The Reality-TV President Has His Defining TV Moment

Kevin Fallon
Patrick Semansky/AP

There has never been a TV president at the level of Donald Trump. Yes, it’s his reality-TV origin story. But it’s also his state of existence: Camera constantly trained on his face, airwaves at his disposal, us as his audience rapt.

He is as infatuated with this televised permanence as we seem to be with subsisting on it. But, as came into sharp focus Monday night, that reliance on television as his own political tool has only exposed how ill-equipped he is for the constant scrutiny and the realities of the changing landscape. 

Since his inauguration, there have been countless critical essays on the role television had in getting him elected, be it a hair tussle on late-night TV or reflexive coverage of every rally, speech, and lie on cable news in the name of big ratings. But there has also been an attempt to understand how the medium has captured and will memorialize Trump and this time. 

How has scripted television changed to spotlight the state of the country and the impact of the administration on its culture? What value has cable news brought, with its wall-to-wall coverage of Trump and the explosion of punditry? When we look back at this era, what will we be able to cue up as its defining moment, as we watched it unfold on television? And what will it say about him? 

Now we have the answer. 

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On the seventh night of nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd and violent standoffs between police and demonstrators, news outlets aired Trump’s evening speech from the White House Rose Garden. 

On CNN, the remarks—in which the president failed to mention the racism and police brutality at the root of the crisis and instead threatened military retaliation against American citizens—were shown in a split-screen with live footage of what was happening on the street outside the White House. 

Police were firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who were, by every account, peaceful. It turns out they were violently driving them away to clear space for Trump to walk from the White House’s front door to St. John’s Church for a photo-op. 

The camera followed him as he walked past “FTP” graffiti (translating to: “fuck the police”), and captured him fumbling with the Bible awkwardly as he posed in front of the church, having clearly arrived with no plan of how to execute the stunt other than the fact that he was going to exploit the church and the Bible for it. 

The photo-op was meaningless. It sent no message. A booming message had been sent, however, when the words of his speech were juxtaposed with the violence he was stoking. And all in the name of an ego trip, as reports indicate that the impetus to walk outside the White House was Trump’s displeasure with coverage that he was sheltered in a bunker during Sunday night’s protests. 

He had attempted to stage a narcissistic, fictional tableau of strength and triumph. The result was a disaster. 

Trump has an obsessive focus on “scripting” his TV presence, honing a narrative that suits his messaging, spin, or play for power. His remarks in the Rose Garden, erasing the reality of what was going on in the country to fit the story he wanted to tell, certainly attest to that, not to mention the baffling church photo-op. But this monomaniacal desire for scripted TV moments is at odds with an era inherently remarkable for its unscripted nature. 

Part of that is the tools not only journalists, but citizens have to democratically broadcast the news unfolding as they see it. Part of that is the ability for news stations to go live from virtually anywhere, something that has advanced significantly even throughout the Trump administration and the protests that have happened during it. And part of that has to do with the fact that so much of what is happening on cable is unplanned and improvised. He’s trying to control a narrative of a fluid, unfolding “riot,” the kinetic nature of which is airing on our televisions.

When Trump’s press conference was orchestrated, he likely didn’t expect the news cameras trained on him to broadcast alongside footage of the police violence. It’s an unscripted TV reality that’s more damning for him now than ever. 

Whether it’s the coronavirus pandemic and all the unknowns that have underscored that it, his rallies, or any of his daily press conferences, he’s attempted to turn these new stories and events into scripted narratives broadcast through his 24/7 television platform. And he’s been terrible at it. Monday night’s fiasco may be the greatest example of that, and as such the defining example of how this presidency has played out on television.

There’s been no shortage of gripping news footage that will telegraph the extremes of these last three-and-a-half years. Footage of citizens taking to the streets in protest at women’s marches, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and anti-gun violence rallies. Of families torn apart at the border, of children in cages at ICE detention centers, of black men and women gunned down by police, of lawyers sprawled across airport terminal floors working to block anti-immigration orders. 

Newsreels in the decades to come will tell an unprecedented story about this time, in part thanks to the rise of camera phones, social media, and the incessant news cycle. But that stretch of footage from Monday night of Trump himself, juxtaposed with what was happening on the street on which he was about to walk, will be profound. Nothing has more starkly revealed who he is at this pivotal moment of his presidency, and of our country. 

It’s a time when television is changing faster than ever before, yet Trump is a singular presence across its entire, varied landscape. 

Attention is splintered across apps, platforms, streaming services, and channels, but here is an example of one of the important television moments in recent years happening live, and—whether they watched it as it happened on CNN, through livestreams online, or in clips posted on social media—uniting audiences through the power of the content. 

It joins a canon of presidential TV moments that influenced not only how the nation viewed these leaders, but how we process our own history.

Barack Obama has the footage of him singing “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in a mass shooting at a Charleston church in 2015. 

George W. Bush will be outlived by the video of him reading The Pet Goat to elementary school students when an adviser rushes in and whispers in his ear that planes have flown into the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Bill Clinton will have “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” For Ronald Reagan, it’s exhorting Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” There’s Gerald Ford’s “the long national nightmare is over,” Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” John F. Kennedy challenging the country to go to the moon, all the way back to Harry S. Truman’s first presidential address about the occupation of Japan at the end of World War II in 1951. 

Whatever you read into those moments and how they’re emblematic of those presidents, or at least how they influenced a cultural perception of them—the compassion of Obama, the cluelessness of Bush, the potential torpedoed by scandal of Clinton—the unscripted footage from Monday night may rank as the most representative of Trump. 

Television is Trump’s lifeblood. He lives and breathes it. And right now, he’s so out of place in it. There’s something both absurd and powerful about that dissonance. That footage from Monday night, then, is not only an exemplary moment of his character, but also may be the defining television moment of his presidency. 

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