Trumpism is a mass phenomenon, a genre of consumerism that has corroded the republic and shows no signs of slowing.
Trumpism isn’t just about Donald Trump’s reactionary depravity, staggering corruption, and ceaseless mishaps. It’s also about the zeal with which people love to watch it.
CNN President Jeff Zucker has confessed that he gave Trump extra airtime during the 2016 primaries because he “delivered big on ratings” — and in the process he probably helped Trump’s bid for the White House get traction at a critical stage during his campaign.
Today it’s virtually impossible to read a single front page that isn’t saturated with Trump coverage or to spend more than a few seconds on social media without encountering his name. From water cooler banter to dinner parties to late night talk shows, the question “Did you hear what Trump just did?” seems inescapable.
What makes things even worse is that the Trump era is coinciding with a particularly rocky chapter for the American media sector. These days once-profitable outlets are missing their revenue targets, the digital media venture capital bubble is popping, and legacy outlets are laying off workers en masse; there is no solution to the media’s business model crisis in sight. Foreign bureaus are shuttering, local coverage is plummeting, and and freelancers are reporting a decline in publications’ interest in what were once bombshell stories. There is one reliable way for media outlets to make money: cash in on the Trump spectacle.
Every national publication knows that Trump is the main way to keep the clicks coming. And in the process, vital discussion of other branches of the federal government, public policy, foreign affairs, local news, the environment, social movements, and so on is being crowded out.
I’m not particularly interested in trying to disentangle the chicken-or-the-egg question of whether Trump coverage is driven by public demand or if Trump coverage generates public obsession. The reality is nobody’s hands are clean. It’s obvious that both chroniclers and consumers alike are compulsively drawn to bear witness to and share stories of the tragicomedy of the Trump administration.
I don’t mean to suggest that I’m not sympathetic to why it’s happening, or to suggest that I’m not fully complicit. (I am.) Trump must be covered. And citizens are justifiably horrified by his conduct.
But this monomania is cancerous. And I’m not just worried about how the homogeneity of popular discourse. I fear that Trump TV is robbing people of their agency. I hear so many people talking about feeling burnt out and fatigued and numb because of the news cycle. Many of them would be better off taking a break from the media, or at least strictly rationing consumption of it, and spending the extra energy getting involved in some more activism — something concrete that reminds them of their own power, that counteracts the impotence of perpetual outrage. And also maybe just reading some books about birds or something.