For a man who famously doesn’t drink, television has been Donald Trump’s drug of choice his entire adult life. During his playboy years in New York, after he made sure he was photographed with a beautiful woman on his arm, his most urgent desire was to “make a beeline for his apartment and the TV,” the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher, co-author of Trump Revealed, told me. “He liked to settle in and watch through the night with a big bag of candy.” In the beginning, he was a sports junkie; then, as he started to become more politically aware, he shifted to news.
Now, Trump’s obsession with television is so consuming that the former reality-TV show star experiences the reality of his presidency through flat-screens in the West Wing. A thorough Washington Post report about Trump’s viewing habits describes a man never more than a few feet from a TV, whether tuned in to CNN, Fox, Fox Business or MSNBC. Trump has even been known to shush staff and visitors so he can focus on what’s airing, or to yell at screens showing negative coverage of him. The Post estimated that Trump logs more than five hours of TV viewing a day, starting his morning with “Fox & Friends” and ending with marathon sessions in the private residence, often reviewing the day’s events on TiVo (“one of the greatest inventions of all time,” he told Time). All this tube time grinds away at him. Witness his recent, much-denounced Twitter attacks on the co-hosts of “Morning Joe,” Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, and on CNN for its coverage of him.
The man clearly has a habit, but what if it’s something more than that? Could the 45th president be a television addict? And if so, what does that mean for his presidency? Psychologists and other experts agree that people whose TV watching gets out of control can take steps to master their compulsion. But to do so requires the recognition that their behavior needs to change. So, ponder the likelihood of Trump acknowledging that.
The question of whether one can truly be addicted to TV, in the clinical sense, is a matter of some debate. Historically, addiction was understood to mean being in the grip of strong, overpowering urges, but the modern definition narrowed to describe a substance dependence—drugs, alcohol, nicotine—that results in physiological withdrawal, as Steve Sussman, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and author of the textbook Substance and Behavioral Addictions, has described. Now, the pendulum again swings to encompass behavioral compulsions. For example, the last revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders included “gambling disorder”—though shopaholics, sex addicts and compulsive television watchers do not yet have their own designations. All the experts I spoke with said that whether you consider excessive television watching an addiction or an “addiction,” there is no doubt that heavy users feel compelled to watch, and bereft and agitated when they can’t.
Sussman told me that television dependency is probably the first addiction many of us experience. Think of children, glassy-eyed in front of the screen, and the tantrums they throw if it’s turned off. Since its invention, television has been noted for its enslaving power. In a 2013 paper titled “Hidden Addiction: Television,” Sussman and co-author Meghan Moran, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote that only a few years after television became widely available in this country in the late 1940s, researchers began expressing concern about its grip. They cite a 1954 study—the first known on television addiction—suggesting that the condition could lead to “generalized apathy, neglect of responsibilities, negativism, and fantasy.”
A 2003 article in Scientific American Mind, by professors Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and titled, “Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor,” helped to explain television’s strangely seductive power. It turns out that before both television and Trump, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov in 1927 described what he called the orienting response. This is the instinctive focus we give to novel visual or auditory stimuli. Such action makes evolutionary sense: As a species, we had to be excellent at detecting predators (or food) lurking nearby. Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi note that a study from the 1980s found that the nature of television, with its incessant, ever-changing sights and sounds, is perfectly designed to trigger our orienting response. Regardless of subject matter, we find it hard to turn away.
We know that television watching can set off powerful physiological reactions. Press the remote and the sense of relaxation is instantaneous, Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi write, with the orienting response slowing the heart and quieting the body, so the brain can gather information. That sounds great, but when the screen goes black, people can quickly return to what the authors call “dysphoric rumination”—a state of unpleasant, roiling, repetitive thoughts. Heavy watchers forced to go cold turkey described being angry, jangled and volatile.Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi note the existential dilemma of obsessive media consumers whose electronic life seems “more important, more immediate and more intense than the life they lead face-to-face.” It would be interesting to find out, after the upcoming G-20 summit, if Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin provides him the same intensity as watching an episode of “Morning Joe.”
According to Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, research shows that those who tend to be anxious in unstructured situations, and easily bored and distracted, are more vulnerable to television addiction. Sussman and Moran write that the condition is more likely to occur when an individual feels “insecure in identity, feels alienated socially, feels unable to act or learn to act appropriately in social contexts, and is preoccupied with TV viewing as a means of solitary and social play.” They note that in severe cases, “one’s ability to continue to function in roles at work or at home could become jeopardized as the result of one’s television addiction.” As an example, they describe people who “may try to work at home as often as possible to be able to watch TV.” Of course, if you live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, working at home—and watching as much television as you want—is a perk of the office.
