On Wednesday, for 46 minutes, President Trump gave perhaps the most deranged speech of his political career—which means it was arguably the most deranged speech of any presidency since a drunk Andrew Johnson made a shamefaced Abraham Lincoln sit through his slurry vice presidential inaugural address. “This election was rigged. Everybody knows it,” Trump said in a video posted on social media. “I don’t mind if I lose an election, but I want to lose an election fair and square. What I don’t want to do is have it stolen from the American people. That’s what we’re fighting for, and we have no choice to be doing that.”
“We already have the proof. We already have the evidence, and it’s very clear,” he continued. “Many people in the media, and even judges, so far have refused to accept it. They know it’s true. They know it’s there. They know who won the election, but they refuse to say you’re right. Our country needs somebody to say, ‘You’re right.’” It was, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote, “four weeks distilled into less than an hour.” The president was whiny, unhinged, and in short supply of any evidence for his increasingly fantastical claims of an election snatched from him by evil Democrats, conniving journalists, and on-the-take judges. Even for Trump, it was an obscene display: an impotent and operatic cacophony of lies and grievances.
Naturally, the president called it “the most important speech” he had ever made. On that score, he found scant agreement from the media, who barely treated it as an event. Obviously, reporters offered up some dire reviews, warning readers that Trump’s extended rant was “insane,” “dangerous,” and “filled with false allegations”—the sort of warning labels that have been typically appended to the president’s diatribes over the past month. But beyond these perfunctory comments, the press simply tuned Trump out, treating it neither as an important address nor an existential threat to the country. It was a potential glimpse into Trump’s postpresidency: a continual, wild descent into a web of conspiracy and vindictiveness, daring the media to look away. For this day, the cameras managed to keep their attention pointed elsewhere.
There are plenty of good reasons for the press to, somewhat belatedly, tune out the president’s ravings. Media outlets, particularly cable news networks, have learned some hard lessons about covering the president effectively over the years. It has been a long time since Trump was given a long runway to spew venom across every network; lately, his press conferences and speeches have been properly contextualized and fact-checked, occasionally in something approaching real time. (CNN’s Daniel Dale, in particular, has built a dedicated audience by correcting lies at an auctioneer’s mile-a-minute pace.)
Not long ago, a 46-minute speech from this president would have received wall-to-wall coverage regardless of its contents—the underlying assumption might have been that the president rained ratings and clicks, and the press followed wherever he led out of an obligation to the bottom line. There was a certain logic in this, expressed most fulsomely by former CBS honcho Les Moonves in his free time between episodes of sexual misconduct: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” But those days may be on the wane. However effective Trump once was at demonstrating a tabloid sensation’s ability to conjure media attention from thin air, he may no longer be the draw that he was a couple years ago. Maybe the media has grown resistant to his charms. Or perhaps they feel a certain shame in profiting from the president’s ongoing geek show. Regardless, a palpable shift appears to be underway.
The pulling away from Trump is in many ways obvious, beginning with the fact that he is not receiving the same level of media attention because he lost the election and is seemingly bent on using the lame-duck period for nothing beyond carping about that loss. It was hardly accidental that networks finally found a capacity to cut away from his incoherent speeches once it became clear that he hadn’t won a second term: What Joe Biden has to say during this time has more bearing on the future. In seven weeks, Trump will lose the bully pulpit he has used to batter the press over the last four years, and the only outlets that have stuck with the president devotedly have been the ones that have encouraged their audience to believe Trump’s gaudy voter-fraud claims—such as the Trump-approved, low-rent right-wing networks One America News and Newsmax, both of which have managed to siphon off audience from other conservative outlets of late—likely in the hopes that Trump will remember their fealty during his postpresidency.
