Those ratings numbers, though! Trump tweeted about them on March 29, twice. He mentioned them during that day’s coronavirus briefing, twice noting the comparisons to football and “The Bachelor.” He tweeted about the ratings on Wednesday, on Thursday (in opposition to a Wall Street Journal editorial suggesting he stop participating in them) and again on Friday morning.
The Friday article was a response to a different Times article, reporting that Republicans were increasingly flustered by Trump’s often-rambling, often-political appearances. The article quoted, among others, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a loyal Trump ally and not someone who Trump in other contexts would refer to as a RINO — a Republican-in-name-only. (A recent tweet about Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called into question Trump’s understanding of the term.)
What did Graham tell the Times? That Trump “sometimes drowns out his own message.”
In the same article, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) offered that perhaps Trump should “let the health professionals guide where we’re going to go.” In February, Trump called her a “great person.”
But again, Trump led with those ratings, information provided to him by the Times in the first place. The chain of logic here is clear: He equates those ratings with effectiveness and he assumes that his opponents want to stymie his effectiveness. Ergo, a reminder of the ratings in order to rationalize the opposition.
One flaw in the logic is that the ratings don’t equal effectiveness, as Graham and Capito point out. Another flaw is that the ratings aren’t what they once were.
The original Times article reported that more than 12 million people had watched the briefing on March 23. (Those were the “Monday Night Football” numbers.) Ratings data compiled by Nielsen and reported by AdWeek show that viewership in the first hour of the briefing has trended downward. By our analysis, the number of viewers during that hour on Wednesday was 25 percent lower than on March 23. (Over time, CNN stopped carrying the briefings, earning retribution from the White House.)
Those comparisons — “The Bachelor”! The NFL! — have nonetheless stuck with Trump. The high-water mark is now also the low-tide, the metric against which the entire enterprise will be compared forever. It’s akin to how he uses another of his favorite bits of data, approval ratings. He and his campaign will tout better-than-normal poll numbers for weeks, even after new polls show different assessments of his performance.
We’ve seen this before. Trump will often talk about how his TV show “The Apprentice” was a ratings smash, winning the ratings war when it was on the air. But that happened only once, in the final week of the first season. Over time, ratings for “The Apprentice,” and the spinoff celebrity version, slipped lower and lower, with fewer appearances in the top 20 shows in a given week.
How fervently did Trump try to hype the success of “The Apprentice”? At one point, framed Time magazine covers promoting the show as a “television smash” hung in various Trump Organization properties. The magazine cover was a fake.
Trump’s new insistence on the ratings for his daily briefings isn’t really about the ratings themselves. It’s about having a superlative metric, something to which he can point as a sign of success to counter criticism from his opponents. Yes, it’s a metric that fits neatly into his past habits, just as surely as he regularly claims that government projects have “come in ahead of schedule” — a development term that’s often out-of-place in the world of implemented policy. But Trump sees the ratings mostly as a way to tell other people that they’re wrong.
What he doesn’t see is how many Americans perceive his focus on television ratings in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Maybe one can wend a path back to the coronavirus outbreak from his ratings numbers, but focusing on his performance on television instead of on bodies sitting in refrigerated trucks in the neighborhood where he grew up probably makes his point difficult for many people to appreciate.