Don’t expect Trump to go quietly

On July 21, 2016, just hours before he accepted the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump and I sat down for an interview. What he said on that occasion would serve as a remarkably candid foreshadowing of how Trump would handle his relationship with the media in what, on that day, seemed the unlikely event that he would actually become president.

I don’t need you guys anymore,” Trump told me.

He pointed to his millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook, explaining that the days of television anchors and commentators acting as gatekeepers between newsmakers and the public were essentially over. Without discernible acrimony, Trump trotted out one of the early versions of what would eventually become a leitmotif of his presidency: The media was made up of largely terrible people trafficking in fake news. There was nothing personal in the observation. It was the unsheathing of a multipurpose device, one he used adroitly in tandem with the endlessly adaptable political vehicle provided by social media during the election campaign and now during his presidency.

Is there any reason to believe that what worked for Trump before he was elected and while in the White House won’t be equally effective after he leaves office?

There is a disarming innocence to the assumption that whether by impeachment, indictment or a cleansing electoral redo in 2020, President Trump will be exorcised from the White House and that thereby he and his base will largely revert to irrelevance.

It imagines that, for some reason, Trump in defeat or disgrace will become a quieter, humbler, more restrained presence on Twitter and Facebook than heretofore. It assumes further that CNN and Fox News and MSNBC, perhaps chastened by the consequences of their addictive coverage of Trump the Candidate and Trump the President, will resist the urge to pay similar attention to Trump the Exile.

Let the record show that Trump has launched the careers of numerous media stars and that expressions of indignant outrage on the left and breathless admiration on the right have resulted in large, entirely nonpartisan profits for the industry of journalism. Why anyone should assume that Trump and those who cherish or loathe him in the news business will easily surrender such a hugely symbiotic relationship is hard to understand.

It is all but inevitable that whoever succeeds Trump in the White House will be perceived by 30 to 40 percent of the voting public as illegitimate — and that the former president will enthusiastically encourage them in this perception. Whatever his failings, Trump is a brilliant self-promoter and provocateur. He showed no embarrassment, either as candidate or president, about using his high visibility to benefit his business interests. Untethered from any political responsibility whatsoever, he can be expected to capitalize fully on his new status as political martyr and leader of a new “resistance” that will make today’s look supine.

The dirty little secret about the United States’ relationship with Trump is that we have become addicted to him. His ups, his downs, his laughs, his frowns are (as the lovely song from “My Fair Lady” once put it in another context altogether) “second nature to [us] now, like breathing out and breathing in.”

When he fails to tweet for even a few hours, Trumpologists search for meaning in the silence. Hours are devoted on cable television, each and every day, to examining the entrails of his most recent utterances. Has there been a day in the past two years without a Trump-related story on the front page of every major U.S. newspaper? How does the president lie to us? Let us count the ways. And we do, endlessly, meticulously.

Do you believe for a moment that Americans are ready to give that up merely because, for one reason or another, Trump has been obliged to reoccupy Trump Tower full-time?

A President Pence would not satisfy that hunger. Nor, for now at least, is it easy to discern within the growing ranks of potential Democratic candidates a man or woman with a matching aura of glitz, a similar degree of shamelessness, a comparable pairing of so much to be humble about with a total lack of humility.

A new president may provide a sense of relief and normalcy. But he or she will not satisfy our craving for outrage. Trump’s detractors are outraged by him. His supporters are outraged with him. He is a national Rorschach test. Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore him. One way or another, Trump will be renewed for another season.

Whom Do You Want on Your Side When Trump Is Gone?

Before long the Right will need to reunify, so let’s not burn any bridges.

How is the Right going to work together as a coalition after Trump?

In short: If you want to win, you need allies. And if you want to survive losses, you need friends. You always will.

The second group for whom there is a rational explanation is those who emerged for the first time as voices in the Trump era, and fear that they won’t be able to continue if a New Normal sets in. Trump was the first leader of the Republican party in my lifetime that a large segment of the conservative commentariat could not stomach at all. Driving a lot of established and talented people into opposition, or at least personal opposition of the party leader, created a vacuum: There were still pro-Trump messages to be carried, and too few people to carry them. As in any era, some of the people who jumped on those opportunities are shrewd folks with something worthwhile to say. But others just got jobs because jobs needed doing, like the NFL replacement players in 1987 who found themselves out of work again when the strike ended.

If you didn’t have what it takes to find an audience before 2015, and have been able to do so only because too few of the leading people in conservative media were willing to say the things needed to defend Trump across the board, then your worst fear will be the end of the internal division of the coalition. If civil war is the only way you can stay employed, you will want it to last forever.

 

A Post-Trump World?

Yet what might happen should Trump be removed from office, either by impeachment leading to conviction or resignation or by federal indictment from Robert Mueller?

Given the evidence so far, the results could be civil chaos, and for a variety of reasons:

.. we have never threatened any president with impeachment primarily for purported wrongdoing before he took office... Had we done so, every president from Dwight Eisenhower (who avoided $400,000 in taxes by finagling a one-time government ruling to declare the huge royalties on his memoir as “capital gains” rather than income) to Barack Obama (who, well aside from Tony Rezko’s “gift,” faced campaign violations involving nearly $1.8 million in improper 2008 contributions that earned a $375,000 fine) would have faced non-stop legal hounding while in office. Harry Truman would have been impeached his first year, had a special prosecutor reviewed his long relationships of years past with the criminal syndicate run by Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. In 1963, a Mueller-like special counsel would still have been ferreting out all the election tampering during the 1960 election and its relationship to JFK.

.. none of which justifies the allegations that he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors while in office.

.. on social issues or religious agendas, they might find Pence more unpalatable — and yet far harder to defame.

