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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, (Un)Reality TV, 2020-Style

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

He hosted 14 seasons of The Apprentice and its successor, The Celebrity Apprentice, and in all those years I probably spent seven minutes watching the show, or flipping past it as I looked for something else -- and, as far as I was concerned, that was seven minutes too many. I don't want you to think that I didn't watch my share of junk on TV. I did. But a blowhard New York real-estate (self-)promoter whose most memorable line was "You're fired!" judging the business skills of a group of sycophantic contestants? I preferred Law and Order reruns any day of the decade.

And here's the thing: now, I get to watch the "You're fired!" show ("nasty!") whether I want to or not. In fact, just about the only thing Donald Trump has proven good at is firing people in his administration, which has a turnover rate the likes of which is surely historically unprecedented. In fact, the Brookings Institution estimates that 85% of his "A team" has turned over in these years, sometimes many times. After all, he's had four chiefs of staff, five deputy chiefs of staff, five communications directors, four press secretaries, four national security advisors, at least six deputy national security advisors, three secretaries of defense (one "acting"), and so on.

Unfortunately, just about the only ones who haven't been fired are the rest of us and, in our coronaviral moment, we have little choice (if we aren't front-line workers) but to sit idly and watch, or force ourselves not to watch, you-know-who.

Once upon a time, if you had predicted such a future for me, I would have thought you mad. No longer. How appropriate, then, that today TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, facing the slings and arrows of outrageous press conferences, focuses on Hamlet's famous query, modernized for the era of The Donald: to watch or not to watch, that is the question, and it's one hard not to ask nightly in the Covid-19 era. Tom

Strange Attractors
On Being Addicted to Trump and His Press Conferences
By Rebecca Gordon

My partner and I have been fighting about politics since we met in 1965. I was 13. She was 18 and my summer camp counselor. (It was another 14 years before we became a couple.) We spent that first summer arguing about the Vietnam War. I was convinced that the U.S. never should have gotten involved there. Though she agreed, she was more concerned that the growth of an antiwar movement would distract people from what she considered far more crucial to this country: the Civil Rights movement. As it happened, we were both right.

She took off that fall for college at the University of California, Berkeley, where, as she says, she majored in history with a minor in rioting. I went back to junior high school. And we've been arguing about politics ever since.

So maybe it's no surprise that, since the coronavirus pandemic exploded, we've been fighting about the president. Not about his character (vile and infantile, we both agree) or his job performance (beyond dismal), but about whether anyone with a conscience should watch his never-ending television performances. Since 2016, she's done her best not to expose herself to either his voice or his image, and she's complained regularly about the mainstream media's willingness to broadcast his self-evident lies, to cover any misconceived or idiotic thing he might decide to say at rally after rally as if it were actual news. More recently, she's said the media should send their interns to cover his Covid-19 "news" conferences. (Of course, MSNBC and CNN now no longer always broadcast those events, whose ratings the president so treasures, in full. In fact, by April 13th, CNN appeared to have let their chyron writer off the leash to run legends below that day's news conference like "Angry Trump turns briefing into propaganda session" and "Breaking news: Trump refuses to acknowledge any mistakes.")

For a couple of weeks now, I've been watching each live broadcast of the Trump Follies, otherwise known as the White House daily coronavirus task force briefings. Readers who, like me, remember the Vietnam War may also recall the infamous "Five O'Clock Follies," the U.S. military's mendacious daily briefings from the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, during that endless conflict. There, its spokesmen regularly offered evidence, including grimly inflated "body counts" of enemy dead, that allowed them to claim they were winning a losing war. The question today, of course, is whether the present pandemic version of those follies offers at least a small glimmer of hope that the president may now be mired in his own Covid-19 version of Vietnam.

After I've spent a couple of irretrievable hours of my life gaping at the muddled mind of Donald Trump, I always feel a sickening sensation, as if I'd kept eating Oreo cookies long after they stopped tasting good. But it doesn't matter. The next day, I just turn it on again. I wonder if it's people like me who are responsible for that TV ratings bump of his?

It took my partner a while to catch on to what I've been doing. The reason: like an alcoholic whose bottles are stuffed away in secret corners, I've been hiding this perverse habit by sneaking down to the basement and watching while working on my loom. Or I would catch my Trump fix while she was out on the streets of San Francisco taking photographs for her 10-year project to both walk and record every voting precinct in the city.

But one evening, returning a little early, she walked in on me before I had time to slam the laptop cover down. "Nobody should be watching those press conferences!" she said emphatically, when she twigged to what I'd been up to. "How can you sit there and listen to lies? Why are you exposing yourself to that crap? Anything you actually need to know you can read in newspaper summaries the next day."

What's the Appeal?

And I have to admit that those were fair questions. Why am I exposing myself to such a pure, unmediated stream of falsehoods, ignorance, and preening self-congratulation day after day? Why, though I loathe his lies as much as she does, do I keep listening to them in real time? As he typically said at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 6th, "Anybody that wants a [coronavirus] test can get a test"; "The tests are all perfect. Like the letter was perfect. The transcription was perfect, right?... This was not as perfect as that, but pretty good." (No one knows what "letter" he was referring to, though he probably meant the summary transcript of his phone call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.)

Why don't I switch the press conferences off when he begins to praise and congratulate himself as he always does? ("I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic"; "Every one of these [CDC] doctors said, 'How do you know so much about this?' Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should've done that instead of running for president.")

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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