The Trump administration has altered a lot of lives, including my own, in an unforeseen way. We’ve become news addicts.
I always followed the news, but not since I escaped Washington, D.C., in 1978 and moved to New Mexico—full of disgust with the city that brought us Vietnam and Watergate—have I followed every tidbit of national news on an hourly or even minute-by-minute basis.
My day begins with an early check on President Donald Trump’s unpredictable and sometimes explosive (if not implosive) tweets. Then there are the expected Democratic critiques and the unforeseeable Republican reactions, which tend to be all over the palace, with lots of surprises from erstwhile GOP leaders.
Then the foreign news starts rolling in, with new complications triggered by Trump tweets concerning Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, China, England, France, Germany, etc. Then come the day’s new developments on the multiple Russian investigations and allegations of presidential obstruction of justice.
In the afternoon, we get Sean Spicer’s entertaining battle with White House reporters, followed by other White House aides’ reactions to Spicer’s statements and misstatements.
At night arrive the latest rounds of secret leaks published by the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall St. Journal, Politico.com, Buzzfeed and the TV networks.
By this time we are ready for a new burst of Trump tweets.
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Unlike most news crazes, the fascination with Trump shows no sign that it will ever burn out because it has four independent but overlapping roots:
• First, he is a genuinely talented entertainer. His timing is exquisite. His facial features are mobile. His gestures are expressive. His vocabulary is simple but dramatic. He is knowledgeable about the techniques of advertising, public relations and public manipulation and has a brilliant flare for employing them.
• Second, Trump combines magnetic personal qualities and a pose of absolute certitude with a fascinating substantive ignorance of the laws, the Constitution, U.S. history, his own policies and how government works (all of which many of his followers believe is a virtue). The result is total unpredictability.
• Third, his preoccupation with himself and a demeanor that combines harshness, bullying, self-pity and grandiosity lend him a tragic quality worthy of one of Russia’s vast panoramic novels. It is notable that when he tried to talk a bevy of officials into publicly rejecting any conspiracy between himself and Russia, he didn’t ask them to clear the Republican Party or his campaign or his administration or his friends but only himself personally. He once even said he didn’t know what his campaign had been up to but that he himself was innocent.
• Fourth, the substance of his remarks, usually off the cuff, can be startling. He frequently takes positions at odds with virtually every other leader, American and foreign, contemporaneous and historical, Republican and Democratic, even with nearly all of his own administration. (More about this point in next week’s column.)
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On Jan. 20, 2017, America entered a world it had never before seen, a world in which Washington is the arena for perpetual theater, a nonstop circus of dramatic internal conflict and stunning surprises. You never know what new controversies will be created by Trump’s 6 a.m. tweets, Spicer’s afternoon news conference or the evening leaks from the president’s staff and friends.
I’m constantly fascinated, but I’m hardly the only newly minted news addict around. Nearly 20 million people took time out in the middle of a working day to watch former FBI Director James Comey testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Millions watched Comey’s former boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, testify before the same committee the following week, also in the middle of a work day. All the headlines of Sessions’ denials of personal wrongdoing obscured two key facts: He did not defend President Trump, and he did not dispute anything of substance that Comey said.
Friends of mine with no background in journalism seem as preoccupied as I am. One of them, a guy who has never evinced a news obsession, said he turns on cable TV news first thing in the morning and leaves it on all day. Discussions of Trump invade every conceivable forum, for example a writers group that I belong to. The 10 or so participants, who normally focus mostly on poetry and fiction, seem pulled into discussions of the Trump maelstrom like filings to a magnet.
Since Trump was elected last November, newspapers and TV networks have reported unprecedented increases in audiences for news, with the staid, long-declining New York Times in the forefront, followed by the Washington Post.
The Times is even planning on hiring an additional 100 reporters, an unheard-of phenomenon in this day of dying papers. The Wall Street Journal, forever lackadaisical about investigating Trump, saw a staff rebellion that has forced it to become more aggressive.
Media news and gossip, whether alt-right, mainstream or anywhere in between, is living in boom times. All three major over-the-air networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as the major cable news channels, Fox, CNBC and CNN, have seen increases in viewers, although Fox has lost its longstanding cable dominance. The Murdoch-owned network that established itself as the voice of right wing Republicans has been severely disrupted by the forced departure of its top executives and most popular on-air talent, due however to sexual predation rather than politics.
“May you live in interesting times” is an apocryphal but widely quoted Chinese curse that has gotten a lot of currency of late, but for those who are paid to purvey the news and those who are addicted to consuming it, such “interesting times” have given our lives a fillip of fascination.
NEXT WEEK: “Interesting Times” Part Two