.. Nonetheless, do not expect the Left to cease its hysteria should Trump disappear; it would simply recalibrate and refocus on Pence. The effort would be to repeat the Trump-demonization formula of trying to leverage some sort of legal infraction into a melodramatic felony to discredit an opposition president — perhaps in the manner the Left is now seeking to turn the upright Brett Kavanaugh into a veritable monster. Getting Trump would likely only whet the appetite to go after his successor.

.. The base not only has little allegiance to the Wall Street/Chamber of Commerce view of the world on trade, immigration, and manufacturing, but could either sit out or oppose any election that returns the party to the orthodox ideology of the recent past.

The Trump base will see a Trump removal as a Deep State/elite-bluestocking effort to nullify an election. With long memories, they will be far less likely to vote Republican at the national level. We should remember that conservatives have maligned Trump voters as much as has the Left, from “crazies” to what Eliot Cohen recently referred to as a “peasant revolt.”

.. The base not only has little allegiance to the Wall Street/Chamber of Commerce view of the world on trade, immigration, and manufacturing, but could either sit out or oppose any election that returns the party to the orthodox ideology of the recent past.

The Trump base will see a Trump removal as a Deep State/elite-bluestocking effort to nullify an election. With long memories, they will be far less likely to vote Republican at the national level. We should remember that conservatives have maligned Trump voters as much as has the Left, from “crazies” to what Eliot Cohen recently referred to as a “peasant revolt.”

.. A Trump abdication of some sort would alienate current Trump voters from the Republican party for a generation.

Trump, Oprah and the Art of Deflection

Will American politics return to normalcy in 2021 or 2025? I’m not betting on it.

Deflection as a media strategy has become an art form. Its purpose is to avoid answering a charge by misdirecting it and confusing the issue. It’s often used during crisis.

.. The paparazzi had chased her like jackals, raced after her car in the tunnel, surrounded it, and taken pictures after the crash. Fleet Street hunkered down in confusion, perhaps even some guilt. Then some genius noticed Buckingham Palace wasn’t flying a flag at half-staff. The tabloids rushed to front-page it: The cold Windsors, disrespecting Diana in death as they had in life. They shifted the focus of public ire. Suddenly there was no more talk of grubby hacks. Everyone was mad at the queen.

 

.. Ms. Lewinsky had gone into virtual hiding in 2008, when Hillary last ran, and didn’t want to do it again. So in 2014, just before the cycle got serious, she rather brilliantly wrote a piece for Vanity Fair in which she announced yes, she’d been a victim in a national scandal and the true culprit was . . . the press, the internet and the “feedback loop of defame and shame.”

In fact she was the Clintons’ victim, but she successfully deflected your gaze. Once Mrs. Clinton’s people understood Monica would be taking shots not at Hillary but at Matt Drudge, Ms. Lewinsky’s problem went away.

 

.. The best deflection has some truth in it. The Windsors were a chilly lot, and the internet does amplify a personal humiliation.

 

.. as I watched the Golden Globes. Hollywood has known forever about abuse, harassment and rape within its ranks. All the true powers in the industry—the agencies, the studios—have one way or another been complicit. And so, in the first awards show after the watershed revelations of 2017, they understood they would not be able to dodge the subject. They seized it and redirected it. They boldly declared themselves the heroes of the saga. They were the real leaders in the fight against sexual abuse. They dressed in black to show solidarity, they spoke truth to power.

 

.. They were upset, as Glenn Reynolds noted on Twitter , that you found out, and thought less of them. Anyway, they painted themselves as heroes of the struggle.

 

.. Deflection is brilliant, wicked, and tends to work.

 

.. But could she win? Absolutely.

Oprah is stable. Oprah is smart. Oprah is truly self-made. She has a moving personal story. She has dignity and, more important, sees the dignity in others. She is fully wired into modern media; she helped invent modern media. Reporters and editors are awed by her. People experience her not as radical but moderate. She has been a living-room presence for two generations and is enormously popular. The first poll, published Wednesday, had her leading President Trump 48% to 38%.

 

.. But it freaks you out, doesn’t it? Not that American presidents now don’t have to have the traditional credentials and governmental experience, but that maybe they can’t be fully accomplished and appropriate because that’s boring. History has been turned on its head. In falling in love with celebrity and personality, we are acting not like a tough and grounded country but a frivolous, shallow one.

 

.. I had a disagreement with a friend, a brilliant journalist who said when the Trump era is over, we will turn for safety to the old ways. We will return to normalcy. 

.. No I said, I see just the opposite. We will not go back for a long time, maybe ever. We are in the age of celebrity and the next one will and can be anything—Nobel laureate, movie star, professional wrestler, talk-show host, charismatic corporate executive.

The political class can bemoan this—the veteran journalists, the senators and governors, the administrators of the federal government. But this is a good time to remind ourselves that it was the failures of the political class that brought our circumstances about.

.. at least half the country no longer trusts its political leaders, when people see the detached, cynical and uncaring refusal to handle such problems as illegal immigration, when those leaders commit a great nation to wars they blithely assume will be quickly won because we’re good and they’re bad and we’re the Jetsons and they’re the Flintstones, and while they were doing that they neglected to notice there was something hinky going on with the financial sector, something to do with mortgages, and then the courts decide to direct the culture, and the IRS abuses its power, and a bunch of nuns have to file a lawsuit because the government orders them to violate their conscience . . .

 

.. The idea that a lot had to go wrong before we had a President Trump, and the celebrity who follows him, has gotten lost in time, as if someone wanted to bury it.

Sometimes I see a congressman or senator shrug and say, in explanation of something outlandish, “It’s Trump.” And I think: Buddy, you’ve been on the Hill 20 years, and we didn’t get to this pass only because of him. That’s a deflection.