It’s been barely two weeks since Donald Trump became the first American president to step onto North Korean soil, with all attendant theorizing about what the move meant, or didn’t. Was it the “biggest moment of the Trump presidency so far” and “already a political win,” as some media figures claimed? Was it, on the contrary, another sign of Trump’s “dictator envy” and “authoritarian buffoonery”? Was it a move toward peace—or war, or both, or neither, or simply more uncertainty? Who was outwitting whom?
Although it was just two weeks in the past, that moment feels like two centuries ago, given the nonstop series of crises and “Breaking news!” emergencies since then. For instance: the census showdown; the Jeffrey Epstein/Alexander Acosta disasters; the leaked British ambassador cables; more rumblings about Iran and China; the horrors of migrant-detention-camp conditions; and the long-threatened kickoff this weekend of ICE roundup raids.
Today I got a reminder note from a reader who had written in just after that “historic” encounter at the Korean DMZ. He argues that the uninterrupted torrent of (usually Trump-generated) emergencies since then reinforces the point he originally made.
His point involved a structural failure of analysis in the Trump years. That is: The people most accustomed to “analyzing” political actions and decisions—journalists, historians, political veterans, people who pride themselves on figuring out what is “really” going on—are the ones least able to recognize what the world is experiencing with Donald Trump.
This is obviously not a brand-new insight. But the reader states the case trenchantly enough that I think it’s worth sharing. Two weeks ago, after the Korean episode, the reader wrote:
I had an epiphany sometime around the midterms, after about 2 years of watching and reading heavy duty analysis by so many serious folks who, because it’s their job I suppose, tend to *project* seriousness, intent, thought, strategy, forethought, planning, and other such things, each time Trump does something. No matter how loose the cannon gets, most serious journalists default to a polite interpretation that suggests, say, Trump had something in mind when he just did that ridiculous thing.
Put another way, they’re suggesting he’s crazy like a Fox, not just an idiot.
At some point I found myself trying to explain to a friend why Trump did something kooky. As I considered everything I concluded what he was doing was strictly for the attention. It was for one news cycle. No strategy, no planning, no idea about implications. And no intention of following up even a day later.
That’s when it hit me: he’s running a reality tv show out of the Whitehouse. Every day is a new episode, and every single move is designed to get better Nielsen ratings, improve the brand, or whatever it is that drives that peculiar form of celebrity. Mostly he’s feeding the monster that is 24/7 cable news.
Think about it this way: you’ve spent your life as a journalist, traveling, flying, writing, running, thinking about how sausages and laws are made. You view the world, your daily routine, even your own self … through that lens. If by some glitch in the matrix you found yourself Commander in Chief then that is the lens by which you’d view your new job. Everything you’ve done before would impact your schedule, your routine, and how you view the world.
More importantly, your serious effort over many years to think long and hard, to write out your thoughts, to bring wisdom and facts to the observations you share, even the reasons you share, how you pick what is a priority for the next issue … all those things would have an impact on the way in which you’d present your public face, your presidential face. In turn, people covering your administration would figure out the above almost immediately and do what they do accordingly.
Trump is a guy who has known only a very narrow slice of the world (NY real estate), has never been curious, or thoughtful, and certainly never cared about the ideals of good government, nor the welfare of others. For decades he has mixed his person with his public persona to the point of reaching some warped public media brand that eventually landed him on a fake tv show about how he runs the fake parts of his mostly fake company. And then one day, through a glitch in the matrix, he woke up the President of these United States.
So he put on a show. Some people liked it. He’s worked every day to get those ratings up. He blows his top when they have a bad day—not because a little kid dies in a camp, not because something doesn’t get out of a committee, not because of anything substantive being analyzed by reporters—no, he’s mad because of the bad optics, because someone upstaged him in an interview, because someone coughed while he was talking.
America has elected a carnival barker with absolutely no clue about history, government, the machinations of global finance, nor even GOP politics. There is no plan, there is no strategy, there is no underlying wisdom or thought with each step. There’s today’s show, a manic struggle to find new content, cliff hangers, figuring out who gets killed off next. Our economy, foreign policy, place on the world stage, is based on tv production values, or some formula.
