Please Turn Off the TV, Mr. President

I know that Donald Trump is not about to take my advice. I’m certainly no friend or ally of his. He doesn’t read the Washington Monthly, and most of his advisers probably don’t, either.

That said, despite knowing it will likely never reach him, allow me for perhaps the first time ever to offer the president a bit of genuine, heartfelt unsolicited advice: please turn off your TV. For the love of everything, just turn it off. It may have helped you before, but it’s certainly hurting you now.

Mr. President, look: I know you’ve been obsessed with media and television for a long time. That’s fine. Like many white men of your generation, you’ve never exactly been sympathetic to women or people of color. That’s not fine. But you weren’t always like this. You were never a fountain of wisdom in your younger days, but you also weren’t an incoherent mess who could barely string two sentences together. You were tethered to a world of facts that vaguely resembled the world the rest of us were living in, and you talked like it. You were interesting and weirdly popular with a broad range of Americans including the ones whose acceptance you continually sought, not just the angriest bigots you would never ordinarily give the time of day to.

But then something happened. Specifically, Fox News happened. You stopped reading newspapers for your information, and you started watching cable news. Your descent into hard-right politics tracks closely with the rise of Fox News and its escalation from a vaguely conservative rah-rah network for George W. Bush to  hyperpartisan cult propaganda during the Obama era. The more Fox News you watched, the more you started to promote outrageous and false conspiracy theories like birtherism. And the more you watched, the more obviously your mental faculties appeared to decline.

You wouldn’t have noticed that, of course. Our brains don’t stay the same throughout the course of our lives. They’re plastic. Not plastic like Legos or bubble wrap, but plastic as in changeable. Our neural pathways change and mold themselves according to our behavior. Our mothers who told us TV would rot our brains weren’t entirely wrong: if we do nothing but watch poison TV all day, we start to lose the ability to process complex information. If we watch conspiracy TV all day, we begin to believe that everything is a conspiracy. That’s dangerous. It’s also really bad for you.

Now, there’s no question that your obsession with Fox News improbably made you President of the United States. As an avid consumer of the same network that fuels the motivated anger of millions of mostly older, mostly white, mostly suburban and rural bigots, you understood their fears and passions better than most. The other Republican primary candidates tried to talk down to them. But not you: you spoke their language. You understood them because you were one of them. And you understood, if only at a subconscious level, that the Republican Party operates at the behest of Fox News, not the other way around. Fox News isn’t the communications arm of the GOP; the GOP is the legislative arm of Fox News. With a bit of help from the Russians, the electoral college and a Democratic opponent who didn’t fully understand the moment, you improbably became on paper the most powerful man in the world.

But if I may say so, Mr. President, you’re in some trouble. The walls are closing in, the investigations are ramping up, your base is unhappy. You need a clear head. You need to be able to think straight.

Reports have recently surfaced that you spend up to 60% of your time as President in “executive time,” which we all know is mostly a euphemism for “TV time.” That’s an astonishing number. By the way, the word “euphemism” means a nice word for something bad. You know that watching that much TV is shameful or you wouldn’t call it “executive time.”  How you look and what people say about you on TV does matter to a certain degree, but what you actually do matters much more.

Also, your favorite TV personalities aren’t helping you. They led you astray throughout the shutdown debacle, convincing you to do increasingly dumb and destructive things that hurt the country and made you more unpopular even among your core supporters. Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs pay no price for alienating the public and pushing you to make terrible decisions. They get to look courageous to the sorts of people who come to your rallies by demanding a wall with no compromises. You get to look like a callous fool because even you have to deal with the realities of governance and compromise. Hannity and Dobbs will still be there when you’re gone. In fact, life gets easier for them with a Democratic president to vilify. Defending you is much harder work.

As with any addict, you may think you’re the one in charge. But you’re really just getting taken for a ride. They’re controlling you, not the other way around.

There’s an easy answer: just turn off the TV. I know it’s harder than it sounds, but you can do it. Both you and the country will be better off if you do.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.