Just an average couple of days in the Trump era? Certainly. But it demonstrates something important: We’ve never had a president who was this obsessed with the news media, and that obsession is going to continue to shape his presidency. Cable news in particular seems to be a far more important influence on Trump’s thinking than any intelligence briefing or government economic data. And that means we’d better get used to the chaos of Trump’s first month in office, because it’s going to last for four years.
Trump’s fixation on the media is hardly new. In fact, it has characterized his entire adult life. Throughout his real estate career he crafted his own celebrity as the central pillar of his business strategy; becoming a reality TV star was the logical extension of that strategy. But it was more than just business. Trump has always been obsessed with his image in the media to an almost pathological degree. His office in Trump Tower was plastered with framed magazine covers on which he appeared, and every day aides would deliver to his desk a printout of every news story that mentioned him. He often took news articles, marked them up with comments explaining where the story had been insufficiently flattering toward him, and mailed them to the offending reporter. He used to call up reporters and pretend to be his own spokesperson (alternatively named “John Barron” or “John Miller”) and extol his business acumen and success with the ladies, in the hopes that the descriptions would turn up in future news stories.
And now, cable news is ruling Trump’s attention. As various reports from inside the White House have documented, it’s a fixture of his day from morning until night. He starts off the day with “Morning Joe” and the festival of nincompoopery that is “Fox & Friends” (which he even praised in his last news conference, saying, “Fox & Friends in the morning, they’re very honorable people … they have the most honest morning show”). After suffering through some of the day’s drudgery, he returns to cable; as the New York Times reported, “he recently upgraded the flat-screen TV in his private dining room so he can watch the news while eating lunch.” When the day is done, he retreats to the empty residence — his wife and young son remain in New York — to end the day with more cable news.
Which means that cable, and Fox News in particular, is setting the president’s mental agenda. The problem is that while it’s critical for any president to remain focused and avoid distractions, cable news is all about distraction. With 24 hours a day of talking to fill, it shoots off in all directions. The only time it’s focused is during a crisis when everything else is put aside in favor of one story. So when Trump tunes in, he sees something and says, “Oh my god, look what’s happening in Sweden!” and is seized by that particular story, even if it’s absurd or irrelevant, all because of a decision Carlson’s producers made that morning.
So the erratic nature of cable news makes Trump’s focus more erratic. He could be in the situation room deciding whether to launch a nuclear war, and he’d have one eye on Bill O’Reilly to see if he’s getting sufficiently praised. Yet there’s an underlying logic to what appears on Fox News, one that is almost custom-built to play to Trump’s worst instincts.
It isn’t just that Fox News is conservative, it’s that it portrays a vision of the world meant to play on the fears and frustrations of its core audience, which is elderly white people (the median age of a Fox News viewer in prime time is 68). In that world, immigrants are overrunning our country, minorities are committing crimes at unprecedented levels, Muslims want to kill us all, and the white man is the most oppressed person in America. Individual stories that have zero practical significance are treated like urgent crises if they reinforce that worldview (see, for instance, Megyn Kelly’s dozens of breathless reports about the New Black Panther Party). And Fox News, like the other cable news channels, has no incentive to tell its viewers to calm down and think things through in a sober way; you get people not to change the channel by keeping them agitated and telling them that the next story is vitally important or threatening, whether it actually is or not. So on any given day, Trump might have his attention grabbed by an actual emergency or by an imaginary terrorist attack in Sweden. Then when he gets mocked for it his natural defensiveness kicks in, so he spends the next couple of days tweeting and arguing about it.
The contrast with our last president couldn’t be more stark. The “No drama Obama” philosophy that characterized Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and then his White House wasn’t just about being on an emotional even keel, it also embodied an approach to the media. Obama instructed his campaign staff that it was critical not to get too caught up in any particular day’s micro-controversy, even if everyone on cable news was shouting about it; what mattered was staying focused on the long game and the strategic goals they were trying to achieve. It didn’t mean not reacting to what happened in the world on a day-to-day basis, but it did meant not getting worked up over trivial stories just because people were shouting about them on cable.
Whatever you might think of his policies, that approach to the media served Obama pretty well. Now try to imagine Trump saying to his aides, “Forget about what they’re talking about on cable news today; they’ll be talking about something else tomorrow, and it really doesn’t matter. We need to keep our eyes on what we’re trying to accomplish and not get distracted.”
That will obviously never happen. The news media is where Trump looks for validation, and where he learns what he should care about or be angered by. For all his tweets about “fake news” and his attacks on the very idea of a free press that exists to do something other than sing his praises, Trump is the most media-obsessed president we’ve ever seen. And that’s not going to change.