COVID-19: The Reality Show has taken cable TV by storm. The plot is nominally about a war against an invisible Chinese invader that has already killed over 1,200 Americans. But on another level, it is a family sitcom, a successor to Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and The Cosby Show.
The star is Daddy Donald, a brilliant if erratic father figure, who sometimes rambles on, as fathers are wont to do. He is ably supported by his younger brother, Uncle Mike, who is loyal, steady, competent, and boring. With every strand of his snow-white hair perfectly in place, Uncle Mike always says the right thing. He is as predictable as Donald is unpredictable. Consequently, we pay more attention to Donald, wondering what he will do next. Donald understands this and cultivates his reputation for unpredictability.
After a generation in which males, especially TV fathers, were portrayed as bumbling fools, Donald breaks the stereotype. He is a wartime president who appeals to about half the population, mostly male, as a decisive and creative leader who says what we had been thinking but were afraid to say.
Donald’s co-star is Dr. Deborah Birx, an HIV/AIDS expert from the State Department who was brought in to coordinate the federal government’s response to the coronavirus.
Dr. Birx exudes competence, as well as sensitivity, which is a rare combination. She has never heard a question, no matter how vapid, that wasn’t “a very good question,” as far as she was concerned. She teaches her children patiently and sincerely in words that they can understand, but respectfully, without talking down to them. She is the empathetic mother figure who calms the situation and holds the family together.
Behind every successful man there is at least one very intelligent woman, and often more — and a man wise enough to listen to them. Dr. Birx doesn’t steal the show, but she could.
Then there is her problematic older brother, Uncle Anthony. His problem is that he did too well in school and never got over it. He was once Dr. Birx’s mentor, but she has now surpassed him in people skills. Unlike Anthony, she would never say in an interview that she wanted to push Donald aside at the microphone or cover her face in public when he made a wisecrack about the “deep State Department.”
Granted, she might wince a little inside, but she would do her best to maintain a poker face. She knows who is the boss and that her influence depends upon him.
On the other hand, Uncle Anthony got a little too big for his britches and started to believe that he was in charge. To put him back in his place, Daddy Donald now calls him “Tony” and her “Deb.” This is in part to show how close he is to the experts, but it also reminds Tony that he too is just a regular guy, one of a multitude of advisers. For his sins, Tony now stands to the left of Donald, out of the TV picture, rather than at his right hand as he once did. Tony speaks now only when spoken to, which is after his former student has answered all the important questions.
Donald frequently has a problem with underlings like Uncle Anthony who come to believe they are indispensable, including chiefs of staff, secretaries of state, and national security advisers. Donald emulates his hero Andrew Jackson, a plain-spoken general and president who knew how to represent the common people. The down-to-earth style that Donald channels from Old Hickory misleads many who consider themselves to be his betters to think that they are running things. Donald shows them who is boss by dismissing them and censoring their tell-all books. This is merely a cost of doing business for Donald. Anthony is probably smart enough to understand that he too is expendable if he goes too far.
And then there is the off-screen cast. Cousin Andrew up in New York is never satisfied and complains vociferously in public that the $3 billion headed to his state government and $40 billion headed to his fellow New Yorkers is a merely “a drop in the bucket.”
Even worse is second cousin twice removed Billy de Blasio, who demands that the government must “order” corporations to produce the medical supplies that he thinks he needs.
For him, it isn’t about actually increasing medical supplies. We are doing that and will probably end up supplying tens of thousands of ventilators to the rest of the world. For Billy, it is about power and making those evil corporations do what he wants rather than leading them to act voluntarily and creatively in the public interest, and maybe to make a buck in the process. Maybe Billy doesn’t understand that sometimes you can attract more flies with sugar than with vinegar. But perhaps he does understand that he can attract more votes in New York by lambasting corporations than by working with them.
Hovering over it all is Nancy, the Wicked Witch of the West. She has hexed Donald with the epitome of Catholic curses: “I will pray for you.” Try intoning those words sanctimoniously and see how good they make you feel about yourself.
By contrast, wise old Uncle Mitch points out he led the Senate to reach a $2 trillion bipartisan deal to save the economy, while all that Nancy engineered was the divisive partisan spectacle of impeachment in the House.
What makes this family show so interesting is that we all know people like these characters from our daily lives.
It is no small achievement to turn a pandemic into a top-rated TV show, but this one is being orchestrated by the media genius who brought us The Apprentice and an estimated $5 billion in free media coverage during the 2016 presidential election. The theme is the same now as in 2016: Donald will fight for you and your family. He cares. He is hands on, unconventional, outspoken, and brilliant. Despite what they try to tell you, this isn’t Hurricane Katrina.
This messaging seems to be working: Donald’s approval rating has jumped to the highest of his presidency in the latest Gallup poll, with 60 percent approving of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. A good case has been made by some that COVID-19, while serious, was hyped out of proportion by the media. Perhaps the hype was merely to increase their ratings, but perhaps they also saw a chance to undermine President Trump’s most obvious accomplishment, a strong economy. Some say that his opponents have been trying to “talk down the markets” for months with breathless predictions that there “might be” a recession before the election.
Others dismiss this hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory,” a term used to shrug off events embarrassing to Democrats that later often turn out to be true.
Regardless, counter-puncher that he is, President Trump has turned the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn to his advantage with his new reality show. His policies, particularly cutting off travel from infected areas early and his creative solutions to increase testing and the supply of masks and ventilators, also helped. But his recent rise in the polls has less to do with his policies than with the success of his most recent reality show.