If there was any doubt remaining about the uselessness of these live daily performances masquerading as briefings, President Donald Trump eliminated it Monday night.
Hours after a relatively subdued one in which he again suggested that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us and it’s time to reopen, Trump posted a tweet proclaiming: “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”
What does that mean, exactly? Well, the nice thing about a tweet is that you don’t have to answer questions about it. On Twitter everyone can be a sports talk radio host, monologuing and then pretending to win the last word in a “conversation” with someone who’s already been muted.
For executive politicians—mayors, governors, and the president—the nice thing about these televised briefings now is a big audience of people without sports or other distractions who are desperate to find out what happens after this, whatever this is and whenever that is. The virus is the only story in the world, the only live show left in town, and you get to set the stage, choose your questioners, and project competence and authority.
As Rudy Giuliani can vouch, that’s prime real estate, even though or maybe because that role is more performative than informative. (See: the air quality at ground zero, or Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s go-to line straight through mid-March about how “the fear is a worse problem than the virus.”) Just ask Trump, who’s still bragging about how great his rating are despite some 42,604 confirmed deaths as of Monday night.
Trump may say the quiet part out loud and not care at all about the other parts, but the truth is that there’s a lot of stagecraft, and only a little news, in all of these daily shows. They have to offer enough each day to justify the airtime, and keep the cameras on them and people tuned in as they recite what’s happened and hint at what will happen next. With all other live events canceled, this is entertainment now for an awful lot of fans.
Which is nuts. I’m watching four or five hours of these briefings a day, but that’s part of my job. With the economy in a medically induced coma and no certainty that it will fully recover after that, this is no time to stop doing my job, even if it means tuning in to these guys while shooing away my kids.
Again, the problem here really isn’t unique to Trump, unique as he is. He’s just at the top of this food chain, which is why Mayor Bill de Blasio has to give his briefings at 9 a.m. or so, while Cuomo gets midday and a national audience, and Trump gets primetime.
It’s worth noting this is only the latest public health crisis, following a Legionnaires Disease outbreak in 2015, where Cuomo and de Blasio are holding competing press conferences and otherwise putting their respective needs to command the stage above the need of New Yorkers to hear a clear and consistent message about what’s happening, and what we should be doing right now and expecting to do next.
Cuomo, who’s spent many years selling himself as the Man of Action, is earning all sorts of wild praise now for his briefings, despite or almost because of the virus’ wild success here. He’s getting literal love letters from members of the press and landing on the cover of the Rolling Stone amidst with goofy talk about him replacing Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential nominee. Don’t even get me started on his brother act with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, complete with crossover appearances.
Trump, who as a reality TV guy running a stunt campaign was, err, neck and neck with ISIS as the world’s most successful extractor of earned media, is now wielding the power and pageantry of the world’s most powerful elected office to turn his supposed briefings into propaganda sessions that have effectively replaced the rallies he’s been forced to cancel. His rhythm is to alternate stretches (sometimes days, sometimes minutes) where he’s “so presidential that you people will be so bored” with performances where he rips into the press as a visible “enemy of the people” that’s more easily hit than the “invisible enemy” indifferent to his shtick.
Cuomo, for his part, counter-programs with scripted and PowerPoint-driven briefings broken up by soliloquies about our common confused experiences. But those are a performance, too, as has become more and more obvious with each day’s new act about his fatherly affect.
The fourth wall finally shattered into a million pieces during Sunday’s coronavirus briefings, when Cuomo, who was announcing an aggressive antibody testing regimen for New York, then used his regular fireside chat segment to passive aggressively consider his daughter’s boyfriend, who’s now socially isolated with the family.
Hours later, Cuomo made a surprise appearance at Trump’s event as the president played a clip of Andrew thanking Donald for some of the aid the federal government has provided. That doubled as a reminder from Trump to the other governors that if they don’t want their citizens to die, they damn well better provide clips that he can then use in campaign commercials.
There’s no easy way out of this mess. The news networks that effectively turned their airwaves over to Trump in 2016 aren’t going to stop now that he’s president (and no, it doesn’t help if you put up chyrons about the president’s propaganda while you’re broadcasting it).
Getting congressional Democrats to issue a nightly rebuttal from Washington won’t help. Setting aside the fact that lawmakers almost always look weak and executives strong in the midst of a crisis (ask Biden if you don’t believe me), trying to out-Trump Trump isn’t a winning strategy.
And the idea that Trump is getting enough rope to hang himself by talking every night won't help. That’s a sucker's bet, a loser’s consolation, the latest variation on the “peak Trump” fallacy that defined 2016. There’s no peak here, and no bottom.
Just like his campaign rallies, almost any one of Trump’s briefings would be a jaw-dropping display of unhinged leadership, even setting aside the wild contradictions from one day to the next and even one sentence to the next. But repeated night after night and wild claim after wild claim, they’re anesthetizing.
No one knows what’s next, and Trump at least knows that. So he’s just trying to set and reset expectations to clear his own bar with the idea that when things improve, and at some point they will, that his will be the face most associated with those improvements.
There is one simple step out of this mess, though: Don’t be a sucker, and don’t watch. You will feel better if you don’t. Watching any of this to get a feeling of control is something like smoking to soothe your anxiety.
If anything of real import happens, you can all read about at The Daily Beast or some lesser news site later that day or the next morning. If it’s really important, your phone will burn up with breaking news alerts and texts. Everything else is a performance.
There will be reporters at these briefings asking questions, and keeping a record, while you are dealing with your own life, which you actually control. And the fewer people who watch, the better the questions and answers will be. Nothing dumbs things down faster than a big TV audience.