When the presidency and television ratings collide

In his first statement as White House press secretary, Sean Spicer conveyed the top priority of his boss, America’s first reality-TV star/executive producer president. For Donald J. Trump, it was all about ratings, ratings, ratings.

“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the world,” insisted Spicer on Saturday to a pool of reporters, despite Nielsen ratings data and aerial crowd image estimates that showed Trump on the low end of first-term inaugural viewership and attendance. Reporters who stated otherwise, said Spicer, were peddling “false narratives.”

Instead of a message about eradicating Obamacare, defeating ISIS or the immense responsibility of beginning a new term at the helm of the most powerful democracy in the world, Spicer was fighting a previously unthinkable idea — that Trump had failed to woo a crowd.

Trump has referred to himself as a “ratings machine,” a force whose gift of drawing “YUGE” crowds made him a formidable opponent on the campaign trail. He promised that his inauguration would not only be “huge,” but “unbelievable” — the likes of which we’d “never seen before.” The three-day celebration of the peaceful transfer of power, which began on Thursday with the “Make America Great Again” concert, would upstage everything that came before.

Not exactly. The concert was a dud, lacking A-list talent. On Friday, the inauguration ceremony pulled in 30.6 million viewers, 7 million less than Obama’s first swearing in, 12 million less than Reagan, and 3 million less than Jimmy Carter — but slightly above that of Bill Clinton’s first- term ceremony of 29.7 million viewers. Trump, who recently Twitter-shamed Arnold Schwarzenegger for pulling in lower ratings than he had as a reality host of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” barely bested George W. Bush, a president whose election was won only after an aborted recount and Supreme Court intervention. 

Kellyanne Conway, in defending Spicer for his false numbers about the inauguration crowds and transit ridership on Washington’s Metro system, suggested to Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” that the new press secretary’s claims were not lies but “alternative facts.” 

It was harder to explain away Trump’s inauguration ceremony, which came across on television as the type of surprisingly subdued event one might expect to see on C-SPAN rather than every major news channel. 

Even the customary pomp and circumstance of every inaugural since the advent of television — the gathering of D.C. dignitaries on stage, the marching bands, the long black limos cruising slowly down Pennsylvania Avenue — didn’t animate the crowd on the National Mall the way the mere appearance of Hillary Clinton on the jumbo screens did. “Lock Her Up!” was one of the only spontaneous outbursts that could be heard from a crowd that otherwise waited for the pauses as cues in Trump’s speech to clap.  

On the Capitol steps, a grim mood hung in the air, along with rain clouds, as Washington’s most powerful players gathered to witness the swearing in of the 45th president and an inaugural speech with the dark promise, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

At times, the president-elect appeared distracted at his own inauguration. Never known for his patience, he could not seem to sit still. He rocked in his seat minutes before taking the oath, tapped his fingers together and whispered to newly sworn-in Vice President Mike Pence when others were taking up time on the mike.

No matter how you sliced it, the affair lacked the exuberance and adoration we’ve come to expect from a showman like Trump on the campaign trail. He often cites his own power to amass fans and followers (have you heard he has a Twitter account?) as one of his greatest assets. He’s referred to it as his edge above all the other “losers.”

Those losers seemed to be on his mind later that night as he danced with his model-beautiful wife wearing the look of a high school bully who’d just been named Prom King. Two lines from his inauguration speech seemed especially relevant to the moment: “Everyone is listening to you now…. You will never be ignored again.”

Ignored? No, but upstaged, yes. The next morning the Women’s March on Washington flooded the areas around the Capitol Dome that had been noticeably less populated when Trump was waving from and walking near his stretch limo on the parade route.The half-empty parade bleachers and unoccupied ground tarps of Friday were swallowed up by a sea of protesters who’d flown in from across the country to voice concerns about the Trump presidency.

They were thousands among the millions who protested across the nation and the world for women’s rights — and their concern about a president whose remarks about sexually assaulting women were as disturbing as some of his conservative Cabinet picks’ views of reproductive rights.  

Madonna, America Ferrera, Ashley Judd, Scarlett Johansson and Gloria Steinem stoked the crowd’s exuberance in way that Trump did not the day before. It was a rousing spectacle. It was exciting. It was everything the show on Friday was not.

And maybe that is why Spicer was sent out on Saturday to belligerently berate the press — “the opposition party,” in the words of one Trump official. Here was the “unbelievable” scene — the likes of which we’d “never seen before.”

The true start of the Trump presidential reality show had begun. 



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