Donald Trump has one real measure of success: Ratings

Story highlights

  • An emphasis on watchability has pervaded Trump's White House
  • Trump is, in many ways, the logical evolution of a society that prizes fame

Washington (CNN)For the decade-plus before he decided to run for office, Donald Trump was a reality TV star. And from that experience, Trump has drawn one, clear conclusion: Ratings are the only measure of success that mean anything in this world.

That emphasis on watchability has pervaded his White House and is the single best way to understand how Trump views his presidency, the media and the world.
Two recent examples make this focus on ratings crystal clear:
    1. The Washington Post's Ashley Parker and Bob Costa reported Monday on a recent working lunch at the White House where the topic of press secretary Sean Spicer came up -- specifically whether Trump was considering firing the sometimes-embattled mouthpiece. "I'm not firing Sean Spicer," Trump said, according to an attendee who relayed the encounter. "That guy gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in."
    2. In an interview with The Associated Press, Trump was asked about why he hasn't been more successful in changing minds of those who disagree with him.
    "I seem to get very high ratings," Trump responded."You know Chris Wallace had 9.2 million people, it's the highest in the history of the show. I have all the ratings for all those morning shows. When I go, they go double, triple." Trump then noted that his appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation" got the program its highest ratings "since the World Trade Center. Since the World Trade Center came down."
    Success for Trump is people talking about you. People watching you. What they say about you is less important. It's that they say anything at all. And if they do, you win.
    For those (still) wondering what forces in our culture produced Trump, I would suggest that reality TV (and the mindset it has created) is the single most important factor to understanding not only where Trump came from but how he imagines the world to be.
    In the world of self-conscious reality TV -- so everything after the first year of MTV's "Real World" -- the key is to make a name for yourself. It's not about proving yourself to be a "good" person or "staying true" to who you are. It's about creating a personality that people are drawn to -- either out of love or hate.
    And, the way you gauge whether or not you have succeeded is simple: 1. Do people watch you, and the related corollary: 2. Are you famous?
    Whether or not you ascribe to that Kim Kardashian, famous-for-being-famous worldview, it has seeped into our culture in ways that are inescapable. No one in my family, for example, is a reality TV watcher. And yet, when my son talks about what he wants for the future, it's "to be famous." He has no real idea what that means -- he's 8 -- but he views "being famous" as the ultimate goal. For what or how or anything else isn't really all that important to him.
    (Nota bene: My wife and I have worked hard to correct his thinking on the fame front.)
    Trump is, in many ways, the logical evolution of a society that prizes fame -- as translated through Twitter followers, Facebook friends and TV ratings -- over all else. The fame is the thing. Everything else is secondary -- or not even thought about at all.
    That's exactly how Trump judges himself and those around him. Are people paying attention to me? Are people watching? If so, then all of this talk about how I am not succeeding is pointless and based on a misguided understanding of how people think.
    He's not totally wrong. In fact, Trump understood better than anyone else during the 2016 election that what people were looking for was a show, a spectacle that they could watch, laugh at or roll their eyes over. They didn't care that Trump ran his rallies like a circus -- in fact, it endeared him to them. How could a guy who says and does so much outlandish stuff possibly be a traditional politician? Plus, he makes me laugh -- skewering "low energy" Jeb Bush or "Lyin'" Ted Cruz or "Crooked Hillary" Clinton!
    And, for those who hated him -- well they still watched, didn't they?
    Trump as president has continued to put ratings first, second and third in terms of his gauges for success. And he will continue to do so throughout his presidency. It's the world he not only knows but the one he helped create over the past two decades.