Posted Sunday morning, March 12, 2017.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States…hard as that is to believe.”: Donald Trump in his starring role as POTUS giving the performance that earned him four star reviews from the drama critics of the political press corps. Tuesday, February 28, 2016.
Hard to remember he gave that speech, isn’t it, let alone that it was greeted with gushing and fawning from the the punditocracy? In the less than two weeks since, he and his gang of incompetents, liars, kooks, crooks, and stooges have undone whatever good the speech did him by doing exactly the sort of things they were bound to do, which is exactly the sorts of things they had been doing, the sort of things that the speech was supposed to make everybody forget, the sort of things that should have earned the speech an immediate Bronx cheer from the entire press corps for its being such an obvious and desperate stunt.
Instead it got raves...for being a stunt!
Pundits and “analysts” saw the spectacle. They saw it as an act. And hey reacted to that..with something close to applause. Their “analyses” might as well have come with four stars.
“This morning is a good reminder that so much of what passes for political analysis is just theater criticism.”
To which one of Bouie’s followers, who goes by the Twitter handle Flight Risk, responded:
“Well, I'd say BAD theater criticism, because even average theater criticism actually engages with the content of the play…”
And they hadn’t engaged. If they’d been actual drama critics, it would have been as if they’d reviewed the scenery and the costumes while ignoring and given the lead a positive notice for remembering his lines and not falling off the stage while ignoring what the play was about. Even seen just as a performance, it was worse than mediocre. Trump is a professional actor, but he’s a bad actor.
But they liked what they saw because it’s what they wanted to see. The new and improved President Trump! They saw “him” because they didn’t listen to him.
What wasn’t bromide was platitude what wasn’t platitude was nonsense and what wasn’t any of the three was an outright lie. For the most part, he only got specific and factual when he went off on a bizarre tangent about the 1876 World’s Fair.
All the rest was more of the same. No real health care plan, just another grandiose dream of golden policies for all, a YUGE increase in defense spending he can't pay for, and more promises to make brown people at home and abroad sorry they were born.
But it was the way he said it, raved the critics. It was his new tone! They hadn’t listened but they’d heard him. And they liked what they heard.
He sounded so “Presidential”!
As if not raving like a lunatic or shouting like a dictator from the balcony---Trump’s preferred public speaking styles--was the measure of “Presidential.”
Those were just the overnight reviews though.
Wasn’t long before more trenchant observers began to take a look at what the President actually said. And they didn’t find it so all-fired presidential.
One of the earliest and best take-downs I saw was by Michael Grunwald at Politico. Grunwald’s post was headlined “Salesman in Chief” and right off the bat he compared the speech to an infomercial:
President Donald Trump basically told Americans last night that he’s going to make sure we can have our cake and eat it, too—and by the way it will be a spectacular cake, it won’t cost much, and it’s going to help us lose a lot of weight....
The media takeaway was that Trump’s speech sounded optimistic, which was true compared to his dyspeptic inaugural address, and also true in the sense that infomercials promising baldness cures or eight-minute abs are optimistic. But there’s a fine line between optimism and magical realism.
Then the credulous and easily-impressed drama critics began to come under criticism themselves.
Conservative columnist David Frum pointed out in a post at the Atlantic pointed out that "The purpose of these speeches is not, actually, to reassure the president’s base that he is mentally well."
And Brain Klaas, author of The Despot's Accomplice: How the West is Aiding & Abetting the Decline of Democracy and a Fellow at the London School of Economics & Political Science, tweeted:
Fellow pundits: There's no way to make the creation of an office charged with scapegoating immigrants either "unifying" or "presidential".
At the New Republic, Brian Beutler went all out in indicting the whole press corps:
Trump’s moral and ethical failings are legion. He is the villain of all his own triumphant and disgraceful sagas. But the plot of this chapter is about a political press corps (not the investigators slowly piecing together the unseemly details of Trump’s foreign entanglements, but the ones who cover day-to-day news and theater) that is outmatched and completely maladapted for the challenge he poses.
Many of the same people now tasked with communicating what matters about Trump’s presidency to the public also covered Trump’s campaign, where they returned serially to the storyline of the pivot, the softening, wherein simply reading a scripted and not-entirely-unhinged speech from beginning to end marked a new beginning for him.
There is apparently less capacity for living and learning in political journalism than there is in elementary school; less object permanence than in nursery school.