Once you see it you can’t unsee it and suddenly everything makes sense.
PS have you ever seen the riff by John Mulaney making the case that Trump is like a horse loose in a hospital? This is so good (jump to 7:20).
He’s certainly the only politician to ever be interviewed by GQ, Town & Country, Politico and Ethan Hawke.
His is a candidacy born of the Trump era, testing whether the left can have an equal and opposite reaction to the 2016 presidential election, and whether the best way to achieve that goal is to figure out the memeing of life.
.. O’Rourke is betting that by broadcasting himself on a live stream while campaigning in places he isn’t supposed to show up and saying things he isn’t supposed to say, he can encourage new voters to go to the polls, and even win over some Republicans who may not agree with him on all issues.
“I’m really surprised by how well Trump was able to leverage his popularity and the fact that everybody did know him, and there was this thing they liked about him,” O’Rourke said in an interview.
.. O’Rourke has become the kind of reality-show character that thousands of people watch eat a hamburger (46,000 Facebook views), skateboard through a parking lot (161,000 views), do his laundry (44,000 views) or answer questions at his town halls about, for example, NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. (That one has been seen by tens of millions.)
.. Being on all the time — on TV, on for interviews, on live stream in the car — has helped make him famous. But can it make him a senator?
.. O’Rourke’s campaign is a throwback with a modern twist. He’s driving a pickup truck to every county. He’s knocking on thousands of doors and reciting the same stump speech thousands of times. He’s John McCain on the “Straight Talk Express” circa 2000, only now anyone watching O’Rourke’s live stream can come along for the ride.
.. The sophisticated candidate, while analyzing his own on-the-air technique as carefully as a golf pro studies his swing, should still state frequently that there is no place for . . . ‘public relations gimmicks,’ ”
.. he knew his low name recognition presented a challenge. But it also came with the opportunity to introduce himself however he wanted. By bringing the live stream into the equation, he hoped voters might see a person — a person who burps, swears, listens to music and has a family — and not just a politician.
.. It’s a gimmick but one that does come with some moral high ground: he’s able to say honestly that he doesn’t pal around with admen and has restricted access to political hired guns. And by not accepting money from political action committees or special interests, he can say he’s not being bought off. For years, O’Rourke wasn’t the type of candidate who could get billionaires to throw money his way, so why not, in his words, “turn a necessity into a virtue?”
.. like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) used to do, he brags onstage about his small-dollar donations, “33 bucks” to Sanders’s oft-repeated “27 dollars.”
.. He then tried to flee the scene before being arrested.
Ultimately, the charges were dismissed, a fact O’Rourke says probably had a lot to do with him being white.
.. Take his most viral moment of the campaign so far: his support for NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. “Reasonable people can disagree” on the issue, he said in a town hall, but he personally finds the peaceful protests aiming to “point out that black men, unarmed, black teenagers, unarmed, and black children, unarmed, are being killed at a frightening level right now” to be in line with the nonviolent movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and Rosa Parks, and in that way “can think of nothing more American.”
.. it also gives ammunition for one of his opponents’ favorite attacks: that O’Rourke is an out-of-touch liberal, more Hollywood than Houston (“Most Texans stand for the flag, but Hollywood liberals are so excited that Beto is siding with NFL players protesting the national anthem that Kevin Bacon just retweeted it,” Cruz tweeted. “That means all of us can now win Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon!”). And as for the NFL video? Well, Cruz made a rough cut of it and has started showing that at his own rallies as a way to rile up his base.
.. It can be easy, then, to imagine how Cruz will take advantage of O’Rourke’s live stream. His team has already pieced together a 30-second video of O’Rourke leting curse words fly on the trail. They could highlight every time he doesn’t know the answer to a question at a town hall to paint him as unprepared, or, as they’ve done already, use the NFL video to say he doesn’t support veterans. Tracking your opponent has long been part of political tradecraft, and in this case, O’Rourke could be broadcasting his own opposition research.
.. “He interviewed me that whole time, and all he used was that f—ing line about dead armadillos?”
.. sometimes he’ll talk for 45 minutes, and the takeaway will be a quote about roadkill, much to his annoyance.