So, does Trump’s television watching rise to the level of addiction? The hours he spends are not out of sync with the rest of America. Nielsen says adults on average watch more than four hours a day of television, and people over age 65 watch more than seven. (Estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are considerably lower.)
Of course, if you consider Trump’s cohort to be not the rest of us but previous presidents, his viewing habits are unprecedented, according to the Atlantic, and so is the role television plays in how he discharges his duties. He is a man so consumed with media consumption that he monitors the appearances—and appearance—of members of Congress, complimenting or criticizing what they said and how they looked. As the Post has reported, everyone seeking to influence Trump, from members of Congress to foreign visitors, tries to get booked on cable as a way of delivering a message directly to him. Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) once actually addressed the president directly on “Morning Joe,” asking him to call to talk about prescription drugs. Trump did.
If the role of television in the life of Trump was once a means of distraction and relaxation, it no longer serves that function. Today, television provides no escape. It’s as though the president is in an endless episode of “The Twilight Zone” (a series he likely would have watched when young) or “Black Mirror” (a recent series he likely hasn’t). Anywhere he clicks on cable news, he’s all anyone is talking about. For someone with Trump’s limitless ego needs, how gratifying; for someone with Trump’s exquisite sense of offense, how enraging. Because, unless he is docked at that island of constant praise that is Fox, he’s bound to encounter someone saying something disparaging of him. Trump keeps vowing he has stopped watching any show that criticizes him, but the Washington Post notes he often “hate watches” his perceived enemies. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary need: If there are predators closing in, better to be on the alert and vanquish them with a weapon our hominid ancestors could not even conceive: the tweet.
At the same time, despite all his bluster about “fake news,” Trump is “very trusting of what he learns on TV,” Marc Fisher says. Many television viewers have a sense that they know the people they regularly watch on screen, but now that Trump is president, he actually does know them. “When he knows people, he trusts their information,” Fisher says. “‘Fox & Friends’ are part of his family. That was true for ‘Morning Joe,’ and that’s why he feels so spurned and betrayed.”
During the campaign, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Trump whom he talked to for military advice, and Trump famously replied, “Well, I watch the shows.” Of course, if you’re president of the United States, trust in television pundits isn’t exactly reassuring. A veteran Republican consultant told the Post that White House aides despair of Trump’s viewing habits because they know a comment he hears on Fox could cause an abrupt change of position. In the conservative National Review, Kevin Williamson recently wrote, “I’d wager that Trump could list at least three times as many cable-news commentators as world leaders. He is much better versed in CNN’s lineup than in NATO’s.”
Seth Norrholm, an associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, concludes, based on Trump’s public behavior, that the president has an extreme case of narcissism, and believes Trump’s time as star of “The Apprentice” has affected his expectations as president. In the show, Norrholm says, Trump was the undisputed emperor of an artificial kingdom, all-powerful and beyond criticism—and that is what he would like his White House experience to be. Norrholm believes Trump’s current television obsession confirms for Trump his sense of his own importance, while constantly and maddeningly going off Trump’s preferred script. Narcissists often try to avoid reality, Norrholm says, which is generally full of ego injury, and when they can’t protect themselves—as perhaps when they are hate-watching cable news—“they get depression and paranoia.”
David M. Reiss, a psychiatrist in private practice in Southern California, also believes Trump is severely narcissistic based on the president’s public behavior. A basic struggle of the narcissist is to distract from inner “emptiness and loneliness,” Reiss explains, and cable television in particular is highly effective at this because it is “intended to grab you emotionally.” Reiss says he thinks Trump has never been that interested in analyzing the news, but instead uses television viewing for emotional arousal.
For Trump today, watching television is no longer so distracting or relaxing as it once might have been, Reiss says, but it now likely serves a unique need, by validating the narcissist’s continuous sense of grievance. Reiss says, “Television does away with the cognitive dissonance of ‘Why am I angry?’” Trump can conclude he is angry because he’s watching television, and considering what people are saying about him, it makes sense to feel apoplectic. “When someone criticizes him, it gives him consistency between his inner and outer experience,” Reiss says. “Then it also gives him a target he can vent at.” Reiss expects Trump’s hate-watching to continue and his rage to build because “the grandiosity now has a reality to it.” That Trump really is the most powerful person in the world will make “all the pathology worse,” Reiss says.
What does Trump’s TV watching mean for the rest of us? If his dependency is affecting his mood, how he spends his time, even his thinking on policy—clearly, the effects could be serious. But there is yet another potential consequence: In the 1970s, two social scientists, Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Melvin Defleur developed what they called the Media System Dependency theory, which holds that during strange and unsettled times, when a society is experiencing unusual conflict and change, people become more dependent than ever on the media. As the ratings for cable news soars, perhaps Trump is making television addicts of us all.