We've all been there. We dive into a much-anticipated first season of a new series and find ourselves intrigued and entertained. Then it's season two, which fumbles a bit, but remains watchable. By season three it is utterly boring, maybe even cringey, and before we get through all of the episodes we've jumped ahead to something else.
This is what is happening to the Trump show. Weeks after the twice-impeached former president announced his decision to run again in 2024, hardly anyone is watching, and those that do are disappointed.
It is such a sea change to consider Trump as a boring has-been, offering nothing more than reruns of himself, but that is exactly what is happening. He may have had an iron grip on the political right and the mainstream media back in 2016, but now that grip has turned into nothing more than a pathetic, tiny-handed, attention-seeking wave.
Wait, you may be thinking. Didn't the Jan. 6 committee just announce four criminal referrals against Trump to the Justice Department? That's a pretty big story, right?
The answer is yes, it is a big story for our democracy and possibly a big story for Trump's future as a free man, but it actually isn't much of a plot shift in the story of Trump. He has literally spent his entire political career (and business career too) running from the law and facing ongoing threats of prosecution. Does the name Mueller ring a bell? Just Security runs a litigation tracker for Trump, covering what they describe as "a bevy of lawsuits and investigations." Ever since he launched his 2016 campaign (and well before), Trump has pretty much constantly been under legal pressure. So for him to come under fire for breaking the law isn't some startling new development. It is his constant status quo.
News coverage of the criminal referrals has been predictable as well, with Fox News claiming that the decision is nothing more than political theater.
The point is that Trump may still top the headlines on any given day, but the way he does it has changed. Now he is alternately a loser, a criminal, a joke or a has-been. What he isn't is politically powerful. Those days are over. Even Ann Coulter has remarked that after three losing election cycles, "he is so done."
Consider the following facts:
- Trump-backed candidates largely tanked in the 2022 midterms, leading a number of high-ranking Republicans to blame Trump;
- Most of those losing candidates quickly conceded, a move that upends Trump's claim that the only way the MAGA right loses is when elections are rigged;
- Rupert Murdoch, long a lapdog to Trumpian antics, announced that his conservative media empire was over Trump and would no longer be offering constant free media for the "has been";
- When Trump announced his decision to run in 2024, cameras actually looked away, something they never did during his 2016 campaign, even when all they were showing was an empty podium. This time around MSNBC didn't air the speech at all, while both Fox News and CNN cut away;
- Even Trump supporters present at the 2024 announcement were so bored by Trump's "low energy" speech that they wanted out of the room, but security wouldn't let them go;
- Since he announced his candidacy, Trump has continued to lose support, dropping in the latest polling of potential Republican voters to 23 points behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A CNN poll revealed that 62 percent of Republicans wanted their party to nominate someone else in 2024.
The critical development to note is that Trump is more than just a loser, which he has been since he started his political career. He lost the popular vote in 2016. He lost the election in 2020. His hand-picked candidates almost all lost in 2022. But now Trump is a boring loser and that's why his political career shows all signs of being like a third-season Netflix series on the slippery slope to cancellation.
If you've missed seeing these signs, that's because folks have overlooked the fact that Trump was and always will be a media-created president. I don't just mean he's a politician who gets media attention. I mean that he's nothing more than a TV actor playing a president in a reality series.
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Think about it. From Day One the main reason Trump catapulted upward in the 2016 race was because he knew how to manipulate his media coverage, control the narrative and mesmerize his audience. In those early days it totally worked.
Building off years on one of the most well-known and successful reality TV franchises, "The Apprentice," which Trump hosted on NBC from 2004 to 2015, he translated those skills into a media spectacle campaign. He knew from experience that the key was to keep the audience watching. Reality TV reviewer Andy Dehnart explains: "Part of what makes reality TV so compelling is its unpredictability, and not really knowing what will happen when cameras start rolling."
As Trump was spewing outrageous comments and completely transforming the traditional political campaign script, he was amassing supporters (that is, viewers) who found his style fresh and exciting. While few media commentators initially understood how Trump's combination of unpredictability and entertainment was attracting support, John Oliver and Michael Moore both recognized that those qualities made him a formidable candidate early on. It's worth reflecting on the fact that it was entertainers who understood the special ingredient in Trump's 2016 campaign.
But if Trump was able to effectively mount a reality TV campaign that got him elected in real life back in 2016, he forgot that in order to have another successful season, you have to follow the rules of good television. In the case of a series, you have to find a way to keep it fresh without being totally gonzo. Instead, he's made both mistakes: He is both boring and unconvincingly over-the-top.
Today Trump is literally breaking every rule required to keep a show going into multiple seasons.
1. His drama is manufactured and unconvincing.
When Trump first ran, his schtick was fresh, even if it was repulsive. Trump created an interesting persona who embodied both an unconventional politician and an unpredictable swashbuckler.
But now, after hearing him ramble on about the same things endlessly, the story seems forced. There are various parts of the Trump story that lack convincing drama, but the most obvious one is his ongoing insistence that the 2020 election was stolen. While it started off strong, that story is getting boring and losing viewers every day. Every poll tracking support for the "Big Lie" shows a marked drop in adherents. For example, not long after the election as many as 70 percent of Republicans thought Joe Biden's win in 2020 was illegitimate. Today that number is much closer to 30 percent.