It was looking as if Trump’s moment of glory wouldn’t last the day. And it didn’t. But not because the critical assessments were having an effect. There wasn’t time for that. It was Jeff Sessions.
Jeff Sessions and the Russians.
Another misadventure in bad presidenting was underway. The Administration was doing what it has done best since January 20, or, really, since November 9, demonstrating its incompetence, corruption, venality, and stupidity or, to put it another way, reminding us who is President and what sort of person he is.
Trump himself contributed, working himself up into another Twitter frenzy that culminated into accusing President Obama of having had Trump Tower bugged during the campaign. Of course he offered no proof because there was no proof to offer. It was just Trump reacting to bad news the way he always does by lashing out wildly like the arrested adolescent he is, trying to duck responsibility and turn the attention away from his own screw-ups and towards anyone and everyone else he can think of to accuse and blame and in the process making sure the conversation wasn’t about how presidential he was but how nuts.
Things have gotten even more out of hand since but he’s been lucky in its all being overshadowed this week by the Republicans’ horrific so-called health care plan, on which Trump has been providing no presidential leadership. At least not publicly. Maybe he’s been phoning it in from the golf course.
This was predictable, that he would find a way to self-sabotage. It was also predictable that journalists covering the speech would fail to predict it in their rush to declare the speech a smash hit.
As Mark Harris, an actual professional film critic and author who is also an astute observer of the political scene, warned during the address when Trump had barely gotten started:
Two hours from now, when you read about the Reboot, the Fresh Start, the Great Normalization, remember: He's still him.
He can’t act presidential because he can’t stop acting like himself. Even if he had the strength of character to rein himself in, that’s not what his voters want.
A key part of the failure of the press’ collective conventional wisdom was their treating the address as an address to the nation. It wasn’t. It was, like everything he says and tweets, an address to the only people who matter to him. His voters, who think of themselves as the only real Americans and whom he flatters by treating them as if they are.
Trump is always and only talking to his base. And he’s always and only talking to them to rile them up and then bask in their cheers and applause. He tells them what they want to hear---what he’s trained them to want to hear---that the country is going to hell and it’s those people’s fault. And he promises them one thing: that he will punish and hurt the people they fear and loathe. It’s a divisive and destructive message. It’s also an expression of his essentially divisive and destructive nature. There will be no pivot. There can never be a pivot. His base doesn’t want it. His nature won’t let him.
But I think there was something else going on in addition to journalists and pundits seeing what they wanted to see.
Two something elses, actually, and both of them helped them see what they wanted to see.
One was the same thing I said happened to me when I watched Congressman Joe Kennedy deliver his rebuke of Paul Ryan for Ryan’s using the word “mercy” to describe what Kennedy called an act of malice. My own memory played a trick on me. Of course I cheered Kennedy for what he said but I probably cheered louder and harder than I would have had another Democratic Congressperson said the same thing because that other Congressperson wouldn’t have had the name Kennedy or looked like Kennedy’s grandfather Bobby and great-uncles Ted and JFK.
Not just journalists but everybody watching couldn’t help but look at that trio of smug bastards in the photo up top and saw them for what they are.
What else they are.
The Vice-President, the Speaker of the House, and the President of the United States.
They saw them that way because that’s what they were subconsciously expecting to see. They’d been prepared to see it by the last time they saw the same scene playing itself out…
And the time before that…
And the time before that…
And before that…
And so on…
Going all the way back.
When they appear in their public roles, surrounded by the trappings of their office, all Presidents look like George Washington. All Presidents count on this. The difference is that no other Presidents counted on it to help sell their brand. It’s pure sentimentality on our part when we buy into it, but it’s natural and inevitable and hard to resist or avoid. But journalists are paid to be professional cynics. When they feel a normal human emotion in response to a politician’s attempt to exploit that emotion they’re supposed to stomp on it like its a lit match dropped into a puddle of gasoline. That didn’t happen, at least not right away. Journalists are only human, and cynics are often the rankest sentimentalists when they let their guards down.
But I said there were two something elses that caused the drama critics to see a new improved President Trump instead of the old Donald Trump trying a new sales approach. One is that they let their guards down as I described. The other, though, is that, like all of us, they’re afraid to see what is really plain to see.
There’s a wicked and possibly crazy man occupying the office of President and not only did sixty-two million Americans vote for him, they were glad to, and they’re still glad they did.
End of Part Four. Yes, there’s going to be a Part Five. But that should be the last one.