Tuesday morning, March 7, 2017.
More on how what happened at the Oscars explains the media’s fawning over Trump’s address to Congress: People are looking for a hero-president, and that includes the political press corps
George Washington at the Constitutional Convention, 1787.
This is the second of three parts. Part one is here.
If you were paying attention to the glowing overnight reviews of Our Mr President Trump’s speech to Congress last week, you might have thought it amazing that a seventy-year old egomaniac who's never been anything but a liar, cheat, and conman since he left college and never shown he has the the character to change his ways or the least inclination to do so, had apparently turned into George Washington right before a skeptical media’s collective eyes!
I think it starts with Donald Trump firing Gary Busey.
Trump’s main advantage in the Republican primaries was his celebrity. That gave him more than name-recognition. It gave him a persona voters were familiar with and were predisposed to like. He was a known character. Literally. He was known for playing a character on TV named “Donald Trump”.
“Donald Trump” was as much a fictional character as Don Draper and Annalise Keating. The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice were as real as Mad Men and How to Get Away With Murder. But NBC did a great job of selling those shows as being as real as the news.Asking the real Donald Trump to run a business is like asking Jon Hamm to design your ad campaign or Viola Davis to solve a homicide, with the difference that Hamm and Davis would bring intelligence and competence to the job. Anyone who’d followed the business news and the gossip coming out of New York City in the 80s and 90s knew the real Donald Trump as an irresponsible, dishonest, and incompetent hustler who didn’t care how he made his money or who got hurt in the making of it. Fans of Howard Stern knew him as a shameless self-promoter and boaster with appalling views on women and sex and at least several screws loose. Anyone who knew about the Central Park Five knew him as a racist with an inclination to make himself the leader of a lynch mob and the ambition to get into politics as the leader of racist mobs. But that Donald Trump didn’t become a figure in the national popular imagination. Possibly because he didn’t have a good catch phrase.
The character he played on The Apprentice did. And people bought the character of “Donald Trump” as being the same as the real person named Donald Trump. They looked at “Donald Trump” and thought they were seeing Donald Trump and then assumed Donald Trump was what he appeared to be on TV: the tough, no nonsense, common-sensical boss, the man who knows how to get things done, and gets them done. They see a smart guy, smarter than all the so-called experts. They know he’s smart because he’s rich. The experts aren’t rich, not as rich as “Donald Trump”, at any rate, so they can’t be as smart. The ones who are rich? They got that way by cheating. The system’s rigged in their favor. “Donald Trump” knows how to handle that. He knows how to beat them at their own rigged game. Another sign of how smart he is and that he knows how to get things done.
And it was “Donald Trump” who ran for President or, at any rate, that’s the guy many people saw running for President.
Voters looked at him and saw that character and they said to themselves, “That’s my president!”
Never mind the White Working Class, whoever they are. The vast majority of people who voted for Trump were simply Republicans voting Republican. And they saw this guy “Donald Trump” as another Republican, someone who would cut their taxes, keep those people in line, and take a hard line against our enemies foreign and domestic while not seriously threatening that part of liberal government that serves them and their interests. They did not see---chose not to see---the racist bully. They did not see the white nationalist and the would-be dictator. They didn’t see him as a would-be dictator because they don’t see themselves as being undemocratic and un-American and only people who aren’t democratic and aren’t good Americans want dictators. They didn’t see him as racist because they don’t see their own racism as racism. It’s simply common sense. That’s the way the world is. Those people are dangerous. They look at themselves and do not expect to see a racist so they don’t expect to see themselves voting for a racist.
Oh sure, they want a president who’s tough. A president who’s strong. A president who’ll take action when action’s needed. The want a president who’ll be a hero. Republicans want to see a hero-president. So do Democrats. All during my childhood and on up to the election of Bill Clinton I heard Democrats wishing for the second coming of John Kennedy. They judged every politician by how close he or she came to being an avatar of the JFK of their imaginations . When Barack Obama became president, suddenly we were all looking for the second coming of FDR. And one of the reasons some Democrats couldn’t get excited about Hillary Clinton is that they wanted Barack Obama all over again. And don’t get me started about the basis of Bernie’s appeal in many of his voters’ eyes. But Republicans are more desperate for a hero-president because they see themselves in more desperate need of rescuing.
“Make America Great Again” means many things but all of them add up to “SAVE US, DONALD TRUMP! FOR GOD’S SAKE, SAVE US!”
To be sure, a good part of Trump’s base see the racist, see the white nationalist, see the would-be dictator and they like what they see. But most of them see what I said, “Donald Trump”, taking charge, being tough, brooking no nonsense, getting things done.
