A lament for the passing of the Trump era

Turning on the ABC radio news each morning over the past four years was one of anticipation. While we slept, what had President Trump been up to? Would the latest be something daring, unusual, unorthodox, audacious, provocative, laudable, outrageous, nasty, hilarious, sensible, absurd, ignorant or a combination of all of them?

It was always unpredictable. It often defied the senses. He shook up politics like never before. But in the new year the morning ABC news bulletins will revert to pedestrian matters out of Washington and no doubt spiced up with a seething outburst or two out of Trump’s gilded Mar-a-Lago among the Florida palms, his new residence. For a change, it will be a stable start to the day for our blood pressure in comparison to what we have become accustomed over breakfast. But still it will be dull and no longer as newsworthy as before.

Trump was not so much a president, but more a showman and an entertainer. He was addicted to television camera lenses, microphones, Twitter and publicity. He was a reminder of a skit during the ’80s showing a Reagan lookalike saying: ‘I’m not a real president. I only play one on tv’.

Nick Bryant, in his book When America Stopped Being Great, recalled how Trump soon after winning four years ago told his aides to treat every day as if it were a television show in which he ‘vanquishes his rivals’. He saw his win in 2016 as not so much a change of power, but ‘the biggest night in television history’.

You must hand it to Trump for his ability to command attention and galvanise not only the masses, but also the media which were as intoxicated with him as he was with them. Even his pandemic briefings drew ratings which thrilled the US tv channels. It was not because he was imparting the latest sobering statistics or that he had reassuring news, as false as it may have been. It was the excitement that he might be unpresidential and fire someone ‘live’ on air or denounce an official or scorn the best medical advice or come up with a virus antidote defying credibility.

He was like America’s answer to Baghdad Bob aka Comical Ali, Saddam Hussein’s spokesman ahead of the Iraq war. He was widely ridiculed for his extravagant claims and threats which provoked the rolling of eyes. But, like Trump, he was always good television.

For a leader of a long-established democracy like the US, there is something shocking and humiliating about tv networks censoring your comments during a ‘live’ broadcast because they were patently untrue or concerned false claims. This was unprecedented until the Trump presidency with his pattern of mythomania also known as pathological lying. For a man who was the victim of, as he saw it, fake news, he dispensed his own variety on an industrial scale.

Nevertheless, the media still revelled in Trump’s attention-seeking nonsense as if mocking and exploiting an irrational person simply because he had entertainment value. The strident Murdoch megaphones on Fox News happily milked his prejudices because that’s where the money was.

Washington correspondents reporting on Trump’s comments did their best to keep a straight face in explaining this theatre of the absurd. You would like to believe it was also true of right-wing supporters in Australia nodding in approval of Trump’s decisions and reasoning, but they had their own conservative reputations devoid of humour to maintain.

It is probably true to say that no president has occupied so much air and print space in Australia – or perhaps anywhere – until Trump came along. In all my time in foreign news, I’ve never known a politician like him to attract so much attention with such ease and free of the obvious influence of spin doctors. It all came naturally to Trump who could play an audience as if they were spellbound by his theatrics.

In 2018, ‘Trump’ was the fourth-most used word in the New York Times, averaging two to three times in every article, including weather, sports and fashion. ‘Trump has ceased to be just a topic of news’, observed the paper.’He seems to be the prism through which we interpret and discuss everything’. Indeed it has been in the past few weeks.

Since Trump came to office in 2017, he has averaged 111 minutes of speaking time a day on top of his avid television viewing, says the Columbia Journalism Review. ‘If people are exhausted, it is no surprise’. But the 2020 voting turn-out – the highest in Republican Party history – indicated half of America still wanted even more. Indeed he has been an El Dorado for the revenue of major US tv and print media, including late night talk show hosts

But it is the record voting MAJORITY which may stain how he is to be remembered – a president widely derided for his ignorance, mangled English, dubious claims, outright lies, diplomatic belligerence and empty bluster. At least, he will be associated also with a rare presidential triumph: he did not take the US into a foreign war even though he came close with Iran.

Just as I miss the ABC morning 0745 news bulletin, I lament the impending absence of its most prominent subject in the past four years. But there is already talk of a 2024 campaign…

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John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.

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