing anymore. There is no leadership of any kind coming from the top of the government, and while it’s hard to say what the Democrats are doing, exactly, “leadership” surely isn’t the word for it. All of it, quite literally, is a matter of life and death. Right now, either out of instinct or inertia, the culture is tipping toward the latter.

And yet, as with the broken system that perpetually elevates what Trump says over what he does—the treacherous spectacle that puts him back in those presidential close-ups day after day—the obvious failure of it all has somehow not led to a change in course. The institutions that might help people understand a uniquely terrifying world instead turn, daily, back toward the uncomprehending pursuit of an idiot king’s vinegary whims. When a reporter from The Washington Post stammered out a question last week about Trump’s stance on disinfectant/sunlight injections, Trump was already leaning in, manifestly out over his skis and yet comfortably in his element. “I’m the president,” he said, “and you’re fake news.” Here is what he said after that: “It’s just a suggestion. From a brilliant lab, from a very very smart, perhaps brilliant man. He’s talking about sun, he’s talking about heat. And you see the numbers. That’s it, that’s all I have. I’m just here to present talent. I’m here to present ideas.” It’s not an answer, but it was enough to get him to the next question. Trump didn’t know the answer to that one, either, but someone was still waiting to ask it.