Of all the explanations for Donald Trump’s sudden foreign-policy about-face — from America First noninterventionist who coldly proposed to cooperate with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to humanitarian interventionist of sorts — the one that makes the most sense is that supplied by Trump himself. “That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact,” he said at a press conference on April 5, the day after Assad allegedly launched a horrific chemical attack on civilians in northern Syria. “That was a horrible, horrible thing. And I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.” Trump saw something on television that upset him, so he cast aside his position and formulated a new one, which neither Trump nor his advisers could articulate, driven by his newfound, apparently sincere, but diffuse outrage at the brutality of the dictator he had once touted as a potential partner against ISIS. The televised images of suffering overrode everything he had said about the issue for years.
It is possible that in this particular case the method will work. Perhaps Assad will get the message that he cannot use chemical weapons without consequence, or Trump will grope his way toward a coherent strategy for Syria, ISIS, Iraq, and humanitarian intervention, cable hit by cable hit. Or perhaps it will lead to a muddle, or worse. What is most telling about the episode is the method itself. The largest source of unpredictability in the Trump administration is the president’s addiction to television news. For good or bad, mostly bad, the herky-jerky logic of TV news coverage dictates the president’s strategy, or lack thereof. Previous presidents, most notably Ronald Reagan, became famous for their ability to manipulate television. Television manipulates Trump.
The president’s fixation with TV news illuminates the contrast with the previous occupant of his office. Among the many ways Barack Obama differed from Trump was in his contempt for cable-news chatter. “What I think would actually make a difference,” he advised congressional Democrats in 2010, would be “if everybody here turned off your CNN, your Fox, your — just turn off the TV — MSNBC, blogs — and just go talk to folks out there, instead of being in this echo chamber where the topic is constantly politics.” In 2016, Obama told David Remnick, “I’m still not watching television, which is just a general rule that I’ve maintained for the last eight years, not watching political television,” a practice that he believed “is part of how you stay focused on the task, as opposed to worrying about the noise.”
Obama’s point was not that he considered cable television biased or unfair, but that he considered it frivolous, histrionic, and a distraction from reality. He would frequently mock the roller-coaster chyron narrative, in which he supposedly ricocheted from triumph to collapse day to day. For Obama, Morning Joe was shorthand for a vapid conventional wisdom that overlooked what was meaningful to obsess about the trivial.
“Trump is an avid television viewer. He’s a product of television. He loves television. It’s his first source of interest,” former CNN host Larry King, a longtime Trump friend, recently told BuzzFeed. During the campaign, Trump once claimed in complete earnestness that he would not require policy advisers because he could get his information from “the shows.” He has reportedly selected his Cabinet officials in part based on whether they “look the part” for television — which sounds implausible until you remember that Trump’s candidacy was launched in large degree by turning the character he played on a reality show into a viable political persona. Obama, of course, used a book (his autobiography Dreams From My Father) to similar effect. And just as Obama consciously privileges reading over television consumption, Trump does the opposite: He prefers that his briefing memos take bullet-point form and run no longer than a page.
Trump does express anger at television news, at least intermittently, but his fits of loathing have a character different from Obama’s dismissal of the medium. They are an expression of unrequited love. Even, or especially, in his angriest moments, Trump internalizes television’s judgments. He rages at unflattering news coverage like a sports fan on the couch screaming obscenities at the referee.
For Trump, the Obamaian notion that his job is to manage a reality that exists on a separate plane from television is absurd. Television news is his reality. He watches it for hours on end and measures his performance entirely by the message it sends back to him. On the day of his prime-time address to Congress in February, Trump gathered news anchors for a preview in which he suggested he would float a compromise on immigration policy. The speech contained no such compromise. An administration official subsequently explained that Trump said this in order to obtain positive coverage from the networks leading up to the speech. Burning whatever was left of his credibility in order to wheedle some marginally fluffier news segments is Trump’s idea of a reasonable trade-off.
Just as not everything on television news is superficial, not all the effects of Trump’s addiction to it are necessarily evil. In late 2015, Trump was chillingly callous about Middle Eastern dictators’ history of massacring civilians with chemical weapons. War between Iraq and Iran was going well for American interests in the 1980s, he said in his stand-up comedian voice. “Then Saddam Hussein throws a little gas and everybody goes crazy: ‘Oh, it’s because of gas!’ ” There’s a coherent defense for responding seriously to chemical-weapons attacks on civilians. But there’s also a coherent defense for treating it no differently than a conventional attack. It is the job of the president to choose wisely among competing and incompatible philosophies of how American force should be deployed abroad. There’s no defending a policy of military response against only chemical-weapons attacks whose victims appear on television.
Nothing epitomizes the grip of television ephemera upon Trump’s mind like the upcoming milestone of his administration’s 100th day. Reporters have long used this artificial marker to issue extremely provisional assessments of a new presidency. Obama dismissed the occasion as a media concoction. (“It’s the journalistic equivalent of a Hallmark holiday,” a senior administration official said eight years ago.) Trump has greeted the upcoming deadline with the utmost gravity. Trump’s staffers “said the 100-day mark is taking on significant importance for the president, who has already referenced upcoming cable television specials in conversations with aides,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “One hundred days is the marker, and we’ve got essentially two and a half weeks to turn everything around,” one White House official told Politico.
During last year’s campaign, there was a serious debate among journalists about whether Trump’s ability to draw record television ratings rendered the media complicit in his rise. As president, he continues to make for compelling television, supplying news anchors with hours of buffoonery, scandal, and grist for outrage. What must unnerve Trump, however, is that suddenly, good ratings have been uncoupled from success. He no longer controls the narrative. His frantic daily lurches to change the story unfolding on his screen merely serve to bog down his own government while ratcheting up its entertainment value. For the first time in his career, television is winning and Trump is losing.
Trump’s term lasts 1,461 days. By the end, it will not matter what cable news said about his first hundred days. And the plaudits he garnered from the talking heads for his missile strike on Syria will make no difference if he cannot formulate a coherent strategy. One day he may figure out that the presidency is a long-form medium.
*This article appears in the April 17, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.