As, a former journalist and media critic, I’ll bust a gut if I don’t write about the fascinating and bloodless but significant cultural television phenomenon emerging from the coronavirus tragedy.
This post is not about whether President Trump is a good President or a bad one, it’s about the way two reality shows so different from one another are both airing every day and revealing so much about our politics, culture and maybe our future.
It’s not just a question of two different press conferences, it’s really about two different ways of looking at the world.
These two regular daily television conferences about the coronavirus – one starring the President, the other Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York – could help determine who is President in the Fall, and how we as a nation respond to this staggering crisis and the next ones to come.
Part of our President’s genius is that he sees himself – once and forever – as the star of his own long-running, TV centered reality show.
The White House lawn and press room is his daily stage and this idea of being a Tweeting TV Reality Show President blew away a score of gifted competitors. They all saw the Presidency quite differently.
Trump’s vision of being President has upended conventional politics, fusing them with the lessons of mass-market television. He turned out to be the wisest of them all. And many people love him very much.
Donald Trump is the master of the genre.
If you take a couple of hours to watch the best reality TV shows from Dr. Phil to The Real World to Million Dollar Listing and the Bachelor, even Trump’s own Apprentice, you will see his vision played out on the White House lawn or press room every day.
He’s turned the entire Washington political spectrum into actors and wannabees on his own show, the Apprentice, all over again.
Trump is always the story on his show, always on stage from his bluster to his hair to his fancy suits and ungracious responses. He can say or do whatever he wants, his outrageousness and offensiveness is the point, not a side effect.
I have no idea what he’s really like, but his TV persona is shocking and unwavering. His followers wanted a Disrupter, and that’s is what they got. He didn’t run to govern, he ran to destroy our conventional ideas about governing.
The President may or may not understand how a virus spreads, but he understands his television. He knows that on every successful reality show, arrogance, cruelty, boorishness, fighting, over-the-top polarizing, and paranoia, even bigotry as a political philosophy, are considered admirable, not offensive.
In this world, lying and exaggerating, scapegoating and bragging are not bad things, but good things.
You win by flaunting and taunting the conventions of the “elites” and the unknown.
As a former TV producer, I know good TV when I see it, and Trump is perhaps the best I have ever seen at keeping himself in front of the camera, no matter what he says or does while performing.
It is a fascinating fusion of popular culture and politics.
President Trump is a master of the form, he is the star of every room he’s ever in, and everyone must bow before him. In TV, I learned early that fiction soon becomes reality, and many people no longer care about the difference.
Suddenly a new challenge for the President, a spawn of the coronavirus hosted by a different personality, and this show is also red-hot, riveting, watched across the nation and suddenly very influential.
It is transformative, also shaping our society and our understanding of the coronavirus, and of ourselves.
In an indirect but obvious way, it is also challenging the ethos and popularity of President Trump, and his prospects for re-election.
Without ever hardly mentioning him, this new broadcast is creating a devastating portrait of a leader struggling painfully to lead a diverse nation – half of whom he has deliberately and contemptuously alienated – at a critical time.
A lethal Pandemic isn’t really the stuff of good reality TV. It’s too heavy, too real and too frightening. So far, President Trump doesn’t seem to have found another speed.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York seems to understand something that no other politician or political candidate up against President Trump has yet grasped. You can’t fight a Reality TV Presidency with an argument, you have to fight it with another reality show, a newer and better one.
And you have to fight it by showing a better way, not just promising it or arguing about it.
In essence, you undercut Trump by being the very opposite of him on television every single day when so many people are paying attention. You do not do this by attacking him or quarreling with him. It’s entertainment, stupid, fighting and offending is his specialty, it is most people’s weakness. You try to show what government, at its best, can do.
Governor Cuomo seems to have figured this out. If he’s loud you’re soft, if he is vicious, you are gentle, if he is lying or stretching the truth, you are being painfully honest, if he can’t really show empathy, you are empathizing all the time, even in tears at times.
Cuomo, a blood enemy of most Republican politicians, is not your usual progressive or wooly headed prophet of the left. He is notorious as a tough, take-no-prisoners governor. He has ticked off liberals and conservatives alike.
He talks to the President most days during the crisis, he praises Trump on every single broadcast. His dedication to helping the people in his stricken city seems to have taken precedence over anything else.
Accurately or not, no one in his growing audience ever gets the impression that he is thinking of himself or his future.
Governor Cuomo speaks directly, and in a working-class, every man, Queens accent. Trump is a ruthless billionaire, his father was a ruthless real estate developer and a cold and demanding parent.
