The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Donald Trump’s ‘ratings machine’ tweets are so very revealing

On Friday morning, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted.

The reaction was utterly predictable. Democrats — and even some Republicans — wondered why Trump was fixated on the ratings for “The Celebrity Apprentice” on the same day that he was set to receive a briefing from intelligence officials about the depth and breadth of Russia's hacking into the 2016 election. It was the height of irresponsibility, they tweeted!

Here's the thing: We know — or should know — by now that this is a feature, not a glitch of Trump's personality. In fact, the two tweets above provide a nice window into understanding how he thinks about himself, his looming presidency and the world.

For Trump, it is ALL about eyeballs. Attention. Buzz. Chatter. Appearances.

During the campaign, the metric that Trump fixated on and just kept coming back to was the fact that he had the biggest crowds of any candidate.

“We go to Oklahoma, we have 25,000 people,” Trump said in August. “We had 21,000 people in Dallas, we had 35,000 people in Mobile, Alabama. We get these massive crowds. Look, if [Hillary Clinton] had 500 people I would be surprised.” In October, he sounded the same note: “No matter where we go, we have these massive crowds. We just left one that was 11,000. … It's been amazing, the receptivity. There’s never been anything like this in this country.” And, again just days ago:

Ditto Trump's views on the importance of TV ratings. He uses ratings as scientific proof of his immense relevance — in debates, on “Saturday Night Live,” at “WrestleMania” and, well, pretty much everywhere else. Ratings — bad ones — are also Trump's go-to put down of people. Everyone from Megyn Kelly to MSNBC to “The View” to Arsenio Hall has been judged by Trump as bad/stupid due to allegedly poor ratings. (The Trump Twitter Archive is invaluable for this sort of searching.) As Jacob Brogan put it in a Slate piece published last year:

Trump cares about ratings a lot. He cares about ratings because the value of a thing, in his mind, is entirely a function of its ordinal positioning. He’s always talking numbers, one way or another. During one recent campaign stop, he counted up every reference that Hillary Clinton made to him in her Democratic National Convention address — 22 in all. He also routinely talks polling data — mostly when the numbers are in his favor, but sometimes even when they’re not.

But no single metric matters more to him than television ratings — so much so that even polls are secondary for him. In an age of time-shifting and binge-watching, Trump’s fixation on ratings might seem old fashioned, and it is. But it’s also key to understanding how he thinks.

Yup. Ratings make the man. If people watch, you win.

Trump's focus on the appearance of things carries over to how he has gone about picking his Cabinet. This from a hugely insightful WaPo story published late last year:

Donald Trump believes that those who aspire to the most visible spots in his administration should not just be able to do the job, but also look the part.
Given Trump’s own background as a master brander and showman who ran beauty pageants as a sideline, it was probably inevitable that he would be looking beyond their résumés for a certain aesthetic in his supporting players...
... On the other hand, in Trump’s book, not having the right kind of appearance is tantamount to a disqualifier. During the presidential campaign, he stirred a controversy when he pronounced that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton lacked “a presidential look, and you need a presidential look.”

Remember that Trump — like all of us — is a product of his environment. That environment for him is the meat-grinder of New York City business and media — and, more recently, reality TV. How you come off in those venues often matters far more than what you say. The key is not, necessarily, to be the smartest or the best looking, it's to be the one everyone is talking about. If you are the center of attention, you've won. Nothing else matters. Crowds, ratings — that's the measure of a man.

No one should be shocked that this “appearances first, second and only” view is coming with Trump as he prepares to become only the 44th man ever to be president. At 70, this is who he is. He's spent a lifetime measuring his success through numbers — not always correct numbers, mind you, but numbers nonetheless. Perception is Trump's reality. In that way, he is perfect for our modern political system. And he knows it.