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Why You Should Watch Donald Trump’s Inauguration

The West side of the US Capitol is seen during a rehearsal for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, DC, January 15, 2017.
Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

There are lots of reasons to not watch the inauguration of Donald Trump. Some of them are fair and come from a healthy sense of self-knowledge. If you know that watching Donald Trump be officially sworn in as our 45th president of the United States is going to crater your productivity, your ability to function, or your healthy emotional coping skills for an excessive period of time, and potentially create a spiral that will be hard to recover from, don’t watch. Of the many inauguration events, the biggest ceremony happens around noon on Friday, so there will be many people who simply can’t watch from work. There are people who will be traveling, people who are ill, people who have other significant life-related conflicts that prevent them from sitting in front of a TV at lunchtime on a weekday.

But if none of the above applies to you, you should watch the presidential inauguration.

You should watch it even if — especially if — you are mulling an inaugural-viewing boycott in order to deny the president-elect the satisfaction of good TV ratings. This is the argument of Bill Scher in the New Republic, who suggests that the best way to diminish Trump’s potency and impact will be to look away. “I know that every time I give Trump a ratings point, a YouTube view, or even an unrecorded gaze, I am doing what he wants, what he needs to survive,” Scher writes. Rather than feed into his political theater, he writes, we should instead refuse to participate: “What better way to combat a performer-politician than by diminishing his stage?”

It’s not hard to empathize with that perspective, or to find it alluring and persuasive. After a campaign season when Trump patently benefited from being a ratings machine and from making sure his interests aligned with the profit margins of cable news companies, it’s not hard to see removing eyeballs as a strategy for deflating his power. It’s the wisdom we’ve all been trying to learn and internalize over the past decades of the TV boom: Our attention equals ratings, and ratings equal money for the thing we’re watching. From this perspective, and in most TV contexts, that’s correct — your eyeballs make money for whatever you’re watching, and by watching, you’re essentially indicating your tacit consent for the object in front of you. You’re voting with your monetizable attention.

Feel free to use that logic when deciding not to watch CNN’s half-hour Ivanka Trump puff piece, or avoiding anything that’s been touched by Rob Schneider. And heck, if you actually are a Nielsen family this week, and you know for certain that your viewing is monitored on Friday, then sure, knock yourself out. Watch TCM’s airing of A Face in the Crowd instead.

Otherwise, though, we need to reframe our understanding of ratings and money in this context, and accept the fact that not watching the future president be inaugurated is fundamentally unlike boycotting Fox News punditry or not watching Survivor. His election may not have been legitimate, and you may disagree with every single thing about what’s about to happen, but he will still become our president. The great ship Make Him Go Away by Ignoring Him sailed long ago — there was never enough momentum to make that strategy work during the campaign, and ignoring him now will do nothing at all to stop his presidency. At this point, pretending that your inattention will help anything falls somewhere between foolhardiness and civic irresponsibility.

We have this idea of watching something as a passive activity, as though allowing words and images to enter your brain involves no input and requires no processing on your part. That can be true. But there are ways to watch and ways to give your attention beyond a silent, implicit endorsement. If Trump is a media-driven animal, focused more on TV production and brand management than on policy, his presidency requires us all to become media critics, to take an active role in considering the object in front of us. Ignoring it entirely in favor of a filtered version, predigested and contextualized by your chosen media frame, is a way to cede the work of active watching and foist it onto someone else.

There are two aspects to the argument for watching the inauguration. The first is the one I’ve just been laying out: Once Trump was actually elected president, the idea that ignoring him could be a useful way to reduce his power went from misguided to complete ostrich with its head in the sand. The second part of the argument is the idea that the inauguration itself is something worth watching, even though, unlike middle-of-the-night votes on the ACA or hearings on the cabinet, it will be a big fat nothing-burger of governmental action. It’ll be almost completely empty of actual policy; it’ll be a Trump-designed, Trump-centered melee of pomp and circumstance; it’ll be sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Here’s the thing: As great as that line is, sound and fury are often pretty good signifiers. Especially in an administration where the president’s primary concerns are television appearances and his Twitter account, a media circus is as close to an actual articulate message as this man may ever communicate. Think of last week’s press conference, in which Trump said countless terrifying, false, and contradictory things. His words matter, because he’s the president-elect, but the most coherent idea to come out of that conference was the one you could really only see by watching on TV: the massive pile of manila folders that no one was even allowed to read. If we try to look beyond the shiny surface exterior of Trump’s inaugural festivities and search for the backbone of governmental logic within, we may well find nothing (except a smiling Paul Ryan and a coterie of terrifying cabinet appointees). Pomp and circumstance, media circuses, sounds and furies — these things are the message. We need to learn how to be thoughtful critics of them, and that starts by actually watching them.

Images and metaphors matter. Images like the dozens of representatives who are boycotting the inauguration are important, and hopefully the inaugural ceremony will look like a paltry gathering compared with a groundswell of protest the next day. But watching only those parts and carefully cutting out the bits that will make you feel uncomfortable, that will leave you with a sour taste in your mouth and the desire to punch things, is a form of denial that we don’t have the luxury to wallow in any longer.

There is one argument against watching the inauguration that’s undeniably hard to counter: It’s probably going to boring, terrible, or both. The inauguration planning committee has been famously, hilariously incapable of booking any musical talent whatsoever. There will be no fun celebrity cameos. It will not be funny. It will not be entertaining, and it will not make you feel good. As a TV critic, it’s pretty hard to put the inauguration on any well-intentioned list of recommended viewing.

You should still watch it. You should watch it because he will be our next president, like it or not. You should watch it because watching the whole of it, rather than clips filtered through other media, will give you a stronger, more visceral, more immediate sense of the reality of what’s going on. You should watch it actively, skeptically, thoughtfully, critically, and as just one part of a bigger plan of action and resistance. You should watch it because it’s really happening, and we need to learn how to look directly at the thing we don’t like or don’t understand. Refusing to watch Trump will not make him less the president. We need to learn to watch the president we have, and use that knowledge so that we never let this kind of presidency happen again.

Why You Should Watch Donald Trump’s Inauguration