The plot is nominally about a war against an invisible Chinese invader. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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% 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.
By E. Donald Elliott