To anybody suddenly tuning into the president’s news conference this Monday evening, it might have seemed like the leader of the free world was channeling an off-hours televangelist, taking advantage of a pandemic to offer a hazy tale of a miraculous cure.
“… a gentleman,” Donald Trump intoned from inside the White House, invoking an antimalarial remedy called hydroxychloroquine, “they thought he was not going to make it. He said goodbye to his family. They had given him the drug just a little while before, but he thought it was over. His family thought he was going to die. And a number of hours later, he woke up, felt good. Then he woke up again, and he felt really good. And he’s in good shape. And he’s very happy.” The drug, if it works on Covid-19, would be, he said, “a gift from God.”
This brief, almost mystical tale came at the eight-minute mark of the first hour of another installment of what has become a new American serial drama.
Over the past two weeks, Trump has embarked on a striking chapter of his optics-obsessed presidency, turning the all-but-abandoned briefing room into the set of a largely unscripted television series that has gripped, worried and (depending on one’s political affiliation) infuriated viewers.
Stripped of the weapon of his rallies, of “chopper talk,” of the sorts of set pieces to which the populace had grown accustomed over the three-plus years he’s been commander in chief, Trump as a president in crisis has engineered something different. While governors from New York to California have staged almost daily briefings, offering a traditional mixture of stern warnings and words of comfort, Trump has created something more like a show built on narrative surprises and populated with familiar characters—the good doctors, the bad reporters, the loyal lieutenants. And in the middle of it all, playing the role of the ringmaster, the marketer and the brander, and the self-professed expert, is Trump.
His mood and his message have ebbed and flowed, alternately boasting and bashing, soothing and striking, intermittently solemn, flippant and peeved, flouting facts and shifting blame, underplaying dire projections and overselling potential vaccines.
“He is,” former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res told me, “being himself.”
The president’s political career has been shaped deeply by his experiences as the star of “The Apprentice,” for which he developed the “Mr. Trump” boardroom persona and his trademark judgmental pout. He entered the Oval Office urging aides to see his administration as a show in which he battles rivals, and he has duly done his part, serving up twists and turns and clear-cut conflicts with recurring and easily identifiable enemies (the news media, the Democrats, “Sleepy Joe Biden,” “the Chinese virus”).
But the program he now has constructed out of the news briefings has drawn an audience far beyond even what he found with his invariably provocative tweets or his rallies packed with MAGA-capped fans. The enormity of a worldwide plague has galvanized the attention of the entire nation, every corner of which has been touched by the spreading disease. For the public, a portion of which had tuned out or become numb, these briefings have amounted to a reintroduction of sorts to the man who is their president—“the most present human being I ever met,” as a Trump associate told biographer Wayne Barrett some three decades back, “the episodic man,” as psychologist Dan P. McAdams writes in a book out just last week.
“The endless quiz show, the endless soap opera,” Trump biographer Gwenda Blair told me the other day. “It’s never over with him. He’s always going to have something to make you tune in again.”