During the Republican primaries, a good many members of the political press corps saw that character too. It also happened that they didn’t see the other Republican candidates for what they were because for the past twenty years they haven’t been able to bring themselves to see the Republicans in general for what they are. They still think the GOP’s the party of politically moderate, economically sensible grown-ups. Howard Baker’s party if not Ike’s. The were trying to see all the Republican candidates as fitting into that long gone tradition---if it ever truly existed as a tradition and not the occasional cropping up of decent-minded contrarians and eccentrics. This caused them to see Donald Trump as the outsider, the challenger to that tradition, which weirdly caused them to see him as being more liberal than the rest of them at the same time they saw him as more Right Wing. Unable to reconcile the seeming contradiction---they used the word “Populist” but apparently didn’t know what it means---they decided to see him in the most simplistic way as the challenger of the Establishment, an upsetter of the status quo, the “bull in the china shop” Trump voters said the country needed. Looked at him this way, his bumptiousness mattered more than his racism, lying, fearmongering, and nihilism. They couldn’t see he was no different from the others except in being louder, hammier, and more brazen, shameless, and irresponsible. They just saw him as more fun to cover.
A good part of the political press corps is looking for a hero-president too. As a group, they have been since Jimmy Carter failed to be one in their doyens’ and sachems’ eyes and continues to fail in their generational memories. They expect that hero-president to be a Republican. Republicans are tough and manly. Democrats are soft and squishy, like they fear they are themselves.
So the last few months have been hard on many of them. They keep looking for “Donald Trump” and he keeps behaving like Donald Trump. They keep hoping to see a hero-president. He keeps acting like the villain he is. They keep telling themselves that any day now he’ll settle down, see the light, listen to reasonable Republicans like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, and “reset.” He’ll start his presidency over, this time with himself acting like a normal Republican president. And then he tweets.
They finally thought they saw that happening Tuesday night, Donald Trump turning into the Republican President older members of the press corps have been longing to see since Reagan and many of the younger members have been told to be on the lookout for by the wise old men and women they need to flatter and impress in order to promote their careers
Political journalists have a bad habit of telling themselves the story before they report it. It’s an occupational hazard. They’re on deadline. Saves time if half the story or more is already written in their heads before they sit down at their keyboards and face the cameras. They make it worse though by analyzing the story ahead of time, what-ifing their way through what are essentially advertisements for their later analyses. Then they’re committed to proving themselves to have been right, to have gotten the story before there was a story. Which commits them to seeing what they need to see to in order to think themselves savvy and smart.
And they want a good story.
“Trump says same old awful and appalling stuff but in a boring and stilted way” isn’t the kind of news that excites the masses.
They were looking for an excuse to write a positive story about Trump.
Didn’t matter his corrupt and incompetent and designedly destructive cabinet was falling into place. Didn’t matter Steve Bannon still had his job. Didn’t matter General Flynn no longer had his. Didn’t matter that it wasn’t even a week ago that Trump had made discriminating against trans people legal. Didn’t matter that his plans for the next day included ordering a rephrased version of his Muslim ban only you can’t call it a Muslim ban even if that’s what he’s called it. Didn’t matter that only the day before he’d given permission to industries to poison the water as much as they like. Didn’t matter the mass deportations had already begun.
It didn’t matter that only a few days before Trump had ranted and raved and riled up the mob at the Conservative Political Action Conference. It didn’t matter that reporters knew his handlers weren’t going to let him repeat that performance in front of a world-wide TV audience, that if they could they’d have a staffer up in the gallery with a dart gun at the ready in case he went off on another characteristic tirade or tangent or had him hypnotised like a smoker trying to quit with Mike Pence all set to lean over and whisper the trigger word---”Rosebud”---if he started in on his “historic” election victory or the millions of “illegals” who voted for Hillary. It didn’t matter, in other words, that they knew the speech was being carefully staged. The staging was the story. Would it do the trick? And the trick was would be making Trump popular?
And that was the story they were determined to report. All that terrible news coming out of the White House wasn’t adding up to the story of a destructive and incompetent president who’d lost what little control he’d ever had over his own staff and agenda and himself. It added up to a story about a President who was unpopular and needed to do something to reverse the decline in his approval ratings.
What mattered, it turned out, was his miserable poll numbers and not what was causing those miserable poll numbers. Would he turn it all around with his speech? Would he be able in one hour to make the American people forget the last four months and see him as having started his Presidency all over new?
You know, would he be able to do in this speech what he should have done in his Inaugural Address?
And, lo and behold, he did!
Or was judged to have.
And he did it by finally acting “Presidential”.
As if all that’s been the trouble since he was elected has been a matter of comportment. He hadn’t been acting like a President. A change of tie, a change of tone, an hour or two’s practice with a teleprompter and, voila! Instant Presidentialosity. It doesn’t matter what you do while presidenting or, it seemed, what you say, it’s how Presidentially you do it and say it.
That’s where they got themselves in trouble. They saw the speech. They didn’t hear it.
End of Scene Two. Follow the link to Scene 3.