The day after President Trump gave his big address to Congress a little over a month ago, I wrote a post about the way the media reacted to his speech. You’ll probably remember that Trump recited a fairly well-written speech, carefully prepared by his speech writers to sand off most of the usual rough edges. He stuck to the script and didn’t veer off on any tangents or throw in any of his typical red meat ad-libs. Reporters and pundits across the spectrum declared the President a new man. With that speech, they said, he had finally become “the President.” He had made the “presidential pivot.”
That reaction was both absurd and frustrating. But it was also entirely predictable, because it was the same thing we’d seen over & over again during the year and a half Trump was campaigning for the job. The media was so eager for the fabled Trump “pivot” that they’d latch on to any tiny sign that the pivot had finally arrived. So when Trump delivered a normal-seeming, standard issue speech to Congress, it was easy to predict what we’d get from the pundits. It was also easy to predict that despite their proclamations, Trump would be right back to his usual self within days, if not hours. Yet it was clear that wouldn’t stop the pundits from repeating the cycle all over again the next time Trump displayed a brief moment of normalcy.
And now, here we are doing it all again with the media reaction to the missile strikes on Syria. The issue here isn’t whether you – or the pundits – think the missile strikes were right or wrong. I’m not taking a position on that in this post. The issue is that the media can’t seem to just report on the event without declaring that it’s turned Trump into an entirely new man.
Just like so many times before, the tiniest – and briefest – sign of seriousness from Trump and suddenly the media believes that everything we know about him from a year and a half of campaigning and nearly three months of his presidency (and the 40 or so years he spent in the public eye before that) was just a warm-up act. We were simply waiting for the real guy to arrive and begin his performance. The failures and blunders that have been piling up since day 1 of the Trump administration, those aren’t the real Trump – no, the guy who ordered the missile strikes, that President-y one, he’s the real Donald Trump. Once again the media is fooling themselves into thinking that this, THIS, is finally the real Trump showing up.
The worst example of this was CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, who just came right out and said, “I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night.” This is disturbingly reminiscent of Van Jones’ reaction to Trump’s address to Congress. Though Zakaria considers himself politically neutral (unlike the liberal Jones), he has been outspokenly critical of Trump in the past, as has Jones. You’ll see discussion of Jones’ comment in the re-post of my earlier entry below, but when Jones made his “presidential” comment after Trump’s address to Congress, he was specifically referring to a portion of the speech in which Trump honored a fallen Navy SEAL.
This aspect of the media’s “presidential pivot” parade is particularly disturbing, because it seems to be part of a pattern where many in the media connect being “presidential” with using the power to make war. And you can be sure that won’t go unnoticed by Trump, a man who lives for the adulation of tv talking heads and will do whatever it takes to get it.
But Zakaria was far from the only one in the media who declared Trump a changed man as a result of his calling for the air strikes. The NY Times described the decision as “an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his.” Elliot Abrams, who served in national security posts under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and up till now has been a very outspoken critic of Trump’s (but tends to be a war hawk, in general, which admittedly could be a factor here), declared that “[t]he Trump administration can truly be said to have started only now. The president has been chief executive since January 20, but this week he acted also as Commander in Chief. ”
And that’s just a small sampling of the responses along those lines from the media and pundits. The days after the strikes were filled with sentiment like that on tv and in newspaper reporting. Below I’m going to re-post my earlier entry, originally posted March 1, the day after Trump’s address to Congress. In it, I identify this pattern in the media, going back to the days of the campaign. I think this is something really important to keep an eye on, and in any ways that we’re able, to call the media out on it.
We know Trump has been extraordinarily successful at using the media to market himself. This is just one additional way he’s able to use the media to sell himself to the American people. We have to keep trying to counter this narrative whenever it pops up.
Last night, about halfway through Trump’s speech to Congress, a friend on Facebook commented that all Trump was doing was reading from his script. I replied that sadly, since it’s so rare for Trump to even manage that, I guaranteed the pundits would all applaud him for it in the post-speech analysis. And it didn’t take any great insight or smarts on my part to predict that. All it took was having watched the 2016 presidential campaign.