Additionally, the media has an obligation to turn off the president at a moment when all he has to offer is lies that damage American democracy. There’s no logical incentive to bend over backward to accommodate the president’s deceptions and fantasies. Depriving the president’s reprehensible commentary of oxygen, moreover, is a great way for the media to ingratiate itself with the incoming Biden administration. It’s also probably just a good business decision: Covering Trump’s wild pageants of deceit over the past month has likely not been the ratings bonanza offered by his 2016 rallies.
In this sense, the media’s turning away is also something of an overcorrection, in which, after years of lavishing Trump with attention, the decision has been made to start making up for a long run of bad behavior; to have their cake and eat it, too. For years, the legacy media and cable news feasted on a smorgasbord of Trump’s lies. Now, at the twilight of his presidency, they’re choosing to cosplay Edward R. Murrow. “Trump is so far gone that I cannot in good conscience play the substance of a 46-minute spiel that he spewed tonight,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo said on Wednesday. “It is lies and ugly suggestions that have a basis in nothing but division and malice. It is a spiel, it is a con only to benefit his own coffers, as followers continue, most in good faith, to donate to a cause for an alleged billionaire, despite the fact that that cause is already over.” (When was this presidency something other than “a spiel … a con only to benefit his own coffers,” though?)
Trump’s early appeal to cable news was based on a made-for-television twist on the sunk-cost fallacy. Anything could happen during a Trump speech, so you couldn’t dare cut away lest the magic, insane, soon-to-trend moment be missed. If Wednesday evening is any guide, everyone is a lot more comfortable pointing the cameras elsewhere. The networks that once devoted hours to footage of empty podiums—eagerly stoking anticipatory energy for another insane Trump speech filled with vows to lock up his political opponents—are also tuning out the president because he has committed a cardinal sin of television: He has at last been deemed to be boring and predictable.
Yes, the speech he gave on Wednesday was unprecedented, destructive, and grotesque. But it was also plodding and dull, a resuscitation of a familiar list of grievances that he’s already spent a month tweeting. The president has reached a stage in his career analogous to Lenny Bruce reading court documents from the stage, except that Bruce had legitimate injustice to discuss; Trump has none. Instead, we are treated to familiar, unsubstantiated allegations of dead people voting and ornate conspiracies. At this point, Trump is losing the spotlight to people who seem to have arrived straight from some deranged improv comedy troupe or who are desperate to be portrayed by Chloe Fineman on Saturday Night Live.
The media’s newfound antipathy to the president will test one of the president’s own theses, that the media, in a tailspin prior to his candidacy, desperately needs Trump’s uncanny showmanship in order to survive. It’s true that cable news networks have had a record November, thanks to the election and its aftermath. But the fact that Trump can’t generate interest in his latest videotaped rant, even after an extended period of time in which he mostly kept himself out of the camera’s eye, put this thesis to the test and only demonstrated that it’s possible for the media to be very discerning and selective about its Trump coverage.
Whether networks can continue to be this disciplined after Trump leaves office—and particularly if he announces a 2024 campaign before or during Biden’s inauguration—is another question entirely. Biden has promised and, thus far, largely delivered on an administration that will exponentially decrease the constant news-churning drama of the last four years. Should Trump emerge as a 2024 front-runner, networks might be jolted back into a frame of mind where he becomes Biden’s vibrant foil.
But it’s also possible that Trump got his thesis about the press’s dependency on his antics backward. It is definitely the case that the media has benefited tremendously from Trump’s ability to turn American politics into a constant car crash. Trump’s buffoonery was, for a long while, novel and insane enough to be profitable; as the media pointed more and more cameras at Trump, he extracted more and more legitimacy. Now that Trump is just raging against the dying of the light of his political career and promoting a slew of genuinely bonkers conspiracy theories, the act’s grown stale outside of a few right-wing media niches. Trump may have hoped that 46 minutes of frothing might have gotten cable news to pay attention to him the way it once did. Instead, it gave the media the opportunity to demonstrate a newfound discipline and an ability to avert its gaze from what was once thought of as a profitable train wreck.