It is now six months since Donald Trump took office, and it has been an almost endless car wreck of a presidency. We breathlessly careen from crisis to crisis without a break.
63 million Americans voted for the failed casino operator and reality TV star. As president, he is exactly who he was as a candidate. No one can say they had no idea what they were getting.
Many years ago, as a young filmmaker, I wandered into the Emergency Room at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital with my camera. I thought it might make an interesting documentary.
What I got was an endless parade of disasters ― knives in the head, gunshot wounds, limbs ripped off in horrific automobile accidents... much more. The ‘action’ never stopped. For a filmmaker, all you had to do really was show up and hit the record button.
What I thought might make a documentary quickly turned into one of cable TV’s very first and most successful reality TV shows, when John Ford, who was then running the new TLC (The Learning Channel) saw a few minutes of video. Edited by Neil Cohen, a brilliant young editor, the footage became Trauma, Life in the ER, which began to air as a series on TLC. Almost overnight it rocketed to the #1 spot and stayed there for an amazing 10 years. (You can still see it on late night cable, 30 years on).
Audiences, it turned out, loved Trauma, and so did John Ford, who commissioned a whole slew of similar spin-offs - Paramedics, Police Force, Breaking News - all pretty much the same. When I asked Ford to explain why it was all so successful, he said, ‘people love to look at a car crash’. And that was what we had produced - Car Crash TV.
Years later, when we had become New York Times Television, Ford explained what works to the Times: “Cable TV,” he said, “is video fly paper. You want to ‘catch’ people and hold them.”
Now we come to Donald Trump.
He was never a politician. He was both a reality TV star and executive producer. This is where he learned his craft - how to ‘catch’ people and hold them. And how do you do it? By giving them a never- ending car crash.
He didn’t have gunshot wounds or knives to the head. Instead he had ‘Mexican rapists and drug dealers,’ ‘Muslim terrorists’ and ‘fake news’ operations like the NY Times or CNN. Car crashes. A never- ending parade of car crashes.
And, before we have even tired of one car crash, he spins out another one. He knows his viewers. And his ratings have never been higher.
Oh, his ‘approval’ or ‘disapproval’ numbers may be in the toilet, but that doesn’t really matter to him. What matters to him are his overall ratings, and those have never been better. The man is on TV every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. He dominates the news cycle. His face is on the cover of every newspaper and magazine - worldwide! He is, in his own eyes, ‘winning’, even if the nation is losing badly. He does not care.
Now, we come to the bad news.
As a former reality TV producer, I can tell you that car crash TV is like heroin. You have to keep upping the hit. A single gun shot wound may make it in season 1, but by season 3, you need a really horrific school bus crash to hold your viewers’ attention.
The U.S. public is no different, and Trump knows his viewers. They want more. Bigger crises. Bigger scandals. The more outrageous, the more shocking, the better.
Mexican rapists may get their attention in season 1, but now, six months in, he is going to need something even more ‘exciting’ to keep the ratings up there.
Are there Comey tapes? “I’ll tell you maybe about that some time in the future.”
My God, the man is a master of television dramatics.
Russian espionage? Could be!
Could have been Russians. Could have been ‘other people.’
The problem is, we are only six months into a projected four-year run.
How high will he have to drive the stakes, and how many other antics can he dream up to keep his audience tuned in?
As TV producer Donald Trump once said, ‘if we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them’?
Now THAT would be a real ratings winner.
And, of course, the public will continue to love it.