“I like to watch, Eve.”
— Chauncey Gardiner, Being There
It’s rational for a president to gauge public opinion by monitoring TV news coverage. But Donald Trump’s need to watch is a very different animal. By now, we understand Trump doesn’t have a governing philosophy or a grounded ideology, per se. Instead, he seems driven by something he pursues just as fervently: watching the watchers. In a 24-hour-news version of burying oneself in press clippings, Trump spends hours a day parsing political coverage about him and reacting in an endless and agitated feedback loop.
Reports of Trump’s slavish TV watching are legion. His tweets and public comments suggest he spends hours a day watching shows, even on the networks he dubs “fake news” (mainly, CNN). But it’s curious how few photos depict Trump the TV addict. Perhaps he is aware of how compulsive, even masturbatory, it is for the POTUS to watch TV so much, including late nights and early mornings.
That’s what made this photo, taken during a Time interview early this month, so exceptional. It was only a matter of time before Trump showed off the White House living quarters. In the course of the home tour, Trump demonstrated how he TiVos endless segments of cable news, which he later watches on a giant flat-screen television he had installed on the wall in the White House dining room.
Benjamin Rasmussen’s photograph, showing Trump watching a replay of Senate hearings with Vice President Mike Pence, is likely the best portrait made so far of Trump’s tube addiction. In it, we see the fetishist wielding his most important instrument. I imagine the remote, mightier than the pen or the sword, is even more vital to Trump than his cell phone keypad, though they certainly go hand-in-hand.
— Reuters Pictures (@reuterspictures) May 16, 2017
The rarity of these “watcher” images is part of what makes this May 15 Reuters photo by Jonathan Ernst so interesting. In the photo, taken through the entrance of the West Wing, we see a TV tuned to cable news. Fatefully enough, the screen displays an image shot by a Russian photographer that the photographically inept White House should never have allowed, of Trump and the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office.
It’s a photo, through a window, of a screen showing a photo. It’s as if the photograph was taken by someone lurking in the bushes (no, not Sean Spicer). Its surreptitious, even illicit, quality reduces the obsession of Trump’s West Wing to its essence. To these people, the television is not one resource among many. It’s their oxygen, their esteem. It’s the only way they know they are really there. And for the narcissist Trump, who has said he doesn’t drink because he fears he couldn’t control himself, television is the drug of choice.
President was at Trump National for 55 minutes today. WH tells pool that he had three meetings. Instagram posts suggest he was watching golf pic.twitter.com/5R7k8yUF1Q
— Josh Billinson (@jbillinson) March 26, 2017
Of course, denial and hiding are commonplace for the addict. In the case above, photos on Instagram pull back the curtain on Trump—revealing his actual activities at a moment his aides claimed he was working. Imagine that… someone who has prominently questioned other people’s work ethic (Exhibit A: Trump’s Twitter gripes about Obama golfing) oversold his own propensity for actual work.
A press availability during Trump’s first ride on Air Force One also reveals his habit—and the extent of his absorption. It certainly made an impression on this CNN host. The TV is on while Trump sits with Priebus and Conway in the executive cabin. As the press filters in, no one even bothers to turn down the sound as commercials blare. As you can also tell from the placement of the television in this AP photo of the same scene, Trump’s attention keeps shifting back and forth between the screen and the task at hand.
— Dan Scavino Jr. (@Scavino45) May 5, 2017
Finally, this White House photo from May 5 also captures Trump in the act. The photo was posted to Twitter by Dan Scavino, the White House’s director of social media. On its face, it depicts Trump and his team celebrating the passage of the healthcare bill in the House of Representatives. At the same time, it is an exposition of Trump’s authoritarian impulses and ego requirements. There are notes of nepotism, with Jared and Ivanka off his shoulder. The stacks of newspapers evoke the media shrine in his Trump Tower office.
Trump, the only person seated, seems transfixed by the screen as if showing off a highlight reel of his biggest campaign rallies or renderings for a Trump luxury resort in Cairo or Riyadh. While Trump is clearly the ringleader, the photo also indicts his team of enablers. A president desperate for any kind of win gets his fix. The TV functions not as a screen, but as a mirror.