Trump: The Presidency began airing in January 2017 on CNN, MSNBC, FOX and every other television channel in the free and unfree world. Immediately drawing favorable comparisons with blockbuster sagas like Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, T:TP soon overtook them in prominence and popularity. But as the hit show’s ratings tumble in its third year, and with key contracts up for review in 2020, it’s time to ask a question that was unimaginable even two years ago. Are viewers falling out of love with the media’s favorite show?
Whether you loved or hated Trump: The Presidency, whether you came to it for comedy or tragedy, one thing above all could not be denied about the show: it was unmissable television. It wasn’t simply that everyone talked about it. Nobody talked about anything else. Even the most remote and immiserated Laotian peanut farmer – painstakingly toiling over his nuts on the fields of Dak Cheung – even he had an opinion, a viewpoint, a hundred-tweet thread ready to unravel about Trump: The Presidency.
As the multi-billion dollar follow up to the hugely successful Trump: The Campaign (‘He’s a great stand-up comedian’ – Camille Paglia) and NBC’s influential The Apprentice, expectations, both negative and positive, ran stratospherically high for T:TP.
For more prudish critics like Andrew Sullivan, David Remnick, Ta-Nehisi Coates (and many others), T:TP, variously represented the downfall of democracy, an ‘extinction level’ event for the Republic and the mainstreaming of fascist white supremacy in America. It’s certainly true that Trump’s previous shows had some crude moments. Certain risqué racial elements in them famously lead Slate’s Jamelle Bouie to claim that there was no such thing as a ‘good’ fan of Trump: The Campaign.
Sure, there were moral qualms about the nature of these shows. But there could be no denying that at the purest level of refined ultra-strength content nothing like them had been racked up on network television or social media ever before. CBS executive chairman Leslie Moonves was snorting up much Trump content as he could: ‘It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.’
Revenues soared across the media world soared during the first two years of Trump: The Presidency. CNN alone made $2.5 billion in 2018, its most profitable year ever. Twitter – where Trump regularly offered behind the scenes peeks at the show – saw its share price jump 15.5 percent the same year. T:TP helped The New York Times and The Washington Post, which wrote up every detail of the show, no matter how nugatory, achieve record digital and print subscription levels. And perhaps only God – or the executive board at MSNBC – knows how much money Rachel Maddow has personally made since she began her batty coverage of T:TP’s tedious ‘Muellergate’ subplot.
Scrolling news tickers existed before 9/11 on most major networks but they were only used in moments of serious crisis. Since 9/11 the tickers have crawled horizontally across our screens, permanently. Crisis became the nation’s desktop background. Trump: The Presidency promised, as the old joke in Team America: World Police goes, ‘9/11 times a hundred’. Every minute would be crisis minute, every hour would be crisis hour and every day audiences would wake up to some fresh new inferno: the downfall of Steve ‘Skeletor’ Bannon; The Mooch implosion; Jim Acosta’s microphone troubles; nuclear fisticuffs over the Korean peninsula; memes, animus and outrages.
Yet for all the pandemonium (and the laughs) there is a sense of disappointment surrounding Trump: The Presidency that’s hard to miss. To his fans Trump promised a wall and delivered a fence. In Trump, critics heard the clacking step of jackboots. Disappointingly for them, Trump called off a military strike against Iran last week after he found out how many Iranian lives would be lost as a result of it, in what could have provided a late-season ratings boost. ‘How many people will be killed?’ is not exactly a very Führer question for the supposed head of American fascism to be asking, is it?
Trump: The Presidency has turned out to be more Joey than Friends, more Spaceballs than Star Wars, more the Book of Mormon than the Book of Revelation. The bloody implosion of America appears to be postponed. A fairly moderate, largely impotent Republican president manages what he’s allowed to manage.
It’s not a very sexy story. As Axios reports today, media execs are already scrambling to find the next big thing after Trump: The Presidency. Trump fatigue is so real that it’s been dubbed a ‘Trump slump’:
‘Digital demand for Trump-related content (number of article views compared to number of articles written) has dropped 29 percent between the first 6 months of the Trump presidency and the most recent 6 months, according to data from traffic analytics company Parse.ly.’
The pilot fish are losing interest in the shark. Pete Buttigieg and doddery Joe Biden seem unlikely to give them a bigger fish to follow: ‘Democrats don’t appear to be the lifeline media companies are hoping can fill the gap for diminished Trump interest. Executives say they expect this week’s debate ratings to be nothing like the ratings for the 2016 Trump debates.’
Still, nature abhors a vacuum. The culture war has – in various grotesque and dumb ways – intensified since Trump took office. Whatever show fills the gap left by Trump: The Presidency, it is unlikely to be pretty. As Napoleon said to one of his ministers as he was dragged off to St Helena:
‘After I go the revolution, or rather the ideas which inspired it, will resume their work with renewed force.’