We all know by now that Trump holds himself in very high regard. One quality he particularly likes to imbue himself with is strategic unpredictability. He claims to be unpredictable, and he claims that this is an essential quality for keeping adversaries on their toes. And the conventional wisdom often buys into this portrayal of Trump. The truth, however, is that Donald Trump is quite a predictable character. No one is ever entirely predictable, of course, but as humans go, Trump’s day-to-day behavior tends to be fairly easy to anticipate.
And to go along with this, there are, unfortunately, certain behaviors of the Trump-covering media that are entirely predictable as well. At the top of this list is the fact that any & every time Trump has even the briefest moment of behaving like a somber, serious adult, the media will rush to ask whether this is the moment that Trump is turning everything around and finally becoming Presidential. Is this – they’ll ponder – the big Trump pivot??
If you’re a regular reader of DC Deciphered, this may sound familiar to you. And that’s because I’ve already talked about this topic twice here before: once back in early March after Trump gave his big address to Congress and then again back in April after Trump launched the missile strike on Syria. That I’ve already written about this twice is an indication of just how reliable this pattern is –both for Trump and for the media. It’s predictable that the media (collectively – many of the individuals are not guilty of this) will ask this question every time, and it’s predictable that for Trump, the answer will be “no” every single time. And that is why we will be back here again in another few weeks or months, asking the same exact question yet again – and coming up with the same disappointing answer.
I’m bringing this up again now, because we happen to be in a moment where Trump is being presented with a couple of these “pivotal” opportunities back to back. The first came last week when he gave his televised address to the nation about his new Afghanistan strategy. As I noted in the second of my previous posts on this topic, Deja Vu All Over Again, the media seems to be especially inclined to fall into the “oh my, he’s so presidential now” swoon any time Trump uses his war powers or manages to talk soberly about anything extending from that power. So it was no surprise that an address to the nation announcing that he would be sending more troops to Afghanistan would get a positive response from the pundits – on performance at least, if not on policy. But even putting the specific subject matter aside, for many in the media, it just seems that all Trump has to do is read competently off of a teleprompter for 30-60 minutes, and they magically become convinced he’s a new man.
To be fair, this time around, there were significantly fewer outright declarations of “it’s a new, presidential Trump!” than there were the previous two times I wrote about this. But there still appeared to be an unfortunate amount of openness to the idea. The evening after the Afghanistan speech, Trump held his rowdy, angry, off kilter rally in Phoenix, where he hinted that he’d be pardoning former sheriff Joe Arpaio. And many in the media reacted as if they weren’t sure what to make of these two different Trumps – how could this be the same guy who gave that sober speech the previous night, etc.
But haven’t we seen enough of this by now to understand that there is only one Trump? There has only ever been one version of him, and there will only ever be one. He manages to restrain himself for 30 minutes to read off of a teleprompter once every 3 months or so when he needs to. But a new man this does not make. Especially when we know that every instance of restraint takes such a psychic toll on him that it is necessarily followed be an unusually explosive outburst soon after (the paragraph you just read being a perfect example of this).
And now, this week, we have yet another instance where pundits are looking for a new, presidential Trump to emerge – and that’s with the emergency of Hurricane Harvey. In a post Tuesday morning, before Trump made his way to Texas to survey the damage, Greg Sargent of The Plum Line laid out the press corps’ “collective rumination” on whether the hurricane will prompt a Trump “reset.”
To give just one example, a New York Times article, titled Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify, tells the reader about how Trump’s response to the hurricane can be a new start for him. The author shares a story from “people around Trump” about how he’s immersing himself in the details of Harvey, which is very different from the old incurious Trump. One aide says that Trump is particularly fascinated with the long term effect of water damage, comparing the situation to problems he experienced when managing buildings in New York. Yet, with all of that supposed experience and interest in details, we know from other news reports that just days before Harvey hit, Trump reversed an Obama-era flood rule intended to protect buildings in flood zones. So again, a visit to the affected area and a few hours of appearing to care about details does not a new man make.
For the sake of all the people in Texas (and soon, Louisiana) who are going to need all sorts of help for months & even years to come, I hope the Trump administration does everything right when it comes to handling Harvey. But that won’t be a sign of a new Trump. Yes, he manages to present himself as a sober, serious person on rare occasions for an hour or two at a time. But that is a role he plays for a short period of time when he is absolutely required to.
It does not signal a turning point. It is not a sign of a better Trump emerging. It is not a hint of a new beginning. It is merely a brief calm in the unending, all-encompassing storm that is Donald Trump. The vengeful, crass, ignorant, incurious Trump that we’ve seen all along is the Trump we’re stuck with, no matter how badly some keep hoping otherwise. (As Charles Pierce so eloquently describes this perpetual desire for a better, more grown-up Trump: “people will do anything for a unifying Daddy in the White House.”). The sooner we can all accept that this is who Trump is & who he will always be, the sooner we can figure out how to clean up from the storm.
Anyway, here’s a look back at the most recent of DC Deciphered’s two previous posts on this topic . . .
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.