Think of this in reality TV terms: If you lose more than half of your viewers, you'd expect to be canceled.
2. The hero isn't changing
When Trump ran in 2016, he ran as an outsider. In TV terms that means the protagonist has a core challenge, a fight to win. But then he won.
For a hero who overcomes their central challenge to remain interesting, they need to face a brand new one in season two. While his election-denial narrative arguably sustained Trump's character through the second season — at least for his core fans — it has gone totally stale now. Moreover, in order for a hero to remain interesting, his or her character has to develop. Trump's stagnated, toxic baby-man identity has undergone no development of any kind. Eventually that type of character is just not worth watching.
Even worse, Trump designed a TV identity that is incongruous. Is he a winner or a victim? An insider or an outsider? A seasoned success or an upstart? The hero or the villain? Trump himself doesn't seem clear on any of that. Either way, these types of inconsistencies eventually destroy the watchability of a hero character.
To top it off, even venues that used to take him seriously think he is nothing more than a joke. After his 2024 announcement, the Murdoch-owned New York Post buried a story on Trump's announcement and teased it on its front page with the headline "Florida Man Makes Announcement."
3. His first season was so high-concept that it left no room for development.
As Dehnart explains, one of the challenges of reality TV is that what hooks the audience at first can be hard to maintain. "The struggle comes when a high-concept premise collides with the need to expand a series into something that can repeat itself over and over."
Trump was a high-concept reality TV candidate from the start, more limited-series material than fodder for endless seasons.
Dating back to his birtherism phase when he regularly pulled media stunts designed to discredit Barack Obama and elevate his brand, everything Trump did was big. But that's the problem. You can't keep that sort of momentum or grand spectacle going indefinitely.
This is why, finally, news media ratings started dropping with the past midterm cycle. Only 22.2 million viewers watched primetime media coverage of the 2022 midterm elections, down 32 percent from 2018 midterm viewership.
Even with a full slate of Trump-supported colorful characters in the race, people just didn't care enough to watch the show. They tuned out, even when a number of critical races still hadn't even been called.
4. The story lacks an interesting conflict.
Dehnart explains that reality TV depends on unpredictability and the sense that the conflict isn't manufactured. He further points out that "trying to prevent a boring season" may well lead "to a boring season."
That may help explain what went wrong with Trump's 2024 announcement. It was designed to keep viewers tuned in, but it was too staged, too contrived and too forced. Sarah Matthews, a former Trump White House spokesperson, tweeted during the event, "This is one of the most low-energy, uninspiring speeches I've ever heard from Trump."
Matthews, though, was also watching the audience and seeing that they were totally glazed over. "Even the crowd seems bored," she went on. "Not exactly what you want when announcing a presidential run." If the select group brought in to witness you announce a campaign is rolling their eyes, checking their phones and heading for the door, you have a problem.
For the story to be compelling it needs a good conflict. But there isn't anything interesting here. It's all been said and it isn't going anywhere. And while Thomas E. Patterson suggests that Trump "is still newsworthy," the conflict at the center of his story has just become repetitive and pathetic.
Trump's stagnant, toxic baby-man character has shown no development of any kind. Eventually, that kind of character just isn't worth watching anymore.
In fact, instead of Trump being able to control the story, media coverage is now making his downfall the story. Even National Review, house organ of conservative politics, underscored that the spectacle of Trump had grown passé. In an editorial titled "No," the editors emphasized that the repetitive, predictable and grotesque story of Trump no longer held any fascination. "To paraphrase Voltaire after he attended an orgy," they wrote, "once was an experiment, twice would be perverse." The editorial described Trump as "bruised," and encouraged readers (and by implication, Republican voters) to move on to another show.
5. He is desperate for attention.
Trump's 2024 announcement felt like what happens when your awkward date texts you that they want to see you again before you even make it home. His candidates had lost, he was amassing legal troubles and he was losing the support of political leaders. Rather than backing off, taking stock and regrouping, he cried out for attention.
When he didn't get the attention he wanted, he got even more desperate, performing the equivalent of blowing up the phones of his supporters to see if he could generate a response.
He started with a signature move that has worked many times before, suggesting on Truth Social that he would soon make a "MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT."
But the next day that went badly off the rails, as Trump explained that his major announcement was the release of a set of collectible digital trading cards featuring poorly designed cartoonish images of himself. "My official Donald Trump Digital Trading Card collection is here!" Trump wrote. "These limited edition cards feature amazing ART of my Life & Career!" As Chauncey DeVega reports, the Trump NFTs, which feature Trump's face on the bodies of figures like astronauts, fighter pilots and cowboys, are "worthless crap." Even better, they cost $99 a piece and are in no way a "limited edition."
Underscoring my claim that the story of Trump is now the story of a needy, desperate loser who refuses to move on, scores of social media users, including many of his own supporters, responded to the "major announcement" by blasting him for an obvious attention-seeking scam. One tweet asked, "How pathetic do you have to be to sell nfts of yourself photoshopped into various professions that you could never even dream of having?"
And there's the rub. Unlike when Trump hosted a reality show on NBC, there's no network president to cancel him. His media coverage will wane, his followers will dwindle and his story will get even more predictable and boring. The worse it gets, the more frantic he will be for attention. It's going to make for some pretty ugly TV, that with every boring and pathetic new episode will draw fewer and fewer viewers.