David Zurawik

This presidency is a prime-time soap opera, with Donald Trump as J.R Ewing

Everybody knows Donald Trump's presidency is just like a reality TV show, a genre he once starred in with "The Apprentice" on NBC.

Except, it's not — not exactly anyway. Right medium, wrong genre.


Watching cable TV coverage of the government shutdown last weekend, I have come to believe this chaotic presidency is a prime-time soap opera, specifically one of the glitzy, gaudy, greed-is-good, prime-time soap operas of the 1980s like "Dallas" or "Dynasty."

Same values: Money is god, government is the work of Satan, and morality is for losers waiting to be fleeced by the winners. Same love of faux-gold decor — everywhere from boardrooms to bedrooms and bathrooms.


Trump is J.R. Ewing in his senior years, crazy insecure as ever, still lying, scamming, cheating and trying more than anything else to see how disruptive he can be as he flies around in his private jet and piles up money for the family business. Instead of the 10-gallon cowboy hat, Trump's favored choice of headgear is that jumbo-sized baseball cap with "Make America Great Again" on the front. If you didn't think anyone could be trashier than Larry Hagman's lip-smackingly nasty depiction of J.R. Ewing, the baseball hat proves you wrong.

While you might initially smile at the thought of Trump as the transgressive Texas tycoon — I did — there is nothing funny about the thought of Trump modeling his administration on the way J.R. ran Ewing oil.

Even less humorous is the belief I have that, instead of fully appreciating the dreadful place we are in as nation, some of us are still watching this improbable presidency as we might have watched a fictional TV show, amused and engaged, but not really thinking of it as our reality — a reality that can and probably will have profound effects on our lives and the lives of our children.

And as despicably as Trump might behave, that's on us.

In August, I wrote a column saying we are a nation hopelessly distracted by a 71-year-old, narcissistic media addict in the White House and a cable news industry that can't get enough of him. Millions of us, I said, are riding the tiger of cable news each day and night as the presidency and the nation seem to careen from crisis to crisis and showdown to showdown.

In that column I mainly blamed Trump and cable TV for the chaos of our national life — him for creating it and cable news for mostly just chasing it rather than trying to put it in a larger perspective and offer us some clarity on it.

But I didn't get deep, dark or personal enough.

I got there last weekend as we went from showdown to shutdown and there still did not seem to be a sense among our elected leaders or many of the people covering them that this is an unacceptable and truly dangerous place for this country to be. As I watched and gauged even my own it-will be-OK-in-a-couple-of-days reaction, I became convinced that as a culture we had moved another click closer to that place media theorist Neil Postman warned of in his 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business."


Building on the work of seminal media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Postman explored the links between media and cognition — that the media we consume not only provide information but actually change the way we process information and think.

Print media, like books and newspapers, are linear — and teach us to think in a word-based, rational, cerebral, cause-and-effect manner.

TV is in some ways the opposite of that. It is a stream of images that primarily evoke visceral responses. The images sometimes have no logical connection. The narratives that American TV relies on to connect those images are virtually all entertainment-based formulas: soap opera, western, sitcom, drama, game and variety show.

Everything on TV, whether politics, journalism or sports, is packaged as entertainment and ultimately judged by those standards. And so, we want our political figures, sports stars and journalists to be like the characters we enjoy and admire on entertainment television shows. Think CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Thus by 1960*, only 13 years after the start of prime-time programming, the American presidency was being profoundly affected by the fact that John Kennedy appeared more telegenic in the first televised presidential debate than Richard Nixon. He looked and sounded urbane, witty, smooth and youthful.

Nixon, on the other hand, eschewed TV makeup and wound up looking dark, somber, dour and ponderous. Even though radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate, Kennedy was hailed for his TV performance and went on to become president.


Postman's argument has layers upon layers that don't need to be unpacked here. The core idea: That as TV became the principal storyteller of American life, it taught millions to see the world through those entertainment formulas.

By 1985 when Postman's book was published, some analysts thought we couldn't possibly go much further down this amusing-ourselves-to-death path than the election of film actor Ronald Reagan as president. But here we are with Donald Trump, who is said to not only watch hours upon hours of TV every day, but to use TV as his primary means of ingesting information. Everything he knows he learned from TV.

And he has learned its entertainment teachings well.

One of the most basic tropes of the prime-time soap opera is the cliffhanger. The uber cliffhanger in TV history: "Who shot J.R.?" on "Dallas."

Season 3 of the CBS series ended in March of 1980 with J.R. being shot, and CBS milked it until the fourth episode of Season 4 on Nov. 21, 1980, when an estimated audience of 83 million tuned in, the largest audience in TV history at the time.

(The shooter was J.R.'s mistress and sister-in-law, but he didn't prosecute her because he thought she was pregnant with his child. I add this to give a sense of the elevated subject matter.)


Here's Trump with a real-life cliffhanger.

In early October, a time when he was threatening nuclear warfare against North Korea, Trump invited his top military advisers and their spouses to a dinner at the White House.

As they posed for a group photo, Trump asked reporters, "You guys know what this represents? Maybe it's the calm before the storm."

"What storm, Mr. President?" he was asked.

"You'll find out," Trump said as they went into dinner.

The only thing he didn't say is, "Stay tuned."


Oh, wait, he already said that on multiple occasions. In September, standing next to the president of South Korea during a visit to New York, Trump told reporters to "stay tuned" for his next move on North Korea.

That's the president packaging his foreign policy and military in TV soap-opera terms.

Another staple of the prime-time soap opera of the '80s was warring factions within the family and corporation. Need I say anything more about the backstabbing among Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Hope Hicks and others in the White House?

There's always palace intrigue with any presidency, but this is off the charts. And are the son-in-law, Kushner, and daughter, Ivanka, not playing their supporting roles with an easy-to-loathe-them perfection? And could you have found a darker or dirtier heavy than the recently deposed Bannon?

And what about the presence of an outside force that threatens to bring the entire dynasty down — another go-to trope?

In "Dallas," it was Cliff Barnes, J.R.'s nemesis, investigating J.R.'s father, Jock, as an assistant district attorney, and then J.R. himself as a U.S. Senate investigator. The latter investigation was for J.R.'s involvement in plotting a coup against a foreign government after his oil fields were nationalized.


And in this corner on the side of justice, the rule of law, good government and ethics, we have special prosecutor Robert Mueller investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 election including possible collusion with Team Trump.

You could see the drama heighten on MSNBC and CNN Tuesday as The New York Times broke a story about Mueller having interviewed James Comey, the FBI director Trump had fired. The interview was last year, but it was banner headlines all day on cable news. Mueller's silent, off-camera presence is the great dramatic force in this soap opera.

The Times and The Washington Post are doing great reporting on Trump, but cable news is presenting their work within this narrative of the prime-time soap opera, and that blunts its impact to some extent.

In enjoying that coverage as entertainment, we are distanced from the reality of it — and the responsibility each of us has as citizens to try and make this democracy work. Shutdowns and three-week extensions are not a country that works.

Millions of people are marching to make their voices heard as was the case last Sunday. Many are registering to run for office or signing up to work on mid-term elections.

That's real citizenship.


But tuning into the 24/7 Trump soap opera every day, enjoying the spectacle of it while telling yourself our democracy is strong enough to put government back on the tracks without your help is not.

That's letting TV — and this president — use you. That's you being part of the process of Americans amusing ourselves to death.

For a free and open society, that's another genre yet: a horror show.

For the record

This article has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly characterized the timing of the Nixon-Kennedy debate.