Cuomo’s father was also a tough politician who said more than once that campaigning was poetry, governing was prose. His son was his campaign manager.
Mario Cuomo had a Teamster style of leadership and the heart of a lion. He often sounded like a Jesuit poet.
His son Andrew is showing those qualities in every press conference, and he is hitting most of them out of the park. By contrast, Trump seems to struggle with a format constrained by gravity and science.
Suddenly, facts really matter. Facts are not his thing.
His press conferences are long, confusing and awkward.
Andrew Cuomo never takes the bait. How can you be attacked or belittled by Trump’s many supporters when you never attack or criticize their leader? For the first time, the President seems tongue-tied. Can he win on governing? Not this time, it seems, not so far.
Cuomo has also done some fusion – politics, disaster, family, and television. Because of the virus and the havoc it’s wreaking in New York City and much of the rest of the country, he suddenly has a vast audience.
Until now, nobody could compete with President Trump when it came to television and media attention.
Cuomo is besting him, breaking through the Trump-wall. He is perhaps Trump’s worst nightmare, a potential opponent who understands government, sports, politics, and television. Someone who can take out his human side, polish it like precious silver, and show it off.
He has been waiting for this moment all of his political life. He is telling us – showing us – how the government is supposed to work when there is this much trouble.
President Trump brags about his ratings in one breath, offers deadly statistics in the next. Cuomo is self-effacing, almost shy. He seems to bleed for every sick and dying person.
In a reality television show, producers know that the more outrageous, over-the-top, divisive, or over-the-top the message, the more people will love it and come back for more.
Reality TV is a circus, not a policy. President Trump loves drama, he brags, lies, attacks enemies and reporters at will, he always gets the headlines; he always makes the news.
Cuomo understands that the media is just like the President – they also thrive on drama even as they bemoan it – they are not really his enemy but his very best friends. Each makes the other possible – and rich.
Cuomo also uses them in that way. But his press conferences are never an ugly slugfest. The dance is much quieter.
Cuomo’s daily press briefing about the virus, now broadcast live all over America and on several cable channels live is, in every way, the child of the Trump idea, yet at the same time the very opposite of it.
I don’t kid myself about the governor. Cuomo, like his father and his brother, is a political animal, with all of the instincts of a wolf hiding behind the garb of a noble priest.
He knows what he is doing.
Cuomo has figured out how to make Trump look bad and very different from him.
He does it by never criticizing the President directly, but undermining him constantly – all he has to do is be himself. Trump has to put on his Reality TV mask every time.
I picture Jeb Bush as pulling his hair out.
Whatever his motives and intentions – I can’t know – Cuomo is now the anti-Trump, the dream Democratic candidate.
It never pays to underestimate Donald Trump, but the smart political people are all whispering right now that Cuomo would eat Trump alive in a debate or an election. I imagine that the idea will gain some steam this Spring.
In his press conferences, Cuomo has created his own FDR-style Fireside Chat, calming a nervous and grateful country with compassion and understanding, stories from his personal life, and poetic exhortations to be calm and vigilant and patient.
I’m not sure what the message from Trump is for me, other than that he is doing a terrific job. That doesn’t make me feel better about being closeted in my house for the next few weeks. If there is another message, I am not getting it.
Cuomo surprises me, he is out of the box: He even rounded up nearly 7,000 therapists to counsel people who are freaking out in New York.
And for free.
Cuomo, like his father, understands from the ancient Greeks that the most beloved heroes show their vulnerability and their flaws. He is not afraid to choke up and cry.
Trump insists at every opportunity that he is the smartest person in every room, Cuomo is quick to say he knows little, he listens to the experts and deals in facts. Trump says he takes no responsibility for the way the coronavirus was handled by the federal government.
Cuomo takes full responsibility for telling people to shelter in place.
If you have to blame anyone, he says, blame me. I’m the guy at the top. His strength is contagious. So is his calm.
Rather than try to win over Trump’s devoted followers, Cuomo sidesteps their anger and sense of persecution. He is gathering his own tribe instead. The troll army has no role to play. Trump has no answer for that, the pundits say he watches every minute of Cuomo’s show every day and has even tried to copy his style.
My guess is that Trump will have to go after Cuomo at some point, it’s his nature.
He’ll give Cuomo a Middle School name and try to bait him into a mistake (remember Elizabeth Warren?) That could be the political battle of the century, Godzilla versus the Tyrannosaurus.
Cuomo, a purveyor of high-quality schmaltz, is a politician known for his arrogance and ruthlessness, but this new and warmer leadership style is a huge hit, all over the country.
The governor has also broadened the cast of his show, as good reality shows do.
