Trump's SCOTUS Reality TV Show: When Networks Help the President Win Ratings, Democracy Loses
To treat a historic decision that stands to shift the direction of our country for decades like a reality TV finale, the opportunity for the ultimate ratings grab, is the ultimate act of solipsism.
Naturally that’s precisely how Donald Trump played the announcement of his second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, in the days leading up to his dramatic reveal at 9 p.m. ET Monday.
The president began priming the pump not long after Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. “I interviewed 4 very impressive people yesterday. On Monday I will be announcing my decision for Justice of the United States Supreme Court!” he tweeted on July 3, right before the holiday (and its accompanying low ratings) but not before calling congresswoman Maxine Waters “crazy” again.
And then, on July 7: “Big decision will soon be made on our next Justice of the Supreme Court!” Trump and his surrogates will characterize this as transparency rather than the commercial leading up to what he probably considers to be one of the highest demonstrations of winning. At long last, Trump can say he’s upstaged Chris Harrison and “The Bachelorette.”
Fine, OK, you can say it: this makes light of a moment in our history whose gravity cannot be understated. Not even an hour after the decision some establishment media outlets were characterizing Kavanaugh as a more reasonable choice. A New York Times opinion writer even deemed it to be Trump’s “classiest move.” He also has a paper trail, and hopefully as the congressional hearings kick in we’ll be reminded, among other things, that Kavanaugh wrote a decision siding with the Trump administration in blocking a migrant teenager being held in Texas from receiving an abortion.
Unfortunately I cannot say that I’m even half-way joking about Trump’s intentional and darkly ironic staging of the Kavanaugh announcement as an unscripted competition event. We know that Trump is a man who measures success and worth in ratings. When he announced Neil Gorsuch as his first Supreme Court nomination last year, nearly 33 million viewers tuned in to view the proceedings across CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, Fox News Channel, CNN, and MSNBC, per Nielsen. That show was relatively tamer and relied on the element of mystery more than stagecraft. “So was that a surprise?” he gleefully asked those in attendance, looking very proud of himself. “Was it?”
But back then, he was only delaying a repeat telecast of “The Wall.”
This time, he had to go bigger.
Scheduling the announcement for Monday night meant raiding the sacred space afforded by “The Bachelorette” in addition to forcing NBC to hit pause on its telecast of “American Ninja Warrior.” (By 9 p.m. this week’s edition of “So You Think You Can Dance” had already ended; no great harm to Fox.)
Additionally, this time Trump had conservative all-star Edwin Meese in the audience. He called out the presence of the former attorney general to Ronald Reagan as well as the attendance of the widow of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Maureen. (She isn’t necessarily a conservative all-star, but she slept with one, and in Trump’s universe, that counts.)
Trump could have picked any other time or day to announce his selection. And let’s not let the networks off here — they could have refused to buy in to the hyped-up pageantry and simply broken in with a report and a soundbite.
That said, NBC did a bit of shade throwing concealed in the spirit of competitive journalism by naming Kavanaugh as the pick at least 10 minutes before Trump hit the podium in the East Room of the White House. On the air, Lester Holt had Kavanaugh’s name in his mouth as Trump’s nominee while ABC and CBS hedged their bets, maintaining a status of awaiting Trump’s announcement even in the news chyron.
Maybe the goal was to take a breath out of Trump’s sails, or to allow people to get back to their regularly scheduled panicking.
In past administrations, none of the networks saw such a need to bend to the will of POTUS and cede prime time space. Barack Obama announced his (eventually denied) nomination of Merrick Garland at an 11 a.m. press conference in March of 2016. Obama announced his nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan a little after 10 a.m. ET in each of their respective years, May 2009 and May 2010. The three major broadcast networks denied Obama a prime time berth to air several key speeches, in fact, including one on immigration and another on health care.
Heck, most modern presidents have revealed their SCOTUS nominations during daytime hours, leaving American prime time and its escapism well enough alone.
Except, that is, for Ronald Reagan. In November of 1987, he announced his selection of Justice Kennedy in a press conference that aired on C-SPAN, a noble public affairs network that doesn’t draw enough eyeballs to appease Trump.
Anyway, why pass up the opportunity to remind us all that while Harrison and Becca Kufrin only have a few long-stemmed roses at their fingertips, Trump has an entire rose garden to stomp around in?
The Bachelorette Nation, understandably, was not pleased at the invasion of their time-honored prime time block of self-care. Harrison assured them earlier in the day that ABC would pause the episode and resume the action following the announcement.
“Now go have a great day,” he tweeted to his people, “and I’ll see you tonight!” Harrison does not have ovaries; you must forgive his unabated optimism. For his show's female-skewing audience, a great day would not be easy to have.
And we get it. Once ABC’s hit reality series resumed, it had to be tough for a female viewer to completely lose herself in the illusion of fairy tale love without being haunted at the prospect of Congress getting all up in her guts to legislate what she can and cannot do with her body.
Meanwhile on NBC, “American Ninja Warrior” resumed with an up close and personal look at beloved returning contestant Lance Pekus, who is inspired by his wife Heather, who struggles with multiple sclerosis.
Their story is moving, and has an upward thematic swing: since Lance’s first appearance, a doctor in their home state stepped forward to offer Heather a variety of treatment therapies. Kavanaugh’s nomination kicks off a very different storyline for America, one where he’s seen as a threat to existing health care protections. In many scripted stories, dystopias usually don’t begin with a sharp plunge but a steady series of slips and slides until the tumble cannot be stopped or slowed. In a number of those stories, justice becomes a piece of entertainment, a diversion, a game.
It only takes one force of massive ego to get the boulder rolling. Slowing or stopping it depends on whether certain forces cooperate with spurring on the devolution — specifically the media. Television news departments played Trump’s game to the detriment of our democracy in the months leading up to his election in 2016, rewarding his outrageous statements putting his racism, sexism and classism on full display with millions of dollars in free campaign advertising.
Monday night’s prime-time interrupting performance certainly looked like the sequel to that campaign run, with governance being packaged as drama and presented in the same forum as unscripted TV entertainment. But who can tell truth from reality anymore?