We saw this over and over again during the campaign: reporters & pundits were so eager to be able to report on the Trump “pivot”, the moment he finally turned from the out-of- control bratty child into a mature, serious presidential candidate, that they claimed he was pivoting any time they saw the slightest indicator. If Trump managed to read a decently prepared speech off of a teleprompter without making any crazy ad-libs, the entire press corps had its story for the day: “Trump pivots!” If he went 3 or 4 days without attacking anyone or having a meltdown on Twitter, similar story: “Trump’s presidential performance!” And of course, every single time, within days, or even hours, Trump was right back to his old reliable insult-lobbing, Twitter-ranting self.
And this wasn’t only about Trump’s demeanor. This same routine happened with Trump’s policies as well. Numerous times throughout the campaign Trump would make it sound like he was softening one of his more extreme policies, and reporters would rush out with the headlines about the Trump “pivot” only to find out, usually within the same day that he wasn’t changing the policy at all. He’d simply found some new misleading or confusing way to talk about.
The best example of this was that week back in August when Trump’s immigration policy seemed to change back and forth 4 or 5 times, as he talked about “a softening,” but then he ended the week right back where he’d always been. From the start of that saga, it was clear to anyone who’d been paying attention to Trump and the way he spoke throughout the campaign, that he was hedging, that there was no substantive change behind “the softening.” But still, he garnered zillions of credulous headlines for each of the various positions he took that week, not an ounce of skepticism in them until after at least the third or fourth flip he took. And of course the roller coaster headlines gave his fervently anti-immigrant fans cause to cheer him anew when it became clear to them what he was doing.
So anyway, sure enough, the pundits went wild for Trump’s speech to Congress last night, singing his praises for its softer tone, and particularly impressed with how “Presidential” he was. Even some liberal commentators like Van Jones were impressed, with Jones saying that “He became President of the United States in that moment, period.” (Jones was specifically referring to the moment Trump honored the wife of slain Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, a moment I talked about here. But Jones was bullish on the speech as a whole).
And it’s true, the speech was certainly less belligerent and more positive than anything Trump’s said or done since being inaugurated (particularly his doom & gloom inauguration speech). It had moments of rhetorical outreach, and it was smart of them to begin the speech with a nod to Black History Month and to acknowledge the hate crimes that have been happening in such appalling numbers around the country. Though Trump’s statement was extremely perfunctory and emotionless. And yes, it is worth something that they recognized the need for a change in tone, because up until now, it has appeared as though Trump thought he was still campaigning in the GOP primary.
But on substance, this was the same Trump. It was still all about Trump’s ultra-nationalistic worldview. It was still filled with over the top (often veering into false) statements about Muslims, immigrants, and U.S. crime rates all designed to create a vision of America as a hellscape and terrify people into backing Trump’s unpopular policies (policies that are popular with his base but no one else). Trump filled his guest list with relatives of people who’d been victims of crimes committed by “illegal” immigrants, even though immigrants commit crimes at levels no higher than native born Americans.
He highlighted a disturbing new policy initiative in which he will be creating a new office specifically for people to report crimes committed by immigrants, which serves no purpose other than to ramp up fear and discrimination. And Trump insisted on using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” thrilling his right wing base, despite being warned by his new National Security Advisor that using that phrase was not helpful in the fight against ISIS.
So there was not all that much truly new and different here. It was the same policy substance, a lot of the same combative & contrary Trump, but with a slightly softer tone relative to what we’ve gotten used to. I guess we could call it “the second softening.” And unfortunately, the media fell for it all again.
And lest you think this is just my liberal bias talking, that I would never give Trump credit for anything good, don’t take it from me. Take it from the people who actually know:
(If you’re not familiar with these reporters, Robert Costa has been reporting on the Republican Party for years and has excellent sources throughout the party. Josh Green has particularly great sources inside the Trump campaign, now Trump administration.)