There is his little brother Chris, a CNN anchor, who loves to banter and defer to his big brother; there are his adult daughters, who have come to live in the Governor’s Mansion to join in the corona battle alongside their pop.
There is even a now-famous mother, Matilda, the storied Italian mom going over to Chris’s house to show him how to make her fabulous pasta sauce. Loving and praising – and protecting – your mother on national TV is a very smart thing to do.
Almost daily, Andrew Cuomo evokes the ghost of his famous father. President Trump seems to do the same thing but in a different way.
The Cuomos won the Reality TV Sweepstakes this week when Brother Chris contracted the coronavirus himself and suffered greatly from, then began to heal, on national television, his “best friend” big brother calling constantly from the Governor’s Mansion in Albany to check in and make sure he’s all right.
Chris, who had a very long and rough night, told the nation that he dreamed his powerful brother was a ballerina dancing in his dream.
The media scarfed it up.
When they do talk, which is often on their respective broadcasts, the brothers kid each other with warmth and love, they paw sweetly at one another like two lion kittens. Brothers for our time.
The vast TV audience looking in on this drama swooned and teared up.
Even Reality shows don’t get more real than that. I took a brief look at President Trump in his dark suit with Brother Pence glowering standing loyally at his side later in the day, he got clobbered today.
And I thought, wow, Cuomo is a master himself. This new show could beat the competition silly.
It makes for wonderful TV, the two brothers who clearly care for one another and have been bantering with each other for years. Keep it rolling, keep it going, I could hear myself shouting in the CBS control room.
There were tears all over the country when Governor Cuomo nearly broke down on the air talking about his brother’s diagnosis.
The governor said he was worried about his little brother, who he loves dearly. His best friend.
Chris in return urged the governor to be careful traveling around the state, he is too important to lose.
I’m not trying to be cynical or skeptical here, but reporters are reporters, writers are writers, artists are artists, and politicians are politicians. I see what I see.
As a former TV producer, I would have cut off an arm for content like this.
No wonder President Trump seems rattled, reading off of his prepared text in a monotone while Cuomo orates spontaneously, quoting Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.
Part of Trump’s great success is that he has convinced the very people who need a leader the most that he is their salvation.
And many people now think that Governor Cuomo is their salvation. This crisis will go on for a long time, everyone involved shall be revealed.
Call your mom, Cuomo said during a press conference last week, but don’t let her in your house now, he cautioned in one press conference. Love your mother from a distance. Stay home and cook your family a nice Sunday dinner, he suggested in another.
Cuomo projects the idea that he will do anything, anything – even pull the right levers in government – to go to bat for his citizens, especially the embattled elderly right now. He always talks about the little guy at the bottom of the pile and how to protect them.
We can’t let anybody die, he says, we can’t write anybody off. His eloquent plea to save every life, including the sick and the elderly, shined as one of the high points in the history of great leadership.
The wolves were already beginning to call for the blood of the vulnerable, save the economy first. Most of these people are going to die anyway.
I won’t give up on anybody, Cuomo promised and talked like he meant it. The President said more people died from the flu than the coronavirus that day. It wasn’t true.
As an older person at risk, I might be biased, but apart from that, it was a beautiful message Cuomo gave, leadership at its very best.
There is a lot at stake in these culture wars, as the Corona Reality TV Battle suggests.
What do we want a President to be? What do we want our country to be? What do we want our government to be? We will all have some answers in a few weeks.
I think President Trump ought to be grateful that Andrew Cuomo decided not to run for President this year.
(I was once a political writer also, and I can’t help notice that in every single broadcast, Cuomo says – often repeats – the statement that what is happening in New York City will soon be happening elsewhere, broadening his audience and giving anyone anywhere a good reason to see his broadcasts.
Just sayin’. He insists the crisis in New York is not local, but will soon be heading elsewhere. If anyone helps New York, he says, he will personally return the favor.)
This virus will re-shape our political system in one way or the other, and whatever the outcome, our popular culture may decide those important questions about our country.
But I wonder a bit when Cuomo says he isn’t interested in running. Politics is clearly in his blood. And I found out that the Democratic National Convention can nominate anyone they wish to nominate.
I really can’t tell if this is just another part of the show.
(Note, this is not a left-right political discussion, nor a hate or love President Trump discussion. It’s about the fascinating popular culture that America has created, and that has obsessed and shaped the politics of our country for years. I refuse to crap it up with hoary left-right propaganda.
Here, we think for ourselves. This blog is a search for truth, agree or disagree, but don’t bring mindless propaganda here. I won’t post it.)