Well, of course the president who claimed bone spurs to dodge the Vietnam War wants the biggest, bestest military parade ever, with lots of tanks and rockets and flags — zillions of flags — and fighter jets screaming overhead. Why is anyone surprised?
.. anyone who fails to cheer as the bands play and the troops march by will surely be guilty of treason.
.. Trump has already matched North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in dangerous, unhinged rhetoric. Now it appears he hopes to surpass his rival in linear mileage of meaningless military display.
.. It is hard to imagine any other president summoning his generals to demand not a better strategy in Afghanistan, not a detailed plan for success in Syria, but rather an elaborate entertainment that gives him an opportunity to be seen reviewing the troops. In this reality-show presidency, it sounds like the kind of extravaganza that one could imagine as a series finale. If so, bring it on.
.. There is a semi-plausible argument that Trump could consciously use such a patriotic extravaganza as a wedge, the way he has used the national anthem protests in the NFL. It could be a with-me-or-against-me ploy. If you support the parade, you love America; if you don’t, you don’t.
.. But a celebratory military parade with nothing to celebrate could also highlight the gulf between Trump’s campaign promises and his actions. He pledged to wind wars down and bring the troops home; he has done quite the opposite.
.. My guess is that both his narcissism and his authoritarianism are at play in his need to honor himself with a parade.
.. Despite his boastful tweetstorms, the president clearly realizes that his approval ratings are historically low. He is so unpopular that he will not even risk a state visit to London to open the new U.S. Embassy there for fear of being humiliated by mass protests.
.. The campaign-style rallies he so enjoys do not appear well-designed to advance a political agenda; they do, however, boost his spirits and massage his ego.
.. He would be saluted and serenaded to his heart’s content. It would be an egomaniac’s heaven.
.. Trump’s big parade would also be a massive display of power — not so much the nation’s as his own. There is not a soul on Earth who doubts the overwhelming strength of the U.S. military. I can think of one soul, however, who is insecure enough in his own authority that he accuses members of Congress who do not stand and applaud him of treason.
The Right needs an unsentimental, realistic view of this presidency.
But the book’s most damning and consequential revelation lies in its depiction of a president who barely understands the office he occupies and isn’t interested in learning: “He didn’t process information in any conventional sense. He didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semi-literate. He trusted his own expertise — no matter how paltry or irrelevant — more than anyone else’s.”
.. If Trump is an ignorant, egomaniacal buffoon, he’s not enough of one to stop good policy from passing or the country’s condition from improving.
.. The riot and death in Charlottesville demonstrated that Trump can take the easiest layup in American politics — denounce those marching under the Nazi banner! — and botch it completely.
.. Perhaps the stakes of the Trump presidency require conservatives to confront the coming months and years with an unsentimental cost-benefit analysis. Applaud President Trump when he’s right, criticize him when he’s wrong, and ride the horse as far as he can take you — and the moment he can carry you no further, leave him behind. If Trump proves incapable of resisting temptation and irreparably sabotages his own presidency, conservatives shouldn’t strain any muscles to defend him.
.. Don’t buy into the ex post facto justifications that his angry tweets are some irreplaceable communications tool, that his mercurial nature is strategic unpredictability, that his ignorance is feigned, and that he’s playing some secret seven-level chess, with plans within plans, all building up to some ultimate victory that’s just around the corner.
.. There is no secret master plan, no elaborate grand scheme with pieces slowly falling into place.
.. It’s not like what Trump has to do is a mystery. He has to calm down and stop worrying about what’s said about him on television. He has to pay attention in his briefings. He needs to tweet less — a lot less. He needs to think deeply about what his top legislative priority before the midterm elections ought to be, and once he’s decided on that, he needs to work tirelessly to build a majority of votes to pass it. One of Trump’s most popular moments of 2017 was his address to Congress, where he sounded downright normal for a Republican president. Perhaps what Americans want is just to wake up each morning and not have to worry, “What is the federal government going to try to do to me today?”
If Trump can just calm down, focus on governing, and stop acting like he’s hosting a twist-filled reality show, he will be a successful two-term president. But if he keeps indulging his worst impulses and living down to the frightening portrait presented in Wolff’s book, conservatives don’t need to stick with him.