A while back, my kids were swept away by the Cake Boss. Maybe you know him: Buddy Valastro of Hoboken, New Jersey, whose bakery-based reality TV empire once covered the TLC network like fondant. My kids couldn’t get enough of his genial tyranny as he presided over cake-decorating challenges at his family’s pastry shop.
I thought of Valastro in recent days as President Donald Trump toured Senate battlegrounds performing his death-metal version of a political rally. I thought of Valastro because for years I hadn’t thought about him. For a time he was a near-constant presence in my home, and then poof! Gone like last year’s calendar.
As a veteran of reality TV himself — he has referred to the White House as his “studio” — Trump ought to be aware of this phenomenon. The second season of “The Apprentice,” Trump’s comeback vehicle from the wreckage of his failed casino business, lost much of its audience from the first. As the marvelous Michael Kruse observed in Politico, the more of Trump there was in the show, and the Trumpier he acted, the smaller his audience became.
People love a show until they don’t anymore. It happens to the best of them. Even television’s favorite family, those lovable Simpsons, has lost most of its viewers over its incredible 30-year run.
Now, as the midterm elections are being put to rest, Trump’s 2020 campaign begins in earnest. And having told aides near the beginning of his presidency that he would run things like a daily TV show, he’s in serious need of a reboot. Sure, he still has a core audience, and, yes, they still eat it up when he zings the immigrants and brags about his IQ. But much as my kids eventually reached a point with Valastro where all the cakes began to look the same, Trump’s audience is likely to dwindle unless he comes up with something new.
He seemed to flirt with this realization in an election-eve interview with the friendly Sinclair Broadcast Group. Maybe the next season of the Trump presidency should feature a less fraught, less polarizing star. “I would like to have a much softer tone,” he said. “I would love to get along, and I think after the election a lot of things can happen.”
The problem is, who would buy a kinder, gentler Trump? Certainly not his critics. At this point there’s no winning them over. As for his fans: The president tried halfheartedly to add a little sunshine to his doom-and-gloom fearmongering as he stumped around the country this fall. But whenever he spoke of rosy unemployment numbers and rising real wages, the air went out of the room. His crowds were there for the oldies, not stuff from a new album. And when Trump’s audience stops roaring, he, too, deflates. He soon ditched the happy talk and launched into caravans of criminals and beautiful barbed wire like Jimmy Buffett hitting the first notes of “Margaritaville.”
Of course, it’s as difficult to switch presidents as it is simple to switch channels. Yet, as Trump himself assured me during his 2016 campaign, fundamentally — in his mind, at least — they are the same thing. “It’s not the polls” that matter, he said. “It’s the ratings.”
Democrats will be making a mistake if they conclude that the way to win in 2020 is to become characters in the Trump show. Every day they spend talking about him is another day that he owns the ratings. America isn’t hungering for a left-leaning version of Trump’s shopworn drama. The spinoff is rarely as popular as the original. The country is looking for something new, something with a more upbeat plot, a fresh cast, a creative take on age-old challenges.
Over the weekend, I heard the historian Michael Beschloss discuss his important new book, “Presidents of War.” He noted the number of times U.S. presidents have taken the country into conflicts on spurious or misleading grounds, and he worried openly that Trump might be tempted to do the same in an effort to (my words here) drive up his ratings as 2020 draws near.
I hate to think so, but given his nakedly political use of U.S. troops in fanning border hysteria, it’s a reasonable concern. Trump is in a bind. He knows what happens to entertainers when audiences tire of their shtick. On the other hand, his core fans know what they want, and he loves giving it to them. We have no choice but to tune in for the next episode — for now.